Amazon faced the biggest union pressure in its history as an attempt to postpone failure
When Jennifer Bates steps down from her post at the Amazon warehouse where she works, the clock starts ticking.
She has exactly 30 minutes to get to the cafeteria and return for lunch. This means going through a warehouse the size of 14 football fields, which wastes valuable time. She avoids bringing food from home because it would cost her even more minutes to reheat it in the microwave. Instead, she buys $ 4 cold sandwiches from the vending machine and hurries back to her place.
If she does, she will be lucky. If she doesn’t, Amazon could cut her paycheck or, worse, fire her. It is this kind of pressure that has prompted some Amazon workers to organize the largest unionization campaign for the company since its inception in 1995. And this is happening in the most inopportune place: Bessemer, Alabama, a state where the laws are not supported by unions.
The stakes are high. If the organizers succeed in Bessemer, it could set off a chain reaction throughout Amazon’s operations across the country as thousands of more workers emerge and demand better working conditions. But they face an uphill battle against the country’s second-largest employer, which has stifled unionization efforts in its warehouses and Whole Foods grocery stores.
Amazon’s attempts to postpone the vote in Bessemer have failed. The same goes for the company’s efforts to demand a personal vote, which organizers believe would be unsafe during a pandemic. Voting by mail began this week and will run until the end of March. Most of the 6,000 employees must vote yes to join a union.
Amazon, whose profits and revenues skyrocketed during the pandemic, campaigned vigorously to convince workers that the union would only suck money from their paychecks with little benefit. Spokeswoman Rachel Lighty says the company is already offering them what the unions want: benefits, career advancements and wages starting at $ 15 an hour. She adds that organizers do not represent most of the views of Amazon employees.
Bates makes $ 15.30 an hour unpacking boxes of deodorant, clothes, and countless other items that end up shipping to Amazon customers. The job, which the 48-year-old started in May, forces her to work most of her 10-hour shifts. In addition to lunch, bathroom trips and visits to drink water or getting a new pair of work gloves are also closely monitored, Bates said. Amazon denies this, saying it offers two 30-minute breaks per shift and extra time to use the bathroom or get water.
Fed up, Bates and a group of workers approached the Union of Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores last summer. She hopes that the union, which also represents Alabama poultry workers, will institute more breaks, prevent layoffs at Amazon for mundane reasons, and push for higher wages.
They will be the voice when we don’t have it, says Bates. But history tells us not to be optimistic, according to Sylvia Allegretto, economist and co-chair of the Center for Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Amazon workers last voted whether they wanted to unionize in 2014, and it was a much smaller group: 30 employees at an Amazon warehouse in Delaware who ultimately turned down. Amazon currently employs nearly 1.3 million people worldwide.
It also works against unions that it happens in Republican-controlled Alabama, which is generally not friendly to organized workers. Alabama is one of 27 states with the right to work where workers do not have to join a union when hiring. In fact, the state houses the only Mercedes-Benz plant in the world that does not have a union.
That the unions in Bessemer’s warehouse even went this far is likely to do with who the organizers are, says Michael Innis-Himnez, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Companies usually denounce union organizers as out-of-staff who do not know what workers want. But the retail trade union has an office in nearby Birmingham, and many of the organizers are black, like the workers at Bessemer’s warehouse.