A union takes on a retail Goliath
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A union organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama has received a presidential stamp of approval, said Ken Thomas and Sebastian Herrera at The Wall Street Journal. Without mentioning Amazon by name, President Biden last week threw his weight behind the union drive in a video expressing his support for "workers in Alabama" who are "voting on whether to organize a union at their workplace." About 5,800 Amazon employees at the facility in Bessemer, Alabama, are deciding on unionization this month, and the e-commerce giant has been strenuously fighting the effort, trying to convince employees that unions wouldn't improve their pay and benefits. Biden's video "might have seemed a little vague," but labor advocates are calling it "the most pro-union statement a president has ever made," said Paul Waldman at The Washington Post. His support is especially significant for the workers at Amazon, "one of the emblematic companies of our age."
It may seem surprising that one of the largest and most aggressive unionization efforts in recent memory is welling up in Alabama, said Jamelle Bouie at The New York Times. But the state has a "rich history of resistance," going back to Union Leagues established by emancipated slaves in the 1880s. An estimated 85 percent of the workers at the Amazon facility are Black, and their desire to unionize grew partly out of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. It is a "reminder of the ways in which the fight for racial equality has historically been one for the dignity of labor as well." Whatever its outcome, the size, scope, and sophistication of this union drive "complicates commonly held ideas of Alabama and the Deep South."
We started talking about unionizing during one of our two 30-minute breaks during a 10-hour shift, said Jennifer Bates, a Bessemer worker, at Elle. "My co-workers and I were all limping from climbing up and down stairs in the four-floor building," and we weren't allowed to use the elevator. One guy had to unload entire trucks by himself "when they used to have two or three people do it." There was an especially "nonchalant attitude from HR" about COVID-19 protocols. I just hope "we'll finally have a level playing field" and we can talk to someone at HR "without being dismissed."
It's still a long shot, said Jordyn Holman and Spencer Soper at Bloomberg. While the campaign has drawn national attention, a rally last month by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) that wants to represent the Amazon workers drew a small crowd of "about 50, including activists, out-of-towners, and media." Many workers "point out that few other local employers offer similar pay and benefits" in Alabama, where $15 an hour — Amazon's starting wage — goes a lot further than it does in coastal cities. The RWDSU is counting on the fact that Bessemer had a "union history during its manufacturing heyday." But the jobs at the old train-car maker Pullman-Standard and other steel and manufacturing facilities "started going away a half-century ago, and the unions could do nothing to stop that."
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.