BUSINESS

How Amazon's Biggest Union Threat Turned Up In Alabama Of All Places

The Birmingham area surrounding the fulfillment center has unusually deep labor roots. Organizers hope that will propel a historic union victory in the South.
Amazon's BHM1 fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. If union organizers are successful, it will become the first unionized
Amazon's BHM1 fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. If union organizers are successful, it will become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the country.

BESSEMER, Ala. ― Darryl Richardson took a job on the factory floor at Faurecia Automotive Seating, a seat supplier to Mercedes, in Cottondale, Alabama, in 2011. He soon joined a successful effort to unionize the plant with the United Auto Workers. Over the following years, his wages climbed from $12.50 per hour to more than $23, increases he attributes to the union. He believed in the union so much that he served as a shop steward until he was laid off in 2019.

Now Richardson’s past organizing experience has become a major headache for the world’s largest online retailer.

Richardson, 51, now works as a “picker” at Amazon’s year-old fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, hustling around the warehouse to fetch orders headed out to customers. He took a sizable pay cut from his Faurecia days, starting at around $15. The high production quotas surprised him, and he felt he had no recourse if he was disciplined for allegedly not meeting them. He and a handful of other workers began talks with organizers at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to see what they might be able to change. 

“I know what the union can do,” said Richardson, whose father was a union member at an Alabama roof manufacturer. “I know the union can give you job security. I know the union can make it better for employees. I feel like everybody out there deserves better. Amazon just don’t treat you fair.”

The collective bargaining experience of workers like Richardson helps explain how the most high-profile union campaign in years sprouted among a predominantly Black workforce in a Birmingham suburb. It also tests common — if false — preconceptions about the South and organized labor: that unions in the region are anemic, and that large-scale organizing is borderline impossible.

Workers at Richardson’s facility are now voting to determine whether the RWDSU will represent them. The mail-in election spans seven weeks, concluding at the end of this month. And with nearly 6,000 workers in the proposed bargaining unit, it appears to be the largest election in two decades under the National Labor Relations Board. 

Darryl Richardson, one of the organizers working to unionize his Amazon warehouse, at the Retail, Wholesale and Departme
Darryl Richardson, one of the organizers working to unionize his Amazon warehouse, at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union hall in Birmingham. "I know the union can give you job security. I know the union can make it better for employees," he told HuffPost.

The union has already shown its force, gathering more than 3,000 union cards to trigger the election. A victory for the RWDSU would undoubtedly spur on more organizing efforts at Amazon facilities around the country, and could galvanize the labor movement in the South, where unions have suffered painful defeats recently ― at a Tennessee Volkswagen plant in 2014, as well as a Mississippi Nissan plant and a South Carolina Boeing plant in 2017.

Any union would be an underdog against arguably the most influential corporation in the world. But RWDSU organizers believe they will benefit from the Birmingham area’s surprisingly deep union roots and the influence of pro-union family members. Richardson and other core supporters making calls to coworkers have also previously worked union jobs in manufacturing.

Adam Obernauer, who is leading the union’s phone-banking effort, said the area’s union traditions often come through when they talk to Amazon employees.

“Workers regularly tell us on the phone, ‘I spoke to my uncle. He said, “You better support that union.”’ There’s a lot of that,” said Obernauer. “It’s one of the calculations Amazon didn’t think about. The majority live in Birmingham and Bessemer. You’re looking at workers in a fairly liberal context. I’m continually surprised at how overall pro-union they are.”

“The Good Jobs Are Union Jobs”

On a recent morning at the RWDSU’s union hall in Birmingham, a frustrated Amazon worker showed up hoping to learn more about how the union could help. He ended up meeting with “Big” Mike Foster, a poultry-worker-turned-organizer, in the union’s break room. 

The worker vented about the company’s “time off-task” policy, which dings workers for stepping away from their stations, and how little control they have over the general working conditions at the warehouse.

“They have leverage over me,” he said. “They have leverage over every other employee there. I don’t get to negotiate.”

The worker had never been in a union, so Foster explained some of the finer points of collective bargaining, including the concept of termination only for “just cause,” a common feature in union contracts that helps prevent arbitrary firings. 

“With a union, we give you a sense of job security,” Foster said. “We give the power back to the people. That’s why Amazon is fighting so hard for you not to have that authority.”  

Within an hour, the worker was on the phone, calling other warehouse workers urging them to vote “yes.”

The rate of union membership in the U.S. private sector has been falling for years. Today, it’s just 10.8% ― nearly the lowest since the government started tracking it in 1983. The states with the lowest union density tend to be in the South, where both businesses and politicians are hostile to organized labor. In North Carolina, unions cover a measly 3.4% of the workforce.

Organizers from the RWDSU rally support outside of Amazon's BHM1 fulfillment center as workers change shifts.
Organizers from the RWDSU rally support outside of Amazon's BHM1 fulfillment center as workers change shifts.

But Alabama is something of an exception. Unions represent nearly 10% of all public- and private-sector workers in the state. That rate is the highest of any in the South, comparable to some Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Indiana and not far below the national average. 

Union history runs deep in Birmingham and Bessemer, where the coal, iron and steel industries once thrived. The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers represented Black and white workers in the 1930s and ’40s with a militancy that presaged the civil rights movement. Michael Goldfield, author of the book “The Southern Key,” a labor history of that era, notes that union density was once stronger in Alabama than it is anywhere in the U.S. today.

One Amazon worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said she decided to vote for the union partly because of a conversation with her grandmother, who worked a union job at an Alabama telephone company decades ago. The worker said disciplinary warnings at Amazon can seem unfair and arbitrary, and her grandmother told her a union could help.

“She told me to kind of weigh my options, but she said when they decided to [unionize], it benefited her and it changed things for the better,” the worker said. 

Erica Iheme, a union organizer from Birmingham, said outsiders are often surprised by the labor traditions in Alabama. But she could see it in the economics of the mostly Black neighborhood where she was raised. 

“If you think of all the kids you grew up with whose parents had well-to-do homes and nice cars, those kids’ parents worked in the plants. They worked in the railroads. They worked in the coal mines,” said Iheme, who now works for a nonprofit called Jobs to Move America, which works to improve conditions in manufacturing plants in the area. “Those jobs are the good jobs, and the good jobs are union jobs.”

Like the rest of the South, Alabama is a right-to-work state. That means no worker can be required to pay fees to a union, even if the union must still bargain on the worker’s behalf. Right-to-work laws lead to what unions call free-riding, since workers can enjoy the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement without paying dues. More and more states have passed such laws in recent years, led by Republican lawmakers happy to hit organized labor in the pocketbook.

I know what the union can do. I know the union can give you job security. I know the union can make it better for employees. Darryl Richardson, Amazon employee

But right-to-work laws don’t mean it’s pointless for unions to organize new workplaces. While membership rates might be low in weak shops, they can be 90% or more in strong shops if the union is doing its job well. Alabama has been right-to-work for nearly 70 years and at this point union leaders here have known no other way. 

Johnny Whitaker, an executive vice president at RWDSU and a longtime Alabama organizer, said a union won’t survive and grow under such conditions if it doesn’t represent workers and deliver solid contracts. 

“We have to organize every day,” Whitaker said. “You’re asking them to join the union. If 50 of you can get this, what could 100% of you get? So come on, get on board. If you don’t like it, you can get out.”

“I’m Not Against Unions”

The RWDSU represents many poultry facilities in the South, and its meatpacking members in Alabama have been crucial to the Amazon campaign. 

Poultry workers have been among the organizers stationed outside the warehouse every day since October (with the exception of Christmas), gathering union cards and developing relationships with workers leaving after their shifts. The union has shown through its poultry work that it can win large, daunting elections, including a 2012 victory for 1,200 workers at a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in North Alabama. 

Amazon likes to compare its warehouse work to the front-facing retail jobs the company is displacing, but in reality the work is probably more similar to meatpacking. In both, workers face similar time pressures and production quotas, not to mention the possibility of repetitive-motion injuries from performing the same tasks day after day. Meatpacking and warehouse workers often complain they can’t take a reasonable bathroom break without managers griping about efficiency. 

Joshua Brewer, the RWDSU’s lead organizer for the campaign, said the union did not set out to organize Amazon; instead, Amazon workers came to the union shortly after the facility opened. Given their experience in food processing and manufacturing plants, Brewer said organizing at Amazon felt “very natural for us.”

“It’s all day on your feet, hard ground, constant work that doesn’t stop, with no ability to step away for long periods. It’s extremely similar,” Brewer said. “It’s difficult on the body. That very much is what we represent.”

Randy Hadley, president of the RWDSU's Mid-South Council, mobilizes support for the Amazon union drive at a tent near the ful
Randy Hadley, president of the RWDSU's Mid-South Council, mobilizes support for the Amazon union drive at a tent near the fulfillment center.

RWDSU had represented about 30 current Amazon workers when they previously worked at a plastics plant on the other side of Birmingham, said Randy Hadley, president of the RWDSU’s Mid-South Council. This “small core,” as Hadley put it, was helpful in getting the Amazon campaign off the ground. They had familiarity with collective bargaining and could share positive experiences with other workers who might be distrustful of a union. 

“When you do your job right the first time, they come back,” Hadley said. “We had good relationships, with the exception of one.”

That appears to be a reference to Ora McClendon, an Amazon employee who has become an outspoken voice against the union. McClendon, who spoke with HuffPost in a phone interview arranged by an Amazon spokesperson, worked at the plastics plant and served as a union shop steward for 14 years. McClendon said the union served workers very well for her first 10 years at the plant, but eventually she felt like RWDSU staff wasn’t looking out for them. 

While Richardson and others share their positive experiences in organized workplaces, McClendon brings a very different message to her coworkers: “It was my first union and probably will be my last.”

“I tell people the union does not guarantee anything,” McClendon said. “What is it you’re bringing to us you think will help us that we don’t already have? We have a lot of benefits from day one. It would be different if management wasn’t working with us.”  

Another worker opposed to the union joined McClendon and the spokesperson on the phone: J.C. Thompson, a process assistant in the pack department. Thompson, too, has past union experience, having worked 10 years at UPS under Teamsters contracts. 

Unlike McClendon, Thompson had no complaints about his old union. In fact, he said the Teamsters represented him very well in his old job. But he said the pay and benefits are already good at Amazon, and he doubts forming a union would improve things.

“I want to make sure this is clear: I’m not against unions,” Thompson said. “I just believe a union is not necessary at Amazon.”

Richardson and Jennifer Bates at the RWDSU hall.
Richardson and Jennifer Bates at the RWDSU hall.

“It Ain’t All About The Money”

An Amazon worker who had just finished his shift at the warehouse sat in a nearby shelter waiting for his bus to depart on a recent evening. He hadn’t yet filled out his ballot for the union election, but said he intended to within the next two days. 

“I haven’t made up my mind,” he said, asking not to be named for fear of retaliation at work.

He had spoken with a friend who’d worked a union job at an Alabama tire plant whose endorsement of his own union was less than ringing. But the worker said he also knew of a couple nearby union warehouses where the pay starts at $18, above the Amazon starting rate of around $15.

“Anybody would want more money,” he said. “I’m still up in the air. Gonna sleep on it.”

Amazon has run an aggressive and expensive anti-union campaign inside the plant, hiring consultants to hold meetings with workers and, in all likelihood, coach supervisors on “union avoidance” measures. Amazon has focused a lot on union dues, even though the right-to-work law means no one would be required to pay them. The company has also portrayed its starting wage and benefits as good for Alabama, where the minimum wage is $7.25.

Wages in greater Birmingham are below the national average for nearly all major occupational groups. Bren Riley, president of the Alabama AFL-CIO labor federation, said the state’s low pay can make it hard to organize facilities that are paying well above the minimum wage, even if there are problems with safety, discipline and job security that should make them ripe for a union. 

“Those people probably quit a goddang $7-and-a-quarter job to come work for twice that, so they don’t know if we’re snake-oil salesmen or not,” Riley said. “But it ain’t all about the money.”

While Amazon might pay well compared to fast food, the company’s wages are lower than what workers will find at plenty of other blue-collar jobs in the area. Many pro-union workers say the pay doesn’t match the workload. 

“It’s a beating on anybody’s body. I don’t care if you work out,” Bates said of the work at the
“It’s a beating on anybody’s body. I don’t care if you work out,” Bates said of the work at the Amazon fulfillment center.

Jennifer Bates, one of the most outspoken union supporters in the Amazon campaign, has made that argument to her coworkers and the general public, testifying before the U.S. Senate budget committee on Wednesday about why she believes Amazon needs a union.

Bates, 48, spent a decade working at U.S. Pipe, an iron foundry in Bessemer about a mile from the Amazon entrance. She said she eventually earned around $20 an hour there. The Amazon work pays less than the foundry, she said, yet supervisors have higher expectations. 

“It’s a beating on anybody’s body. I don’t care if you work out,” Bates said.

Still, Bates said it can be hard to convince some coworkers that they deserve more. Bates recalled that during one of the captive-audience meetings in which Amazon management tried to persuade workers to vote no, a supervisor said workers should be happy with their pay because Alabama is a cheap place to live. Bates believed the woman had recently come from out of state.

“That was an insult to us who grew up here,” Bates said. “Did you come here to bring economic growth, or did you come here to get cheap labor?”

Bates and Richardson were hanging around the union hall on a recent day, talking with other workers who’d joined the phone-banking operation. The group commiserated over time-off-task and other work issues, while Bates and Richardson came and went to do interviews and be photographed for news stories.

The publicity of such a high-profile union effort had worn them down somewhat, but the two felt optimistic about the union’s chances. With only a matter of days left for workers to return their ballots, they wanted to put every spare hour into turning out votes. 

“I never realized that this would go this far,” said Richardson.