Roughly a hundred organizers have been calling workers from Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse in recent weeks, making the case for why they should unionize. The robust phone-banking operation reflects the high stakes for organized labor as workers at the facility consider forming the first Amazon union in the U.S.
The organizing effort extends well beyond the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which would represent the facility’s employees. The phone campaign includes around 20 organizers on loan from the AFL-CIO, the influential labor federation that includes 55 unions. A dozen nurses who recently unionized their hospital in North Carolina also have been pitching on the effort, calling workers to tell them large-scale labor victories are possible in the South.
Members of other local unions have been meeting with Amazon workers in Alabama to answer questions and counter the company’s aggressive anti-union campaign. Even unions from overseas have lent a hand, sending testimonials from their members to the RWDSU and offering to raise concerns about Amazon’s behavior in Alabama with their own governments, according to Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU’s president.
He said the outpouring of assistance has been inspiring.
“People want to be part of this. They want to help out, because they know this is not just about the people at this one facility. It’s about something much bigger,” Appelbaum said in an interview. “Many union leaders in the U.S. understand the transcendence of this campaign.”
The nearly 6,000 Bessemer workers are now voting in a mail-in election that ends in late March. If the union wins, it would appear to be the largest private-sector union election victory at a single facility in any industry in more than a decade.
But the battle is about much more than adding a few thousand new members to the ranks of organized labor.
“People want to be part of this. They want to help out, because they know this is not just about the people at this one facility.”
Amazon has grown so large and powerful that it’s reshaping the entire retail and logistics sectors in the U.S. and abroad. If U.S. unions cannot gain a toehold within Amazon’s massively growing workforce, it could threaten unions’ hard-won gains at other employers and further reduce their shrinking footprint in the economy. Only around 6% of private-sector workers belong to unions now, nearly the lowest rate since the government started tracking it in the early 1980s.
A union victory in Alabama could spur more organizing inside the retail giant’s growing network of warehouses, and give a shot in the arm to union efforts across the South, where membership rates tend to be lower and states have right-to-work laws.
“It’s a moment in the labor movement that I think is just so important,” said Adam Obernauer, director of the retail organizing project at the RWDSU, who’s steering the union’s phone campaign. “We have to tackle Amazon.”
Amazon spokesperson Max Gleber said in a statement that Amazon “already offers what unions are requesting for employees,” including a starting wage of $15.30 per hour, health care benefits and a 401(k).
“We don’t believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views,” Gleber said in an email. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
‘It’s Captured People’s Imaginations’
The Amazon election is unusual not just for its size but for its lengthy mail-in voting period. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees private-sector elections, has decided to hold most elections by mail rather than in-person due to the ongoing pandemic. Amazon fought unsuccessfully to have the election held at the facility, likely due to the advantages on-site voting would offer the company.
Unions routinely try to speak with workers at their homes or over the phone ahead of elections, but the combination of the pandemic and a seven-week voting period has made the union’s phone-banking operation all the more important. Amazon has held meetings with workers to dissuade them from joining the union, and posted signs in the facility ― including even the bathrooms ― urging them to vote against the RWDSU.
Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director at the AFL-CIO, said organizers have been pleasantly surprised at just how eager many workers are to discuss the union, with unusually high success rates when it comes to contacting people. He chalks that up partly to Amazon’s own information campaign, and workers’ desire to hear another side of the story.
“Workers are picking up the phone a lot more, certainly more than in the political season,” he said. “It’s rewarding phone-banking. Because the anti-union campaign has been so overwhelming, workers are more willing to talk.”
The AFL-CIO has pitched in on similar election efforts in the past, but Sweeney said the extent of the help offered in the Amazon campaign is unusual, coming from unions representing teachers, postal workers, service workers and others. Members of the federation’s local unions in Alabama have been writing individualized postcards to mail to Amazon workers in Bessemer. The North Carolina nurses, members of National Nurses United, have been sharing the story of how they won a landslide election at Mission Hospital in Asheville last year, forming a union of 1,600 workers.
Sweeney compared the national outpouring of support from labor to a decade ago, when 40,000 Transportation Security Administration agents unionized.
“I think it’s captured people’s imaginations,” Sweeney said. “It’s a fight people want to have. They want to see these kinds of workers get a better deal.”
Participation tends to be lower in mail-in union elections. While that may seem counterintuitive, it makes sense: Unlike in government elections, workers in an onsite union election go to the polling site for work each day and can conveniently cast a ballot there. Between the size of the bargaining unit and the use of mail ballots, the RWDSU is operating under the assumption there will be a large group of persuadable voters to reach right up until the very end, when ballots are due March 29.
“We have a real battle on our hands,” said Obernauer. “We went in believing we have the strength to win, and we still have the strength to win. Amazon is a real fighter here.”
‘Bigger Than Ourselves’
The workforce at the Bessemer facility is predominantly Black, and the union has cast the fight as one about civil rights as much as collective bargaining. A host of civil rights and labor groups have joined together under the banner of the Alabama Coalition for Community Benefits to support the union drive.
Erica Iheme, a Birmingham native with relatives at the Amazon facility, said the area’s deep union roots in meatpacking and manufacturing should help the RWDSU’s effort. She said winning an election at a company so large and powerful would inspire workers at other employers in the area. Iheme’s group, Jobs to Move America, has been working to improve the quality of jobs at a production facility for bus manufacturer New Flyer, about 80 miles away.
“This is our opportunity to shift the narrative of what it means to be a Southern worker,” she said of the Amazon election. “We need to get out of the mindset that it’s okay to have poor working conditions just because of our geography.”
While some of the organizing effort has shifted to the phones, the union has maintained a presence for months on the sidewalk outside the facility’s entrance, where workers and organizers post up to speak with employees as they come and go. They start at 3:30 a.m. and don’t pack up until 7:30 p.m.
“We need to get out of the mindset that it’s okay to have poor working conditions just because of our geography.”
Joshua Brewer, who’s coordinating the union’s efforts on the ground in Bessemer, said the long voting period makes this campaign especially grueling. The RWDSU is a small union by the measure of other national and international labor groups, while Amazon’s resources seem bottomless by comparison.
“We want to make sure that for the next 40 days or so we’re really hitting the phones, hitting the gates and really running with that same energy,” Brewer said.
The difficult odds of unionizing an Amazon facility help explain why so many outside supporters have been eager to get involved. RWDSU officials said they’ve received so many offers of help that they’ve had to turn some down.
“The solidarity has been unbelievable. I’m conscious to the fact I will probably never work another campaign that is this widely supported,” Brewer said. “We certainly want the workers to feel that. And we want the people of Bessemer to feel that ― that this is maybe something bigger than ourselves.”
This story has been updated with comment from Amazon.