Contentious Union Vote at Amazon Heads to a Count

SEATTLE — By the end of Monday, thousands of yellow envelopes mailed to a squat brick building in Birmingham, Ala., will hold the fate of one of the most closely watched union elections in recent history, one that could alter the shape of the labor movement and one of America’s largest employers.

The envelopes contain the ballots of workers at an Amazon warehouse near Birmingham. Almost 6,000 workers at the building, one of Amazon’s largest, are eligible to decide whether they form the first union at an Amazon operation in the United States, after years of fierce resistance by the company.

The organizers have made the case in a monthslong campaign that Amazon’s intense monitoring of workers infringes on their dignity, and that its pay is not commensurate with the constant pressure workers feel to produce. The union estimates that roughly 85 percent of the work force at the warehouse is Black and has linked the organizing to the struggle for racial justice.

Amazon has countered that its $15 minimum wage is twice the state minimum, and that it offers health insurance and other benefits that can be hard to find in low-wage jobs.

stopped construction on an office tower when Seattle wanted to tax the company, and backed out of plans to build a second headquarters in New York City after facing progressive opposition.

But the company has committed more than $360 million in leases and equipment for the Bessemer warehouse, and shutting down the vote of a large Black work force could publicly backfire, said Marc Wulfraat, a logistics consultant who closely tracks the company.

Regardless of the outcome, Mr. Wulfraat said that the election is a sign Amazon has work to do. “For most companies that end up with labor organizing in some capacity,” he said, “it didn’t come about because they were doing a fantastic job managing people.”

If the union loses, Amazon will lose at least one customer: Michael Render, the rapper who goes by Killer Mike. Appearing alongside Mr. Sanders on Friday, he said, “If that vote does not go through, if these conditions do not improve, I won’t be ordering from Amazon again.”

Sonam Vashi contributed reporting from Bessemer, Ala.

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Organizing Gravediggers, Cereal Makers and, Maybe, Amazon Employees

A group of gravediggers in Columbus, Ohio, who just negotiated a 3 percent raise. The poultry plant that processes chicken nuggets for McDonald’s. The workers who make Cap’n Crunch in Iowa. The women’s shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is not the largest labor union in the United States, but it may be one of the most eclectic. Its membership, totaling about 100,000 workers, seems to reach into every conceivable corner of the American economy, stretching from the cradle (they make Gerber baby food) to the grave (those cemetery workers in Columbus).

And now it is potentially on the cusp of breaking into Amazon, one of the world’s most dominant companies, which since its founding has beaten back every attempt to organize any part of its massive work force in the United States.

This month, a group of 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are voting whether to join the R.W.D.S.U. It is the first large-scale union vote in Amazon’s history, and a decision by the workers to organize would have implications for the labor movement across the country, especially as retail giants like Amazon and Walmart have gained power — and added workers — during the pandemic.

TikTok video of support from the rapper Killer Mike and tweeting an endorsement from the National Football League Players Association during the Super Bowl.

“It’s a bit of an odd-duck union,” said Joshua Freeman, a professor emeritus of labor history at Queens College at the City University of New York. “They keep morphing over the years and have been very inventive in their tactics.”

The union is also racially, geographically and politically diverse. Founded during a heyday of organized labor in New York City in 1937 — and perhaps best known for representing workers at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s — most of its members are now employed in right-to-work states, across the South and rural Midwest.

written about his identity as a gay, Jewish labor leader.

Since becoming union president in 1998, Mr. Appelbaum has created a niche by organizing workers from a wide variety of professions: airline caterers, employees in fast fashion stores and gardeners at a cannabis grow house. “When you buy a joint, look for the union label,” Mr. Appelbaum said jokingly.

Ratified in 2008, the Muslim holiday took the place of Labor Day as one of the paid holidays that workers were allowed at the facility, and was criticized by some as being un-American.

Over the years, the union has faced some powerful enemies. In the 1960s, its Black organizers were threatened — one was even shot at — while trying to sign up food industry workers across the South.

Johnny Whitaker, a former dairy worker who started as a union organizer in the 1970s, said he had grown up in a white family in Hanceville, Ala., without much money. Still, he was shocked by the working conditions and racism he witnessed when he started organizing in the poultry plants years ago.

Black workers were classified differently from their white counterparts and paid much less. Women were expected to engage in sexual acts with managers in exchange for more hours, he said. Many workers could not read or write.

Despite threats that they would lose their jobs if they organized, thousands of poultry workers have joined the R.W.D.S.U. over the past three decades, though the industry still is predominantly nonunion.

At the time, Amazon said it canceled its plans after “a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project.”

But the more the workers in Alabama kept talking to the union about their working conditions, the more Mr. Appelbaum and others believed the warehouse was fertile ground for organizing.

The workers described the control that Amazon exerts over their work lives, including tracking their time in the restroom or other time spent away from their primary task in the warehouse. Some workers have said they can be penalized for taking too much time away from their specific assignments.

“We are talking about bathroom breaks,” said Mr. Whitaker, an executive vice president at the union. “It’s the year 2021 and workers are being penalized for taking a pee.”

In an email, an Amazon spokeswoman said the company does not penalize workers for taking bathroom breaks. “Those are not our policies,” she said. “People can take bathroom breaks.”

The campaign in Bessemer has created some strange political bedfellows. Mr. Biden expressed his support for the Alabama workers to vote freely in the mail-in election, which ends later this month. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida went even further, encouraging the Bessemer workers to unionize in order to protect themselves against the “woke culture” at Amazon.

If the union wins the election in Bessemer, the effort to court workers will continue. In a right-to-work state, workers are not required to pay union dues even if they are represented by a union.

At a Quaker Oats plant in Iowa, which is also a right-to-work state, the R.W.D.S.U. finds ways to motivate workers to join the union by posting the names of workers who have not yet joined on a bulletin board.

“In a right-to-work state, you are always organizing,” Mr. Hadley said.

Early in the afternoon of Oct. 20, Mr. Hadley met with about 20 organizers before they headed out to the Bessemer warehouse to begin their campaign to sign up workers. The plan was for the organizers to stand at the warehouse gates talking to workers early in the morning and in the evening when their shift changes. In a pep talk with the group, Mr. Hadley invoked the story of David and Goliath.

“We are going to hit David in the nose every day, twice a day,” he told the group, referring to Amazon. “He’s going to see our union every morning when he comes to work, and I want him thinking about us when he closes his eyes at night.”

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Amazon Labor Fight: Wages May Not Ward Off Union

“From Faurecia to Amazon, it’s a big pay difference,” said Mr. Richardson, who now makes $15.55.

Heather Knox, an Amazon spokeswoman, said that workers in Bessemer were eligible for raises every six months and that they had received a $2-an-hour bonus during much of last spring. Full-time rank-and-file employees received $300 bonuses during the holiday season and $500 last June. The company also provides significant tuition reimbursement for employees who take classes in certain fields.

Some workers at the Bessemer facility, which opened just as Covid-19 was bearing down last March, regard the pay as more than adequate, especially younger employees.

“I feel like it is fair,” said Roderick Crocton, 24, who previously made $11.25 as an overnight stocker at a local retailer. “In my old job, I lived in my apartment, never got to go anywhere, paid my bills. Today I’m able to go out and experience being in the city.”

But other workers emphasize that pay at Amazon isn’t particularly high for the Birmingham area, even if the pandemic has reduced their job options. An Amazon employee named Clint, a union backer who declined to give his last name for fear of retaliation, said he had stood to make about $40,000 a year installing satellite dishes before the pandemic left him unemployed. He said he made his finances work partly by living with his mother.

The retail workers’ union said it represented employees at nearby warehouses where pay is $18 to $21 an hour, including an ice cream facility and a grocery warehouse not far from Amazon.

At a plant owned by NFI Group, a Canadian bus manufacturer, about an hour east of Birmingham, hourly pay for rank-and-file workers ranges from $14.79 to $23.31, according to the company.

A survey of about 100 workers at the NFI plant by Emily Erickson, a professor at Alabama A&M University, found that white workers earned about $3 an hour more than Black workers on average. One former employee who currently works for a labor group in the area, Charles Crooms, said this made it more difficult to persuade white workers to join a union organizing effort. (The company said all employees with the same job grade and tenure were paid the same.)

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