by Ashley Rogers
Deep in the heart of the American South, through the mire of anti-union repression, nearly 6,000 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama are making a historic push to successfully organize the first Amazon warehouse in the United States. They are now clearing one of the last obstacles to unionization, voting for representation. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it immense levels of devastation for the working class. While working people suffer under the worst economic conditions in living memory, companies like Amazon—now the 3rd largest corporation in the world—have experienced massive growth. This growth has come at the cost of its employees’ health, safety, and standard of living. During the pandemic Amazon’s revenue has increased by over $100 billion, while Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – who announced recently that he would be stepping down, though he retains his seat on the board of directors—nearly doubled his personal net worth. A report by the Brookings Institution, a capitalist think-tank in Washington, found that Amazon could have more than quadrupled its meager hazard pay it offered to its frontline workers, and still have made more profit than it did in 2019. Amazon has shamelessly fleeced its workers for billions—and this fact is not lost on its employees, as the fight at their Bessemer warehouse shows. If they win their fight for a union, it will be a historic first for Amazon workers whose exploitation built America’s largest tech company.
Last time Amazon workers voted on union representation, in 2014, it was a group of only thirty workers—now, the push in Alabama comes from over 5,805 workers in a single location, with workers from all over Amazon voicing support for what could become the first step in one of the most critical unionization efforts in recent memory. Coming just weeks after Teamsters in New York City successfully forced bosses to the negotiating table with a week-long strike, it shows that workers in the logistics industry are gathering their power, and each day more and more are learning a very important lesson: we are stronger together than we are on our own, and when we fight, we win!
Amazon is attacking workers, at the Bessemer distribution center and across the country, with anti-union propaganda, declaring in leaked videos that unionization could “hurt innovation” and “jeopardize everyone’s job security.” The company also compels workers to attend “captive audience meetings” where corporate anti-union lies are forced on the workers. As the pressure has stepped up, Amazon has even begun offering long-standing workers at the facility a $2,000 or more bonus if they quit, all in an effort to disrupt the union vote. Amazon was even recently caught working with local officials to change the timing of traffic lights outside the Bessemer facility, to make it harder for union organizers to speak with workers.
Amazon has long-standing anti-union policies. For example, in 2001, when the company was a fraction of the size it is now, it laid off 850 employees in a Seattle customer service center after a union drive. Since then, Amazon has grown to over a million employees—only the second American company ever to reach this size—and its anti-union practices have only grown increasingly sophisticated and repressive. Recent reports have uncovered that Amazon has installed surveillance networks inside its facilities, including software developed to track unionization at Amazon and Whole Foods locations. Amazon has even resorted to using Pinkerton spies in its warehouses to investigate union activity. Even more recently in 2020, union organizers at Amazon’s Staten Island site were fired after organizing a strike in response to unsafe conditions in their warehouse during the first few months of COVID-19. Amazon’s anti-union offensive in Bessemer is just one of many examples reminding workers that their right to organize will always be under attack. When worker power threatens corporate profits, corporations will threaten people’s livelihoods, spy on people, try to brainwash them, and use all sorts of repression and violence.
After Amazon’s last-minute appeal to move to in-person voting—a tactic to discourage workers from voting by utilizing the danger the pandemic would pose to in person voting—was denied, workers began casting mail-in votes on February 8th. The voting lasts until March 29th. If the majority of the workers vote yes for the union, it would open a new chapter in union organizing at Amazon, and a historic victory against Big Tech would be won that could set off a flurry of organizing activity at other Amazon locations across the country.
Voting for union representation through the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) is one of the many legal hurdles that the capitalist class have erected to prevent workers from organizing. On paper, the NLRB exists to protect workers’ rights; however, in practice it serves to prevent union action, forcing strikers back to work, and trapping workers in complex legalistic processes that erode their gains and dissolve their rights. For example, the NLRB ruled in 2019 that Uber drivers—and, by extension, many other “gig economy” workers—are not employees, and as such are not entitled to what little legal protections exist for labor organizing, a decision which overnight dissolved the labor rights of an estimated fifty five million Americans. That is not to say that organizers should abstain from legal processes such as voting for union representation. However, it must be made clear that institutions of the capitalist state are no friend to the working class, and—for real gains to be made— an organized fight is necessary that can force corporations to recognize unions and give into union demands instead of only relying on what the NLRB thinks is “legal” or worth ruling on. Depending on the NLRB to win union representation and to get first contracts is a limited, mostly losing strategy. Fighting for representation through the NLRB is a tactic like any other, and its usefulness should be evaluated as part of an overall campaign for winning the demands of organized workers, including Amazon workers. Workers can win gains whether or not they are sanctioned by a government agency. Since the start of the COVID pandemic we have seen an increase in “wildcat” strikes—strikes without official union approval. Just days into the COVID crisis in March, UAW members in a Michigan Fiat-Chrysler assembly plant, after hearing two of their co-workers had been quarantined for coronavirus, staged a wildcat work stoppage and forced management to close the plant in only three hours. Actions such as these show that it’s often the rank-and-file, rather than the union leadership, which initiates struggles against the bosses. Unionized workers shouldn’t have illusions in often-conservative union bureaucracy. Workers can build the power of the membership within their union, through militant workplace action, and pull conservative bureaucrats into struggle.
If workers in Bessemer succeed, it will be a victory for the labor movement and for all movements seeking to fight oppression under the capitalist system. This victory could be followed by the success of a similar project in Iowa, where the Teamsters are organizing another Amazon workplace. Oppressions under capitalism, no matter what form they take, are intimately linked to the fundamental inequality of capitalist society. For example, one of the inspirations for this unionization effort came from last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. As many as 85% of the workers in the Bessemer warehouse are black, and workers sought out representation with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) after last summer’s protests motivated workers to stand up against the “dehumanizing” treatment they experienced at Amazon. RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum went so far as to state that they “see this as both a labor struggle and as a civil rights struggle, which has often been the story of the labor movement in the South.” Reviewing the state of the anti-racist movement after the first week of the George Floyd protests last year, the Independent Socialist Group (ISG) stressed the crucial step of bringing together the anti-racist movement and the labor movement. The treatment of workers at Amazon is just one example of the exploitation of workers under capitalism, which the police serve to uphold. Joining the anti-racist struggle with organized labor gives the movement the ability to hit the capitalists where it hurts—in their profits.
As Amazon continues its expansion, nothing less than a mass movement of workers and youth will be able to stand up against the greed of massive corporations and the national and local government agencies which serve their interests. This mass movement must have the support and trust of the labor movement, and be organized along socialist principles. The union drive in Bessemer highlights the golden opportunity that labor has—to fight and win better lives for working people during one of the most trying periods in U.S. history. If the labor movement is able to break away from the parasitic Democratic Party and the bureaucratic union leadership, both of which act as a brake on working class struggle, we will be able to make serious gains for the working class and fight for a socialist society with a democratically planned economy, operated for the needs of all.