Historic vote on Amazon union kicks off in Alabama

Over 5,800 ballots have been sent out to the employees of Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse near Birmingham, Alabama. Workers will have seven weeks to mail-in their ballots, in consideration of the COVID-19 pandemic

February 10, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Community members of Bessemer rally in support of unionization and Amazon workers on February 6, 2021. Photo: Liberation News

Thousands of workers at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse in the US state of Alabama have started receiving ballots to decide whether or not to unionize. Over 5,800 ballots will be sent out beginning on Monday, February 8, to all the workers in the Bessemer unit, also called BHM1, situated in the outskirts of Birmingham, to decide if they want to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and federal safety regulations, workers will have the next seven weeks, until March 29, to mail-in their votes. The federal labor watchdog, National Labor Relations Board, is overseeing the unionization vote and has repeatedly shot down Amazon’s efforts to either delay or junk the vote altogether.

The crucial vote is the second of its kind to take place in any of the Amazon warehouses in the United States and has come after years of efforts by trade union movements to organize delivery workers in the country. A previous effort to unionize in a Delaware warehousing facility of the company failed after workers voted against it.

Trade unionists organizing for a “yes” vote among Amazon workers have stressed the importance of the vote and the precedent it could set. “Let’s make a difference in our future,” Randy Hadley, president of the RWDSU Mid-South Council, told Al.com. “Our children, our grandchildren are going to end up working one day at a place like Amazon, and we need to fix it and make it better.”

During the pandemic, delivery and warehousing workers across the United States have been demanding their due for working on the frontlines, risking outbreaks and infections. If the BHM1 workers vote in favor of unionization, this would be the first recognized union of Amazon workers in the country. Amazon has a history of anti-union activities and retaliatory actions against workers who have attempted to organize employees for fair wages and safe workplaces.

The BHM1 unit was started about a year ago, in 2020, after demand for delivery goods went up during the pandemic. The state of Alabama is one of the 27 states with anti-union laws — what conservatives refer to as “right to work” laws — which make union memberships optional and favors individual compromises for dispute settlements over collective bargaining. As a result Alabama as a whole has an abysmal unionization rate of 8 percent, less than the historic national low of 10.5 percent in 2019.

Despite an environment hostile to labor organizing, trade union organizers in the state are hopeful about the vote. The November 2020 petition, to hold the union election to the NLRB, alone received signatures from over 3,000 employees of the total of around 5,800. Labor regulations require 30 percent of the employees’ interest to hold a vote, and at least 50 percent support from the employees to form a union.

According to Liberation News, a majority of the workers involved are Black and other racial minorities, much like the community of Bessmer. Trade unionists have credited the anti-racism protests, following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, to have played a major role in the campaign to unionize.

RWDSU’s organizer, Joshua Brewer, who is leading the campaign told The Verge that, “A lot of these workers are involved in that, especially a lot of these activists that have really worked hard to get their co-workers on board. You feel that kind of spirit throughout the campaign.”

On Sunday, on the eve of the vote, a rally in support of the “yes” vote was organized by the RWDSU, along with community leaders and groups like Alabama Coalition for Community Benefits. Liberation News reported that the rally had more than a hundred people participating despite heavy rain in the winter, with some traveling from as far as Boston and New Orleans. Dozens of residents who could not attend the rally placed signs and placards in support of the union.

RWDSU organizer Michael “Big Mike” Foster addressed the rally by pointing out that the struggle is for the dignity of the workers in the community. “We’re down here to fight for the people, to get them dignity, respect, and a living wage–not a minimum wage,” said Foster

The campaign has also received support and solidarity from national progressive figures like Vermont senator and former Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, who delivered free pizzas to rally participants. The local chapter of the left-wing Party for Socialism and Liberation and also members of the Bessmer community have come out overwhelmingly in support of the campaign.