On a rainy Saturday afternoon in early February, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) held a rally in a grassy lot a five-minute drive from Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. Organizers handed out pizzas supplied by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a long-time Amazon critic. Members of the Teamsters had traveled to Bessemer to lend their support, some from as far away as Boston. Workers and activists brandished signs with such slogans as “Don’t Back Down” and “Our Community Supports Amazon Workers.”
Inclement weather aside, the event seemed to have all the ingredients to attract workers keen to take on Amazon. Yet the crowd that day numbered about 50, including activists, out-of-towners and media, and many of Bernie’s pizzas were uneaten when the rally ended about an hour later.
The campaign in Bessemer has drawn national attention and is widely considered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to breach the defenses of the world’s largest online retailer, which has managed to keep unions out of its U.S. operations for a quarter-century. To prevail, the union needs to win over a majority of the approximately 5,800 people working at Amazon’s BHM1 fulfillment center. The RWDSU still has time to win workers’ hearts and minds because mail-in balloting, which started in early February, runs through March 29.
But even workers who support joining the union acknowledge victory is by no means assured. Many of their colleagues see a big employer investing in their impoverished town and offering more than double the minimum wage, with benefits, for entry-level jobs. Fifteen dollars an hour doesn’t go far in cities like New York and San Francisco. But in Bessemer, where a fixer-upper house costs less than a new car, it beats working the cash register at the local Dollar Tree.
On the warehouse floor, according to 16 workers interviewed for this story, opinions are sharply divided, with anti-union sentiment running at least as hot as pro-union passions. Cori Jennings, a 39-year-old mother of five, goes out of her way to avoid union activists staking out the Amazon parking lot. “God forbid you make eye contact,” she says. Jennings worries that the RWDSU will chase Amazon out of town and derail her plans of becoming a manager.
Union officials say the company is sowing such fears by flooding the airwaves with anti-union messages and indoctrinating workers during mandatory information sessions. “The challenge is not Alabama. The challenge isn’t Bessemer,” says RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum. “The challenge is the most aggressive anti-union campaign anyone has seen in decades, with unlimited resources and unlimited access to workers.”
Amazon officials say they’re simply providing information about unions so workers understand what membership would mean for them and their day-to-day working lives. In a statement, a spokesperson said: “We don’t believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views. 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.”
President Joe Biden indirectly edged into the fray with a video in which he said workers should be free from company pressure in weighing whether to organize. While not an explicit endorsement of the effort at Amazon, he clearly signaled his preference, saying: “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.”
Bessemer, about 16 miles southwest of Birmingham, was once a thriving steel town and manufacturing center. For much of the 20th century, U.S. Steel and train-car maker Pullman-Standard employed thousands of locals, catapulting them into the middle class. Then, like many U.S. cities, Bessemer began shedding manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s. When Pullman-Standard closed its factory in 1981, local officials say, unemployment spiked to 35%. Most everyone knew a family that was affected, and many residents left.
Today, Bessemer is a quiet place, the stillness broken by the occasional freight train passing through. The 41-square-mile town is dotted with simple single-family homes, many in need of repair. There is a church on every other block, ministering to the city’s 27,000 residents, most of whom are Black. It’s the kind of place where people say hello on the street — even during a pandemic — and tack a “ma’am” or “sir” onto the end of their sentences.
In 2010, Bessemer elected Kenneth Gulley mayor. A transplant who moved to the city from Forkland, Alabama, 25 years ago, Gulley won 73% of the vote with a pledge to create jobs. The town was on the verge of bankruptcy, so his first task was restructuring the debt.
Once Bessemer was on a more solid financial footing, Gulley began selling prospective employers on the city’s attributes — its manufacturing DNA, airport and access to a railroad and three major interstates. Dollar General, the discount retail chain, opened a distribution center; Flex-N-Gate, which manufactures metal and welded components, operates a facility. Blox, a construction firm that builds modular units for hospitals, set up shop in the old Pullman-Standard plant.
Then Gulley landed the big one — persuading Amazon to open a fulfillment center on acreage once owned by U.S. Steel off Powder Plant Road. The 855,000-square-foot facility, the first of its kind in Alabama, put Amazon on the doorstep of Birmingham, the state’s largest city, and meshed with the company’s efforts to speed up delivery to smaller metro areas around the U.S.
For many Bessemer residents, Amazon’s arrival was affirmation that their town had finally entered the 21st century. Yes, the jobs were mostly unskilled, but Amazon was one of the world’s most powerful tech companies. If the criticism of Amazon’s labor practices leveled in recent years by Sanders and employee activists gave some Bessemer residents pause, most focused on the $15-an-hour starting wage and health benefits.
As Gulley hoped, local businesses are already benefiting from Amazon’s presence. A worker at the Waffle House, a two-minute drive from the warehouse, says a steady flow of Amazon employees stops by for hash brown scrambles and grilled cheese — paying customers who have helped the restaurant survive the pandemic. Gulley, who is 52 and now in his third term, says that while he supports workers’ right to organize, he hopes the union drive doesn’t scare off Amazon and other companies.
The BHM1 fulfillment center opened on March 29, 2020, instantly making Amazon Bessemer’s biggest employer. The company had no difficulty filling the slots, but workers say many new hires quit within weeks of starting because they found the pace arduous or were worried about catching the coronavirus, which had started spreading around the U.S. and infected dozens of Amazon workers.
A 26-year-old woman who worked at the facility and requested anonymity to speak freely says she was upset after being reprimanded for not working quickly enough. Over time, her feelings about the job evolved from “just work harder and things will get better” to “this is a sinking ship and, no matter how many holes I plug every night, there are going to be new ones the next day.” She quit in January.
High turnover is typical at Amazon warehouses, so Bessemer was no exception. But in the late summer, a group of workers contacted a union organizer to say they wanted to discuss unionizing. The RWDSU’s Appelbaum says some workers were concerned about the pandemic but mostly were agitating about the expectation that they handle hundreds of products an hour. “I think people want to be treated with dignity,” he says. “They’re not saying it’s about the wages.”
It’s highly unusual for worker activism to take root in one of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses so soon after it has opened. Many recruits are happy with the pay and benefits, and it can take years — not months — for their appreciation to curdle into disappointment. And even then most quit; they don’t approach a union for help. Appelbaum says workers at the Bessemer warehouse, who are mostly African-American, were inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter protests and the growing acceptance that systemic racism has hurt the economic prospects of people of color.
The question, of course, is whether the people who contacted the RWDSU are aligned with a majority of their colleagues. In interviews, many workers acknowledge that the work is hard and the hours long, but they point out that few other local employers offer similar pay and benefits. The minimum wage in Alabama is $7.25 and median pay for unskilled work is paltry: $12.14 for retail salespeople; $11.37 for cashiers and $13.36 for restaurant cooks. The e-commerce giant’s benefits also stand out in Alabama, where health care gobbles up 13.2% of household income, compared with 11.2% nationally, according to a QuoteWizard report.
Many of the new hires hailed from retail or food services, including a cohort who worked at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Eric Jones, 51, worked as a cook at the university hospital. In August he joined Amazon as a picker, which involves grabbing items from a robot. The commute from Birmingham requires taking two buses about two hours each way, he’s making only $2 an hour more than his previous job, and at first Jones struggled to pick the prescribed 300 items per hour. But he doesn’t have to pay to see a doctor, likes the flexible hours and recently learned that Amazon will help him get a deal on a car.
While Jones thinks Amazon should do a better job of providing information about confirmed cases of the coronavirus, he’s skeptical of how much the union could help. “I know malarkey when I hear it,” he says. “It could benefit us or it could hurt us.”
J.C. Thompson, 43, has been working at Amazon since April and loves it. The job provides affordable medical, dental and vision benefits for his family, which saves him $800 a month and helped pay for his two sons’ braces. Thompson is saving as much as he can for retirement, taking advantage of Amazon’s 401(k) match. He voted no and mailed back the ballot same day he received it. “I think unions are for people who don’t like rules,” says Thompson, who soured on them during 10 years at UPS.
No one is counting out the union, and workers say there is plenty of support for the RWDSU in the warehouse.
Jennifer Bates, who works in the receiving department and trains other employees, says she initially found working at Amazon exciting. But before long, she says managers began pushing breaks back further in her shift so she and her colleagues sometimes went as long as five hours without stopping. Bates, 48, believes the union would give workers a bigger voice and is trying to persuade colleagues to vote “yes.”
Darryl Richardson, an Amazon worker who also supports joining the RWDSU, says it’s hard selling younger workers on the benefits of union membership. “You’ve got a lot of not educated and young people, and they don’t know about the union,” he says. “Sometimes we can convince them and sometimes we can’t.”
The RWDSU is trying to tap into Bessemer’s union history during its manufacturing heyday. But those jobs started going away a half-century ago, and the unions could do nothing to stop that. Organizers have recruited unionized workers from local poultry plants to proselytize on their behalf. But what sells in wealthier cities resonates less in right-to-work Alabama. Big public rallies are impossible during a pandemic, so the RWDSU is sometimes reduced to posting activists outside the warehouse and trying to grab workers’ attention. Inside, meanwhile, managers are selling Amazon’s position to people paid to be there.
“If the RWDSU loses the campaign, you can always find some strategic missteps, but those will be dwarfed by the size of Amazon’s wealth and its ability to mount an anti-organizing campaign,” says Janice Fine, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “They’ve picked a huge fight, and it’s going to be really hard to win.”
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Bloomberg’s Matt Day contributed to this report.