For the next seven weeks, employees at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama will vote on whether to become the first of the company’s US employees to unionize. The only other US Amazon employees to make it as far as a union election was a smaller group of maintenance workers at a Delaware warehouse in 2014. That effort failed after an aggressive anti-union campaign from a company that has long been hostile to worker organizing.
The vote in Alabama, at a warehouse outside Birmingham called BHM1, comes at a pivotal time for the company and its workers. Amazon is emerging from the pandemic in a stronger position than ever: posting record earnings, opening new warehouses at a rapid clip, and hiring hundreds of new workers a day. Those workers, however, have become increasingly vocal about the fact that they haven’t shared in the company’s success. Last year’s wave of protests and walkouts over COVID-19 safety measures and other issues won some partial victories, but the Bessemer union, if it succeeds, would give workers the power to negotiate a contract that could lock in durable changes to wages and working conditions. It could also inspire other Amazon warehouses to organize.
Workers at BHM1 say that one of the primary issues driving the union push is Amazon’s grueling and automatically enforced productivity metrics, a complaint that has prompted demonstrations at other Amazon facilities as well.
Darryl Richardson started working at BHM1 when it opened in March, after the automotive company he worked at closed down. At first, he thought it would be a good job, but it wasn’t long before Amazon’s productivity tracking started to grate on him. Richardson is a “picker,” which means he removes products from shelves that robots bring to his station, sometimes climbing a ladder to do so, scans them, and sends them to be packaged for shipment. Amazon tracks how many items he scans, how quickly, and how much time he spends not scanning, which it calls “time off task,” or “TOT.” Going to the bathroom counts as “TOT.” Stretching between items counts as “TOT,” and after 30 minutes of “TOT,” workers get an automated writeup, and after two hours, they get fired, Richardson says. He estimates he has to scan an item approximately every ten seconds, all day, to avoid penalties. “It’s a very consistent fast pace. You don’t have time to step back.”
“You go get some water, you can’t pause your time, and you get docked, because you aren’t scanning,” Richardson says.
“I mean, you come into work and need to be treated like a human being,” says another worker, a longtime Amazon employee who transferred to BHM1 when it opened. He supports the union but asked to remain anonymous because of “Amazon’s reputation for how they deal with people trying to unionize.”
By the summer, other issues had arisen. Amazon had ended the hazard pay it implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, as well as its policy of allowing workers to take unlimited time off without pay. Meanwhile, COVID cases in the South were spiking. (A filing with the National Labor Relations Board provides a snapshot of the COVID rate at BHM1, with Amazon saying 218 workers at BHM1 had tested or were presumed positive for COVID-19 in the two weeks ending January 7th.) The warehouse was also extremely hot, workers say, and schedules would change unpredictably. “They change your schedule while you sleep,” Richardson says. “If they change the schedule and you don’t know, they terminate you.”
“I think like a bunch of these frustrations with the company trying to make every little extra dollar, at the expense of the person actually doing the work, has really frustrated people down here,” says the Amazon worker who asked to be anonymous.
Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty said that the company offers a starting salary of $15.30 per hour with benefits at the Bessemer facility, and that 90% of employees there would recommend Amazon as a good place to work. “We don’t believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views,” Lighty said.
Beth Gutelius, who studies the logistics industry at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development, sees the Bessemer union push and other Amazon protests as a symptom of tensions that have long existed in e-commerce but have been heightened by the pandemic. “We’re reaching this point where some of the contradictions that have existed uncomfortably maybe can’t hold anymore,” Gutelius says. “Companies like Amazon really benefited from fulfilling consumer demand during the pandemic, and workers are seeing that those gains have not trickled down to them. Warehouse work in particular has long been invisible to the public, and highly undervalued by firms as a supply chain function, and I think it’s possible that we’re seeing the start of a pretty big course correction on this question, with the value of warehousing being seen in a new light.”
An atmosphere of activism
At Richardson’s previous job, he had been a member of the United Auto Workers, and he felt employees there had been treated with more “respect.” There had been a procedure for addressing workers’ grievances and rules that made firings less arbitrary. Meanwhile, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union had been waging a public battle for better COVID-19 protections at nearby poultry plants. Richardson and other BHM1 employees decided to reach out.
The campaign came together quickly, a fact that employees attribute to a confluence of factors. Frustration with Amazon — with the grueling work, dehumanizing management approach, and the company’s rocketing profits — was intense and widespread. This frustration coincided with a rising tide of activism at the facility. The majority of BHM1 workers are Black and many had been galvanized by the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd. “I think it also correlated with the recent racial justice movement,” says the anonymous employee. “There’s a lot of support for the movement in that building.”
Joshua Brewer, the lead RWDSU organizer on the campaign, agrees with the role the movement played. “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,” he says. “You feel that kind of spirit throughout the campaign.”
He also attributes the campaign’s success to Bessemer’s deep union roots. “It’s a union town, so they go home to their families, and they hear from their aunts and uncles and dads and grandparents that worked in the steel industries or in the mines, and they say unions are good, you need to sign that card and get involved.”
After several months of workers talking privately to other workers, Brewer says they decided it was time to go public. On October 20th, RWDSU members from nearby poultry plants and warehouses came to the BHM1 gates and started talking to employees. A month later, they had collected enough signatures supporting an election to feel confident filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. Brewer says over 3,000 employees, more than half the workers Amazon says work at the facility, have now signed cards in favor of an election. (Organizers need 30 percent of workers to show interest in an election to begin the election process, and more than half of workers who vote to win the election and certify the union.) On January 15th, the NLRB ruled that the election could go forward.
Amazon goes on the offensive
By then, Amazon’s anti-union campaign was underway. In late December, it had launched a website with the tagline #doitwithoutdues, with warnings that signing cards in support of a union election could legally obligate workers to pay dues. (This is misleading: dues wouldn’t start unless workers voted to approve a union contract, and even then, Alabama is a right-to-work state, so dues would be voluntary.) The site also featured photos of happy Amazon employees and an animated cartoon dog that was, inexplicably, also a DJ. Managers started pulling workers aside for anti-union presentations — so called “captive audience” meetings — where they made similar arguments about dues, workers say, and gave out anti-union pins to wear.
Richardson and the other BHM1 employee say some of these meetings were conducted by people who don’t work at the warehouse. It’s common for companies to hire anti-union consultants who specialize in dissuading employees from organizing, though Amazon did not comment directly on whether consultants had been hired for BHM1’s unionization effort.
“It is important that all employees understand the facts of joining a union and the election process,” said Amazon’s Lighty. “We host regular information sessions for all employees, which include an opportunity for employees to ask questions. If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it’s important all associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”
Workers now get near-daily text messages from Amazon telling them to vote no, that “a union is a business that takes money out of your paycheck to fund itself,” and other anti-union messages, according to screenshots viewed by The Verge. On Facebook and Instagram, employees are targeted with anti-union ads linking to Amazon’s #doitwithoutdues website.
“I have never seen Amazon fight for something like this. I have never seen them try to push for something this hard before,” says the longtime Amazon employee.
Anti-union banners and signs have gone up across the warehouse. Even in the bathrooms, Amazon’s anti-union campaign inescapable: signs have been posted on stall doors and at eye level above the urinals warning workers about union dues and telling them to “remember everything you already have without giving any of your hard earned money to the RWDSU,” one poster reads.
“It’s right in your face, like when you walk up to it, so you have something to read. It’s a pretty great way to get the info out there, but come on,” says the worker.
At the NLRB, Amazon tried to delay the election and have it be conducted in person, rather than by mail. Since the pandemic, 90 percent of union elections have been by mail, but Amazon claimed that mail-in voting would decrease turnout, and that, in an argument that echoed misinformation about the presidential election, it would have a greater risk of “party fraud and coercion.” Instead, Amazon proposed setting up a tent in the warehouse parking lot, testing all participants for COVID, conducting temperature screening, and monitoring the line for social distancing, either using a “digital assistant” or with human teams. Amazon also proposed renting a floor of a local hotel for NLRB election agents and providing them with chauffeurs and food.
On Friday, the NLRB denied Amazon’s appeal, reaffirming its position that mail voting is safer, and that letting Amazon rent out hotels and monitor voting lines would create an impression of bias and surveillance. Ballots will be sent out February 8th and need to be returned by March 29th.
Amazon will undoubtedly continue its anti-union campaign, though it can no longer hold mandatory meetings on company time now that ballots have been sent out. But the BHM1 organizers are optimistic about their chances and about what a victory will mean for Amazon workers elsewhere. “I hope they’re watching what’s going on,” says Richardson. “And that they stand strong, they stick together, and do what they need to do to try to make it better there, too.”