THE STRONGEST and most viable effort yet to create a union at technology giant Amazon in many years is underway at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, USA.
Organisers with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union-UFCW (RWDSU-UFCW) have been campaigning at the Amazon fulfilment centre. By December 2020, more than 2,000 workers had signed union cards, leading to an election set to begin in February this year.
The company is engaging in union-busting activities in response, but the workers are not backing down.
Many of the organisers and the employees at the fulfilment centre are black, and the organisers have focused on issues of racial equality and empowerment as a part of the drive. If workers at the BHM1 warehouse in Bessemer, near Birmingham, succeed in their efforts they could form the first Amazon union at a warehouse in the US.
The warehouse opened in March 2020, during the beginning of the pandemic. By the end of 2020 the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union said that over 2,000 of its workers there signed union authorisation cards ahead of the election workers had filed for in November 2020.
Ballots for the election are scheduled to be mailed to about 5,800 Amazon workers on 8 February, with vote-counting scheduled for 30 March 2021. Lawyers for Amazon are trying to appeal against the decision to allow the election to be carried out by mail, and have requested the election be delayed until the appeal is reviewed.
Ahead of the union election, Amazon has strongly encouraged workers to vote against the union via texts, messaging, an anti-union website and several captive audience meetings with workers at the warehouse.
In the texts, Amazon claims workers will ‘be giving up your right to speak for yourself’ by signing a union authorisation card and emphasising union dues, claiming ‘unions are a business’, telling workers ‘don’t let the union take your money for nothing’ and prompting them to visit their anti-union website DoItWithoutDues.com.
RWDSU said on 15 January: ‘Amazon workers at an Alabama warehouse can begin voting by mail in early February on whether to form a union, a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer ruled on Friday.
‘About 6,000 employees at the fulfilment centre in Bessemer, Alabama, will cast their ballots beginning on February 8 to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Ballots must be received by the NLRB’s regional office by March 29, then the board will begin counting the ballots beginning at 10am CT on the following day.’
‘The decision represents a blow to Amazon, which had pushed for the election to be held in person at the Bessemer facility, known as BHM1.’
The union has set up a website bamazonunion.org. This states: ‘Working at Amazon is supremely dangerous. The record on Amazon’s deadly and dehumanising working conditions is well established.
‘Nineteen workers have died at Amazon facilities since 2013. Amazon warehouse workers face outrageous work quotas that have left many with illnesses and lifetime injuries. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) has named Amazon to its list of “Dirty Dozen” employers twice.
‘We won’t stand to be subjected to abhorrent labour practices that land us hospitalised or injured for life. “Without change, nothing changes.” Those are the words the Mid-South Council of the RWDSU lives by. Together we can, and we will change our workplace for the better.
‘Having a union at Amazon would give us the right to collectively bargain over our working conditions, including items such as safety standards, training, breaks, pay, benefits, and other important issues that would make our workplace better.
‘Amazon sometimes addresses issues at work, but it’s all temporary. A union contract is in writing, negotiated upon, and Amazon would need to legally follow the guidelines and there are mechanisms to hold them legally accountable to us as workers.
‘There’s no other way to have this type of relationship with Amazon outside of having a union. Just Sunday, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) shared a video of support for our union where NFL players urged us to come together and vote #UnionYES. If they have a union, so should we!
‘Today, they’re sharing video from their Executive Director, DeMaurice Smith on what voting #UnionYES could bring to us here at Amazon. He has stood side by side with players during the 2011 NFL lockout and he knows what strength and unity bring to creating real change at work, even in the NFL.
‘He knows what a strong union contract can mean for workers. Watch and share now to see how through collective power, strength and unity NFL football players strive to make their lives better, and how we can too by voting #UnionYES!
‘Ballots go out in the mail on February 8, and we’ll have more details soon on how to make sure your voice is heard.’
Union organisers have also opened a Twitter account @BAmazonUnion and #BAmazonUnion. ‘We, the workers at Amazon in Bessemer, AL are coming together to fight for change in our workplace with @RWDSU.
‘Join us, visit our website now. #BAmazonUnion. Our fight to build power and unionise our facility began with workers talking to workers. Today, the @nytimes shared the critical story of how our fight to form a #union came to be. https://nytimes.com/2021/01/25/business/amazon-union-alabama.html… #1U #UnionStrong
- Meanwhile Amazon has agreed to settle allegations it had cheated some drivers out of tips from customers for more than two years. Under a deal with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the e-commerce giant, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, will pay out $61.7m.
The issue concerned drivers working as part of Amazon’s Flex programme, an Uber-like on-demand delivery service. Amazon said it disagreed with some findings but was happy to put the matter behind it.
The FTC said the money will be used to compensate drivers. Flex drivers, who use personal vehicles to deliver for Amazon, had received hourly rates between $18-$25 and were promised 100% of tips.
But in late 2016, Amazon ‘secretly reduced its own contribution to drivers’ pay’, according to the FTC. It alleged that Amazon had used the tips ‘to make up the difference between the new lower hourly rate and the promised rate’.
The commission said Amazon dropped the controversial payment model in August 2019 only after it had opened an investigation.
Amazon said it disagreed with claims that the way it was paying drivers was unclear. ‘We added additional clarity in 2019, (but) we are pleased to put this matter behind us,’ an Amazon spokeswoman said. However, the FTC said that Amazon also misled customers by telling them that drivers received 100% of any tip.
When drivers noticed that tips appeared to be missing, Amazon simply responded that it gave drivers ‘100% of customer tips’, the FTC stated in its complaint.