STUART Appelbaum president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has spoken about the campaign to unionise Amazon workers.
‘In Bessemer, Alabama, a historic, worker-driven grassroots union organising campaign is underway at the Amazon warehouse there. Votes are being cast and will be counted.
And the campaign could drastically change the lives of over 5,800 workers at the facility, who are demanding better treatment and a voice on the job. The Amazon campaign is so important because it represents the story of working men and women in the pandemic era.
Americans depend, now more than ever, on working people: workers at supermarkets, pharmacies, food processing and health care facilities – many of them RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union) members, and of course at Amazon. From daily necessities to luxury items, Americans depend every day on the work done by these Amazon employees.
This sprawling facility opened in March of last year, just as the world was coming to grips with Covid-19. And workers there had the same health and safety concerns of all frontline workers, which were exacerbated by Amazon’s workplace conditions and gruelling productivity quotas.
Workers perform their jobs close together, and short and infrequent breaks often don’t allow for adequate handwashing and sanitising. Workers say Amazon monitors their productivity so closely that they are afraid to take bathroom breaks.
The concerns of workers in Bessemer reflect those of Amazon workers across the world. Thousands of Amazon workers have signed a petition calling for better health and safety policies.
Amazon workers at facilities in Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, and the United Kingdom have held strikes or other worker actions to demand safer workplaces.
Now, and here in New York, the attorney general’s office has filed a lawsuit against Amazon for failing to provide adequate health and safety measures and for firing and disciplining employees that objected to Amazon’s unsafe work conditions.
Even amid the Alabama workers’ organising drive, Amazon continues to disregard safety, having insisted upon an in-person union election despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
That move was shot down by the NLRB, which instead called for a mail-in vote. With at least 13 deaths at Amazon facilities – even before the pandemic – Amazon made the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of dangerous employers two years running.
The Alabama Amazon workers approached the RWDSU because they saw the difference the union was making in Alabama.
The RWDSU was at the forefront fighting for frontline workers in the early days of the pandemic, bringing swift attention to the unsafe working conditions at poultry plants.
In the wake of the RWDSU’s efforts, poultry plants improved their social distancing policies, erected barriers between workers, provided PPE and sanitiser for workers, implemented Covid testing, and increased pay for workers who were risking their lives to feed America while also providing pay for workers who were under quarantine.
Bessemer Amazon workers took notice, and by December of last year, thousands of them had signed union cards.
The Amazon organising drive is more than just about one campaign; it’s a moment working people are seizing to demand change, and to be treated as human beings.
Regardless of the outcome of their campaign, the Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have already made history.
They’ve brought renewed attention to the labour practices of the world’s largest retailer, and shown that when workers stand together, they can stand up against any employer in the world.
Their inspiring campaign has already changed the landscape, and is resonating with working people everywhere who now know they can demand safer workplaces and the dignity and respect of union membership.’
It has been reported that a union driver at the Bessemer warehouse has scared the company so much that they are going all out to stop the workers from voting in the union, even going so far as to recalibrate the stop lights outside of the warehouse so union organisers have less time to talk to workers sitting at a red light.
One of the reasons is they fear if workers in the deep south can organise it is only a matter of time before warehouses in places like New York or California go union.
- Barbora Cernusakova, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights spoke to workers at the company’s Bessemer warehouse in Alabama (BHM1).
The workers are currently taking part in a landmark vote on forming a union, which has attracted the attention of media and the broader labour movement for two reasons.
First, previous attempts to organise Amazon workers and form unions in the US have been unsuccessful.
Second, the moment it was clear that the vote would go ahead, Amazon mounted a campaign to discourage workers from voting in favour of the union.
‘Amazon is in my texts, they’re in our breakroom, and (posters are) even in the bathroom telling us to vote (against the union) … It’s an insane level of propaganda,’ one warehouse worker at the facility told Cernusakova.
Amazon’s hostility to unions is well documented, but since the National Labour Relations Board gave BHM1 workers the green light for a postal vote in January, the company’s tactics have grown increasingly unscrupulous.
Amazon created a website which posts warnings like ‘unions cannot create job security’, and emphasises union membership fees.
In January, warehouse workers in Bessemer also began receiving texts saying ‘Don’t let the union divide us,’ and ‘Don’t let outsiders divide our winning team!,’ Cernusakova was told.
The warehouse in Bessemer opened last March. At first it was seen as a good place to work, unions told Amnesty, but as the summer progressed it became hard for workers to keep up with productivity targets.
Many were also growing increasingly uncomfortable with the way Amazon tracked their movements, monitoring bathroom breaks and reprimanding or firing employees who repeatedly failed to meet targets.
Meanwhile, as Covid-19 infection rates rose, there were reports of Amazon workers being fired for raising health and safety concerns.
In July activists from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) got hundreds of Bessemer workers behind the idea of forming a union in the warehouse in order to better protect their rights.
The union petition received more than the support needed – 30% – for the vote to go ahead.
RWDSU member Michael Foster, a poultry worker in Alabama, told the Amnesty researcher Cernusakova: ‘The member-organisers like me in Bessemer are essential workers and proud RWDSU members, we know what the hard-working people at the BHM1 facility are facing first hand.
‘It isn’t easy sticking your neck out. I couldn’t be prouder to stand with them in their fight to form Amazon’s first unionised fulfilment centre in the US.’
Employers in the US are given the upper hand in labour relations in the 1947 Labour Management Relations Act, which gives employers the right to express ‘any views, argument, or opinion’ – for example arguments against unions – without it constituting an unfair labour practice.
The only limit to employers’ anti-union campaigns would be an expression that contains threat of reprisal or force or promise of benefit.
Amazon has repeatedly claimed that it respects international human rights laws and standards, both in correspondence with Amnesty International and on its own website.
This should include respect for freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining under the International Labour Organisation Conventions, which guarantee the right to form and join a union, and also protect a union’s internal affairs from interference by management.
In a statement given to Amnesty International on 9 February, Amazon reiterated its respect for employees’ rights to join, form or not to join a labour union or other organisation of their own selection.
It said it was important to ensure its employees ‘understand the facts of joining a union and the election process’, and that it hosted ‘regular information sessions’, including opportunities for employees to ask questions.
Amazon’s annual reports have identified workers’ councils and trade unions as a ‘risk’ factor for its international operations, while a 2018 training video obtained by Business Insider advised managers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods how to look for ‘warning signs’ of union activity.
In the UK, union staff have repeatedly been threatened with injunctions for ‘trespassing’ when trying to access Amazon facilities.
Amazon has failed to engage with criticism of these actions, responding to the outcry by repeating that it respects workers’ rights – in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Now workers in Bessemer are preparing to put Amazon’s words to the test.
‘We have tremendous strength in unity, we can fight for real change in our workplace, which include changes that Amazon can never provide,’ says the warehouse worker Cernusakova spoke to. ‘We want due process, we want safety at work, but most of all we want respect.’
Whichever way the vote goes, scrutiny of Amazon’s approach to its workers’ rights in the US and beyond – isn’t going away any time soon.