BESSEMER, ALA. — Here is what a 1920s city looks like in a 2020s world. Along Bessemer’s broad downtown streets sit an array of small shops that have somehow managed to survive into the age of big box retailers: the rug store, the dusty furniture store, the store that sells sewing machines. They sit alongside empty, peeling husks of all the stores that didn’t make it. On one prime downtown corner a block from the courthouse, you can peer through the window of an abandoned pharmacy to see a four-foot plant growing up through the floor.
The old railroad still runs through Bessemer, but most everything else has been sucked out by modern commerce. The town is emblematic of many that have seen their small business districts destroyed, first by Walmart and its imitators, more recently by Amazon. Which makes it somehow appropriate that Bessemer is the site of the most immediate threat to Amazon’s non-union business model — a fight entering its second round, just when everyone thought it was finished.
In March, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) lost its historic bid to unionize the Amazon warehouse on Bessemer’s outskirts by a more than 2-to-1 margin. But in early August, federal labor officials found Amazon’s anti-union tactics — including a mailbox for ballots on company property — violated the law; they recommended a new election. The National Labor Relations Board will issue its final decision in the coming weeks or months, but it’s widely expected to uphold the recommendation. Preparations are already underway, quietly, on both sides.
Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU president, says Amazon has already resumed anti-union messaging to employees at the warehouse. But the union also didn’t stop organizing after the first vote — in fact, Appelbaum says, the organizing committee of workers is even bigger now. “We never went away,” Appelbaum says. “The organizing has accelerated.”
While Appelbaum won’t make any firm predictions about the outcome, he believes a second vote could be better for the union. He says Amazon’s advantage came from those who voted early in the seven-week election period and that, as time went on and workers had more opportunity to engage with the union, more of them came around.
Sustaining any long-term organizing strategy inside an Amazon warehouse is difficult because the rapid turnover rate requires the union to constantly educate new employees on what the organizing drive is all about. But, according to Appelbaum, pushing forward with an election in Bessemer is just one part of the larger project of organizing Amazon, the corporate behemoth that’s driving fundamental changes to the nature of work worldwide.
“It’s not about our union; it’s about the entire labor movement,” Appelbaum says. “Amazon is not something where you just try an election, see what happens, and then you walk away. No. The battle to reform Amazon is going to be an ongoing priority.”
The Amazon warehouse in Bessemer sits behind a shield of trees amid freshly cleared suburban sprawl, roughly the size of a shopping mall with a parking lot to match. Past a set of floor-to-ceiling turnstiles in the lobby, the wide-open space bustles with activity, resembling an IKEA store but without the customers. Just before the late afternoon shift change, one employee, a man in his 30s, sat on a cement block outside the exit, waiting for his shift. He voted for the union in the first election and said he will again. Things needed to change, he said: Managers are inexperienced and employees are overworked to exhaustion and he feels like the facility is unsafe. “They only see numbers,” he said, “and not the people struggling.”
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
Another man, younger, wandered out to vape during his break. He voted against the union and felt the pitch was misleading and unclear. Being young, he thought any seniority structure the union imposed would leave him at “the bottom of the totem pole.” And, he said, “Most of the people here never worked for a union. You gotta tell ‘em what you can give ‘em.”
These two men roughly embody the breakdown in the warehouse — those whose disgust with the job outweighs any union trepidation, and their opposites. After chatting for about 10 minutes, the workers told me someone inside had called the police to get me. (The Bessemer Police Department appears to routinely patrol the parking lot; I witnessed two sweeps in one hour.)
Before I left, I asked for their names. Both declined. The pro-union worker smiled and shook his head. “Everybody’s just trying to keep their healthcare, dog.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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