This interview originally appeared on The Real News Network.
One of the most historic union votes of our era is underway right now: 5,800 workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, are currently voting on whether or not to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. If the union vote is successful, workers at the Bessemer facility will become the first unionized Amazon workforce in the United States. After the National Labor Relations Board dismissed Amazon’s motions to delay the union vote, ballots were sent to workers in early February, and the vote counting will begin on March 29.
On Feb. 22, 2021, world-renowned actor, activist, and Real News Network board member Danny Glover came to Bessemer to show support for Amazon workers and their struggle to form a union. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez drove 14 hours from Baltimore to Bessemer to sit down with Glover and talk about why this vote is so significant and how Amazon workers in Bessemer, the vast majority of whom are Black, are part of a long tradition of labor struggle in the South.
The Real News Network will bring you more in-depth coverage of the historic union vote in Bessemer throughout the month of March. Keep checking TRNN for updates and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube and podcast channels for upcoming installments!
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Maximillian Alvarez, TRNN Editor-in-Chief: Welcome, everyone, to this special production of The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the Editor-in-Chief here at The Real News, and it’s great to have you all with us.
At this very moment, one of the most historic union drives of our era is taking place in Bessemer, Alabama. Bessemer is a Southwestern suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, with a population of just under 27,000, the majority of whom are Black or African-American. Bessemer is also home to a massive Amazon fulfillment center, which opened last March, making the e‑commerce giant the largest employer in Bessemer. After experiencing firsthand the breakneck workloads and top-down surveillance that Amazon’s fulfillment centers have become known for, as well as a reported lack of transparency and accountability from management, a group of workers at the Bessemer facility began the long, arduous process of organizing, with the hope of joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.
Amazon has pulled out all the stops to discourage workers in Bessemer from voting to join the union, even bringing in outside consultants who are being paid $3,200 per day, per consultant to guide the company’s union busting efforts. Workers have reported receiving regular anti-union texts and emails from Amazon, on top of being subjected to anti-union messages in company bathrooms and “information sessions.” On top of that, Amazon also filed a set of motions with the National Labor Relations Board in an attempt to delay the union vote, including a motion that would have prevented workers from being able to mail in their ballots while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. After the NLRB eventually struck down those motions, ballots were sent out to Amazon workers. The vote counting officially began on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, and will continue through March 29.
There have been a number of attempts to unionize Amazon workers in the United States, but so far, none of them have achieved that ultimate goal. But workers and organizers on the ground have high hopes that this drive in Bessemer will be different, and that it will spark more successful union drives at Amazon facilities around the country. And make no mistake, workers unionizing at Amazon affects all of us. With so many fearing the hazards of trips to brick-and-mortar stores over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon to Amazon’s e‑commerce model. While millions lost their jobs, homes, and healthcare, Jeff Bezos, the founder and current CEO of Amazon, reportedly increased his wealth by nearly $70 billion in 2020 alone. Amazon has become an international behemoth, and it has more power and influence over our lives than most entities. And yet, the general population has virtually no say over what Amazon does and how it does it. If Amazon workers were unionized, that could change.
On Feb. 22, 2021, world-renowned actor, activist, and Real News Network board member Danny Glover came down to Bessemer to show support for the roughly 5,800 fulfillment center workers who are currently voting on whether or not to unionize. I got in my car and drove 14 hours from Baltimore down to Bessemer to chat with Danny about why this union vote is so significant, and it’s my honor to share that interview with you now. And please, stay tuned for more of our extended coverage of the historic union drive in Bessemer through the month of March, including interviews with Amazon workers and union organizers on the ground. Coming to you right here on The Real News Network, let’s go…
So, Danny, first of all, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with me. I know how busy you are, and I know you devote a great deal of your time traveling across the globe to lend your powerful voice to freedom struggles around the world. So, in that vein, I wanted to start by asking: What brought you down here to Alabama? What was it about the workers’ struggle here that compelled you to come to Bessemer and show your support?
Danny Glover: Well, I think the first thing to say is that I was asked to come down. And I think it’s a very important moment, certainly, for workers — this challenge right here, with a company that [aside from Walmart] employs more people than any other company in the country, located here in the South, which is always considered to be a place where unions never fared well. And yet, we know there’s a history, particularly here in Alabama, around the miners and smelter workers’ in the ’30s and their struggle for unionization — and, really, during the whole period of Jim Crow, particularly with the organizing of Black workers. Right here in Alabama, you had the cotton [mill workers’] strike in the ’30s. So, there’s a history of resistance here to the oppressive conditions that people work under. And the South, of course, has its own history, one that carried the weight of the moral issue around slavery.
So, to be here at this particular moment is important. And part of my own history is in the South: My mother’s from the South, rural Georgia, and she found her way outside; she was able to go to college. She didn’t have to pick cotton in September, because she was going to school in September. And then, I come out of a union family, through the U.S. Postal Service — my parents came to the Postal Service in 1948. So, there are a lot of reasons why I would be here and, certainly, I’m here in the service of justice, workers’ justice. It seems to be one of my life’s purposes, outside of doing the work that I do on the stage and in front of a screen.
MA: I definitely want to ask more about that union connection to your family, but I wanted to follow up on something first. So, you touched on this a little already, but how do you see the struggle for workers’ rights and labor justice — how does that connect to the larger struggle for liberation and dignity?
DG: Well, I think that organized labor in the era of industrialization — since the industrial revolution (over the last 200 years or so) — has fought for the most fundamental rights, human rights, all over this country and within the world itself. And that fight brings a kind of class consciousness, as well, which is an understanding that one of the elements that is essential to capital (or money) and the ways it expands itself is: How do you control labor? How do you undermine labor? How do you de-radicalize labor? And when you’re fighting for the basic means of paying rent or putting food on the table, those are real things.
We’re talking about a country where the majority of the population lives in the urban areas and often crowded areas (and it’s like that around the world, too). Whether through forced migrations and enclosure laws, or through voluntary migrations to find work and everything else, this process of industrialization drove people to the city and drove them right into the places where they had to sell their labor in order to survive. And I think that is what we are dealing with — it’s the same now. No matter how much technology we have, no matter how much we dismiss the whole idea of unions, the point is that human beings sell their bodies, sell themselves for a price, in order to survive. They don’t grow their own food, they have to purchase their food. So, all these intricate relationships are surrounded by systems that are often unjust, and you have to place some sort of context or place some sort of structure around it to make sure that the benefits of what they produce are shared in some way. I’m babbling right now, to some extent, but you see how this sets the picture for this particular moment…
And so, from the robber barons of the 19th century (the latter part of the 19th century) to now, their objective was always the same thing: How do we control labor? How do we now exploit labor? Not just control, exploit it, because their objective is exploitation. How does that added value that they bring go to them so less of it goes to the working force, the people who create the value? Because they (the workers) create the value.
And that’s why we’re here right now — it’s that simple. We have the [second] largest employer in this country — certainly the largest employer in this area now — and there are 5,800 workers here who have an opportunity to say, “We want some sort of safeguards for ourselves. We want to be in a position where we set out a certain standard, which we believe is important for us to be able to negotiate around our wages, benefits, and working conditions.” Right now, this large company, Amazon, controls all of that. They control the working conditions the workers work under, the wages that they’re paid, and whatever benefits that they may accrue without any say from the workers themselves. And the best structure for them to have a say in their lives is unionization. That was the case 200 years ago, and it remains the same now, as well.
MA: You mentioned how you have your own roots in the South, and how your family was a union family… So, let’s talk about the significance of this union vote happening here in the deep South, in Bessemer. Because I think that, to some people who aren’t in the South, to some people who are watching what’s happening here from the outside, it seems like this union drive came out of nowhere, right? Because they’re not familiar with the labor history here. And I mean, let’s be honest, we don’t really get a good labor history education in most parts of the country. So, could you talk about how this union vote connects to a longer tradition and history of labor struggle in the South?
DG: Well, it certainly has that tradition. I mean, you talk about Alabama… Alabama had major deposits of iron ore. During the Civil War, I believe that the center for where the armaments that the South made was in Selma, Alabama. So, they had the material. And that’s in the latter part of the wonderful book “Hammer and Hoe,” which Robin D.G. Kelley wrote about the labor history in the South, the struggle of formerly enslaved Africans here post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction, and during the period of Jim Crow. The purpose was always to find various ways to diminish their capacity. And so, there is a rich history of labor struggle around here. As I told workers here, “You’re part of a continuum; you’re part of an ongoing struggle that began long before you. And, certainly, that struggle has led you to where you are today in your own efforts to build solidarity and in your own demands to build better working conditions for workers.”
Now, economically, since 85% of the Amazon workers in Bessemer are Black, unionization elevates your standard of living and diminishes the wealth gap. We can talk about the wealth gap in different contexts, but the point is that unionization has been a platform to raise people from low wages to the middle-class. And that is what we’re talking about here. We know the dynamics of poverty within Alabama and how they affect those who are the most underserved, and we know that all the other kinds of disparities that we have in our society (healthcare disparity, etc.) — those are a part of this region, too. Unionization is a way of mobilizing, not just under the rubric of controlling what happens in the workplace, but it’s a way of organizing the community, as well; it elevates the community’s sense of self-purpose in all facets.
So, when we’re talking about unionization, we’re talking about other aspects, as well. Unionization creates citizens, it provides a platform for citizens to take action. And that is the case here, no matter if… You know, we can talk about whether the Mayor or the City Council of Bessemer are Black and everything else. They function on another level… But unions function in ways that strengthen the community itself.
MA: And speaking of that, how has it been when you’ve talked to the workers themselves in Bessemer and the union organizers here at the RWDSU? What have you been hearing from them when you talk to them about this union vote and about their working conditions at Amazon?
DG: When I spoke to workers (and we spoke with groups of workers yesterday), I mean… it’s unbelievable, some of the hardships that they have, the difficult ways in which they have to maneuver around. There’s surveillance on these workers in Amazon unlike any other kind of systems of surveillance on workers. They’re probably the most watched workers — every single detail of their work is being watched. And, in some ways, the demands placed on them to get their workload out… it’s basically unattainable. The periods that they have for breaks, for finding a restroom, the accommodations there, the availability of restrooms — all those different things are a concern. And here’s the thing: They have no control at all. Here’s a modern country where workers have no control and no say in what happens in the workplace, and it’s all left to the discretion of the managers themselves. This system has used technology in ways that we haven’t seen before (in creating Amazon’s wealth and business model, and in creating the working conditions around that model, as well).
I mean, some of the stories have been quite saddening. And these people come here to work. They apply for jobs to work, and they give what they have to work. But some of the conditions that they work under, whether it’s inadequate breaks, or a feeling that you’re being watched, or being treated often in inappropriate ways… Amazon controls that. They control your paycheck and they control so many different things that workers have no say in.
MA: For folks out there who are listening to this, it’s important to convey that this isn’t just another union drive, right? And that’s not to say that any union drive, no matter how small, isn’t important. But as you said, Danny, Amazon is… I mean, it’s an international behemoth. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, the power of Amazon has only increased, the influence of Amazon has only gotten stronger. And we are all just basically following where it leads right now. And I think that we should all be thinking long and hard about where it’s leading us to. So, I guess, in that vein, could you talk a bit more about where Amazon as a company is going and why it’s so important for workers to have more of a say in that direction?
DG: First of all, Amazon is a global company, and certainly, it deals with unions in other places. There are places in Europe where they have a relationship with unions. So, the question is always: Why not here, in its home base? Why are they so resistant to having a union in Amazon’s home base? Why are they using every device available to them to dis-encourage workers from joining the union, or voting to have a union? So, it’s significant from the vantage point that it sets the tone, I think, for all workers.
When we talk about winning battles… the battles that workers win aren’t permanent — because they’re always struggling under different dynamics, new dynamics arise outside the workplace, within the workplace. When you have the unions, you’re empowering the worker. And that’s the most important thing that I think we have to say: We’re empowering workers. We’re empowering the community itself. Amazon… where are they going to go? They came to Bessemer, a place where, certainly, work has declined. Because of technology and automation, work has become unavailable. Good-paying jobs have become unavailable here for many reasons. Some of the work that would have happened here may have been outsourced to another country. But in advanced countries, like in Europe, where there are strong unions, Amazon deals with those unions. They have to deal with these unions in ways that they may feel uncomfortable with, but at the same time it gives workers power. And as I said before, it also gives the community power.
MA: And, Danny, what strikes me as a real, I don’t know, bizarre phenomenon in the mind of the American worker… is that, so often, we don’t feel like it is our right to have a say in our working conditions. Right? We feel like we’re asking too much, even though we spend most of our lives at work. Why do you think that is?
DG: Well, I think that there’s something about… I remember watching something long ago, which said (and this was in the developed world): The moment that people begin to structure their lives around their own independence and self-sufficiency, then they become dangerous, to some extent. Because they’re empowering themselves.
What happens is that power, those people who dictate our lives, shape our lives, shape what we think all the time… what they do, what that power does, is they only provide what they think you need, not what you actually need. A better way to say that is that power diminishes those expectations to the point where… I missed my thought. [Laughs]… But the point is: Sometimes you gotta catch yourself in those moments where you can think philosophically about what is really happening here. And what power does is essentially attempts to give us what they want to give us, not what we need.
MA: So, zooming out, and thinking about everyone who’s listening to this right now, everyone who has their eyes on Bessemer, but especially all the folks who are just now learning about the struggle here… How would you convey to people that this is something that they should care about? How can we learn to see struggles like the one happening in Bessemer as part of our common struggle for a better world? And how would you encourage people to get involved in that struggle like you have?
DG: Philosophically, there are a lot of reasons why I think we should get involved in making a better world. We can talk about it from the side of redistributing resources. Amazon has fared very well. I think its value has doubled or tripled during the pandemic — I’m not sure what the numbers are. But apart from that… I don’t know how to tell people, really. Because we all end up selling our labor some way, and most people are, unfortunately, in a position where they themselves need and would want more control over what happens in their workplace, or what happens in terms of their… [Pause] I don’t know what to say.
One of the things, Max, is that I come down here out of passion for the work itself. What I’ve always felt from the beginning is that, for everything I do, if I’m there, it’s because I care. I’m not there for any other reason. If I’m asked to come here, it’s because I care about the issue itself, and the issue is important to me. And I think it takes that from all of us — to say that this is important to us. This struggle has significance for all of us who work, for all of us who feel discriminated against, for all of those who feel powerless at points in time. (And we already feel powerless because of COVID-19 and all the restrictions and hardships it has imposed on our lives.)
So, I just think that this… after the 20th century fights for labor, fighting for rights, fighting for equality (whether it’s with women, whether it’s with minorities, etc) — at any point in time, the struggle for access and the struggle for a world that works for all of us is what we need to talk about. And unionization and the struggle here in Bessemer is important because it has the possibility of not only changing the lives of these workers here, but also of providing the courage to foster other battles and other struggles.
MA: Thank you all so much for listening to this special production of The Real News Network. We’ve got lots more coverage of the historic union vote at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama coming your way. So, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook, visit our website, subscribe to our YouTube and podcast channels, and check out all the great content that we produce on a weekly basis. And lastly, if you really want to support the work that we’re doing, then please consider making a monthly donation at therealnews.com/support. That’s therealnews.com/support.
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Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.