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Amazon logo. Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images
Amazon logo. Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

“A shot heard around the world” from Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama

Workers set to vote on historic unionization could be the domino that topples all of the online retail giant’s anti-union efforts at warehouses across the…

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The retail giant, Amazon, is in quite a bind as they face the biggest labor battle in U.S. history. 

On Monday Feb. 8, the National Labor Relations Board will mail ballots to 5,805 workers at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, to decide if they want to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). 

If they vote in favor of this representation, they will become the first Amazon warehouse in the United States to unionize. 

A successful unionization at the Bessemer warehouse could spark momentum for more and more campaigns to begin among the operation staff at the corporation’s 400,000 other warehouses across the nation. 

Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, wholeheartedly believes that the potential for a new wave of collaboration is inevitable. 

“Amazon workers all over the country will see there is a path to have a voice on the job. Collective action is contagious,” Givan said. 

Amazon is far from pleased with this movement for higher wages and improved working conditions, as it could hinder their growth and force the company to negotiate expansion plans with the union. 

A successful unionization of their warehouse workers would most likely increase costs and the company is doing everything they can to squash the movement in its tracks. 

In an emailed statement, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox, claimed that the RWDSU doesn’t represent the majority of their employees’ views. 

“Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs,” she wrote.

The company is holding frequent anti-union meetings at a facility about 15 miles southwest of Birmingham, and it hired a law firm that specializes in countering organizing efforts. 

It also set up a website asserting that employees already receive the pay and benefits for which a union would bargain for and insisting that they vote no to avoid the cost of dues. 

A group of Bessemer facility employees first contacted the RWDSU last summer, due to frustration over the grueling workload demands and the company’s inappropriate monitoring of employees. 

Amazon uses cameras and an internal system that tracks the movement and productivity of workers down to the second, an issue that employees have been concerned about for years. 

Some workers at the Bessemer facility have complained that these aggressive performance expectations leave them little to no time to take bathroom breaks, and when they do get there, they’re faced with anti-union fliers on the stalls. 

Despite the criticism over the years of Amazon’s treatment of workers, they haven’t had any issues keeping unions out of its U.S. operations. 

They offer a higher starting wage than many in the retail industry, and employee turnover is so high that employees don’t typically stick around long enough to become passionate about improving their conditions. 

When activism has been introduced in the past, the company responded dramatically by closing down facilities, shifting operations elsewhere and kindling its public-relations machine. 

The Bessemer warehouse opened in March, just as the pandemic began to impact Amazon’s workforce. 

Two months later, protests calling for racial justice erupted throughout the country and the world. These protests resonated deeply in Bessemer, where most residents, and many of Amazon’s employees, are Black Americans. 

“We see it as much of a civil-rights battle as a labor battle,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU. “The overwhelming majority, perhaps, greater than 85% of the workers at this facility are African American. And their major concern seems to be that they’re not treated with respect.” 

Bessemer’s courageous battle has attracted national attention. The National Football League Players Association uploaded a video on YouTube expressing their support for the workers, Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted out an encouraging message about the movement in November 2020, and The Onion posted a satirical story about a drone masquerading as a worker and infiltrating a warehouse in order to spread anti-union messaging. 

As Sen. Sanders wrote last November, if Amazon workers vote to form a union, “it will be a shot heard around the world.” 
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