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Amazon’s union-busting tactics put to test again in Alabama

The workers exiting an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, seemed more interested in getting into their cars after their 10-hour shifts than engaging with the throng of union officials stationed outside.

Those looking back at the 850,000-square-foot facility known as BHM1 would have seen the union project “YES!” alongside Amazon’s own “VOTE” banner.

The reports summarize an important election: Should the Bessemer plant be that first unionized Amazon facility in the USA?

“God didn’t take us this far to forsake us,” said Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker at the factory and one of the leaders of a campaign for her colleagues to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “We will continue the task until it is completed.”

Amazon maintains its workers are happy. In an earlier vote in Bessemer last April, workers voted 1,798 to 738 against unionization. But the competition will be reissued after the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Amazon’s installation of a special voting mailbox at the facility risked making employees feel monitored. The postal votes are to be counted next week.

If the more than 6,000 eligible workers vote yes, it would be catastrophic for a $1.4 trillion company that has become the second largest employer in the US after Walmart. Since the pandemic began, Amazon has increased its global workforce by 800,000.

The word “Yes!” is projected next to the “Vote” sign at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama © RWDSU

Independent observers do not assess the union’s chances of overturning the election result. “When workers organize, we see the kind of campaigns that Amazon has been running in Bessemer aimed at fomenting fear,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley. “By the time you repeat an election, all the damage has been done, the well is already poisoned,” he added.

Amazon has refused to use it unfair tactic: “It is the choice of our employees whether or not to join a union. It always has been.”

In its 28 years of existence, Amazon has an unbeaten record for suppressing union organizing efforts in the United States. As of last year, no entity had managed to even hold a vote, let alone win. The stakes for Amazon are even higher now than they were at the time of the last Bessemer vote, as labor shortages and supply chain bottlenecks resulted in an additional $4 billion in costs last quarter.

In 2022, Amazon faces future challenges as workers at one facility in New York will begin voting in-person on unionizing this week, while another will vote in April. Employees at two other locations in New York and one in Maryland recently staged brief walkouts demanding pay increases. The Teamsters union has lobbied officials in San Francisco to allow workers at an as yet unopened Amazon plant in the city to organize.

Small red signs supporting RWDSU can be seen on the lawns around Bessemer, a predominantly black and working-class town whose glory days of steel making and manufacturing have been crippled by globalization.

“The man who owns this company has money and he needs to do a lot better,” said one resident, Carolyn Wilson, referring to it Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Bessemer’s starting wage is $15.80 an hour, above the US minimum wage but below what many economists consider a living wage. The union said it will demand higher wages and roll back some of the surveillance Amazon uses to ensure extremely high productivity rates.

This includes “Time Off Task” – a system that logs an employee’s absence from their duties. Many have complained that it can unfairly penalize workers for toilet breaks or even periods when there is no work. Amazon has disputed these characterizationsalthough its workplace systems are known for underpinning the company’s efficiency and speed.

“If Amazon loses full control of the process and productivity expectations, there could be a significant impact on the business — or at least they fear it will,” said Alec MacGillis, author of fulfillmenta book about the logistics of Amazon.

At Bessemer, Amazon has held “captive audience” meetings where consultants talk to small groups of employees about unionization. According to those who attended the meetings, warehouse workers were told wages could fall, benefits could be cut and workers could be forced to pay membership dues.

Amazon prefers the term “educational sessions” for the mandatory meetings that “give employees an opportunity to ask questions.”

RWDSU has raised a national legal challenge to captive audience sessions and has been encouraged by recent comments from the NLRB’s General Counsel suggesting that government officials are exploring a possible crackdown on the practice.

A protester holds a US flag at a pro-union rally in Bessemer
A protester holds a US flag at a pro-union rally © Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg

With Bessemer, the arguments seem to be correct. One worker said he was concerned the company might close the facility or that the union might call a strike. “There are slackers,” she says. “If you come to work and do what’s expected, you don’t have to worry.”

An apparent grassroots campaign has put up anti-union placards throughout the facility. “RWDSU DECEPTION IS THE REASON WE DID NOT DO IT [sic] GET OUR BONUS,” read a poster recently hung around the workshop. Amazon said it had nothing to do with the roughly designed footage.

The lifting of pandemic restrictions makes the union hopeful their arguments will get through. “You can speak to someone in person,” said Dale Wyatt, an Amazon worker and union official. “They are intimidated at Amazon. They are afraid that they are watching them, listening to them.”

But staff turnover at the company is so high that the union estimates that around half of the bargaining unit was not employed by the company when the first vote was taken.

“With this turnover, it’s so difficult to build solidarity because you hardly know each other,” MacGillis said. “You spend more time with a robot than with your colleagues.”

Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union, who traveled from Geneva to provide support, said: “If Amazon turns out to be a huge modern company that denies its workforce any meaningful say, it will be terrible for the future of work .”

Amazon’s union-busting tactics put to test again in Alabama Source link Amazon’s union-busting tactics put to test again in Alabama

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