“We’re Not Backing Down!” Amazon Union Fights Election Loss
This is a transcription from the first podcast edition of On the Picket Line, released on Friday April 23, 2021.
The fight to unionize an Amazon warehouse Alabama has only just begun, as the union representing the workers announced it has officially challenged the vote with the National Labor Relations Board.
Everyday, workers across the globe are rising up to defend their humanity and fight for their dignity on the job. In a time of both record poverty and record profiteering, the billionaire bosses have created the very circumstances for workers to lose their fear and demand everything that they deserve. As the class struggle advances, the stories of workers are front and center here. This is On the Picket Line and I’m your host Monica Cruz.
On Monday morning the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union announced that it has filed 23 objections with the National Labor Relations Board against Amazon for its actions during the union drive at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The charges against the trillion dollar retail powerhouse include surveillance and coercion, threatening layoffs and the closure of the facility, and intimidating workers who supported the union.
I arrived in Birmingham on the second and final day of the vote count, when the union loss was already very clear. That same day, the union announced its plans to charge Amazon with unfair labor practices. And that weekend, I attended a union rally outside its office in downtown Birmingham where the workers who led this campaign spoke on their reactions to the vote loss. It was really an incredible and inspiring experience. Here’s a clip of Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker and a leader of the union campaign at the warehouse in Bessemer, speaking on the mood at her workplace following the election result:
I saw the faces of my coworkers, young, old, and middle age. I saw the sadness and upset about the way the election turned out. But I had to tell them, we didn't begin this thing for selfish motives, but we started this campaign because we saw a need in Bessemer, Alabama at Amazon that moved across this country. What is that need for people to open their eyes and their ears and look at a condition that's been going on for a long time, where power and suppression has been taken over and used against hardworking people or managers and supervisors and shareholders are getting big bonuses over the back of hard workers. Wasn't hard workers have to work in bad conditions just to make the business, the CEOs billionaires. Well, we don't get to spend any of it. We have to work hard because we have to watch our time. When we have to go to the restroom or get water. We started this campaign because the lights were going off on us. When we're going out on our breaks with security checks to make sure no one's stealing. And then we're taking out break time. We knew that a fight had to take place and somebody had to stand up for our rights and the other people over here, we're not backing down. We started this thing. We lit the fire.
Again that was Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker and a leader of the union campaign at the warehouse in Bessemer.
Following the announcement of the loss, there were a host of think pieces from labor experts and writers analyzing how and why the union lost. Articles like widely-talked about “post-mortem” in The Nation by scholar Jane McAlevey cited several actions on the union’s part as to why the union lost: from having an inaccurate list of the number of employees at the warehouse when they initially filed with NLRB to organizers making the decision to not do house visits because of the COVID pandemic.
I spoke with Joshua Brewer, the campaign’s lead organizer, from RWDSU’s Mid-South Council after the post-election union rally in Birmingham, and asked him to respond directly to these critiques.
Of course, you know, in the middle of it for five months, we've been running our race and we're going to take a step back and we're going to look at everything and it's certain things that will change and, and we'll adapt and we'll find out, you know, again, not knowing what Amazon's anti-union campaign would look like. I think as far as the door visits, I think people tend to forget what November, December and January look like in COVID. They tend to forget now that we're into the spring and again, no vaccines, we have a short memory.
And so, you know, it's, it's great in theory, but putting people in cars together in October, November and December that were unvaccinated to travel along, knocking on people's doors, who we were not sure how their feelings about the pandemic was. And there's a lot of workers and a lot of people that do not want social interaction more than usual because of the pandemic. And so, yeah, and we would love to do door knocking. I mean, in any union campaign, we do door knocking, but ultimately there were some decisions that had to be made with COVID in mind. And we tried our best to run a COVID safe COVID front of the campaign. And I'll tell you we're small, we're a small team. We couldn't afford to lose people that COVID we've. We thought about this many, many times. And we thought, if COVID happens, which I'll tell you, we made it through the entire campaign without our team getting COVID, at least at the work site, we had some people go home and get COVID and stay home, but we never had it actually impact our organizing team …
Now some in the labor movement have argued that the union should have pulled its petition before it was too late to give organizers more time to build support among the workers and better prepare them for Amazon’s union-busting. RWDSU’s Mid-South Council Director Joshua Brewer responded to these issues.
The only thing that comes negative out of a campaign like this, that lost, is the negative critiques. Okay. So the workers have been inspired to organize. They've learned more about organizing unions than they ever thought. They'd know, 5,800 workers in Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon certainly know what unions are now. And there they've been exposed to that. Those people are going to leave 5,000 turnover. Most of those workers are headed out to other workplaces. They're headed out all over this country. And I think what they were able to accomplish here, putting these conversations, breaking through the consciousness of America is wildly important.
And we pull the petition - none of that happens. None of that happens. None of this happens. And ultimately we're just left with, uh, what if, right? And so now you take the shot, you take the shot, you go for it, you fight like, hell you organize like hell. And then you see where you end up. And when you get done with it, you meet somewhere, you have a meal, you talk about what went wrong and how do we get up tomorrow and do it better. And if you look at every great labor struggle, this is also a lot of people talking about labor that don't know what they're talking about. This, this is the problem. Nearly every large union in this country lost their first fight, nearly everyone. And so what do you tell them? I mean, should they have just gone home or should the UAW have pulled that first petition before they got their tails kicked in, in Michigan before they formed new auto workers in the 30s?
I mean, you know, go tell that to anyone that's fought and didn't necessarily get there, tell them that their fight was in vain, that's nonsense. And so we're not going to buy into that. And again, I know there's work or there's people that will say, Oh, well, you know, it's going to be hard to organize there in the future. I disagree. I disagree. I think we have a nucleus of over a thousand workers that wants to organize and they're trained and ready. I feel better about my chances to organize Amazon today than I did in October. So I mean, that, that tells me, we did make the right decision by pushing through and taking this fight on.
That was Joshua Brewer, the campaign’s lead organizer, from RWDSU’s Mid-South Council after the powerful union rally in Birmingham in the days following the election loss.
Now, looking ahead to this legal battle at the National Labor Relations Board, there isn’t much we can predict. But as we just heard from the lead union organizer and as workers have made clear, it seems no one in this campaign has lost their will to keep the fight going.
There is so much more I could say about this story, the contradictions and hurdles throughout the campaign, it’s achievements and it’s failures, but I would like to leave our listeners with this powerful sound bite from Darryl Richardson, the Bessemer employee who was the first to contact the union. Here he is speaking up on his attitude on this fight moving forward at the post-election rally I attended in Birmingham.
I started this and I ain't going to give up on no, like I felt like I do, I didn't want to start then it didn't finish it. And I feel like if we, if we did, we went through all of this right here and we put Amazon through, through everything. They scared they had to use still tactics. They did some illegal stuff when they supposed to be not did. And if we can, if we can scare them that bad, we can go one more round. And we ain't going to stop till we get the people heard. We ain't going to stop till we get well-respected, we're going to get dignity. We gonna get what we deserve in Bessemer, Alabama. And so I, I texted Josh and like I said, I was hurt. I was disappointed. And I told Josh, you know, I'm ready to fight and let's go one more round. Cause we go, we got to get what we deserve and the people going to get what they deserve. And I appreciate everybody supporting us around the world. And I want everybody to stand strong when it come to Amazon mistreating and doing what they doing. So we got, we got to keep up the fight and we ain't going to stop. So let's keep the fight up. Amazon employees. I appreciate all you guys stand behind us and we gonna win this thing so lets do it.
Again that was Darryl Richardson, the Amazon employee who initiated the union campaign in the Bessemer warehouse.