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Amazon Workers in Alabama Get New Shot at Union After NLRB Rules Company Broke the Law in 1st Vote

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Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, may soon get another chance to decide whether to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Amazon violated U.S. labor law while waging an aggressive anti-unionization campaign against warehouse workers earlier this year in Bessemer, Alabama. This comes as Amazon workers worldwide, from Bangladesh to Germany, campaigned on Black Friday for fairer working conditions under the banner “Make Amazon Pay.” “If Amazon is trying to eat the world, it’s also bringing many disparate sets of workers and activists and communities together to fight against them,” says Alex Press, staff writer at Jacobin.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, the day after Thanksgiving, Amazon employees worldwide joined in a strike that targeted the trillion-dollar company and its founder, billionaire Jeff Bezos, under the banner “Make Amazon Pay.” They called for the retail giant to raise wages, pay its taxes in full and stop its surveillance of workers.

This comes as workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, may soon get another chance to decide whether to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board has ordered a new election after it ruled Amazon had interfered in the first election, in part by pressuring the U.S. Postal Service to install a mailbox outside the warehouse one day before the voting was set to begin. Amazon managers then pressured workers to drop their ballots in the new collection box, casting doubt over the secrecy of the election.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is leading the organizing campaign in Bessemer. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement the new ruling, quote, “confirms what we were saying all along — that Amazon’s intimidation and interference prevented workers from having a fair say in whether they wanted a union in their workplace,” unquote.

In March, Democracy Now! spoke about the mailbox with Michael Foster, a member organizer with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

MICHAEL FOSTER: Workers just truly believe that something is going on with this mailing box, that — why would Amazon want them to bring their ballots from home and bring it to the plant and put it in their mailbox, when they can just literally put it back in their own mailbox? People called me and asked me, “Is Amazon stealing some of the ballots?” because they have seen people put their ballots in that mailbox. And it’s just really scary. I believe it’s an intimidation, so to speak.

AMY GOODMAN: In more news for Amazon workers, New York Attorney General Letitia James sought an emergency court order Tuesday to force the company to implement stricter COVID-19 protocols, saying Amazon has prioritized profit over worker safety during the pandemic and retaliated against employees who raised concerns about their safety. James called for the court to appoint a monitor to oversee worker safety at Amazon’s New York facilities. In another court order, James said Amazon should be required to rehire its employee Chris Smalls, who was fired after he spoke out about working conditions.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Alex Press, staff writer at Jacobin, host of a podcast about Amazon workers.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Alex. Can you talk about this moment, a historic moment, where the NLRB is now apparently calling for a second election, saying that Amazon interfered with the first election in Bessemer, Alabama, at their warehouse? Describe what you know at this point and what happened.

ALEX PRESS: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Amy.

So, this week, the regional director of Region 10, which oversees Bessemer’s election, has ruled that they should rerun that election. So, you know, the objections were many that the union filed over Amazon’s behavior during the mail-in balloting period, right? So, the voting took place in February and March, and then, when the votes were counted in April, a clear majority of those ballots were against unionizing. The problem was that mailbox specifically.

So, Amazon had set up, had gotten USPS to set up a mailbox in the parking lot outside of the warehouse. And now, you know, Amazon had been pushing for an in-person vote, but it was the height of COVID, and the NLRB had ruled against that, right? So this mailbox was seen as an attempt to get around that. So, it was under a tent that had all sorts of anti-union slogans on it. It was within spitting distance of the surveillance cameras.

And so, as the person you spoke to earlier said, the workers themselves felt that they were being surveilled, and the NLRB officer agreed. Right? So, in the ruling this week, they wrote that Amazon had created the impression of surveillance, if not actually in fact surveilled the workers, and also had contravened the authority of the agency and, in fact, even more concerning, had shown it has control over USPS, as well, which was tasked with making sure those ballots were not interfered with. So this was a violation of what the NLRB refers to as laboratory conditions, right? You can’t have sloganeering at a polling site. You can’t have the employer counting or seeming to count and control the ballots.

And so, those votes are being set aside, and it is likely a rerun will happen in the spring. It’s unclear if it will be in person or mail-in again. That’s all to be determined. And Amazon can request that the board review this ruling again, but odds are at this point — you know, the hearing officer in August who had overseen this election recommended a rerun. This week, the regional director concurred with that agreement and similarly ordered a reelection. So, the workers were correct: Something was going on. And, in fact, it’s very concerning for all of us that Amazon could actually pressure a public agency, USPS, to install a mailbox.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Alex, that’s one question I wanted to ask you: whether Amazon has the opportunity to appeal, since this was a regional director’s decision, to the NLRB in Washington, and the likelihood of that?

ALEX PRESS: Yeah. So they have 10 business days to request a review. And then the board can either agree with the existing ruling and reject that appeal and go forward, or it can agree to sort of contravene this regional director. I would say odds are that this is not going to change, that there will be an election in the spring. But Amazon does have 10 business days to request a review. And knowing anything about Amazon, we can expect that they will in fact request that review.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — last Friday, Black Friday, Amazon workers in over 20 countries took part in either strikes or protests — delivery drivers in Italy, garment workers in Cambodia and Bangladesh. Most of these were workers for third-party companies hired by Amazon. Can you explain what happened in these protests and the impact on Amazon of this growing global coalition of its workers?

ALEX PRESS: Yeah. So, the Make Amazon Pay coalition is a global attempt to fight back against Amazon at the level that Amazon operates, which is the global, right? It might be U.S.-based, but it’s certainly not limited to U.S. borders, its operations. So Black Friday has become a day of protest. That started last year for Amazon workers. It spread this year to 20 countries. And that’s because Amazon workers hate this day, right? Their quotas go up. Their injury rates go up. They’re worked harder than ever during the holiday season, while Amazon makes record profits. So they’ve taken back this fake holiday to stage protests.

And so, this year it was all up and down the supply line, all across borders. So, as you mentioned, delivery drivers in Italy struck. While they’re not directly employed by Amazon, they are an integral part of Amazon’s operations, right? Amazon gets around the rights and requirements and responsibilities of employing them so it doesn’t have to deal with those problems, but in fact is using them to get its goods to customers. So they’re pretty central to the operation. There were also garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia who continued their campaign to get severance that they are owed of some $3.6 million at this Cambodian factory that shut down and promised them severance, never gave it to them. And that factory supplies goods for Amazon, right? We think of Amazon as sort of a marketplace or a platform for third-party sellers, but at this point Amazon produces many of its own goods and sells a lot of them. And so, those were the garments that were being made in those factories.

The protests also existed at the level of the proposed Africa Amazon headquarters in Cape Town, South Africa. Communities there are concerned about the development project. There was also a protest outside of an oil refinery in Argentina. That is because Amazon Web Services, the backbone of the internet, as it were, which makes the majority of Amazon’s profits, they work a lot with Big Oil. And so these concerns are not just about workplace conditions, but they’re about Amazon’s impact on the entire planet, the climate, so on and so forth, the lack of taxes being paid.

And, you know, one of the people who was organizing this event, Casper Gelderblom, who works for the Progressive International, he told me actually he saw a direct comparison between even the Cambodian and Bangladeshi workers and those in Bessemer. He said there have been union-busting campaigns in Bangladesh that Amazon has at the very least turned a blind eye to, which in their form are reminiscent of the struggles we see in Bessemer. So, working-class destinies are connected generally but also specifically in this struggle, right? If Amazon is trying to eat the world, it’s also bringing many disparate sets of workers and activists and communities together to fight against them.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a short video created by Make Amazon Pay coalition that was released announcing the global Black Friday protests and strikes.

GERMAN WORKER: Here in Germany, office employees are put under enormous pressure, ignoring labor laws. IT workers, click workers, data labelers and customer service agents are controlled just like their colleagues in the warehouses. The stress is everywhere the same.

CAMBODIAN WORKER: [translated] The factory fired us in April 2020 and paid me only $700-plus for my 15 years of work.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have that clip. And, Alex, as you have written, we’re talking about Amazon having a global supply chain, and so the protests are global. Let’s talk about the significance of the unionization of this one warehouse in Bessemer, really, for the world, what it means. We’re talking about a company, Amazon, that’s the second-largest private employer in the United States, what, around 950,000 workers. What would it mean if the union won?

ALEX PRESS: Yeah. So, people might look at this and say, “It’s just one site, right? It’s a few thousand workers. That’s still a lot of people, but it’s nothing compared to that million that Amazon employs in this country.” But that’s not the case, right? Once workers get a foothold into one workplace, once they get organized, that spreads very quickly. We’re actually seeing something very similar at Starbucks, where several stores in Buffalo are trying to unionize, and the company is going all out. You know, Howard Schultz came and spoke to those workers. The CEOs of Starbucks North America are showing up to sweep the floors at those Starbucks. And that’s again because employers understand that once workers see that they have power, that spreads very rapidly.

And Amazon is completely predicated as a business model on total exploitation of workers, complete dictatorial control over their working conditions. This is what Amazon innovates. It really has driven down the standards, has ramped up surveillance. And so if there’s any pushback, if workers have any right to push back on that and to negotiate their working conditions, that is in fact an existential threat for Amazon, and they’re treating it as such.

I mean, one thing we haven’t discussed is that Amazon, while it seems to have broken the law in Bessemer, much of what it did was legal. You know, spending an unfathomable amount of money on anti-union law firms to come in and train management on how to defeat the union, all of that is legal, and Amazon is spending an immense amount of money on that. And it has started doing that again in this past month in the lead-up to this expected ruling from the NLRB. And so, Amazon does not want this. It’s not necessarily about it can’t afford maybe higher wages or something like that that the workers would win with a union contract. It’s really about power itself. It’s about maintaining that dictatorial control, on which it runs, on which it profits.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Alex, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned that Amazon Web Services are the most profitable part of the company, but most people are not aware of this aspect of Amazon’s work, these enormous farms of data, of data processing that Amazon has established around the country and the world. Could you explain a little bit more about that?

ALEX PRESS: Yeah. I mean, it’s very hidden, right? We all see stories about the warehouse workers, maybe some about delivery drivers, but AWS is a complex beast — right? — because it’s hidden. These data centers are, in fact, literally hidden. It’s very hard to access them. And, in fact, again, it’s about us being the product here, right? Our data and our usage of the internet, of every platform you use, most of them are running through AWS. And so, Amazon has this trick in its back pocket in that it’s very hard to get any kind of — you know, it’s not like warehouse workers can organize those facilities. And so, the Make Amazon Pay coalition was hoping to bring more light to that by protesting the oil refinery and places like that, but this is a complex beast.

I mean, Amazon’s whole business model is about becoming infrastructure, right? It wants to become our infrastructure for how we get goods and services through its warehouses and delivery services. It also has succeeded in becoming infrastructure for the internet. And that is its own problem. You know, there are conversations around breaking Amazon up, antitrust law. And it’s possible Amazon would spin off AWS to a separate sort of entity from its delivery and warehouse operations. But it’s definitely the case that people should talk a lot more about AWS, because that is where Amazon gets its bread and butter. It’s where it gets its most profits. And it’s where it’s really sunk into the marrow of society, and it’s very hard to avoid it.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Alex, the Teamsters Union, one of the largest unions in the country, consists of over, what, 1.4 million members, just finished an election last week for a new president, and they voted in Sean O’Brien, who has been openly critical about leadership being too timid in Amazon organizing and UPS. Who is Sean O’Brien? How could his Teamster presidency affect union organizing when he takes office in March?

ALEX PRESS: Yeah, I’m glad you ask, because that’s a big part of the context when we talk about organizing Amazon, especially in the United States, right? So this is historic. This was a reform slate. That’s who Sean O’Brien was running on. So it was backed by the long-standing reform caucus in the Teamsters, which is the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. And it’s pretty shocking that they finally won. They had been trying to take out the Hoffa slate for a long time. This was the first time that Hoffa Jr. agreed he wouldn’t run again, but he hand-picked his successor.

And Sean O’Brien had once been one of the Hoffa guys. In fact, the falling out between him and Hoffa happened during the last UPS negotiations. So, UPS, you know, that contract is the largest private-sector contract in the country. There’s about a quarter-million people who are covered by it, so it’s a huge contract. And in the last round of negotiations in 2018, the Teamsters leadership pushed through, undemocratically, a very bad contract, especially a tiered contract — right? — so there are certain workers who get worse standards than others, which is a death sentence for a union. And the majority of the members had voted down that contract, but a very obscure rule in the Teamsters Constitution allowed the leadership to push it through.

Sean O’Brien was sort of a dissident in that process. He insisted on bringing the opposition into the sort of negotiating room, as it were, and so Hoffa took him off the team. That’s when this break happened. And so, this is a big deal. So, Sean is not a radical by any means, but he is very willing to strike UPS, and that was a big part of his campaign was that there needs to be a stronger contract. And, in fact, that goes hand in hand with organizing Amazon. If you have a strong organized UPS workforce, those workers can push for better standards across the industry, and they’re also in a place to win Amazon workers to a union by demonstrating the benefits of that.

So those planks go hand in hand, and really that is the key, because the Teamsters, at their convention this year, said that they would focus on organizing Amazon. They’re putting resources into that. They’re training up rank-and-file workers amongst their membership in how to organize Amazon workers in their community or near their workplaces. And so, having leadership that’s taking that very seriously is a big deal. So I think that is the key for the next couple of years of what organizing Amazon in the United States will look like.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex Press, we want to thank you so much for being with us, staff writer at Jacobin and host of a podcast about Amazon workers.

Next up, as Barbados becomes the world’s newest republic, breaking ties with Queen Elizabeth 55 years after it became an independent nation, calls are growing for Britain to pay reparations for centuries of slavery and colonialism. We’ll go to Barbados for the latest.

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