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“David vs. Goliath”: Warehouse Workers in Alabama Fight Amazon for the Right to Unionize

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Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are continuing to vote on whether to become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States. Their demands include stronger COVID-19 safety measures and relief from impossibly high productivity standards that leave many unable to take bathroom breaks. “We want to be heard. We want to be treated like people and not ignored when we have issues,” says Jennifer Bates, a worker at Amazon’s BHM1 facility who has been part of the union drive from the beginning. We also speak with Michael Foster, a poultry plant worker, union member and member-organizer with RWDSU. “Amazon has a lot of authority going on right now. And we, as the union, trying to take on Amazon in a right-to-work state, gives you the perfect image of David and Goliath,” he says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are continuing to vote on whether to become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States. The National Labor Relations Board has mailed ballots to nearly 6,000 Amazon workers, who will decide whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Voting will continue until March 29th.

Workers are demanding stronger COVID safety measures and relief from impossibly high productivity standards that leave many unable to take bathroom breaks. The Intercept is reporting Amazon is paying a consultant with ties to the Koch brothers $3,200 a day to thwart the unionization drive. Amazon is also requiring workers to attend anti-union captive audience meetings. One Amazon warehouse worker, Joseph Jones, spoke to Democracy Now! about the meetings.

JOSEPH JONES: With one of the meetings, one of their biggest points that they were trying to get us outraged about was: “Look at this balance sheet of this union. They spent $140,000 on vehicles last year! Can you believe it?”

So I raised my hand. And in this setting, no one talks, right? Because they always open it up for questions, but who’s going to speak out to the company, unless you just don’t care? So, my question was: “OK, so let me understand your position. You want me to be outraged at the fact that this union spent $140,000 on qualified business expenses, as it seems, that you’re showing us, but Jeff Bezos makes 150 grand every single minute of every single day. But I’m supposed to be outraged at this?” They were like, “Yeah. Yes. Aren’t you mad?” It’s crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Amazon’s founder and outgoing CEO, Jeff Bezos, surpassed Elon Musk to become, once again, the world’s richest person, with a wealth of $191 billion.

Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Amazon Tuesday for failing to adequately protect workers during the pandemic. In the lawsuit, James argues, quote, “Amazon’s extreme profits and exponential growth rate came at the expense of the lives, health and safety of its frontline workers,” unquote.

We go now to Bessemer, Alabama, where we’re joined by two guests. Jennifer Bates is a worker at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse who’s been part of the union drive from the beginning. And Michael Foster is an organizer with the RWDSU, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. He’s also a poultry worker at a chicken plant in Alabama. Upwards of 80% of the Bessemer workers are Black, and the majority are women.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jennifer, let’s begin with you. You work in the plant. We’re so glad we’re able to speak to you right now. Talk about why you’re organizing. What are the conditions in the plant?

JENNIFER BATES: Well, the reason why we’re organizing is because we need an even playing field. Some of the conditions that are in there are: being ignored by human resources, long work hours with only two breaks, long walks upstairs and downstairs. We have plenty of elevators in the building, but they’re only used for merchandise. You can put the merchandise on the elevators, but we have to turn around, send it upstairs and go to the back halls, just like at a hotel, and take the stairs up to the floor that we’re taking it to. So, there are a lot of health issues. Another thing is, with the COVID-19, they told us that they would advise us of those who have it or if we work near them. So, they haven’t done well with that. So, it’s a lot of excessive working. It’s just like working out. You have an intense workout for nine hours, but you only get two hour breaks within a 10-hour span.

So, we want to be heard. We want to be treated like people and not ignored when we have issues. People are getting fired without having their opportunity to speak their side.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain what Amazon is doing about this effort, the unionizing effort? You’re in the midst of the vote, and it goes on for several weeks. If, in fact, the Amazon workforce votes for the union, it will be the first time an Amazon warehouse has been unionized in the entire country.

JENNIFER BATES: Yes. Well, some of the things that they’re doing is, having the long — the classroom teaching seminars — that’s what I call it — with the slide shows, talking to us about why we shouldn’t have a union, and “Don’t let anyone come in and get between our relationship.” They’ve put flyers on the back walls of the bathroom stalls, where we used to have updated, you know, things that are going on in the company. So, now it’s been replaced with things of why we shouldn’t vote for the union. And they’re coming to our workstations where we’re working at, speaking to us about the reasons why — “You’re going to be called an outsider if you don’t vote yes” — telling us that the union is going to — they’re thieves, and what they do with their money is go on lavish vacations and buy nice cars.

So, they’re coming to us, and even some of the younger people are — they’re afraid. They’re afraid now. They were for the union because they realized that we needed it. But now, because of the meeting that they were put in, they’re afraid they’re going to lose their insurance, or some of the leadership are walking around telling people, “If you vote the union, Amazon will shut down, so there won’t be any jobs here.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Michael Foster into this conversation. You work at a nearby poultry plant, but you’re a union organizer with RWDSU. Both you, as well as Jennifer, are part of this drive to unionize Amazon’s warehouse. You’ve called it a David-versus-Goliath struggle. Explain.

MICHAEL FOSTER: Well, just like the story that we all know, Amazon is Goliath. Amazon has became one of the biggest industries in our world right now. Amazon is a very powerful business, one of the most profitable businesses there is in the United States right now. So, Amazon has a lot of authority going on right now. And we, as the union, trying to take on Amazon in a right-to-work state, gives you the perfect image of David and Goliath.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we heard something about a traffic light right by the warehouse that Amazon asked the city to change, because when people stopped at the red light, there were union organizers out there urging the workers going into the plant to vote yes on the union. Can you talk about this, Michael?

MICHAEL FOSTER: Yes, ma’am. I’m personally one of the guys that be down on the block and speaking with Amazon workers as they go in and out at this particular traffic light. And we had the privilege to be able to talk to them, because the traffic light stops — I mean, we had the opportunity to talk to them. But right now, as soon as they get the urge to roll down their window, the light has turned green. We cannot even say two words to each other. So, they stopped a lot of our conversation and engaging with the Amazon employees.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in the lede, we talked about Amazon paying a consultant with ties to the Koch brothers something like $3,200 a day to thwart the unionization drive. The consultant, Russell Brown, is the president of the Koch-backed Center for Independent Employees and the head of RWP Labor, which claims it helps companies maintain a union-free workplace. Your thoughts on this?

MICHAEL FOSTER: I think, with Amazon using this tactic that they’re using, with this guy coming in making $3,200 a day, to me, is just one of the most horrible things I’ve heard of. To me, if Amazon was concerned about their people, and their people have shown that they want to unionize and have a voice to speak out — if Amazon cared anything about their employees, they would not come up against them with this type of tactic.

This tactic is being processed in people’s minds. It’s been hammered into people’s minds. I have people calling me, asking me can they do something, because they do not want to go to these meetings. These meetings are mandatory. They are hammering in their mind, changing their thoughts, planting fear in their mind, if you ask me. And that’s something that Amazon is striving to do. I think it’s their intentions, is to provide fear into their minds so they will not join a union, so they will not have a voice, and allow Amazon to continue to do what they’re doing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of Amazon flooding the warehouse with new workers to expand the number in the bargaining union, can you talk about the challenge of this?

MICHAEL FOSTER: Oh man, it was a big challenge. We had already submitted the vote, the issue, because if you look on the website, Amazon said they built a new facility in Bessemer for 1,500 workers. So, Amazon had went on a hiring spree, that is unheard of in the United States, to dictate the percentage of the numbers that we had to have, because we had to have 30% of the total number in order to submit to be able to have a vote. And Amazon done this. And after we have submitted this, we only had a day or two time to go back out and try to get more cards. You know, we don’t know what specific number we needed. All we knew is that we had to go out and get more people to be able to sign the authorization card. And with the blessings of God and just us working hard and praying, he allowed us to achieve that goal.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Bates, it is fascinating that this unionizing effort, that could be the first unionized warehouse of Amazon in the country, is happening in what’s known as an anti-union South. It’s a majority-Black workforce and a majority-Black town. Most of the workers are women. The significance of this?

JENNIFER BATES: Well, I really didn’t think that it would be this significant. Starting out, we were nervous at first. But understanding now how it will change history, it will be a big impact, because it looks like Amazon is choosing a lot of low-income communities. And I think, because of that, it’s bringing a lot of light, and this will be one of the first Amazon facilities that people remember from this day forward. And then it’s Black history.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the schedule of the vote? How long do people have to vote? It began last week, the voting.

JENNIFER BATES: They have until March 29th to get all the ballots in.

AMY GOODMAN: March 29th to get all the ballots in?

JENNIFER BATES: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Foster, can you talk about why you see the union organizing here as a racial justice issue? I’m looking at a piece in Wired that talks about the history of your union, RWDSU, the union having Black leadership since its founding in the '30s, a time when some unions excluded Black workers. Its members organized alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington. In 1968, the union became the first to secure a contract designating King's birthday a paid holiday.

MICHAEL FOSTER: Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. That’s something that I’m proud of, that this is mostly a Black union right here. And Bessemer Amazon is mostly Black, and the city of Bessemer is more, its percentage of Black. And I think that if you look, the city of Bessemer is one of the poorest cities in Alabama. And I believe Amazon knows this, because they have the initiative to say that “We’re paying you $15 an hour, and that’s above minimum wage. And you should be happy about that.” Like, you know, because they’re offering a little bit more money than some of the places around here, they feel like that gives them the means to continue to keep the press on the African Americans, I think.

We have a saying that we think our people should have a living wage, not a minimum wage, because people are just tired of just paying their bills and just barely making it to the next week, when you’re working in a facility that’s owned by the richest man in the world. You’re working in a facility in the last three months have accumulated $90-something billion, and none of the employees received anything for this.

I like to tell the employees all the time that Amazon is just a building. You guys are Amazon. Without you guys, there is no Amazon. And I think, by them coming in a city like this, they feel like that they could take advantage of these people, because they’ve taken advantage of their means of having money, their living means. And Amazon is not here to help that. The RWDSU, we are here to not only bring a better environment to the Amazon workers, but to the community, as well. We want to get out into the community, as well, help the people in Amazon earn a better wage, so they can help some family members that they have also.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jennifer Bates, your message to the richest man in the world, to the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos?

JENNIFER BATES: Well, I don’t have a message to him, but because I think — I know that he knows very well what’s going on. He has made billions off of the backs of low-income people. So, he already knows. And I heard a video that he spoke, that “We don’t need anyone to come between us. And we are” — and he sent us a message that “We’re already giving you good benefits, and we’re already giving you a competitive wage.” So, it doesn’t look like he wants to move or have a stance on the working conditions. So, for years — and I’m just finding out last week that there are other Amazons who’s been complaining, as well. So I think he very well knows what’s going on, and he doesn’t want to move to change. But as for us right now, we’re going to —

AMY GOODMAN: This plant opened — this plant opened at the beginning of the pandemic, in March?

JENNIFER BATES: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jennifer Bates, we want to thank you for being with us, worker at Amazon’s BHM1 fulfillment center in Bessemer, and Michael Foster, poultry plant worker and member-organizer of RWDSU. Both Jennifer and Michael are part of the drive to unionize Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

When we come back, we speak to Sarah Jaffe. Her new book, Work Won’t Love You Back. Stay with us.

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