Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are in the final days of voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States. Ballots have been sent to nearly 6,000 workers, most of whom are Black, in one of the most closely watched union elections in decades. Amazon has fought off labor organizing at the company for decades, but workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver and Southern California are now also reportedly considering union drives. “Amazon is trying to intimidate workers. They want them to be afraid,” says Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. We also go to Bessemer to speak with Michael Foster, an RWDSU member-organizer leading the union drive at Amazon’s warehouse, who says casting a ballot in the union election, amid Amazon’s attempts to discourage warehouse workers from supporting the union drive, is “the only way that we can allow our voices to be heard.” We also discuss how this week marks the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the deadliest workplace accident in New York City’s history and a seminal moment for American labor.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
The final week of voting has begun in one of the most closely watched union elections in decades. Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — that’s the RWDSU — and become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States. Voting ends March 29th. Ballots have been sent to nearly 6,000 workers, most of whom are Black.
Amazon has fought labor organizing at the company for decades, but Bloomberg is reporting Amazon workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver and Southern California are now also considering launching union drives. Nationwide, Amazon has over 1.3 million employees, making it the second-largest private workforce in the United States, behind Walmart. The unionization effort in Alabama has attracted widespread support, even from President Biden.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important, a vitally important choice, as America grapples with the deadly pandemic, the economic crisis and a reckoning on race. What it reveals, the deep disparities that still exist in our country. And there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmembers Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Terri Sewell and other lawmakers recently traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, to support the unionization drive. Last week, Amazon worker Jennifer Bates, who’s helping to organize in Bessemer, testified before the Senate.
JENNIFER BATES: We hope, with a union, we will finally have a level playing field. We hope will be able to talk to someone in HR without being dismissed. We hope that we will be able to rest more, that there will be change in the facility to make some of the stress off our bodies. We’re hoping we get a living wage, not just Amazon’s minimum wage, and be able to provide better for our families. We hope that they will start to hear us and see us and treat us like human beings. It’s frustrating that all we want is to make Amazon a better place to work, yet Amazon is acting like they are under attack. Maybe if they spent less time and money trying to stop the union, they would hear what we are saying. And maybe they would create a company that is as good for workers and our community as it is for the shareholders and executives.
AMY GOODMAN: Amazon worker Jennifer Bates, testifying on Capitol Hill.
This comes as a new study, out today, from Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies has found Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his personal wealth increase by $65 billion since the pandemic began a year ago. That means Bezos’s wealth increased on average by over $7.4 million every hour for the past year.
Meanwhile, Amazon workers in Bessemer and other locations are being forced to work 10-hour shifts with just two 15-minute bathroom breaks.
We’re joined now by two guests. Here in New York, Stuart Appelbaum is with us, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. And with us in Bessemer, Alabama, is Michael Foster, a member and organizer of the RWDSU who’s helping lead the Amazon unionization drive. He’s also a poultry plant worker.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Michael, it’s great to have you back. Let’s begin with you in Bessemer. In this last week, what message are you putting out? And what are the tactics Amazon is using to fight the unionization effort?
MICHAEL FOSTER: Well, our efforts right now is just to encourage the employees to get their ballots out in the mail, to mail them out, because that’s the only way that we can allow our voices to be heard. And Amazon tactics that they are using, instead, are steady going around from person to person, telling them, you know, to vote no, and just doing a whole bunch of other stuff. They’re not having care for the meetings, but they are going to individuals at a time and telling them these things.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Stuart Appelbaum, I wanted to ask you — these statements by President Biden, before the election or as the election is unfolding, I don’t recall a president ever making a statement, of any party, before a major union drive in the country. The impact of that and Biden’s stance so far on the right of labor to organize?
STUART APPELBAUM: Hello, everybody. You are right. It is the most pro-union, pro-worker statement that has ever been made by a president of the United States. And that is so crucial in this election. Amazon is trying to intimidate workers. They want them to be afraid. And what President Biden’s statement says is that you may be up against perhaps the most powerful corporation in the world, the wealthiest person in the world, but the president of the United States has your back. And that is crucial for workers to be hearing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you and follow up on that. The National Labor Relations Board, President Biden won’t be able to have a majority on the board until probably later this year, because the terms are staggered.
STUART APPELBAUM: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But he did appoint a general counsel recently to the NLRB that is much more pro-labor. Could you talk about the impact that that’s having on the potential for future union drives?
STUART APPELBAUM: I’d also mention what it’s having on this union drive, as well, because labor law in this country is tilted to favor employers and to make it difficult for workers to ever be able to achieve a union. And that’s incredibly unfortunate. We saw that the Trump board often sought to make it even worse for workers trying to organize, lengthening time periods, giving employers more time to try to intimidate and interfere with workers.
We need to — we need to change the way we conduct union elections in this country, and that means two things. It means we need to have a board composed of people who are going to be supportive of what is the policy of this country, which is to promote collective bargaining and unionization. And it also means that we have to change the laws in this country, that now make it so difficult for workers trying to get a collective voice to be able to achieve unionization.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to journalist Kim Kelly with More Perfect Union, who produced a video report that shows the mail ballot dropbox has been placed right in front of the warehouse, even though the National Labor Relations Board said Amazon couldn’t have one. This clip starts with Joshua Brewer with the RWDSU.
JOSHUA BREWER: When you see this box, as you see, it’s right by the front door. Everything at Amazon is tracked. Everything is surveilled. So, this idea that this massive box that’s 20 feet from the front door of Amazon isn’t being surveilled is ludicrous. Somebody is lying. So, either Amazon is lying or the Postal Service is lying. We tend to believe that Amazon is lying. They’ve told a lot of lies throughout this process. …
That went up middle of the night. The second night, Amazon immediately sent out a text message that said, “Look, we — the Postal Service installed this box. We don’t have keys.” We’ve reached out to the postmaster in Bessemer. We haven’t heard back. We’ve got a Freedom of Information request out there, and we haven’t heard back. We’ve put a lot of pressure on different areas, trying to figure out, you know, look, number one: Did you even install this box, or is this Amazon’s cluster box? Does the Postal Service own it or not? And then, who has the keys? Who actually has access to it? Because everything we’re reading is showing that the Postal Service doesn’t install these boxes.
DARRYL CRAIG: Even in an apartment complex, the tenant has one, and the mailman and the rent office. Who knows who has the key to that box?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Amazon worker Darryl Craig, that last voice. Michael Foster, talk about the significance of this.
MICHAEL FOSTER: Well, the significance of it is that 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.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to go back to Stuart Appelbaum to ask him about the — Amazon trumpets a lot on their advertising on television. They’re constantly doing ads on television these days talking about their workforce, and they trumpet the fact that they pay $15 an hour. Could you compare the situation in, let’s say, an average Amazon workplace to those of unionized warehouse workers in a different parts of America?
STUART APPELBAUM: Absolutely. Amazon is trying to hide behind a fig leaf of giving $15 an hour, but that wage rate is actually below what unionized warehouses in the area are providing workers. It’s also below the median wage in Alabama. It’s lowering the median wage. And it’s not enough for people to survive on.
I also want to remind you that Amazon cut people’s wages in the middle of the pandemic. At the end of May, they eliminated the $2 hazard pay they had been giving, even though the pandemic continued to rage, even though the hazards were just as bad, if not worse, as they had been before. And why did they do it? They didn’t do it because they needed to. You talked about how much money Bezos has made during this period. They did it because they thought they could get away with it. Oxfam put out a report that said if Jeff Bezos had given every one of his employees a bonus of $105,000, Bezos still would have been wealthier at the end of the pandemic than he was at the beginning.
And it’s not just wages. It’s working conditions. Despite the wage that Amazon pays, it has extraordinary turnover of more than 100% a year, because people can’t take those jobs at any cost, at the way they’re being abused within the workplace. Amazon dehumanizes and mistreats its employees. It breaks them down and uses them up, and then just replaces them with other people. The working conditions are terrible. And that’s what really needs to change.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a very significant anniversary, Stuart, that I’m sure you, being a labor leader here in New York, have been observing for years. Thursday marks the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the deadliest workplace accident in New York City’s history and a seminal moment for American labor. On March 25th, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, Jewish and Italian, died after a fire broke out at the factory. Many of them leaped to their deaths when they tried to escape and found the emergency exits locked. I want to play an excerpt of a radio piece I produced 35 years ago, in 1986, along with Kathy Dobie. It was then the 75th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
PAULINE PEPE: I worked right near where the fire was. There was cutters there. They were cutting the material. And as soon as they were just going out, it was time to go home. It was 4:00 on Saturday.
AMY GOODMAN: Pauline Pepe is a 94-year-old survivor of the Triangle fire.
PAULINE PEPE: I saw the fire in the tables, where they were all full with lingerie material, you know, and that had come up in a flame. When I saw that, I ran out. I went to the door that was closed. I didn’t know that was closed. I went there, knocked on the door. Closed. I just stood there 'til they opened it. Forty people going down the steps, we all tumbling one right after another. And I saw people throwing themselves from the window. And as soon as we went down, we couldn't get out, because the bodies were coming down. It was terrible.
KATHY DOBIE: The women that died that late afternoon were young Jewish and Italian immigrants. When the fire broke out, they tried to escape down the stairs but found the doors had been locked. The owners believed that, given the chance, workers would sneak out with stolen material, and union organizers would sneak in.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of the women climbed onto the single fire escape. It collapsed. As onlookers watched, women fell nine stories to the sidewalk below. Inside the factory, the fire spread quickly, and with no exit left to them, the women climbed through the windows and leapt to their death.
While some union members walked in the vigil, others took buses to a Brooklyn cemetery, where seven unidentified Triangle victims lie buried. Union members paid their respects and read the stone marker above the women’s graves.
MONTAGE OF VOICES: “In sympathy and sorry, citizens of New York raise this monument over the grave of unidentified women and children who, with 139 others, perished by fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Washington Place, March 25th, 1911.”
AMY GOODMAN: That report done for the 75th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I interviewed the last survivor of that fire. Now it’s the 110th anniversary. Stuart Appelbaum, in addition to being president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, you’re a longtime union activist, vice president of the national AFL-CIO. Can you talk about the significance of this moment in history and what it means for today?
STUART APPELBAUM: The importance of this election in Bessemer, Alabama, transcends this one workplace. It even transcends this one company. It’s really about the future of work and how workers are going to be treated in our economy going forward, whether or not people are going to be abused, or whether or not they’re going to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s why this fight is so important. As Mike can tell you, many workers talk about how they feel like they are being treated as robots being managed by other robots. It’s not the way we want workers to be treated.
We didn’t want them to be treated they were at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and we saw what the extraordinarily horrific consequences of that treatment was. And we don’t want workers anywhere to be treated the way workers at Amazon are being treated today. Something needs to change. And what the courageous workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are doing is standing up for that change. I don’t see how we can’t be more inspired by all of them.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Stuart, we only have about 30 seconds left, but I wanted to get your reaction to the approval by the Senate of President Biden’s nominee for secretary of labor, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the first time in 50 years that a union member, a former union member and leader, is named secretary of labor.
STUART APPELBAUM: I think that’s very significant. Joe Biden said, when he was running for president, that he wanted a union leader to be in his Cabinet. And he’s delivered on that promise. We have someone who understands what it means to be a working person as the secretary of labor, someone who’s devoted a good portion of his life to working with unions and trying to make conditions better, and who understands what this is all about. And I’m delighted that Marty Walsh is our new secretary of labor.
AMY GOODMAN: Stuart Appelbaum, we want to thank you for being with us, president — Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union president, and Michael Foster, RWDSU organizer, leading the charge to unionize Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
That does it for our broadcast. There’s a job opening at Democracy Now!, a senior producer. Check our website. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.