Above photo: A man stands along Powder Plant Road with a sign encouraging Amazon employees to vote yes for a union, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. William Thornton/al.com.
‘We’re doing this for you all.’
Looking at employees at Amazon’s fulfillment center on breaks outside the building last summer, Jennifer Bates said the sight reminded her of a football sideline.
Employees with bad knees, aching feet, limping around after making the trek around the company’s four-story, 855,000-square-foot center, looking for a few minutes rest before heading back in to resume their shifts.
“On our breaks outside, there was a lot of complaining,” Bates remembered. She works as a Blue Badge Learning Ambassador, who prepares and trains employees. “You would hear people talking about mistreatment. They were saying, ‘They need to change.’”
Those moments led to an historic vote beginning this week at the Bessemer warehouse. Employees at the center, where workers dispatch orders for the online retailer, will weigh in on unionization with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). With a membership of up to 18,000 members in Alabama, the RWDSU represents more than 100,000 across the U.S., encompassing everything from grocery store workers to soda bottlers, sanitation and highway workers, and in the South, poultry workers.
The fulfillment center is a large repository of goods where employees, working among robots and conveyor belts, sort through an array of items as they satisfy up to 100,000 Amazon orders a day.
Some workers at the center paid attention last week when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced he would be stepping down this fall after more than 25 years at the helm to become the company’s executive chair. To a few employees, the move seemed no coincidence, said Michael Foster, an RWDSU organizer who regularly speaks with employees. If a union comes, he says, the way Amazon does business will have to change.
“They just firmly believe that (Amazon) made the move to take the pressure off Jeff Bezos himself and direct it to another name,” Foster said.
Ballots go out Feb. 8 to more than 5,000 workers in a mail-in vote. Workers must return them by March 29. All employees who have worked four hours or more a week during the 13 weeks prior to the election are eligible to vote. The National Labor Relations Board says it will be the largest mail ballot election run during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s somewhat appropriate that the vote is impacted by the pandemic, since the center opened just as COVID-19 prompted a nationwide lockdown that impacted the world economy and jumpstarted demand for Amazon and its products. Consider that Amazon’s revenues for 2020 were reportedly up 38 percent over the previous year, coming in at $386.1 billion. Just between October and December of last year, Amazon recorded total sales of $125.6 billion, a 43 percent rise over the previous year.
The pandemic immediately made an impact on the new workplace, adding 150 new procedures to limit the spread of COVID-19, according to documents the company filed with the NLRB. That includes distribution of masks and supplies, staggered break and eating times for employees, and remote communications. Workers are directed to keep moving and avoid contact with others, though a recurring complaint is that these procedures are sometimes haphazard given the proximity of work stations.
Available statistics suggest the measures have been largely successful. According to documents Amazon filed with the NLRB, 218 workers, or 2.88 percent, out of the 7,500 present at the center over time have tested positive for COVID-19, self-reported or were presumed positive.
Bates, 48, lives in Birmingham. She says she started working at Amazon in May, after previous jobs in everything from the steel industry to automotive to being an administrative assistant. She had previously been a member of unions at those workplaces. She fears that by talking to the media, she could jeopardize her job, or her ability to move up in the company.
And she is largely complimentary of her wages and job benefits at Amazon. What’s missing, she says, is a sense of commitment from management to employees. She says frequent complaints among workers revolve around issues like the demands of the job, work times and a general lack of communication.
Some of these issues, by themselves, might not stand out as much as they do together. An employee working a 10-hour shift, she said, has two 30-minute breaks. But if that employee works on the fourth floor, it takes time to get to break areas around the massive center. While there are elevators, she said they are reserved for certain job positions. An Amazon spokesman said that elevators are being limited to one per person according to COVID-19 protocols, but that they are open to any worker.
Employees have to manage long hours on their feet, going up and down stairs, and navigating the large distances, without losing worktime. Workers are encouraged to bring food that doesn’t need to be heated up, in order to save time. If they’re being encouraged to work more time, she said, an extra 15 minute break might make things easier.
But add to that the occasional confusion over when someone is expected to work. Bates said she was once told to check her employee app for her worktime the following week, to be alert to possible mandatory overtime. She did, and saw none, but when she got to work on Monday she discovered that she had been scheduled to start an hour earlier, and the time came out of her paid time off. She made up the time by staying late. She wasn’t the only person this happened to.
“Some people lost a whole day,” she said. “Some got their time back. Some didn’t. They basically put the problem on the employees. If you run out of unpaid time, you’re out the door.”
Addressing these issues is not a simple thing, she said, because some management isn’t receptive. Yet the attitude of workers is generally positive.
“We have an excitement when we come through the door,” Bates said. “Amazon could be an awesome place to work. We do this because we love it. But we don’t get the same commitment.”
Darryl Richardson of Tuscaloosa works as a picker – filling orders and maintaining stock levels – and has been on the job practically since the facility opened. He said talk of the union gained steam back in October, with employees concerned about everything from COVID-19 procedures to overtime to how responsive management was to employee needs.
“If we get this union, we can get some of this turned around,” he said.
Union organizers stress that the issues they’re arguing about now could become much larger in years to come. Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU president, said “the importance of this election transcends this one facility and even Amazon itself.” With the rapid acceleration of technology in the workplace, Applebaum talks about an environment where workers receive assignments from robots, are discipled through phone apps, fired by text, with little opportunity to argue their case as individuals.
“Amazon is transforming industry after industry, and its model will help determine what the future of work looks like,” he said. “We find that have to stand up to that model.”
Foster makes the trip to Bessemer from Decatur, where he has been a poultry worker for 20 years. He’s also the vice president of his local union council with the RWDSU, and got called to help when employees approached the union about representing them.
He said he comes from a similar job, where workers are tasked with keeping a line moving quickly to satisfy demand. Some days, he stands at the road leading to the fulfillment center, handing out information and answering questions from workers about the union. Before that, he was tasked with collecting authorization cards, which made the union vote happen. This is one of the biggest campaigns he’s ever been involved with. He classified the work atmosphere in Bessemer as “polluted” – with employees pressed because of the pandemic’s demands on the company and health concerns in the workplace. That has resulted in added stress to workers, who just “want someone to listen.”
“Before we showed up, these employees didn’t even know who their supervisor was, where (human resources) were,” Foster said. “After we showed up, they see management, HR, everybody. Now the company wants to act like they care so much.”
For Foster, beyond the pandemic demand for products that Amazon satisfies, the union drive is also part of one of 2020′s biggest stories – the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of the employees at Amazon are black. Seventy-one percent of Bessemer residents are Black, and 28 percent of the city is classified as poor, according to census figures. When speaking to employees, he says forming a union is just a natural progression of the movement.
“You’re not seeing us in the streets, but it’s a different approach,” he said. “If we can overcome this, it will open things up around the country.”
Bates said she thinks momentum for the union “comes and goes” among employees. Some are weighing the decision privately. Others are more outspoken.
But Amazon has responded to the union drive with tactics of its own, they say. Where the company newsletter used to occupy a spot in the bathroom stalls, now a card reads, ” Where will your dues go?” Bates noticed it in January, not long after the vote was announced. Workers are occasionally pulled out of the line for mandatory training sessions, where the company talks about union dues, and how forming a union could jeopardize their job status. Organizers call these “union busting” meetings. Employees are told that unions are broke, bad for business, with union leaders spending money on lavish lifestyles, Bates said. She laughed, saying she spends as much in the center’s vending machines each week as she would on union dues.
At one such meeting, she remembered, a person for the company said employees should feel grateful, as rent is only about $400 a month in Bessemer. She felt insulted.
“That’s demeaning to people in Bessemer like it’s low income,” she said. “They’re hammering it. At times, when you’re offline for so long, you get write ups. They’re logging us out of our jobs and sending us to classrooms for training. If you’ve got time and money to pay a union buster, you’ve got time to educate people about leadership.”
Bates grew emotional when talking about the effect on younger employees. She teared up and took deep breaths, and in a quavering voice said that those unfamiliar with how unions work are afraid they could lose their jobs.
“It hurts me that they don’t understand the protection they could have,” she said. “They’re not my children, but I hurt for them. And I tell them, we’re doing this for you all, so that you have a voice. You can stand up for yourself and not be afraid that you’re going to lose your job.”