Above photo: In New York City, Workers Assembly Against Racism organized a rally at Union Square in support of Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon workers, February 20, 2021. Lev Radin/SIPA USA via AP Images.
An interview with Josh Brewer, lead union organizer at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse.
As lead organizer in the potentially historic effort to unionize 5,800 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, Josh Brewer heads a small army of organizers for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Brewer recognizes that it’s a high-stakes campaign—it’s the first time a union has sought to unionize all the workers at an Amazon warehouse in the United States. Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham, was once a thriving union community, with steel mills, coal mines, and a Pullman railcar factory. Brewer, 33, is an ordained minister who gravitated from the pulpit to union organizing because he saw it as a more effective way to lift struggling Americans. The National Labor Relations Board mailed out the unionization ballots on February 8; they are due on March 29, and only then will the ballots be counted.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Steven Greenhouse: What makes you confident that you will win this unionization drive against Amazon? What is the union doing to win?
Josh Brewer: We’re really capturing a moment in time where there’s momentum for working people, a moment with an administration [the Biden administration] that is coming in saying, “We need to put a focus on union jobs.” Taking that together with the marches and people speaking out for racial justice, and what is already a town with a union history where many family members had good union jobs, that makes us feel confident.
How we win is by continuing to capture that momentum and continuing to dispel Amazon’s bad information with good information. Obviously, that’s a sizable task when Amazon has spent hour upon hour, day after day, pumping out bad information. We’re working to make the workers understand that a lot of things Amazon is saying are very misleading. We’re working hard to put good information and good resources into the workers’ hands. [That information includes the union’s Bamazonunion.org website and various videos.]
What are some of the anti-union things that Amazon is telling the workers in Bessemer?
They’ll [Amazon will] talk about, “We believe that a lot of people, coming off the prior administration [the Trump administration], have been living in conflict. There’s been a lot of conflict in our country.” We feel that Amazon is exaggerating this idea that if folks vote to have a union, their life is going to be in constant conflict because they’re going against Amazon’s wishes. To some people, that’s scary.
They push this idea that you will lose the good things you have, that you risk all this with a roll of the dice. They say the union is going to force you [to go] on strike. They push this fear of losing your job.
The union-busting tactics that we see are on such a terrific scale that it’s clear money is obviously not an issue for them.
How has COVID-19 affected the organizing drive?
COVID has definitely been a factor. It’s made it hard to do house calls. As a result, there is a lot of digital outreach.
One of the workers’ primary concerns last spring and last summer and even into the fall was they reached out for information on COVID from the company, but it was unavailable. They [the workers] had a hard time reaching people. [Amazon officials say, however, that beginning last spring, they greatly stepped up efforts to communicate to workers about COVID and to increase safety inside the warehouses.]
We collected union authorization cards at the gate and electronically. We also had random phone numbers call us, and they’d say, “Meet me at this restaurant, or this bar,” and you meet someone there with a Black Lives Matter mask, and they hand you 65 union [authorization] cards and say, “My name is Angela.” [Union officials estimate that 85 percent of the Bessemer warehouse’s workforce is African American.] Many of these people were part of the movement to tear down [Confederate] statues in Birmingham a few months back. It feels like a continuation of that. A lot of people said the BLM marches were great. We got the support of the NFL Players Association. [For] Black people across the country who want to achieve long-lasting change, this is one avenue where [they can] gain more respect.
I’ve read that one reason many workers want a union is that Amazon fired so many workers.
The workers answer to a lot of robotic information systems that deliver their discipline [for instance, if they fall behind their hourly production quota], and they have no say in it. Alabama has zero labor law when it comes to termination, so it really becomes an issue that there is no just cause [protection], that I can easily lose my job when I do something wrong. It’s not just that I have a bad supervisor or one who doesn’t like me. It can be, I looked at him wrong one time, and I will lose my job and my family’s food. In Alabama, a driving force [for the workers] is to just have someone on their side.
Can you talk more about Amazon’s anti-union tactics?
They send every worker a few text messages a day. They have inundated their phones. They also do a walk-around [in which supervisors walk around and talk to individual workers]. The supervisors have a “give us another chance” spiel, and they take the workers water and candy. There are also captive-audience meetings. They’re more classroom-style. They’re basically a regular meeting, and they talk about total union spending on automobiles, how much they spent on travel and cars last year. Things like that.
What’s been most appalling is when a union activist who can’t take it anymore gets up and says, “The union doesn’t encourage that type of stuff. Enough is enough. Bring in the union. Give us back our essential pay.” And you’re called to the front of the room. They take a picture of your badge like you’re an infidel. They cast you out of the room and send you back to work. Once you’re identified, you’ve been marked.
There’s this continual inundation of harassment. It’s constant. For seven weeks, they’ve been harassing the workers every day. The workers think, Is this my future? If I don’t vote or don’t get involved, maybe it will go back to what it was, and I won’t be harassed every day. [Amazon officials say that they are merely exercising their right to inform workers about unions. They also say that the company is not violating any labor laws.]
Amazon tells the workers, “You’ll lose the ability to communicate with us. The union will call you out on strike. You’ll have no say in your future. They’ll take your money. You’ll lose wages.” Even though this is a union town, these workers are still very uneducated when it comes to labor rights. It is Alabama. We’re not exactly teaching labor history in high school.
One of Amazon’s main arguments to the workers is that it provides good pay and benefits. I believe the starting pay in Bessemer is $15.30 an hour. How does the union respond on that?
Frankly, it’s pretty surprising that they focus so much on that. Our response is there are warehouses in Bessemer and Birmingham represented by unions where the workers are making $19 and $20 an hour for the same work. Fifteen dollars an hour is something that is being approached at our most rural poultry plants. This idea that $15.30 is some mega-pay that is great—$15.30 is low for this area. Certainly, it’s higher than McDonald’s. But it’s not a wage that we can’t do better than. Look at how much more other warehouses in the area pay.
We believe $15 should be a starting point for the nation. At Amazon, you’re doing very difficult, labor-intensive work, but these are jobs that you’re hardly able to support a family on. The union scale is closer to $20. We believe that’s much fairer.
Have the Amazon workers gotten support from the community?
Yes, 100 percent. As the lead of this campaign, I’ve been here from the very first meeting to now. One thing we did not anticipate, and not to the level we’ve seen, is the Bessemer city and community is a union community. I just left a meeting with local officials about having an event with a few local unions showing their support. Everyone in the community is cheering us on. It’s been that way since we got here. We’ve had local people bring food and chocolate and coffee to the organizers.
When I look at the notes that organizers send me, they tell me that workers are telling them, “It’s my grandfather I’m hearing from. It’s my uncle. It’s my neighbors. They’re saying to us, ‘You better sign the union card. It’s the way you assure your future and make sure Amazon pays you well.’”
From every major union in the country, we have people who are reaching out to workers just to speak to them over the phone and tell them about unions.
I would say that if we win, an important reason is that this is a union pocket. This is a more blue area than you’re seeing elsewhere in Alabama, and I’ve organized in rural towns all over Alabama. This was certainly a shot in the arm for us that we didn’t even count on.
Steven Greenhouse was a New York Times reporter for 31 years, including 19 as its labor and workplace reporter. He is the author of the book ‘Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.’