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‘We want to send a message to Bessemer’

As Amazon workers in Alabama vote on whether to unionize, their NYC supporters rallied outside a Whole Foods store.

Emlyn Cameron Feb 21

On Saturday, approximately 120 people made their way to chilly Union Square Park to stand in solidarity with Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama – who are in the midst of an historic election to decide whether they will be represented by a union. Chris Silvera, a leader of the union Teamsters Local 808, took hold of the mic.

“We want to send a message to Bessemer,” he announced to the crowd, “that, if they vote for a union, they change America.”

He captured well the sentiment of those assembled. The event, organized by members of New York’s Workers Assembly Against Racism, brought several progessive groups together, opposite a Whole Foods Market adjoining the park, to wield placards and banners promoting unionization of the Bessemer facility.

The organization was formed with the intent of bringing the Black Lives Matter movement together with the labor movement. And its members — joining progressive groups across 25 states — were out in solidarity with the Bessemer warehouse employees as they mailed ballots into the National Labor Relations Board. The event, part of the Support Alabama Amazon Union campaign, was the brainchild of the Southern Workers Assembly, a network of labor organizations in the South, who reached out to local grassroots leaders for help organizing in major U.S. cities. “Solidarity from every corner of the labor and progressive movements is needed now to show the workers in Bessemer that they are not alone,” states the group’s website.

If the workers in Bessemer, Alabama vote to unionize, they will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Those who gathered in Union Square — symbolically in front of the national supermarket chain owned by Amazon — saw the prospect of an Amazon union in Alabama as a test case for future worker activism in New York. And the activists recognized the psychological and strategic benefit of creating an atmosphere of reciprocal support among separate workers groups.

Union Square, NYC — A United Auto Workers Local 2179 flag flies in solidarity with the Bessemer workers. Photo: Ash Marinaccio.

“Solidarity events show the workers in Alabama, as well as other Amazon workers around the country, that they have allies,” said Stephanie Luce, a CUNY professor of Labor Studies who researches labor coalitions, via email Saturday. “Customers, workers from other industries, clergy members, environmentalists and more, care about what happens to those workers in Amazon warehouses”

Or, as Joan Hwang, an urban farmer and one of WAAR’s member-organizers, put it: “Their fight isn’t just their own.”

As the organizers gathered to give testimonial speeches, Hwang stepped forward and addressed the crowd. She decried compounding inequities that have been highlighted by the coronavirus. “And yet,” she said, “in the middle of this pain and trauma, we find reason for hope in this historic organizing drive.”

When reached for comment, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox forwarded a company statement that suggested unionization is largely unnecessary because of generous employee benefits.

 “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire,” Knox said in the statement, “We encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”

But, in January, the National Labor Relations Board’s Region 10 office, which is handling the case of the Bessemer Amazon workers, directed a mail-in election, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amazon has since argued that a mail-only ballot may disenfranchise staff members, according to documents made available on the board’s website. It also stated that the facility’s 2.88 percent reported COVID-19 positivity rate is lower than that of surrounding Jefferson County, Alabama. The board rejected Amazon’s request to review the decision regarding the particulars of the election.

The election runs through March 29. There are approximately 6,000 workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer who would be a part of the bargaining unit. If a simple majority votes in favor of the union, they will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president and a New York resident, was hopeful about the result and what it might portend. He saw the possibility of unionization in Bessemer much as did the organizers of the demonstration in Union Square: as possibly the first shot in a broad battle to push the labor movement forward across the country.

“The impact is going to be the same in New York as it’s going to be around the country,” he told the Indypendent. “Workers are going to realize that they are able to stand up.”

But Appelbaum believes that there is a growing demand for greater labor power among workers. He cited the mere calling of an election the size of the unionization effort in Bessemer as an example of the growing optimism of workers in seeking collective action already underway. (For an election to be called, 30 percent of employees — or 2,250 of Amazon’s 7,500 Bessemer workers — must have first submitted a petition to the labor board, the federal agency reports). He likewise emphasized the initiative of workers themselves to set the tone and direction of the movement as a promising aspect of the drive and the far-ranging support and attention the Bessemer election is receiving.

“This is just the beginning,” he said.

In Union Square, Jerry Hassett, a retiree who came out to stand with the other activists, mused on the range of the consequences:

“Some people say it’s Alabama. It’s not just Alabama, it’s the whole country.”

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