About 5,800 Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama began voting this week on whether they want to form the first union of Amazon warehouse workers in the United States.
Amazon responded quickly to the pandemic last year when consumers rushed to online stores to loan up on essentials like masks, toilet paper and groceries. It added over 400,000 employees in the first nine months of last year, as well as new facilities and new airplanes to deliver goods. As a result, AMZN stock price more than doubled from March lows to January.
But the exhaustion of Amazon workers, especially in one warehouse in Bessemer, near Birmingham, can't be overstated. According to reports, Amazon tracks each employee, minute by minute, using handheld computers to make sure orders are processed quickly. The pursuit of efficiency has pushed many workers to their breaking point. Across the company’s fulfillment centers, the pressure on Amazon workers to get orders out fast and “make rate” became more intense than ever.
If you don’t hit your rate, or a specific speed of processing orders, it can affect your ability to get promoted at the warehouse, one worker explained, "It can affect your pay, to some measure at least, how much you might get a raise or not. Many even complain of not having a chance to use the bathroom," said Slate.
Alabama is a “right-to-work” state, meaning workers don’t have to join the union and pay dues if they don’t want to. Therefore, workers are less likely to be in a union in Alabama than in other states. But with the states like Georgia sweeping blue for Democrats in the last election, states like Alabama are starting to be influenced by more left-leaning ideals. The union says at least 80% of the workers in the warehouse are black, and they have framed it as much as a civil rights issue as it is a labor rights one.
Amazon pays workers a little over $15 an hour, which is high for Alabama. So what's the problem? Amazon workers talk about issues of respect and dignity even more so than the pay. If you don't hit a certain number of processed orders over a given time period, or if you’re stowing packages, your paycheck will be reduced. This isn't healthy or sustainable incentive structure for people, especially living in a global pandemic. Workers want the union to help them negotiate better rates, but also better working conditions.
Amazon is already in the spotlight after it was announced last week that Jeff Bezos will be stepping down as Amazon CEO after after 27 years. Andy Jassy, current CEO of Amazon Web Services (AWS), will be promoted to Amazon CEO later this year. One of the first tasks of Jassy (or last tasks of Bezos) will be to aggressively fight this unionization attempt in Alabama.
Senators like Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders have made it clear that corporate companies should never stand in the way of efforts to unionize, but Amazon is paying at least one consultant up to $3,200 per day to block what could become Amazon’s first unionized facility in the U.S.
“We opened this site in March and since that time have created more than 5,000 full-time jobs in Bessemer, with starting pay of $15.30 per hour, including full healthcare, vision and dental insurance, 50% 401(k) match from the first day on the job; in safe, innovative, inclusive environments, with training, continuing education, and long-term career growth,” said one Amazon spokesperson, “We work hard to support our teams and more than 90% of associates at our Bessemer site say they would recommend Amazon as a good place to work.”
"Let's make a difference in our future," said union representative Randy Hadley, "Our children, our grandchildren are going to end up working one day at a place like Amazon, and we need to fix it and make it better."
Ballots went out on Monday to more than 5,800 workers at the warehouse, asking if they want to join (and pay dues) to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The election runs through March 29, 2021, and marks the first Amazon warehouse union vote since a group of technicians in Delaware voted against unionizing in 2014, according to NPR.