Global capitalism may have met its match. Southern African-American women are challenging Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, and it’s unclear who will be the victor. Eighty-five percent of the Amazon warehouse workers who are voting on whether to form a union are African-American, and the majority are female. We’ll know the results of the mail-in ballot election by next week. Win or lose, this battle reveals much about why workers in this country want unions and what happens when they try to form them. It also reminds us that Black women have long been among the nation’s strongest supporters of unions, in part because collective bargaining can serve as an effective counterweight to structural racism and sexism.
Much of the media attention on the “BAmazonUnion” effort gives the election the unicorn treatment. “Stunning” wrote one commenter, who couldn’t believe the news that the first major U.S.-based union effort at Amazon was in Alabama. The New York Times dubbed the campaign “unlikely.” Yet Southern Black women have been leading unionizing efforts like the one at Amazon for more than fifty years, often well outside the media spotlight. Through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, women and people of color first gained access to jobs and unions from which they’d been excluded. They then drove a new wave of organizing in the 1970s, including at textile factories, automotive plants, shipyards, and hospitals across the South.
After Black workers forced open the doors of those unions that had been closed to them, African-Americans became the group most likely to be union members. I worked as a union organizer in the Southern textile and apparel industry in the 1990s, and every campaign depended on Black women’s leadership. Much of the work of the union, in fact, didn’t happen on the job. It happened in churches, kitchens, and neighborhoods where women activated their community-based networks on behalf of their union.
Collective bargaining is an equalizer, giving women and people of color a potent tool for countering the kind of structural racism and sexism that we’ve seen in sharp relief during the pandemic. Black women with a union earn 19 percent more than women who don’t have a union, according to the latest government statistics, and unions help narrow both gender and race wage gaps. Unionized black workers are also more likely to have employer-provided insurance and pensions than those without unions.
Equally important, unions give workers more of a voice on the job. Amazon workers struggle for control within the kind of surveillance capitalism that increasingly shapes twenty-first century workplaces. Amazon monitors workers from the moment they clock in, their every movement tracked and optimized according to their scans of merchandise. Jennifer Bates, a Blue Badge Learning Ambassador at the Bessemer facility and union supporter, says workers walk miles each day within the more than 800,000 square foot facility, watching pallets of merchandise ride the elevators while the company forces them to take the stairs. “We wonder, ‘Am I going to make it through the day because of the demands of the job/’…it’s the way that they have it structured, the way that they speak to us, that makes it so bad,” Bates told Max Alvarez of Working People podcast. Bates points out that Amazon touts its high wages, but many workers quit the high-pressure jobs before they can take full advantage of the paychecks and benefits. Rather than firing people after the busy season, Amazon often turns up the heat, causing workers to quit.
Bates belonged to a union in an earlier manufacturing job, and she knows the difference a union could make. She and some co-workers began to meet quietly in the parking lot and then at a local restaurant, building union support outside Amazon’s constant gaze. Once the campaign went public, however, Amazon quickly launched its effort to squash the workers’ organizing. The company blanketed the warehouse with anti-union literature. Bates even encountered flyers in the women’s bathroom: “When you go in the stall, turn around, and squat, you have this big flyer in your face. It says ‘Let’s do it without the union. Don’t let them come in between our relationship!’ And I’m sitting there thinking, what relationship? We have a relationship with the computer. We have a relationship to an app on our phones. What relationship do we have? But this is what we’re fighting for, a relationship.”
Amazon also forced workers to attend meetings against the union, where, Bates says, the company tried falsely tried to persuade people that they would have to pay union dues. The company has also employed one-on-one sweat session with workers, pressuring them to vote no. “Every single day, it’s like a stalker boyfriend, that you have to come out the door and look around to see that he’s not there. You’re looking around the corner because here comes Amazon again. Leave us alone!”
But the challenges don’t come only from the company. The Bessemer workers are trying to form a union using a labor law system that is fundamentally broken, one that effectively strips workers of the freedom to form unions. Employers routinely break and bend labor law during organizing campaigns, firing and threatening workers, and they face no penalties for doing so. If the government finds employers guilty of violating workers’ rights during a union organizing campaign, the worst that can happen is that a company must hang a blue and white sign in the break room that says it broke the law.
The House recently passed legislation that would significantly strengthen labor law. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, would ban those mandatory-attendance anti-union meetings, fine employers who break the law, and close loopholes that allow companies to classify workers as independent contractors or supervisors in order to keep them out of unions. It would also make sure that if workers do choose a union, the company can’t drag its feet on signing a first contract. The bill still needs to make it through the Senate, however, where it is sure to face the filibuster hurdle.
Meanwhile, the women of Bessemer, Alabama have not only taken on the globe’s third-largest company, but they’re paving the way for more organizing among other members of the working class. More than a thousand other Amazon workers have contacted the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) about forming unions at other Amazon facilities. BAmazonUnion has triggered a fresh discussion about unions that has culminated in President Joe Biden making the strongest pro-union statement since Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act in 1935. “The choice to form a union is up to the workers, full stop,” asserted Biden. No matter the outcome of next week’s vote count, Black women are once again leading the way toward more rights and a better future for all working people in the U.S.
Lane Windham is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and is author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. She co-directs WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership).