Barry Eidlin is an assistant professor of Sociology at McGill University and the author of Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada.
Most Canadians had probably never heard of Bessemer, Alabama until a few weeks ago. But that small town outside of Birmingham has risen to international prominence recently as a group of 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse there vied to become the first group of U.S. workers at the “Everything Store” to join a union – efforts which, we learned on Friday ultimately failed.
Why has this single union election grabbed international attention? It’s a convergence of four factors.
First, it’s big. If the Alabama Amazon workers had won, it would have been one of the largest union election victories in the U.S. in 30 years. It would also have been the first U.S. union victory at Amazon, the second-largest private-sector employer in the U.S. and a universally-recognized symbol of the global information economy. Much as the union win coming out of the sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint, Michigan in 1936-37 spurred a wave of organizing across the country, many labour-watchers anticipated that a win at Amazon, the GM of the 21st century, could have had broader ripple effects. Now that those efforts have been unsuccessful, the effect on the labour movement remains to be seen.
Second, it’s historic. The election happened deep in the U.S. South, a part of the country long known for its hostility to unions, and where unions have been historically weak. That’s why many argue that organizing the South is key to reviving U.S. labour’s fortunes overall.
But Alabama, and Bessemer in particular, is also home to a long tradition of worker organizing. Bessemer was previously a major steelmaking hub, where workers were members of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (known as “Mine Mill”). As a Communist-led union, Mine Mill not only fought the steel barons in the plant, but was at the forefront of the civil rights struggle against Jim Crow in the South in the 1930s and 40s. Today’s Amazon workers drew on that history, along with help from local poultry workers, who waged their own unionizing battle nearly a decade ago.
Third, it’s timely. It’s no accident that this union drive happened in the midst of a global pandemic, which has shone a light on essential workers like those in Bessemer. Amazon and other companies have celebrated the heroism of their workers, while doing little to back up their rhetoric with actions. “They are treating us like robots rather than humans” said one Bessemer Amazon worker, referring to the back-breaking production quotas and constant monitoring that force some workers to pee in bottles out of fear of falling behind. Meanwhile, the company quietly cut their extra $2.00/hour “hero pay” in June, and have not reinstated it.
It’s also no accident that the union drive happened in the wake of last summer’s massive Black Lives Matter protests. As a majority-Black workforce in a majority-Black town, the Amazon workers framed their union fight as a fight for racial justice. Black Lives Matter activists have marched in support of the Amazon workers, and civil rights leaders like the Rev. William Barber have referred to Bessemer as “the new Selma” – referring to a key fight for voting rights in the 1960s.
Fourth, it’s symbolic. In response to the workers’ unionization campaign, Amazon waged a no-holds-barred anti-union campaign aimed at compelling workers into voting against the union. Workers were subjected to a daily barrage of anti-union texts and phone calls, management harassment and one-on-one talks, so-called “captive audience meetings” where workers are pulled off the job and forced to listen to anti-union propaganda, and more. Workers couldn’t even go to the bathroom without facing “vote no” company messages.
While Canadian employers can be plenty aggressive when it comes to unions, labour law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms generally prevent them from engaging in such egregious, over-the-top tactics. But in the U.S., it’s almost all perfectly legal. Even when it crosses the line, the penalties are so light that it pays for employers to break the law.
At worst, employers can be forced to reinstate workers fired for organizing with back pay, minus whatever wages the worker earned elsewhere while fired. More likely, they can be required to post a notice saying they violated the law, or pay a trivial fine. But such remedies can take years, and meanwhile the union campaign has come and gone, often with the company’s anti-union campaign prevailing.
The Bessemer Amazon union election shows just how broken U.S. labour law is. Workers must engage in untold acts of bravery and sacrifice in order to secure what are supposed to be federally guaranteed legal rights. The law will have to be fixed.
The PRO (Protect the Right to Organize) Act recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is up for consideration in the Senate. President Joe Biden supports the Act, which would fix many problems with current labour law, particularly by limiting employers’ ability to interfere with workers’ choice about whether or not to join a union. But with the Senate filibuster still in place, the bill is unlikely to make it to Mr. Biden’s desk.
The Amazon union election in Bessemer is rightly getting a lot of attention, showcasing both what is wrong with corporate America, and the bravery of some workers trying to fight back, even in defeat. But workers shouldn’t have to be heroes and attract international media attention to exercise their legal rights.
Historically, it has taken mass movements to win basic civil and labour rights. With those rights so eroded in the U.S. today, it will likely take another movement to win them back – and expand them. Unfortunately for the workers of Bessemer, the movement did not arrive in time.
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