From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject The Alabama Workers Trying to Unionize an Amazon Fulfillment Center
Date March 19, 2021 1:10 AM
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[ South of Birmingham, warehouse employees are voting on whether
to form a union. Their decision could have ripple effects around the
country. A seven-week balloting period began last month and will end
on March 29th.] [[link removed]]

THE ALABAMA WORKERS TRYING TO UNIONIZE AN AMAZON FULFILLMENT CENTER
 
[[link removed]]


 

Charles Bethea
March 17, 2021
The New Yorker
[[link removed]]


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_ South of Birmingham, warehouse employees are voting on whether to
form a union. Their decision could have ripple effects around the
country. A seven-week balloting period began last month and will end
on March 29th. _

If a unionization effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama,
succeeds, it could galvanize similar campaigns at other Amazon
facilities., Photographs by Jared Ragland for The New Yorker

 

One afternoon in late February, a sixty-five-year-old Alabamian named
Randy Hadley stood on a street corner outside an Amazon facility in
Bessemer, twenty minutes south of Birmingham. It was about time for a
shift change, but the expected exodus from the enormous fulfillment
center, which employs nearly six thousand workers, wasn’t happening.
“Amazon plays with us,” Hadley said, shrugging. “Sometimes they
let them out early during the day. Sometimes they let them drift in
and drift out. Usually, it’s a pretty good trickle coming out right
about now.” (A spokesman for Amazon, when asked about this, replied,
“Due to _covid_, shift start times and break times are being
staggered to promote social distancing.”)

Hadley, the president of the mid-South council of the Retail,
Wholesale, and Department Store Union, has an easy manner and a white
goatee. He’s spent most of the past forty years organizing poultry
factories and nursing homes, and he didn’t mind waiting—an
opportunity to unionize Amazon doesn’t come around often. Although
Amazon employees have unionized in other countries, no Amazon facility
in the U.S. has a union. Alabama is a so-called right-to-work
[[link removed]] state,
and Amazon, which opened the fulfillment center a year ago, was one of
the largest employers to come to Bessemer since a Pullman-Standard
train-car plant shut down, in 1981.

Last June, however, Hadley got an e-mail from a man named Darryl
Richardson, who had filled out a form on the R.W.D.S.U. Web site. “I
had Googled which union could represent Amazon,” Richardson told me.
“R.W.D.S.U., they came up.” The form asked for his name, address,
and phone number, and had a box for writing in queries. Richardson
wrote: “How do I go about organizing?”

Hadley called Richardson and suggested a meeting. “We met one-on-one
in Tuscaloosa, at Dreamland BBQ,” Richardson told me. “We ordered
dinner—ribs—and we got to talking about what they gonna do and how
would they do it. Strategizing.” Soon afterward, Richardson got a
few other employees together who felt the way that he did about
conditions at the facility. “We started meeting with a few people
here in Bessemer, at the hotels,” Hadley told me. Then he and the
union headed out to the fulfillment center.

“When we got here, we realized, Wait a minute, there’s more than
five thousand employees here!” Hadley said. “That’s more than we
thought. I actually turned around—we were standing down there at
that gate—and looked at one of the guys who was handing out
leaflets, and I go, ‘We gonna need a bigger boat.’ ”

R.W.D.S.U. staffers and volunteers are making hundreds of calls a day,
according to the union, reaching more than five thousand employees by
phone or text.
Photograph by Jared Ragland for The New Yorker
afternoon in late February, a sixty-five-year-old Alabamian named
Randy Hadley stood on a street corner outside an Amazon facility in
Bessemer, twenty minutes south of Birmingham. It was about time for a
shift change, but the expected exodus from the enormous fulfillment
center, which employs nearly six thousand workers, wasn’t happening.
“Amazon plays with us,” Hadley said, shrugging. “Sometimes they
let them out early during the day. Sometimes they let them drift in
and drift out. Usually, it’s a pretty good trickle coming out right
about now.” (A spokesman for Amazon, when asked about this, replied,
“Due to _covid_, shift start times and break times are being
staggered to promote social distancing.”)

Hadley, the president of the mid-South council of the Retail,
Wholesale, and Department Store Union, has an easy manner and a white
goatee. He’s spent most of the past forty years organizing poultry
factories and nursing homes, and he didn’t mind waiting—an
opportunity to unionize Amazon doesn’t come around often. Although
Amazon employees have unionized in other countries, no Amazon facility
in the U.S. has a union. Alabama is a so-called right-to-work
[[link removed]] state,
and Amazon, which opened the fulfillment center a year ago, was one of
the largest employers to come to Bessemer since a Pullman-Standard
train-car plant shut down, in 1981.

Last June, however, Hadley got an e-mail from a man named Darryl
Richardson, who had filled out a form on the R.W.D.S.U. Web site. “I
had Googled which union could represent Amazon,” Richardson told me.
“R.W.D.S.U., they came up.” The form asked for his name, address,
and phone number, and had a box for writing in queries. Richardson
wrote: “How do I go about organizing?”

Hadley called Richardson and suggested a meeting. “We met one-on-one
in Tuscaloosa, at Dreamland BBQ,” Richardson told me. “We ordered
dinner—ribs—and we got to talking about what they gonna do and how
would they do it. Strategizing.” Soon afterward, Richardson got a
few other employees together who felt the way that he did about
conditions at the facility. “We started meeting with a few people
here in Bessemer, at the hotels,” Hadley told me. Then he and the
union headed out to the fulfillment center.

“When we got here, we realized, Wait a minute, there’s more than
five thousand employees here!” Hadley said. “That’s more than we
thought. I actually turned around—we were standing down there at
that gate—and looked at one of the guys who was handing out
leaflets, and I go, ‘We gonna need a bigger boat.’ ”

[An RWDSU lawn sign says Don't Back Down.]

R.W.D.S.U. staffers and volunteers are making hundreds of calls a day,
according to the union, reaching more than five thousand employees by
phone or text.

That was last fall. The union started collecting authorization
cards—they amassed more than three thousand—and the National Labor
Relations Board decided that the union had enough support to hold a
vote. Amazon insisted that the election should be held in person, but
the board, which has been allowing mail-in balloting since the
pandemic [[link removed]] began, ruled
against the company. A seven-week balloting period began last month
and will end on March 29th. The effort has garnered international
headlines, and a handful of the employees who have been among the most
involved, like Richardson, have spoken to reporters from across the
country. One of the employees I talked to, Jennifer Bates, is slated
to speak at a congressional hearing
[[link removed]] on
Wednesday. Late last month, Joe Biden
[[link removed]] unexpectedly offered a
statement [[link removed]] of
clear, albeit nonspecific, support for the union push. “Unions lift
up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown
workers,” Biden said. Though he did not mention Amazon by name, he
referred to “workers in Alabama and all across America.”

If the effort in Bessemer succeeds, it could galvanize similar
campaigns at other facilities. “We’ve already got contacts at
other Amazons that we’ve started meeting with,” Hadley told me,
fanning out his union flyers before him, as a few vehicles approached
the traffic light where he stood. A county official told More Perfect
Union
[[link removed]] that
Amazon had asked for the pattern of the light to be altered, so that
employees could get to and from the facility more quickly. This leaves
less time during stops for organizers to talk to departing workers.
“We’ve timed them,” Hadley said. (An Amazon spokesperson denied
any attempt to limit conversations between the company’s employees
and the union, adding that Amazon works with local officials to insure
that traffic flows to and from its facilities as smoothly as
possible.)

A woman behind the wheel of an old Honda held eye contact with Hadley
for just long enough, then lowered her window. “I’ve already
voted,” she said, smiling and taking a flyer anyway. She thanked
Hadley, he blessed her, and she drove off. This ritual was repeated a
dozen more times in the next half hour. A few cars waved Hadley away,
a few ignored him. Some had door knockers hanging from their rearview
mirrors with the words “Vote No.”

“A lot of people have already voted,” Hadley said, returning to
his clump of grass. “They’re tired. I think it’s gonna be
close.”

Amazon has urged its employees to vote against the union in a variety
of ways, highlighting the strength of its benefits package and its
entry-level hourly pay—more than double the minimum wage in Alabama,
which is the federal rate of $7.25 per hour. The company also created
a Web site urging workers to “Do It Without Dues”—an arguably
misleading message, because in Alabama members of unions cannot be
required to pay dues. Amazon has held mandatory meetings for employees
at the Bessemer facility about how unions work, and the R.W.D.S.U. has
accused the company of spreading misinformation in these sessions. (An
Amazon spokesperson said it was important that all employees
understand the facts of joining a union and the election process, and
that the company hosted regular information sessions to answer their
questions.)

afternoon in late February, a sixty-five-year-old Alabamian named
Randy Hadley stood on a street corner outside an Amazon facility in
Bessemer, twenty minutes south of Birmingham. It was about time for a
shift change, but the expected exodus from the enormous fulfillment
center, which employs nearly six thousand workers, wasn’t happening.
“Amazon plays with us,” Hadley said, shrugging. “Sometimes they
let them out early during the day. Sometimes they let them drift in
and drift out. Usually, it’s a pretty good trickle coming out right
about now.” (A spokesman for Amazon, when asked about this, replied,
“Due to _covid_, shift start times and break times are being
staggered to promote social distancing.”)

Hadley, the president of the mid-South council of the Retail,
Wholesale, and Department Store Union, has an easy manner and a white
goatee. He’s spent most of the past forty years organizing poultry
factories and nursing homes, and he didn’t mind waiting—an
opportunity to unionize Amazon doesn’t come around often. Although
Amazon employees have unionized in other countries, no Amazon facility
in the U.S. has a union. Alabama is a so-called right-to-work
[[link removed]] state,
and Amazon, which opened the fulfillment center a year ago, was one of
the largest employers to come to Bessemer since a Pullman-Standard
train-car plant shut down, in 1981.

Last June, however, Hadley got an e-mail from a man named Darryl
Richardson, who had filled out a form on the R.W.D.S.U. Web site. “I
had Googled which union could represent Amazon,” Richardson told me.
“R.W.D.S.U., they came up.” The form asked for his name, address,
and phone number, and had a box for writing in queries. Richardson
wrote: “How do I go about organizing?”

Hadley called Richardson and suggested a meeting. “We met one-on-one
in Tuscaloosa, at Dreamland BBQ,” Richardson told me. “We ordered
dinner—ribs—and we got to talking about what they gonna do and how
would they do it. Strategizing.” Soon afterward, Richardson got a
few other employees together who felt the way that he did about
conditions at the facility. “We started meeting with a few people
here in Bessemer, at the hotels,” Hadley told me. Then he and the
union headed out to the fulfillment center.

“When we got here, we realized, Wait a minute, there’s more than
five thousand employees here!” Hadley said. “That’s more than we
thought. I actually turned around—we were standing down there at
that gate—and looked at one of the guys who was handing out
leaflets, and I go, ‘We gonna need a bigger boat.’ ”

[An RWDSU lawn sign says Don't Back Down.]

R.W.D.S.U. staffers and volunteers are making hundreds of calls a day,
according to the union, reaching more than five thousand employees by
phone or text.

That was last fall. The union started collecting authorization
cards—they amassed more than three thousand—and the National Labor
Relations Board decided that the union had enough support to hold a
vote. Amazon insisted that the election should be held in person, but
the board, which has been allowing mail-in balloting since the
pandemic [[link removed]] began, ruled
against the company. A seven-week balloting period began last month
and will end on March 29th. The effort has garnered international
headlines, and a handful of the employees who have been among the most
involved, like Richardson, have spoken to reporters from across the
country. One of the employees I talked to, Jennifer Bates, is slated
to speak at a congressional hearing
[[link removed]] on
Wednesday. Late last month, Joe Biden
[[link removed]] unexpectedly offered a
statement [[link removed]] of
clear, albeit nonspecific, support for the union push. “Unions lift
up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown
workers,” Biden said. Though he did not mention Amazon by name, he
referred to “workers in Alabama and all across America.”

If the effort in Bessemer succeeds, it could galvanize similar
campaigns at other facilities. “We’ve already got contacts at
other Amazons that we’ve started meeting with,” Hadley told me,
fanning out his union flyers before him, as a few vehicles approached
the traffic light where he stood. A county official told More Perfect
Union
[[link removed]] that
Amazon had asked for the pattern of the light to be altered, so that
employees could get to and from the facility more quickly. This leaves
less time during stops for organizers to talk to departing workers.
“We’ve timed them,” Hadley said. (An Amazon spokesperson denied
any attempt to limit conversations between the company’s employees
and the union, adding that Amazon works with local officials to insure
that traffic flows to and from its facilities as smoothly as
possible.)

A woman behind the wheel of an old Honda held eye contact with Hadley
for just long enough, then lowered her window. “I’ve already
voted,” she said, smiling and taking a flyer anyway. She thanked
Hadley, he blessed her, and she drove off. This ritual was repeated a
dozen more times in the next half hour. A few cars waved Hadley away,
a few ignored him. Some had door knockers hanging from their rearview
mirrors with the words “Vote No.”

“A lot of people have already voted,” Hadley said, returning to
his clump of grass. “They’re tired. I think it’s gonna be
close.”

Amazon has urged its employees to vote against the union in a variety
of ways, highlighting the strength of its benefits package and its
entry-level hourly pay—more than double the minimum wage in Alabama,
which is the federal rate of $7.25 per hour. The company also created
a Web site urging workers to “Do It Without Dues”—an arguably
misleading message, because in Alabama members of unions cannot be
required to pay dues. Amazon has held mandatory meetings for employees
at the Bessemer facility about how unions work, and the R.W.D.S.U. has
accused the company of spreading misinformation in these sessions. (An
Amazon spokesperson said it was important that all employees
understand the facts of joining a union and the election process, and
that the company hosted regular information sessions to answer their
questions.)

VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER

How One Paper Is Covering COVID-19 in the Most Under-Connected Part of
the U.S.
[[link removed]]

In early March, Amazon held a virtual roundtable featuring employees
who oppose the unionization effort, including a forty-two-year-old
supervisor named J. C. Thompson and a forty-four-year-old problem
solver at the fulfillment center named Carla Johnson. I spoke to
Thompson and Johnson by phone; an Amazon communications director, who
had arranged the call, joined us on the line. Both employees
emphasized that they were already getting what they needed. Johnson,
who was diagnosed with cancer last year, and is now cancer-free after
a series of treatments, praised the company’s health-insurance plan.
Thompson said, “I can walk up to any manager and I can talk to them
about anything. I don’t need a third party negotiating or talking
for me.”

Meanwhile, R.W.D.S.U. staffers and volunteers are making hundreds of
calls a day, according to the union, reaching more than five thousand
employees by phone or text. The union hopes to reach every employee at
the facility by the end of the month. Joshua Brewer, the lead
R.W.D.S.U. organizer for the campaign, told me that “the
conversation always seems to kind of circle back to a worker’s
desire to just have somebody there on their side.” Workers’
reactions aren’t always positive, and Brewer has gotten the
occasional “Fuck you, don’t call me!” and “I’m not funding
liberals.” But, he said, “we’re not under any expectation that
everyone we talk to is going to be supportive.”

In Bessemer, after speaking with Hadley, I spoke one-on-one with
Richardson and two other employees at the fulfillment center who have
been active in the union effort. I asked them why they support it,
what they think a union could accomplish, and how they expect the
historic election to turn out. Their accounts have been condensed and
edited for clarity.

DARRYL RICHARDSON, FIFTY-ONE

“I used to work at a company called Faurecia. We made the seats for
Mercedes. And we was union. And some of my people, from Detroit, they
was U.A.W., and they worked for Chrysler, G.M. So, I’ve always been
union. Raised union. My dad, he worked at _tamko_, from Tuscaloosa, a
roofing company. They was union.

“I’ve been at Amazon for about a year. And I thought it was a good
place to work. Amazon, man—nice company, nice facility to work for.
But, after I got there, a couple of months, I realized there need to
be some changes. They’re changing your schedule while you sleep.
You’ve got single parents out there. I got four girls—they’re
grown, though. But we shouldn’t go to sleep knowing we’ve got to
be at work at seven-fifteen, then wake up in the morning scared it
changed to six-fifteen. You’ve got to change the whole plan in an
instant. [_A spokesman for Amazon insisted that the company’s policy
is to alert employees to “mandatory extra time” as much as three
weeks in advance and no later than “before the employees’ lunch
break the day prior.”_]

“I’m a picker. Picker is pulling apart the items and put it in a
tote. We’re told which tote to put it in and then push it down the
conveyor, and then it goes to a packer, and they pack it and put it in
a box and send her off. I’m one of the top pickers in the
facility—that’s what I was told. The other day, on the second
floor, the learning ambassador, he said, ‘Darryl, you’re the top
picker on the second floor today.’ I’m fifty-one years old. And I
give them all I can get. I get tired. After three o’clock, I’m
drained. I try not to go to the bathroom. I try not to leave off my
station, because I don’t want to get no T.O.T. time.

“Any time you leave off your machine—go and get some water, use
the bathroom—every minute you are not on your station scanning,
that’s T.O.T.: time off task. If you get up to two hours, it’ll
lead to termination. I feel like, if you’ve got to go to the
bathroom, it’s not fair to get docked for it. Sometimes the
bathrooms and the water on each floor are not working. And you’ve
got to go to the next floor.

“I think we should all make twenty an hour. And our breaks—out of
ten, eleven hours a day, we only get two breaks. And the breaks
don’t change if they add an hour to you: it’s your two breaks. So
that need to be changed. [_An Amazon spokesperson told me that
employees leaving their workstation for two hours, not counting
breaks, without a reasonable explanation would be subject to the
company’s time-off-task policy, and that employees receive an
additional fifteen-minute break if they work more than twelve hours_.]

“On break, I go out to my truck. When I talk to employees, to the
young generation—because they’re the ones we need to talk to,
because they’re confused—they don’t know nothing about the
union. I tell them, ‘The union don’t come here to take away our
pay. If that’s the case, what we calling them for?’ And I said,
‘Before you all make a decision, you all just think about this: If
the union was so bad, why are they doing everything they can to keep
it out of here?’ And I leave that with them. ‘Why they telling you
all to vote no?’

“This an anti-union state. They bring companies down here because
they feel like we not going to stick together. But I’m glad to see
we the first to try. And I believe the other Amazons around—not just
the other Amazons but everybody—I really think they’ll follow. And
I hope they do, because we’re not the only one going through this.

“Sometime at night, I sit there and think about, Is what I’m doing
wrong, or, Why the company’s fighting so hard? All we want to do is
get paid a better rate, get treated with respect, have the opportunity
to move up, job security—all of that. What I don’t understand is
why a company will fire you when the only thing you want for them to
do is be fair?”

CATHERINE HIGHSMITH, TWENTY-FOUR

“I slacked off in high school. And so I joined the Army. And then
that didn’t work out, either, so I’m here. I have the G.I. Bill,
but I’m not planning on going back to school yet. I’ve been
actively seeking other employment, but it’s kind of hard when Amazon
gives you health insurance—right now, that’s a pretty valuable
thing to have. My parents are senior. They live in a camper about
forty miles that way. They both work.

“The thing about Amazon is that they don’t care what job you had.
They don’t care about your education. All you have to do is pass a
drug test. And they said seventeen-fifty an hour, and I was, like,
‘I’m not doing anything else!’ I work night shift, so when I
started, it was an extra two dollars and fifty cents an hour. I do
‘stow.’ You stand on a pad and you pull something out of a plastic
tote and put it in a pod. I also used to do ‘problem-solve,’ which
is where, if something won’t scan, you fix it.

“I had heard that they wouldn’t let you go take a piss, and all
that stuff. But when I got there, I’ll be honest, I was pleasantly
surprised. I’m allowed to go piss whenever I want. Then you start to
understand that if you don’t talk, and you work really fast,
you’re fine, but if you have a problem—if they mess up your time
card, or if you get sick or something like that, if you don’t follow
their rules perfectly—then that’s where you start running into
problems. I’ve seen it happen to lots of people. And I’ve only
been there since October.

“I got sick, and it wasn’t _covid_—it was just regular sick. If
you go on leave, they won’t take you off leave until they get around
to it. And I didn’t get paid that week. They were, like, ‘Check
back next week.’ Meanwhile, I have to go home and tell my roommate,
‘I don’t have the electric bill. I don’t have the rent money.’
And they’re, like, ‘Not a problem. That’s just how the leave
system is.’ Imagine if you had to go home and tell your kids,
‘Sorry, I didn’t get paid because I got sick one day.’ And
that’s the whole point of this union thing. It’s not about you.
[_An Amazon spokesperson told me that human resources manually inputs
the returning employees’ information to insure there are no breaks
in the payment process, adding that the process depends upon employees
promptly filing their paperwork._]

“Stuff that I saw and had to participate in in the Army pushed me
pretty far left, I would say. I don’t want that to create a bias,
because there’s a lot of people who are pro-union that want nothing
to do with leftism or Democrats.

“The first week that I showed up to work, the union organizers were
already out on the street. I took the card immediately.

“It’s cooled down now that everybody has their ballots. But,
leading up to it, we had to go to these union-busting classes. The
last one I had was at two in the morning. One before that was at,
like, twelve. I would ask questions, but a lot of the response was,
‘You can see me after and I’ll explain it to you further.’ So
it’s, like, ‘I’ll give you some bullshit privately, but this is
only for pro-Amazon discussions.’ So I quickly learned that I
shouldn’t do that, because I don’t want to get in trouble.

“You see all this propaganda that they have. If I go to the break
room—it’s socially distanced, and you use a plastic cubicle, and
they have these little flyers that are set up in these frames. And
it’s all these people saying, ‘I don’t need a union. I can speak
for myself. I like the way things are.’ When I noticed this at
first, those people seemed to only be managers or process assistants
or learning ambassadors in leadership roles. They’ve been promoted.
If you ask somebody who’s been working in stow for the past six
months, they probably wouldn’t have the same answers. [_An Amazon
spokesperson told me, “The materials printed do not include salaried
leaders. Those who are featured volunteered to participate.”_]

“They had some woman in one of the classes—she was telling me,
‘You might lose your benefits, or your pay might go down, because of
the union negotiation.’ I asked why. And she said, ‘Well, it’s a
negotiation.’ And I was, like, ‘Well, if you like paying us X
amount of dollars and like us having X amount of benefits, what’s
the pros for Amazon taking that away?’ And she just kind of
deflected and was, like, ‘I didn’t say they were going to—I said
it _could_ happen.’

“And you’re not trying to raise your profile. They could find
anything. They could be, like, ‘Well, your rates were bad this day.
You didn’t stow or problem-solve enough items per hour.’ If they
were super dastardly about it. . . . I have nothing. My parents
don’t have any money. So I hate to be cowardly, but that’s just
kind of how I’ve had to do things.

“When I took the job at Amazon, I didn’t foresee that I’d be
working there more than a couple of years. This is not a career thing
for me. And that’s O.K. if it is for some people, but I’m still
really young.

“My hope for this, if it works out, is it will embolden another
place. Because the one in Bessemer—it’s not all that bad there.
It’s a new facility. But somewhere else where they’re getting
treated really badly—I’ve read the stories. Basically, if it works
out, somebody else might say, ‘We can do that, too. We don’t have
to sit here and listen to this crap.’ ”

JENNIFER BATES, FORTY-EIGHT

“Marion is near where Coretta Scott King was born and raised. I’m
from the same area. I’m the oldest of six. I have three children and
seven grandchildren. I started working when I was thirteen. My first
little job was at an okra field in the city. That was one of the
things in the summertime that most of the kids would do. We would go
out there, for a little extra change for the week. By the end of the
week, we may have had a dollar or something.

“After turning sixteen, I worked at a local restaurant in my home
town with my aunt. I’ve done a lot of things. Working with the
police department, as a dispatcher. I’ve been an assistant manager,
secretary for a pastor, worked in ministry, worked with youth.

“I worked in stow when I first got here. In the decant department,
where I work at now, it’s receiving. That’s when all the trucks
come in, we take the boxes off, open them, put them in containers that
go to the stow department, scan them in the system, and make sure the
count and everything is in. I’m an ambassador now, too. That’s the
first step of moving up. We train new employees and also assist
management. With stow, you have to walk up and down the stairs if you
have to put stuff on the top. It’s a lot of walking, a lot of
standing, and then for the pay that we’re getting it’s not worth
it.

“Going to break, they do security checks. If the buzzer goes off on
you, then you have to scan your badge. You’re not going to lunch
now, even if you’re hungry, because I have to go in this little
room, undress, take off our jackets, remove all our pockets, pants,
take our shoes off, to make sure we didn’t steal anything. That
counts against my break. [_A spokesperson for Amazon insisted that
this was not company policy._]

“You hear the complaints about people going to H.R. ‘They take our
hours away from us because they made a mistake and they didn’t give
us the mandatory overtime in time.’

“Since the union surfaced, Amazon has tried to do what we’ve been
crying out for. They’re sending human resources on the floor on
break, so you’ll have time to go talk to them. ‘Is there anything
you need? Can we help you?’ They’re being so nice—it’s like
they brought out the candy jar.

“They’re giving promotions, to make the younger generation feel
good: ‘Hey, I’m not voting for the union, because they just
promoted me.’ [_An Amazon spokesperson insisted that the company’s
promotion process and pace has remained the same since the facility
opened, and that it is standard practice for human resources to
regularly engage with all associates._] Younger people probably
don’t really understand the union, except for the ones whose parents
and grandparents have told them, ‘Go sign the card—take it back
now. You all need it.’ Still, some are saying, ‘They’re going to
take five hundred out of your check every year’ and ‘You’re
going to lose your benefits.’

“This is what they tell us at the meetings. One time, there was a
Caucasian lady and a Black lady—they both asked about the pay.
‘We’re doing so much work,’ one said. ‘I don’t think we’re
getting paid enough.’ The woman running the meeting said, ‘I’m
surprised that you all are saying this, because you’re making
fifteen an hour and you’re only paying four hundred for rent.’ One
girl said, ‘What do you mean? You think it’s cheap to live in
Alabama? Where did you get that from?’ I’m sitting behind her, and
I said, ‘I pay twelve hundred a month for rent in Birmingham.’ It
was one of those things, like, ‘You all are living in low-income, so
you ought to be grateful.’

“Amazon says, ‘The union can’t promise you anything.’ But
Amazon hasn’t promised us, either, because everything they say
they’re giving us—they can take it back, because it’s not in a
contract.

“I’ve changed some minds. One girl, she worked with me on the
line, in receiving. She’s, like, ‘Why do you all want a union?
We’re going to lose our insurance. They said if we could vote the
union in, they’re going to shut the plant down.’ So I began to
explain to her, ‘Did you know that the organizers, we’re the
union, we negotiate with Amazon on what we want?’ She shook her
head.

“A lot of folks quit—they couldn’t take it. But we also have a
lot of people who stay because we still have bills to pay. We still
have to eat. It’s a pandemic right now, and a lot of other places
aren’t hiring.

“We didn’t realize it was going to catch fire the way it is,
because we’re a small group of people who just want to make a change
in our building. So I feel good that there are a lot of people who’s
been crying inside now ready to speak outside that ‘O.K., I can say
something now and somebody will hear me.’ ”

RANDY HADLEY, THE PRESIDENT OF R.W.D.S.U.’S MID-SOUTH COUNCIL,
SIXTY-FIVE

“The first day we came here was October the twentieth. We’ve been
here every day since, except Christmas and Dr. Martin Luther King’s
birthday. We have folks here from two-thirty in the morning to seven
in the morning. [_Organizers are also there for the evening shift
change, from 3:30 p_._m_. to 6:30 _p_._m_.] We catch as many people
as we can. It’s been about fifteen to one this past hour, Yes to No.

“Labor movements, where we drop the ball—and I’ve been in this
business forty-three years, so I can say this—is we don’t market
ourselves as well as we should. You see these signs? We’ve got the
upside-down Amazon smile. We got the Web site and TikTok set up before
we arrived. The day we showed up, we put signs in the ground. ‘RWDSU
on Your Side.’ ‘Mail Your YES Ballot.’ People steal them and
damage them. We put them back.

“Just getting into an election is something no one ever thought
we’d be able to do with the number of people here, and the turnover.
The employer didn’t take us seriously when we first came down here.
‘It’s just a little old damn union. They’ll just get a couple of
cards signed and be on their way.’

“We represent about twenty thousand people in the mid-South council.
Poultry plants, nursing homes, dog-food plants, meatpacking houses.
We’re not afraid of working. We’ll come out here and stand. Like I
say, when you hit Goliath in the nose, you better hit him every day.

“Not everyone is nice. We get people saying ‘Fuck you!’ The old
one-fingered salute. But they’re usually in management and stuff,
pulling up in a B.M.W. or a Mercedes or a Denali. You know they’re
not making fifteen an hour.

“They’ve shortened this traffic light, that light, and they’ve
done a light over there. All the entrances. And the way we figured
that out is we’d seen two pickup trucks parked off a distance. We
actually thought they were surveilling us. I said, ‘Let’s go over
and see what this cat’s doing.’ So we walked over there, and
he’s sitting in his car with his computer and stuff, and I looked
down and I told him, ‘You might want to be careful over here. It’s
a little dangerous.’ And then I said, ‘What you doing, anyway?’
He says, ‘I’m doing a time study of traffic.’ On a Saturday
afternoon? I found that odd. I was looking at his paperwork as we were
talking. I said to my guy, ‘They’re getting ready to recalibrate
the traffic lights, so people can’t stop and chat with us.’ And
that’s exactly what they did.

“Amazon is trying to turn them at their meetings. During a
union-busting meeting, the buster asked if anyone had been a union
member. One woman, she said, ‘I’ve been a member.’ The union
buster said, ‘What union was it?’ She said, ‘Actually, it was
that one standing out there at the gate. I know those guys and those
ladies personally—they’re great people.’ Well, they didn’t ask
her to come back to the next meeting.

“History shows you’ll have around thirty per cent turnout. I think
we’ll have a bigger turnout here by the time they start counting
ballots. But I bet it’ll be a week before all the challenged ballots
are resolved. Amazon is gonna do everything in the world to delay,
delay, delay. That’s been their goal since Day One. [_An Amazon
spokesperson said that an in-person election, which Amazon wanted,
would have been shorter than a mail-in election_.] But, if two
thousand people vote, we just need a thousand and one to vote Yes.”

 

_[Charles Bethea has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2008
and became a staff writer in 2018. He has published dozens of Talk of
the Town pieces, often on political subjects, including the creator of
[email protected], the gymnastics career of Roy Moore, and a
sculptor obsessed with Donald Trump. In addition to politics, he
covers local media and the American South. Previously, he was an
editor at Outside magazine and a writer-at-large for Atlanta. His
work has also appeared in Grantland, The New Republic, the Wall
Street Journal, GQ, Rolling Stone, and Wired. He lives in
Atlanta.]_

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