It’ll Take a Movement: Organizing at Amazon after Bessemer

The Amazon workers union election in Bessemer, Alabama was the most-covered union drive in many years. The New York Times treated it like a congressional race, with a live vote count on its website. The final count was 738–1,798 against the union. Amazon declared victory; the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed objections to the conduct of the election and related unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); and “hot takes” proliferated across the internet.

The attention was perhaps to be expected: Amazon is the world’s fourth-most-valuable company and its founder, Jeff Bezos, is the world’s richest man. It is responsible for some 50 percent of all e-commerce in the United States. And it is, by most accounts, a miserable place to work, and has been for years before the Covid-19 pandemic made everything worse. As Amazon’s footprint—and its working conditions—spreads across the United States and the world, it has become increasingly clear that the labor movement has to crack Amazon. The Bessemer campaign contains plenty of lessons for labor—what it will be up against and what it will take to succeed. It was probably a mistake to cover this campaign as so many other big organizing drives, particularly in the South, have been covered: as make-or-break for the future of unions.

Amazon is here and needs to be tackled, but the Bessemer campaign is only one facet of what needs to be a bigger, broader shift for labor toward organizing in today’s tech-dominated, fissured economy.

The union loss was unsurprising; the big surprise was that the campaign even got to the election stage. This is not a judgment on RWDSU in particular. The labor movement has been struggling for decades, almost entirely unsuccessfully, to crack Walmart. And Amazon is Walmart plus the CIA. That’s a joke. Yet Amazon does provide cloud computing services to the U.S. intelligence apparatus, as well as to other countries, including Israel.

Amazon is the world’s fourth-most valuable company and its founder, Jeff Bezos, is the world’s richest man. It is responsible for some 50 percent of all e-commerce in the United States. And it is, by most accounts, a miserable place to work . . .

That massive surveillance capacity plus nearly unlimited spending on anti-union consultants certainly gave Amazon an advantage. (See “Crushing Unions, by Any Means Necessary: How Amazon’s Blistering Anti-Union Campaign Won in Bessemer” by John Logan, in this issue.) Dave Jamieson at the HuffPost reported that just one consultant’s disclosure form included “no written agreement as to a maximum billing amount.” What we saw as a result was both the usual union-busting playbook and a version produced at eye-popping scale and intensity—the way Amazon does everything. Such a scale—and such public investment in the outcome—is rare these days, when most union elections take place in bargaining units of under 100 workers.[1]

While many people assume the South is entirely non-union, the area has a tradition of unionism to go with its history of Black activism. Bessemer is on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama and is more than 70 percent Black, and in an episode of Belabored, the podcast that I co-host, historian Robin D. G. Kelley compared the Amazon drive, led by Black workers, to campaigns of the radically anti-racist International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers in the 1930s.[2] The Amazon workers reached out to RWDSU, which represents other facilities in the area, including the poultry plant where organizer Michael Foster, known as “Big Mike,” worked. They spoke of impossible-to meet productivity metrics, “sweatshop” conditions, threats of demotion or firing if they did not keep up the pace, and high injury rates. (One report by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting found Amazon warehouse injury rates to be near double the industry standard.)

“They work you to death,” Sara Marie Thrasher, one of those workers, told the American Prospect. The $15 an hour Amazon congratulates itself for paying was not enough; the workers wanted respect and some control over their working conditions.[3] The union attempted to formulate an organizing strategy in a facility that had opened during a pandemic, in a workplace where few workers knew each other. Workers in Bessemer, like workers in other Amazon facilities, said that the company used social distancing as an excuse to keep them even further apart. But because of workers’ actual desire for safety, the campaign would hinge on phone-banking and Zoom meetings that took the place of mass meetings. Union organizers and members from RWDSU’s other local shops passed out flyers by the plant gate, where Amazon infamously demanded the stop light be sped up so organizers had less time to greet workers in their cars.[4]

It is worth noting here that I was not in Bessemer for the election. Reporters who were, including Luis Feliz Leon and Kim Kelly, describe a town where the union was the biggest news going. Leon wrote, “Days away from the final vote count, the town of Bessemer has the frenzied feeling of the last days of a presidential primary. Turf is marked across the state with yard signs, planted in front of union supporters’ homes.” Kelly described Amazon “bombarding workers’ personal cellphones with anti-union text messages and papering the warehouse with anti-union signs and flyers, even posting them in the same bathroom stalls in which workers are allowed so little time for themselves,” and “requiring some of its contract workers—many of whom are formerly incarcerated and have little power to fight back without fear of losing their jobs—to wear antiunion buttons.”[5]

Local supporters from Black Lives Matter and Democratic Socialists of America went door-knocking. Community members, says RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum, “knocked on every single door in Bessemer. Every single household door.” That excitement echoed on the internet, where social media overflowed with tweets and graphics supporting the Bessemer workers. President Joe Biden’s video supporting the workers was great, Appelbaum notes, although it came late in the nearly two-month mail-in voting period. He’s not sure if the president or indeed the outside supporters changed minds, although they put wind in the sails of pro-union workers and maybe made some others more willing to consider the union’s offer.

Local supporters from Black Lives Matter and Democratic Socialists of America went door-knocking. Community members, says RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum, “knocked on every single door in Bessemer. Every single household door.”

A poll commissioned by the AFL-CIO found that 77 percent of Americans supported the Amazon workers’ drive. The effort even echoed internationally, as Appelbaum notes: “My husband is from Japan. Every so often, he shows me pictures of Big Mike in the Japanese press.” The global labor federation, UNI, put out a video, showing Amazon workers from around the world supporting the Bessemer workers.

A poll commissioned by the AFL-CIO found that 77 percent of Americans supported the Amazon workers’ drive. The effort even echoed internationally . . .

But the Amazon election wound up being a crash course for new observers in how union elections are different from a presidential race. The short turnaround for an election was a calculated risk, said local organizer Joshua Brewer. It meant less time for inoculation—preparing the workers for the anti-union arguments they would face from management. So, Brewer said, workers were “more susceptible to the lies from the union-busters.” But with turnover at Amazon warehouses so high— the National Employment Law Center estimated it at between 89 and 107 percent for a full year using 2017 data—the union decided to move quickly. In Bessemer, the company escalated its hiring, so that the total number of workers included in the potential bargaining unit was 5,800, rather than the 1,500 the union had estimated. Nevertheless, organizers say, cards were flooding in, and the union managed to meet the 30 percent requirement for an election.[6]

The Mount Everest of Labor Campaigns

At a high-turnover workplace like Amazon, it can be hard to find workers who are frustrated enough to get involved in a union drive, but not so frustrated that they just quit. The space between “I want to change my workplace” and “Screw this, I’m out” is the space in which a union drive takes hold, but at Amazon, that distance can be mere millimeters. The company knows this, and even gave bonuses—the “Offer,” as they say—to workers who quit.[7] Going forward, turnover is one major issue RWDSU and any other union aiming to organize Amazon workers will have to contend with. The question of dues is another. Amazon predictably harped on the issue of union dues. This tactic was especially effective with younger workers who had little or no union experience. Older workers, who led the union drive in Bessemer, had had union jobs before; they understood the value of paying something into the union to build a better workplace and to show solidarity. Alabama is a right-to-work state, meaning that workers cannot be forced to pay into the union if they don’t want to, but if a union wants to succeed in the South (and increasing numbers of states outside it), it will have to convince wary workers that dues are in their best interest.

RWDSU filed objections to the election with the NLRB, seeking to have the election set aside. The objections—twenty-three in all—are a laundry list of the usual union-busting tactics: firing and disciplining union activists; threatening to close the facility or lay off workers. Amazon’s “arrogance was astounding,” Appelbaum says. “They brought in hundreds of people to walk the floors.” And then there’s the mailbox. Amazon, Appelbaum says, had asked the NLRB about installing a U.S. Postal Service (USPS) drop-box for votes and was told not to do it. They did it anyway. Emails procured during the process show Amazon higher-ups pressuring USPS officials to install the mailbox. At the hearing on objections, Jay Smith, director of enterprise accounts for the USPS, testified that he told Amazon it could not put anything on the box that indicated it was for votes. He was surprised, he said, when he saw photos of the tent Amazon put around the mailbox with a sign reading, “Speak for yourself! Mail your ballot here.” Bessemer worker Kevin Jackson testified to seeing Amazon security guards open the mailbox.

This process—RWDSU explaining that certain things were illegal, then workers reporting Amazon doing them anyway—helped to undermine the union. The experience also, Appelbaum notes, shows the degree to which Amazon sees itself as both intertwined with the government and above it. He was surprised at how Amazon responded to critics in Congress, condescending to them on Twitter and putting up signs in the warehouse suggesting that Congress raise the minimum wage to $15, as Amazon had. And then there was the police presence. “When you come to work, they have the blue lights on,” he says. “It was almost like you were coming to prison each day . . . what sort of message was that to people? Do not question anything, do not raise your heads, do not create problems.”

. . . [T]hen there was the police presence. “When you come to work, they have the blue lights on, . . . it was almost like you were coming to prison each day . . .

Despite all of that, Appelbaum says, the organizing committee in Bessemer is still enthusiastic and feels like they had changed minds over the course of the campaign. “My attitude has always been that we can’t allow Amazon to go unchallenged. I’ve always felt that there was real value in standing up to them,” he says. He continues, I still feel that there are things we’ve accomplished for the labor movement as a whole. It was the biggest class we’ve ever had on what a union is and how you form a union in the United States, and what it is an employer does to try to crush unions, and why it is that we need labor law reform in this country. So what comes next? The brutal reality is that Amazon is a must-win for labor, not just in the United States but also globally. Even had the Bessemer workers won, labor would still be climbing Mount Everest barefoot in trying to unionize the company. “It’s not like we just got involved with Amazon because we thought this was a hot shop,” Appelbaum says. He, like everyone else in union leadership, knows that Amazon is the big one.

Dania Rajendra, director of the Athena coalition of labor and community groups organizing around Amazon, notes that

it’s really important for worker activists to understand the interplay inside Amazon as a system. It is important, for example, that Amazon Web Services is the profit engine of the corporation. It is important that what we see is the way in which Amazon is using the workplaces of their logistics operations, in part, as laboratories for developing products and services for the rest of the employer market.

It’s important, she points out, to understand how much Amazon relies on public subsidies as well as government contracts.

And yet, she says, it’s not actually true that Amazon has risen to dominance through pure innovation. “There’s nothing particularly inventive about reinstituting the nineteenth century,” she says. Amazon’s intense processes of worker control all echo brutal labor practices of the past rather than some bright, exciting future.

Beth Gutelius, research director of the Center for Urban Economic Development (at the University of Illinois Chicago), calls it “retrogressive innovation,” noting,

it’s a throwback to early twentieth century methods of labor strategy and workforce management. But with the addition of algorithms—the sort of monitoring and surveillance at scale—in the end, I think Amazon’s real competitive advantage is about its ability to scale, to surveil and monitor and nudge its workforce at scale. And the workers have little say, she notes, “over how close that technology comes to becoming an extension of their body.” All of this makes this moment particularly important, not just for  Amazon workers like those in Bessemer, but for all workers. This is the time to stop the encroachment of this kind of surveillance before it, too, is normalized.

This has consequences around the world, Rajendra notes, “Amazon’s growth in the rest of the world is also the exporting of the particularly regressive American labor relations model.” In Bessemer, with the mailbox and the police presence and the stoplight, she points out, you see an extension of the company town, except Amazon aims to make the whole world into a company town (and maybe beyond, if Bezos’ dreams of launching a space travel business come true).

It does not surprise Rajendra that the workers who have stood up to Amazon, in Bessemer and elsewhere in the United States, have been predominantly Black. The kind of servant economy encouraged by Prime delivery speeds, she says, “raises the specter of the way that our entire economy is racialized and predicated on the disposability of people of color.” The warehouse workers are disproportionately people of color, and it is their work that has produced the $67.9 billion or so Jeff Bezos added to his wealth last year—thirty-eight times, the Brookings Institute noted, the total hazard pay the company paid its entire workforce during the few months it offered a bonus for working during Covid.[8]

A Movement Beyond Bessemer

Along with the Bessemer workers, there have been other Amazon workers on the front lines. Mohamed Mire, who works at Amazon in Minnesota, and Tyler Hamilton organize with the Awood Center, based in the East African community in the Twin Cities. Awood provides assistance and resources to workers like Mire and Hamilton who have led walkouts and other shop-floor actions and who gained fame when Amazon agreed to meet with them—the company will not call it bargaining—to discuss accommodations for Muslim prayer time and Ramadan observance. In New York, Jonathan Bailey and others led a walkout in Queens; in Staten Island, workers are attempting to build their own independent union. Chicago workers, calling themselves Amazonians United Chicagoland, have held walkouts over the “megacycle,” Amazon’s new ten-and-a-halfhour overnight shift. Even Mechanical Turk microworkers, who do individual tasks for tiny amounts of money through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site, have organized.[9]

None of these workers has chosen to go through the grueling NLRB process; the Bessemer election was, if nothing else, a reminder of how management-oriented the union election system is at the moment. The obvious solution is to pass the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act. The PRO Act would ban the captive audience meetings Amazon used; it would likely have prevented Amazon from inflating the size of the bargaining unit; and perhaps most importantly, there would be real penalties for Amazon or any other employer that broke the law during an election. But passage of PRO depends on the whims of a handful of Senators. Without it, perhaps the Bessemer workers will take inspiration from elsewhere and use direct actions in the workplace as a form of “structure test.” Jane McAlevey, an organizer and Senior Policy Fellow at University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center, points out that such actions—petitions, photos, wearing union pins or T-shirts to work, in addition to the walkouts and other actions that other Amazon workers have undertaken—test workers’ commitment to acting as a union; they also show wavering supporters that it is possible to act.[10]

Unions win not because they have the moral high ground, but because they figure out how to bring workers together to exercise their power . . .

Appelbaum pointed to the devotion—to their religious belief, and to the campaign—of the few Bessemer workers who became the public face of the campaign, and it is indeed inspiring. But that’s not a scalable model: we cannot hope that all warehouse workers will be similarly spiritually motivated to improve their workplaces to bring about a resurgence in American unions, or to take on the world’s most powerful company. Unions win not because they have the moral high ground, but because they figure out how to bring workers together to exercise their power and convince fence-sitters that the union has a real shot at improving their material conditions.

The risks of retaliation are real, of course—workers have been fired and worse from Amazon—but the public support given to the Bessemer workers indicates that there would be plenty of people willing to help. Some supporters tried to call for a boycott during the campaign, which was discouraged by the union for a couple of reasons: one, it is near-impossible to succeed and two, it could alienate workers on the fence. One of the best things people can do to support the Amazon workers, Rajendra says, is organize their own workplace.

The fight at Amazon, Appelbaum says, is

something for the labor movement as a whole. What happens at Amazon is going to impact everyone in this country. It can’t even be one country. This is something that has to be approached at the global level too. I think it has to be a multifaceted  strategy.

In other words, it needs to be a movement. As of this writing, several Amazon workers had testified publicly in the hearings about Amazon’s alleged infractions. As vaccination rates increase, and with the potential waning of the pandemic, unions will be able to return to some tried-and-true organizing tactics: house calls and mass meetings, big rallies to build energy. Yet RWDSU has found some useful tactics through its experiment in pandemic organizing. “We’ve found ways to communicate with people out of necessity that we will probably want to continue doing,” Appelbaum says. “I thought that the phone banks we did were really important and useful.” Those phone banks involved supporters from a number of unions and led to more than 50,000 documented conversations with people. McAlevey criticized the union for not doing house calls, but the union says the workers were against them for safety reasons. Beyond the pandemic, home visits can return. The fading of the pandemic also means that the workers do not have to distance quite so much inside the facility and can potentially get to know each other as people, not just as organizing targets.

As a result of the high-profile Amazon drive, some 1,000 new contacts outside of Bessemer have reached out to the RWDSU.

As a result of the high-profile Amazon drive, some 1,000 new contacts outside of Bessemer have reached out to the RWDSU. And the Athena coalition continues its organizing. “Workers are connecting the way invasive surveillance and algorithmic management both drives the inhumane pace of work and limits their freedoms outside of work,” says Sheheryar Kaoosji, director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, a part of the Athena coalition. In California, for example, the Athena coalition is backing a bill that would regulate some of Amazon’s surveillance practices.[11]

Tyler Hamilton, the Minnesota Amazon worker, says of the process of unionizing, “If it’s not this year or next year, it’ll be five years from now, because these jobs are basically like the industrial jobs that we used to have. Amazon is just the industrialization of retail.” Appelbaum adds, “I hope that one day, when workers at Amazon are organized, people are going to be able to say it all began in Bessemer.”

1. Data compiled by Kevin Reuning. KevinReuning, Unionelections.org, 2021, available at  https://unionelections.org/data/national/#number-of-elections-by-unit-size; Dave Jamieson,“The Amazon Union Election Is Unusual.Amazon’s Aggressive Anti-Union Campaign
Isn’t,” HuffPost, 2021, available at https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/amazon-warehouse-anti-union-ampaign_n_604a2e8dc5b636ed3378bec0?ri18n=true.
2. Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen, “Belabored: Black Against Amazon, with Steven Pitts and Robin D.G. Kelley,” Dissent magazine, 2021, available at https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/belabored-black-against-amazon-withsteven-pitts-and-robin-d-g-kelley.
3. Michael Sainato, “Amazon Warehouse Workers in Alabama: ‘They Work You to Death,’” TheAmerican Prospect, December 2020, available at https://prospect.org/labor/amazon-warehouse-workers-in-alabama-they-work-you-to-death/.
4. Russell Brandom, “Amazon Changed Traffic Light Timing during Union Drive, County Officials Say,” The Verge, February 17,
2021, available at https://www.theverge.com/2021/2/17/22287191/amazon-alabama-warehouse-union-traffic-light-change-bessemer.
5. Luis Feliz Leon, “Black Workers in Alabama Aim to Slay the Trillion-Dollar Behemoth That Is Amazon,” Truthout, March 11, 2021, available at https://truthout.org/articles/ how-do-workers-beat-a-corporate-giantask-black-amazon-workers-in-alabama/; Kim Kelly, “The Amazon Union Fight Isn’t About Money,” Vox, available at https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/22320009/amazon-bessemer-union-rwdsu-alabama.
6. Luis Feliz Leon and Joshua Brewer, “Inside the Alabama Amazon Union Drive: An Interview with the Lead Organizer,” Labor Notes, April 17, 2021, available at https://labornotes. org/2021/04/inside-alabama-amazon-uniondrive-interview-lead-organizer.
7. William Thornton, “Amazon, Union Organizers at Odds over ‘Pay to Quit’ Bonuses.” AL.com, February 22, 2021, available at https://www.al.com/business/2021/02/amazon-union-organizers-at-odds-over-pay-to-quit-bonuses.html.
8. Andre M. Perry, Molly Kinder, Laura Stateler, and Carl Romer, “Amazon’s Union Battle in Bessemer, Alabama Is about Dignity, Racial Justice, and the Future of the American Worker,” Brookings Institute, March 16, 2021, available at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2021/03/16/the-amazon-union-battle-in-bessemer-is-about-dignity-racial justiceand-the-future-of-the-american-worker/.
9. Nelson Lichtenstein, “Making History at Amazon,” Dissent magazine, February 12, 2020, available at https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/making-history-at-amazon; Jenny Hunter, “Amazon and the Fight over
Whether Workers Can Have a Voice,” American Constitution Society, March 29, 2021, available at https://www.acslaw.org/expertforum/amazon-and-the-fight-over-whether-workers-canhave-a-voice/; Lauren Kaori Gurley, “Amazon Is Forcing Its Warehouse Workers into Brutal ‘Megacycle’ Shifts,” Vice.com, February 4, 2021, available at https://www.vice.com/en/article/y3gk3w/amazon-is-forcing-its-warehouse-workers-into-brutal-megacycle-shifts; Jane Wakefield, “AI: Ghost Workers Demand to Be Seen and Heard,” BBC News, March 28, 2021, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-56414491.
10. Brandon Magner, “If the PRO Act Were Law, The Amazon Union Election Would Have Looked Very Different,” Labor Notes, March 30, 2021, available at https://labornotes.org/ blogs/2021/03/if-pro-act-were-law-amazonunion-election-would-have-looked-very-different; Jane McAlevey, “Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign,” The Nation, April 9, 2021, available at https://www.thenation.com/article/activism/bessemer-alabama-amazon-union/.
11. “Los Angeles Police ‘Wanted Amazon Ring BLM Protest Footage,’” BBC News, February 17, 2021, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-56099167.

Author Biography
Sarah Jaffe is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone, and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Bold Type Books 2016 and 2021, respectively.) She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast.