Amazon faces biggest union push in its history | Nation/World News

NEW YORK (AP) – Second Jennifer Bates is leaving her post at the Amazon warehouse where she works. The clock starts ticking.

She has exactly 30 minutes to get to the cafeteria and back for lunch. That means traversing a warehouse the size of 14 soccer fields, which takes up valuable time. She avoids bringing groceries from home as it would take more minutes to reheat them in the microwave. Instead, she opts for $ 4 cold sandwiches from the machine and rushes back to her post.

If she can, she’ll be lucky. If she doesn’t, Amazon could cut her pay or, worse, lay her off.

It is this kind of pressure that has led some Amazon workers to organize the company’s largest union push since its inception in 1995. And this happens in the most unlikely places: Bessemer, Alabama, a state with laws that do not favor unions.

There is a lot at stake. If organizers succeed in Bessemer, where nearly 6,000 people work, it could spark a chain reaction across Amazon’s nationwide operations, with thousands more workers showing up and demanding better working conditions. But they face an uphill battle against the country’s second largest employer, whose union efforts in Whole Foods’ warehouses and grocery stores have historically been crushed.

Attempts by Amazon to postpone the vote in Bessemer have failed. This also applies to the company’s efforts to request a personal vote, which organizers believe would be unsafe during the pandemic. The mail-in voting started this week and will last until the end of March. A majority of the valid votes received must vote “yes” in order to join union organizations.

Amazon, whose profits and revenues have skyrocketed during the pandemic, has worked hard to convince workers that a union is doing little to suck money off their paychecks. According to spokeswoman Rachael Lighty, the company is already giving them what the unions want: benefits, career growth and pay from $ 15 an hour. She adds that the organizers don’t hold the majority of the views of Amazon employees.

Bates makes $ 15.30 an hour unpacking boxes of deodorant, clothing, and myriad other items that eventually ship to Amazon buyers. The job that the 48-year-old started in May has been on her feet for most of her 10-hour shifts. In addition to lunch, Bates says, trips to the bathroom are also closely monitored, as is drinking water or getting a fresh pair of work gloves. Amazon denies this on the grounds that it offers two 30-minute breaks per shift and extra time to go to the bathroom or fetch water.

Bates and a group of workers got fed up and reached out to the retail, wholesale and department stores union last summer. She hopes the union, which also represents poultry factory workers in Alabama, will mandate more breaks, prevent Amazon from firing workers on secular grounds, and push for higher wages.

“You will be a voice when we don’t have one,” says Bates.

History tells us not to be optimistic, according to Sylvia Allegretto, an economist and co-chair of the Center for Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California at Berkeley.

The last time Amazon employees voted on whether to unionize was in 2014, and it was a much smaller group: 30 employees at an Amazon warehouse in Delaware who ultimately turned it down. Amazon currently employs almost 1.3 million people worldwide.

Also working against union efforts is that it is happening in Republican-controlled Alabama, which is generally unsuitable for organized labor. Alabama is one of 27 “right to work” states where workers do not have to pay dues to the unions they represent. In fact, the state is home to the only Mercedes-Benz plant in the world that is not unionized.

Michael Innis-Jiménez, associate professor at the University of Alabama, says that the union push in the Bessemer camp has come this far. Companies typically harass union organizers as outsiders who don’t know what the workers want. But the retail union has an office in nearby Birmingham and many of the organizers are black, like the workers in the Bessemer camp.

“I think that helps a lot,” said Innis-Jiménez. “You are not seen as an outsider.”

More than 70% of the population of Bessemer are black. The retail union estimates that 85% of workers are black, much more than the 22% of all warehouse workers across the country. This comes from an analysis of the Associated Press census data.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the retail, wholesale and department stores union, says the union’s success in Bessemer was partly due to the pandemic that saw workers feel betrayed by employers who did not do enough to keep them safe from the virus to protect. And the Black Lives Matter movement, which inspired people to be treated with respect and dignity. Appelbaum says the union has heard from Amazon warehouse workers across the country.

“They also want a voice in their workplace,” he says.

Retail, wholesale and department store union representatives spend most of the days in front of the Bessemer camp entrance with signs and neon vests, although much of the union effort is being done online or over the phone due to the pandemic. At the end of a recent day’s work, some Amazon employees leaving the factory rolled down their car windows and chatted with the organizers. others hurried by without recognition.

Some poultry factory workers have helped. Among them is Michael Foster, a union representative who works at a poultry factory in Northern Alabama but has been in town for more than a month helping with the organization.

He says an Amazon employee tried to scare them away and said they’d better make sure they are not on Amazon property.

“I let them know this wasn’t my first rodeo,” says Foster, who helped two other poultry plants join forces.

Bates said Amazon held daily classes at the warehouse on why workers should vote against the union. Lighty, the spokeswoman for Amazon, says the meetings are a way for employees to get information and ask questions.

“If the union vote is successful, it will affect everyone in the field. It is important that all employees understand what this means for them and their daily lives at Amazon,” says Lighty.

Dawn Hoag says she will vote against union formation. The 43-year-old has been working in the warehouse since April and says Amazon is making it clear that his jobs are physically demanding. She also says she can speak for herself and doesn’t have to pay a union to do it for her.

“That’s exactly what I think,” says Hoag. “I don’t see any need for it at all.”

Recently, unions have been formed in unusual places. Last month, around 225 Google engineers formed a union, a rarity in the high-paying tech industry. Google has laid off downright employees, although the company claims it did so for other reasons.

At Amazon, things weren’t going well for outright workers either.

Last year, Amazon fired warehouse worker Christian Smalls, who was leading a strike in a New York warehouse, in hopes of getting the company to better protect workers from the coronavirus. Office workers who joined in during the pandemic and talked about working conditions in the camps have also been fired, although Amazon claims for other reasons. An Amazon manager resigned in protest last spring, saying he couldn’t watch as whistleblowers were silenced.

Bates is aware of the risks.

“I know it could happen,” she says of the dismissal. “But it’s worth it.”

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This story has been corrected to say that a majority of the valid votes received must vote “yes” to unionize, not the majority of the 6,000 workers in the camp.

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Associate press reporter Jay Reeves of Bessemer, Alabama, and data reporter Angeliki Kastanis of Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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