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A push to unionize workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is running into tough opposition as the retail giant, whose profits have boomed during the coronavirus pandemic despite concerns over worker safety, has launched an aggressive anti-union drive.
If workers at the BHM1 warehouse in Bessemer, near Birmingham, succeed in their efforts they would form the first union at an Amazon warehouse in the US.
The warehouse opened in March 2020, during the beginning of the pandemic. By the end of 2020, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union said over 2,000 workers at the warehouse signed union authorization cards ahead of the election workers filed for in November 2020.
Ballots for the election are scheduled to be mailed out to about 5,800 Amazon workers on 8 February, with vote-counting scheduled for 30 March 2021. Lawyers for Amazon are currently trying to appeal against the decision to allow the election to be carried out by mail, and have requested the election be delayed until their appeal is reviewed.
Ahead of the union election, Amazon has strongly encouraged workers to vote against the union through texts, messaging, an anti-union website and several anti-union captive audience meetings with workers at the warehouse.
In the texts, Amazon claims workers will “be giving up your right to speak for yourself” by signing a union authorization card and emphasizing union dues, claiming “unions are a business,” telling workers “don’t let the union take your money for nothing” and prompting them to visit their anti-union website DoItWithoutDues.com.
Amazon has also sponsored ads on Facebook featuring their anti-union website and telling workers to vote “no” in the union election.
“When it comes to this union busting, it’s severe. We’ve never seen anything like it on this level,” said Joshua Brewer, an organizer with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
“This is something that has always been and will continue to always be the people of Bessemer, the workers at Amazon coming together. This was theirs, and will always be theirs,” Brewer added.
Amazon’s sales and profits have boomed during the pandemic and its outgoing CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, added more than $70bn to his net worth during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which is now nearly $185bn. But the company has also faced criticism for safety concerns in its warehouses.
Brewer explained some of the reasons workers have cited as wanting to form a union, with the primary one being the lack of communication between workers and managers within the warehouse as disciplinary measures are often carried out by an app, making it difficult for workers to appeal write-ups, terminations or address grievances in the workplace.
Una Massey, a former level five area manager at BHM1, affirmed the lack of communication, disorganization, and mistreatment of workers at the warehouse. She worked at Amazon for over four years before she was terminated in August 2020 after she claims she made several complaints about discrimination and harassment against her and other female managers from men in management, all of which were ignored.
It was her fourth warehouse launch with Amazon since starting with the company at the age of 18.
When she was first offered the position, she was told the warehouse was having trouble gathering enough experienced managers to launch the warehouse. She was excited to start, especially because the group of managers were predominantly African American like herself and she never had the opportunity to work in that environment, but that veneer quickly faded among red flags she saw throughout the launch process.
She noted the lack of experienced managers helped create the conditions in which workers at the warehouse are now seeking to form a union.
“I feel like the reason why BHM1 is in a situation right now with it going to vote to become unionized is the lack of experienced managers that they had,” she said. “A majority of those leaders were external hires, meaning they were either college graduates or had been something similar to managers in other companies.”
She cited a lack of communication in quickly changing company policies during the first few months of the launch as putting Amazon workers at significant risk of job security and safety.
During the first few months of the pandemic, when the warehouse in Alabama opened, Amazon workers were allowed to keep their cellphones on them during work hours in case of emergency, but when that policy was revoked and implemented with zero tolerance, it was only communicated on employees’ screens.
“Instead of giving a transitional period for the associates for them to get used to this new rule, they went immediately just to say that if they were seen with it, it’s their fault, and it was going to be a final warning,” Massey said. “That they would be so callous as to just have something as simple as having your phone out.”
The same issue occurred when Amazon’s unlimited unpaid time-off policy ended during the pandemic in July, explained Massey, which was enacted abruptly in the new warehouse, leaving workers who went in the negative subject to termination.
Because of these policies, Massey said attrition rates soared and a lot of time went into having to train new hires.
She noted that she and other managers spoke up about the lack of communication and against the policies, but were ignored. As staffing became an issue, she added, safety protections were shoved aside.
“If we were short-staffed in an area, they would move an associate there to continue on without going through the proper training or safety protocols,” Massey said.
The lines were also designed in a way where six feet of social distancing was impossible for workers to practice while working, but Amazon still used a team called “Space Force” to enforce social distancing during lunches, clock-ins and clock-outs, writing up workers who did not follow protocols even though there wasn’t enough space for them to do so.
“They started giving associates final warning for breaking social distancing, meaning that if associates were seen within six feet of each other, they were given that final pink slip. But that was so unfair to the associates, because there weren’t even enough seats in the lunchroom,” Massey added.
Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Massey’s termination or characterizations of the work environment at BHM1.
In regards to the union drive, an Amazon spokeswoman, Heather Knox, said in an email, “We respect our employees’ right to join or not join a labor union but we don’t believe this group represents the majority of our employees’ views. Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
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