The Amazon Women of Bessemer, Alabama

Rally in support of Amazon workers, Boston, March 20, 2021. Photos by Mary Leno
Rally in support of Amazon workers, Boston, March 20, 2021. Photos by Mary Leno

Hayat ImamFor International Women’s Day, just a few weeks ago, I wrote “All Women are Wonder Women”. Little did I know that within weeks I would be writing the story of the “Amazon Women”!

In a few days time, we may have a singular opportunity of seeing history being made! We may have a chance to celebrate a win in one of the biggest labor fights of the past Decades. At this very moment, the 5800 workers of the Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon Warehouse are in the process of voting for (and some against) the first Union at Amazon in the US. All ballots must be sent to the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) by March 29.

Saturday, March 20 was declared a National Day of Solidarity with the Bessemer Amazon Warehouse Workers. Rallies and Demonstrations took place in 40 Cities in the country, including Boston. I was glad to be a part of the lively Rally in Boston.

85% of the workers at Bessemer are Black, and the majority of them are women. Black women workers in the South are some of the strongest supporters of labor rights and Unions, and have been leaders, since the 1970’s, in organizing for better working conditions and pay. This is not surprising because Black women quickly understood that collective bargaining is a necessary tool, and an important counterweight in the workplace that gives them some leverage against racism and Sexism.

Women’s contributions to labor campaigns are irreplaceable, because much of the organizing actually takes place in the neighborhoods, in the churches and the kitchens, rather than at the workplace. Women are the ones who lay the foundation for the community-based networks where lobbying and educating for unions can happen.  At Bessemer, a lot of organizing has been conducted in the parking lots of Amazon!

Working conditions at Amazon are so poor, that within months of the opening of the store, in March of 2020, workers were interested in a Union. Racism was evident, from lower representation of Black workers in decision making, to less promotions, and less favorable evaluations of Black workers than their White peers. Amazon workers talk about how physically tough the jobs are, involving miles of walking and hours of standing. Amazon offers the bare minimum of rest breaks. More to the point, the speed that is required of workers to finish a job is so intense, and the pressure so great, workers don’t even dare to take a bathroom break. According to Jacobin Magazine, Amazon expects 400 items to be prepared for delivery in an hour. Computers record the seconds, and they are given disciplinary actions accordingly. The Atlantic reported that this level of speed and pace is actually injuring workers.

Boston rally in support of Bamazon workers, March 20, 2021. Jacob J. Urena photo
Boston rally in support of Bamazon workers, March 20, 2021. Jacob J. Urena photo

No Amazon facility in the USA has a Union so far. Generally, US employers work diligently to suppress union organizing, spending in the vicinity of $340 million each year to prevent the formation of Unions. It was a leap of faith to attempt to unionize in Bessemer, but, if successful, the rewards would be a safe work environment, fair treatment, fair promotions. A January 2021 Government Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Black women with a Union earn 19% more than women who are not unionized. In the meantime however, the Amazon Company is not standing idly by. It is spending $10,000 a day to lobby the workers to vote against the Union!

The Workers also have support, from other Unions (United Electric, United Auto Workers), NFL Players Association, MLB Players Association, Senator Bernie Sanders, President Biden, Socialist Alternatives, and Workers World – just to mention a few.

The formation of the first Union within Amazon in the US is a labor rights issue, but it is very much a Justice issue as well. Just think, from 2019 to 2020, Amazon’s profit was so big that CEO Jeff Bezos got richer by $68 Billion! But this PROFIT, which the workers created, and which made Bezos so much richer, never reached the workers. In other words, the workers were never compensated for the profit that they created. As Jennifer Bates, a Bessemer Amazon worker, testified at a U.S. Senate Budget Committee Hearing: “we workers made the billions for Amazon…we just didn’t get to spend it.”

So you might ask, what can be done about this? And, more generally, what can be done about the mind-boggling Inequality in this country? I offer a thought to organize around: As part of every worker’s compensation, they should receive some shares of stock in the company for which they work. That way the fate of the company and the contribution of the worker becomes appropriately linked. Every woman will tell you this makes sense.

But, we’ll take one step at a time. Let’s hope for good news on March 29.