By: Jay Hyde, Red Phoenix Correspondent Alabama
This November, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama made an unprecedented move by notifying federal labor authorities of their plan to hold a unionization vote, due to poor working conditions exacerbated even further by the COVID-19 epidemic. Workers at the fulfillment center outside of Birmingham plan to form a bargaining unit of around 1,500 full and part-time workers at the facility to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. This facility is one of the newest Amazon warehouses, and although Amazon is a union-busting juggernaut operating in a deeply anti-union state, the people of Bessemer should not be under-estimated. Bessemer, Alabama has a deep history of workers unions that will not cave-in to intimidation tactics made by those that seek to exploit their labor at the expense of worker livelihood.
Many steel-worker strikes have happened in the city throughout the decades. One of the most notable strikes happened in 1992, when rail-car plant workers took on Trinity Industries Inc. The walk-out and following standoff occurred due to wages, pensions, and insurance. On October 12 of that year, things started to come to a head. A security worker hired by the company fired off a tear-gas canister into a crowd of picketing workers and their families, which prompted the workers to storm the gates and knock down security guard towers. After this altercation, a local judge limited the amount of picketers. Measures were also put into place to distance the striking workers from the plant. Alleged violence occurred following this incident, including shots fired at a replacement worker, shots at an employee van, and a torching of an employee’s car at their home. As allegations of further violence continued to mount, Trinity’s lawyers were avid about union strikers being the root of all violent confrontation. Several picketers were charged during this time for acts of resistance. The Union lawyers asserted that picketers were shot at by replacement workers, that the union opposed violent acts, and were preparing to file new union unfair labor practices. Although the company stated that operating at a third capacity, with management staff replacement workers kept the plant operational, a union member fired back by saying, “They have not run a car since we left, not one”. This historical event shows the resolve of union workers in Bessemer, and the tactics that can be used by corporations to discredit and undermine union power.
Although these clashes differ from the current struggle of Amazon workers in the area, the legacy of those struggles lives on, and the workers’ fight for unionization will likely be met with similar opposition, regardless of where things move from here. Amazon will likely use any method and disinformation against unionization at their disposal. Amazon is already beginning their attack with the most practiced anti-union lawyers that their incomprehensible amount of hoarded wealth sees fit to buy. If the situation arises, those attempting to unionize will probably be targeted by the company with misinformation, and replacement workers and spies will likely be used as a tool to try and divide and conquer.
Workers at the warehouse have tactfully declined comment to the press, but a website and Twitter account made by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, BAmazonUnion.org, has emerged to spread information for and from the workers and the union. Several videos have been uploaded to the sites, but one featuring Essimae Skinner, a picker at the warehouse, strikes a chord that workers around the world are likely to relate to. Skinner says in the video, “I thought Amazon was more like a Google. You know, the bigger the company, the more benefits, the more loyalty to the worker, but nah, it didn’t go like that. No pity there. You’re tired. You’re exhausted. You’re sweaty. It’s like you’re an NFL player without the money. Once you see what’s going on, it’s like, you know. there has to be a better way. That they allow these big corporate giants to come in and treat people with no humanity.”
Other videos on the site include union members and a secretary of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union Council of Alabama encouraging workers to sign confidential Union Authorization Cards, so they can “have a seat at the table” in the workplace and someone to call when things “aren’t right”. They stress that it is against federal law to intimidate, fire, or harass anyone who signs a Union Authorization card, and that they know from experience that things will get better in the workplace once a union is recognized. They want the workers to know that the union is there for them and not for Amazon.
Workers in a poverty stricken area of an increasingly anti-union state, who are unionizing against a company owned by the richest and most notorious anti-union man in America, are a shining light to the working people that the power is truly in the hands of the people and not the corporations. It is important to remember the working class communists of all races, classes, and genders in the Great Depression South who ignited the first attempts in organizing the labor of sharecroppers, the unemployed, mine workers, and other workers in Alabama. The focus of these communists was not only on racial unity, but they also focused on social justice, which was largely unheard of in the Great Depression South. Alabama was once a great union state, and it is time to put the power back in the hands of the united working class here and everywhere.