Amazon responded quickly to the pandemic spike in online shopping. It added 400,000 employees in the first nine months of last year. It added new facilities and new airplanes to deliver goods. And across the company’s fulfillment centers, the pressure on Amazon workers to get orders out fast, to “make rate,” became more intense than ever.
That dogged pursuit of efficiency has pushed some workers to a breaking point. This week, employees at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to unionize. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Washington Post reporter Jay Greene about what the workers want, how management is fighting back, and what this action—the first of its kind at Amazon in seven years—could mean for future unionization efforts at the company. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: What’s it like in one of these warehouses?
Jay Greene: Oh, it’s a hive of activity. They’re massive. At any given moment there are more than a thousand workers stowing items as they come into the warehouse, picking them as people’s orders come in, boxing them up, and putting them on trucks.
And Amazon is tracking each employee, minute by minute, using these handheld computers workers use to compile their orders. It’s called “making rate,” right?
If you don’t hit your rate, it can affect your ability to move up at the plant, at the warehouse. It can affect your pay, to some measure at least, how much you might get a raise or not. One of the complaints is honestly using the bathroom. A lot of workers will talk about how the bathrooms are far enough away that heeding the call of nature can actually eat into your productivity. And these workers are measured on their productivity.
Alabama doesn’t seem like the place that would inspire a labor movement for Amazon’s warehouse workers. Workers are less likely to be in a union in Alabama than in other states. And Alabama is a “right-to-work” state, meaning workers don’t have to join the union and pay dues if they don’t want to. That weakens unions in the long term, but you think it could work in the organizers’ favor during this Amazon vote.
If the union can convey to these workers that Amazon won’t take a chunk of their pay from their paychecks if a union comes in place—which is the very definition of a “right-to-work” state—it might actually be easier for the union to convince these folks to join.
Let’s talk about who the workers are at this warehouse. My understanding is that they are majority Black, a lot of them are women, and the union that they’re working with, a retail workers union, has been very involved in civil rights action. So that seems to be a big part of what’s happening in Bessemer.
Yeah. Amazon won’t disclose the actual percentage of workers who are people of color, but the union says at least 80 percent of the workers in the warehouse are Black. And they have framed it as much as a civil rights issue as it is a labor rights one. And they talk about issues of respect and dignity.
Amazon actually pays pretty well for the region. It starts workers a little over $15 an hour. The minimum wage in Alabama is $7.25 an hour, which is the federal minimum wage. And so when I’ve talked with workers about why they’re engaged in this fight, some certainly say we’d like to have more money, but a lot of it is about, you know, the ability to use the bathroom without having to worry that they might get docked some sort of pay or at least not have the ability to rise in the organization if they just aren’t working as quickly as Amazon requires.
Walk me through the timeline here. In November, the workers notified the National Labor Relations Board that they wanted to move forward. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s right. So they notified the NLRB that they wanted to hold an election and filed paperwork to do that. Amazon then had to reply to that, and Amazon’s initial reply was that they didn’t think the workers had signed enough cards. Typically, you’re supposed to have about 30 percent of the bargaining unit signing cards saying that they want to be represented by the union. Amazon also said it wanted to have an election well after Christmas, and actually it wanted to have the hearing well after Christmas, because the Christmas rush is obviously important to Amazon, so they wanted to delay and extend. The NLRB basically denied that.
In December, the NLRB heard the case. In January, it said the vote was going to begin on Feb. 8. The NLRB also decided that the vote was going to be a mail-in process, which is common now in the pandemic era, but prior to the pandemic was quite uncommon. And so that process now started on Monday, Feb. 8. It’s a seven-week process in which ballots will be sent to the 5,805 people who are part of the bargaining unit that the NLRB determined. And they have seven weeks to return those ballots.
You can hear how Amazon has been really resisting every step along the way, trying to delay votes, trying to say you don’t have enough signatures here, not enough cards. Can you take me inside what it was like in the warehouse as Amazon tried to convince workers voting for a union wasn’t the way to go?
Yeah, sure. I’ve talked with some of these workers. I haven’t actually been in the warehouse—Amazon’s not letting reporters in, to my knowledge, right now. What the workers tell me is they’ve been barraged with text messages and emails—one worker told me they’re getting as many as five a day. They’re saying, basically, “stick with the winning team.” That’s a direct quote. They want the workers to reject the union, and they’re saying it in I think a fairly saccharine way. You know, we’re great together.
They have fliers all over the warehouse, including in the bathrooms. So when you go into the bathroom to have a moment of privacy and you close the bathroom stall, on the back side of the door of the bathroom stall is a flier that discourages joining the union and [has] the messages about not paying dues. It says, where will your dues go? Which is sort of an interesting message to put inside of a bathroom stall.
And then they also have engaged in what is a fairly common practice, referred to in the parlance of union fights as captive audience sessions. Workers are required, mandated, to sit through these meetings, which can be half an hour or even longer, where they get a PowerPoint presentation or a video or whatnot essentially discouraging them from joining the union. And for a company that cares a whole lot about productivity, the hit to productivity in pulling workers into these sessions has got to be not insignificant.
But it’s not just Amazon’s PR campaign that’s working against the push to unionize. Some employees just don’t see the need for collective bargaining. They’re loyal, and they know their wages and benefits are better than average. You spoke to some workers who worried that an intermediary would just get in the way.
Carla actually had been a union member in a previous job. She was a seventh and eighth grade science teacher, and she was supportive of the union. In this job she’s not, and there are a couple of reasons. I think the first one is a very personal experience for Carla. Early on in the job, two months after she started, she had a seizure at work and she was taken to the hospital and it turned out she had brain cancer. As a worker, she had 3½ months’ leave while she underwent surgery and treatments, and she’s now cancer-free. But the bills were over $100,000, and Amazon’s health insurance covered most of that. So she felt like she didn’t need a union because Amazon was treating her well, and she worried that the union would get in between her and her managers, in those moments where she really wanted to communicate with the company. For her the union seems like an impediment rather than something that would help her out.
Ideally, how would the warehouse change tomorrow if the union was bargaining?
If the union was bargaining, prior to a contract? Lord knows. I think you could anticipate many of the same sort of tactics you’re seeing currently to try to discourage folks from supporting the union. But the moment they have a contract, there are a number of things that could change. I think one of them that the union would certainly press are the issues of productivity. At a warehouse, those little handheld computers record what is known as rate, and rate in an Amazon warehouse is the speed with which you do your job, and you have to hit a certain number if you’re picking packages, if you’re stowing packages, if you’re boxing packages. And that’s always been an issue for the workers in Amazon warehouses across the world. So if a union could negotiate rate, that would be a huge, huge difference. And I think that’s probably the biggest one.
You might also see things like negotiations over what the workers like to call hazard pay. In the pandemic, Amazon gave a bonus at the start to workers of $2 an hour, and they rolled that back in June. I’m certain workers at the facility would welcome a $2-an-hour raise, particularly during the pandemic, and as we’ve seen in recent months, the rate of infection and illness is growing and is higher than it was at the start of the pandemic. And yet Amazon hasn’t restored that bonus pay.
Amazon workers have been talking about unionizing for a long time. This spring, Amazon workers in Staten Island were talking about unionizing. There was a sickout. But it didn’t happen, and in fact one of the most outspoken workers was fired. So I just wonder what’s different this time?
It’s hard to underestimate the impact of the pandemic. Amazon has opened very, very quickly these warehouses across the country. It’s hired workers at an astonishingly fast rate. Those workers are working as hard as you could imagine because more and more people are shopping from home, and they’re doing it while their lives and their health is under threat because of the pandemic. I think all of those things have come together to create this situation where a union might be able to take hold in a way it wouldn’t have a year ago.
Voting is going to be happening for weeks. When are we going to know what happened?
The balloting ends at the end of March, and then there’ll be a count. And again, because we live in pandemic times, the count will actually be broadcast via Zoom by the NLRB, and Amazon’s lawyers and the union’s lawyers will watch.
They’re literally going to count one by one.
That is my understanding, because both Amazon and the union have the right to challenge ballots. You could imagine an Amazon lawyer saying “that signature isn’t clear” or “there’s no signature on that envelope, throw it out.”
This vote is happening as Amazon is going through big changes as a company. Jeff Bezos is stepping back from his day-to-day management role. The European Union has brought antitrust charges, and the U.S. is investigating too.
The one thing you certainly do see, and it started last week, is that there are a number of members of Congress who have sent letters to Jeff Bezos and to his successor, Andy Jassy, to say, “We’re keeping an eye on this.” And it isn’t so much that this is an antitrust issue, because it doesn’t appear to be, but the displeasure that some of the members of Congress have had with Amazon over its engagement with the antitrust committees and also some of its actions that many of the members of Congress believe are anti-competitive, those concerns spill over into this as well. You’ll see senators like Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders and representatives—I spoke with Andy Levin of Michigan, who’s been long a supporter of labor in this country—they’ve sent letters to Bezos to basically say, “We have an eye on you. You better let these workers do what they want to do. You shouldn’t stand in the way of their efforts to unionize if that’s what they want.”
Amazon is aggressively fighting this. I think their big fear is that this will expand beyond. And so it’s an interesting sort of political calculus to decide how aggressively you stop this union drive in Bessemer, but also, if you go too aggressively, maybe you alienate customers and invite Congress and others to elevate the status of this drive.
If the union wins, you should absolutely expect other warehouses to start organizing drives as well—and it may even be starting already. I have not heard of others, but it wouldn’t surprise me that members in warehouses in other parts of the country are going to school on this.