As thousands of Amazon workers prepare to vote for a union, a massive solidarity movement is growing in support. Dee Knight writes that DSA has a chance to play an important role and to mobilize DSA’s membership to expand that campaign nationwide.
As 6,000 workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, prepare to vote for a union, a massive solidarity movement is mushrooming to support them. The Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer will be voting by mail between February 8 and March 29, on whether to be represented by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Saturday, February 20, a National Day of Solidarity with Alabama Amazon Workers, sponsored by the Southern Workers Assembly, will see rallies across the South and around the country. Organizers are open to a wide variety of targets for the Day of Solidarity. More than 40 actions are planned, some at giant Amazon warehouses or distribution facilities, some at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Markets, and in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, protesters will rally in front of Amazon’s union-busting law firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
Amazon employs more than 800,000 workers in the United States and another 400,000 in the rest of the world. It has hundreds of fulfillment warehouses across the country. The Southern Workers Assembly notes “the harsh working conditions at Amazon warehouses, along with Amazon’s refusal to adopt measures that protect workers from COVID 19, have pushed Amazon and Whole Foods workers everywhere to step up organizing and fight back. These predominantly Black workers who have in recent months formed the BAmazon Workers Union, are on the cusp of launching a history-changing workers’ organization against one of the biggest and most powerful transnational corporations in the world, and its super-rich union busting owner, Jeff Bezos. In addition, these workers are standing up to the racist, anti-union laws that suppress labor across the South.”
Fighting for a Union
At the Bessemer warehouse, momentum is building for a strong union vote. Jennifer Bates, an employee at the Bessemer Amazon plant, told Boston NPR station WBUR she’s confident the majority of workers will vote for the union. She says her coworkers are “very excited” about unionizing because their complaints have been ignored for so long, and they’ve suffered so much pain from long hours and heavy work, including forced overtime. She told WBUR “I have no doubt that we’ll be successful.”
More than half the workers at the plant have signed union cards, according to recent reports. The Bessemer workforce is 85 percent African American; a majority are women.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, says Bessemer has a history as a strong union town, where steel mills were located decades ago. “People could speak to their parents or grandparents and hear about the difference unions made in their lives,” he said. Union organizers are building their campaign not just on worker rights, but by centering the whole-worker struggle, tying the unionization effort to Black Lives Matter and full civil rights. “It’s time for these workers to be treated with respect,” Applebaum told WBUR. “We see this as both a labor struggle and as a civil rights struggle, which has often been the story of the labor movement in the South.”
Strategic help has come from a nearby Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant, where workers also organized with RWDSU. A corps of poultry workers have stood at the Bessemer Amazon gate before dawn most mornings to leaflet the BAmazon workers. Many live in the same community.
Support has also come from political leaders. President Biden’s recent declaration “to encourage union organizing” caused RWDSU to say “President Biden supports our right to unionize!” It was reminiscent of the CIO’s bold claim in the early 1930s that “the president of the USA wants you to join the union.” RWDSU also publicized a U.S. Senate resolution supporting union rights. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have also stood with the union.
We see this as both a labor struggle and as a civil rights struggle, which has often been the story of the labor movement in the South.
Black and white unionists across the South are mobilizing support. Leonard Riley, a long-time member of the ILA Local 1422 of Charleston, explained that organizing is better explained as a rising tide lifting all boats, not as a pie with finite slices to be divvied into smaller bites. “I want to be part of a successful campaign – I’m in it to win it,” he told me. “The union will bring a better standard of living for everybody. Our local is willing to share with these other workers.”
Lawrence Moore, the chairperson of Carolina for All in Columbia, SC, said “2021 is a new day – it’s very exciting that people are standing up for their rights. There are Amazon facilities in and around Columbia. The Southern Workers Assembly is active in the area. People are motivated. We’re reaching out to all the unions, and to domestic workers. We’ll try to integrate the minimum wage demand into our effort.”
Mr. Moore works closely with Donna Dewitt, retired president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, who said “it’s amazing the solidarity we’re seeing. It’s been over 70 years trying to organize the South. Now we have very outstanding leaders, bringing about that solidarity. It’s a breakthrough we’ve been waiting for for decades.”
Fighting Amazon’s Union Busting
Dante Strobino, an organizer for United Electrical Workers Local 150 in Durham, NC, said “We’re behind BAmazon all the way and hope they’ll break through. Amazon workers are already organizing all around the country. There are groups all over trying to have a coordinated effort.” But, he warned, “if Amazon bargains with them it will be a small miracle. Amazon hired one of the most preeminent anti-union firms – Morgan Lewis – in a union busting effort.” Amazon’s union busting tactics include mandatory worker meetings, anti-union propaganda in bathroom stalls, and a massive internal text campaign that sends workers anti-union messages several times a day.
RWDSU president Appelbaum called Amazon’s union busting efforts “the most aggressive anti-union campaign I’ve seen.” Managers are constantly calling group and one-on-one meetings to attack the union, and anti-union flyers and messages are posted everywhere in the plant.
Strobino isn’t cowed: “But if rank and file workers take on the fight, that’s so critical – the type of internal worker organization and action that can be generated. The election is just one part of it.
How DSA can support BAmazon workers
Peter Olney, a member of DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, reported that the steering committee unanimously called for all DSA chapters and branches to support the Feb. 20 Solidarity Day actions. He observed that Amazon will fight back. The stakes are high for workers across the country. “Amazon is threatening UPS and FedEx workers, so an Amazon union is critical for all U.S. workers,” he said.
Ryan Kekeris, a Baltimore-based IUPAT member , estimates that “hundreds if not thousands” of DSA members may already work at Amazon plants across the country. He suggested DSA should survey its 90,000 members to identify these workers and more generally map workplaces.
Kekeris also calls for workplace “labor circles” to build socialist strength. Recent experience with a Socialist Workplace Survey and a launch of labor circles in Los Angeles suggests “labor circles have integrated DSA and workplace organizing in a way that is accessible to our membership and the masses of workers.” Kekeris explains that Labor circles are a variant of industrial organizing in which DSA chapters can act as conduits by connecting workers in similar industries. These workers can organize together and learn from each other and work towards creating organizing campaigns in their workplaces that draw on the collective knowledge of DSA’s membership while simultaneously recruiting their coworkers into DSA. Labor circles in Amazon plants could become strategic in the coming period of large-scale organizing, Kekeris commented.
Birmingham DSA co-chair Jason Kobielus told me Alabama has strong “right-to-work” laws but also a strong union history. “It’s a historic fight that goes beyond better wages, conditions, and benefits – a human rights struggle, an extension of Black Lives Matter. We support them in that fight.” Birmingham DSA posted solidarity banners on the road leading to the warehouse saying “Bessemer’s a union town” and “Bama has your back!” DSA members mobilized for a February 6 rally, and have mounted a social media campaign, including outreach dedicated to “BAmazon Community Organizing.”.
“Amazon is scared,” Kobielus commented. “We’re forcing them to take action.” He added that lead union organizer Josh Brewer said this time is when companies start violating labor laws. Josh made it clear we’ll see a fight that’s ‘unprecedented’ in US labor history.” But “we might be able to force them to negotiate,” he commented. On DSA’s end, Jason said “we’ve seen support from chapters across the nation. It’s been a huge amount of energy. We’re seriously ready, and we’re working to expand support.” DSA members from across Alabama are joining the effort; the energy is attracting more people to join DSA, he said.
Community support for BAmazon & the road ahead
Lorri Nandrea, of the Southern Workers Assembly, wrote that “when workers see strong support for unions and learn about the ways they protect workers’ rights and help build worker power, it helps shift people’s attitude toward unions in a favorable direction. . . . It is a right-to-work state where employees may be fired at will, and anti-union propaganda is very strong. So this is an uphill battle, but I believe we will win. The courageous workers in Bessemer are showing the way.”
It’s a historic fight that goes beyond better wages, conditions, and benefits – a human rights struggle, an extension of Black Lives Matter. We support them in that fight.
In Birmingham, the Amazon union vote has top billing. Gregg Roddy, president of ATU Local 725 in Birmingham, said “it may seem hard right now, but if you stick together you can win! The bosses may confuse you about the benefits of a union. But once you get it, you’ll be very thankful. The major benefit comes in your ability to negotiate over salary, benefits, pension and so much more. ATU Local 725 in Birmingham supports RWDSU all the way!”
Remi Bruno is organizing rallies at two Amazon facilities in Baltimore – one at Sparrows Point, where the Bethlehem Steel plant was. “Our Amazon workers, and all workers, have unquestionable rights to have a union,” he said. “I think the fact that this is the first credible challenge to Amazon’s ‘no union’ efforts, has a huge impact on morale. The mystique of invincibility of Bezos et al is being dissolved. That in itself has significance.”
In Baltimore the whole labor and progressive movements are involved, Bruno told me. “Anybody will see the benefit of connection and unity across labor and the left. Coordination, connection, unity – it’s major.” He compared it to the period directly preceding the CIO’s explosive beginning in the 1930s. “They found a strategy, they got people inside, organized not on the basis of winning an election, but of exerting power; if you have even a minority you can cripple the power of the company. Remember, the NLRB isn’t how we get a union. It’s the struggle in the plant and the community.” He added that “This is the dawning of new struggle.”
Logan Davis is organizing a rally at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Clear Brook, Virginia. “It is a hell of a thing to witness and be a part of,” he told me. “I hope this will spread like wildfire and create a movement of sorts within the working class.” He added that a support action is also planned in Chesapeake, VA.
The Southern Workers Assembly says “solidarity from every corner of the labor and progressive movements is needed now to show the workers in Bessemer they are not alone, that all eyes are on the historic struggle that they are leading.” If you would like to organize an action in your area, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with details of what you’re planning. An up to date list of actions, toolkits and other materials will be maintained at https://southernworker.org/amazon
Dee Knight is a member of the organizing committee of NYC DSA’s Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch. He is the author of “Life in the Whirlwind,” soon to be published.