It might be the most tracked shipment in Amazon history: 5,800 mail ballots are being sent out to the union-eligible workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center on Monday. In the coming weeks they’ll be used to decide the largest US union election at the 26-year-old company, the country’s second-largest employer. It’s an unlikely vote, coming from an unlikely site, but if the labor organizers win, the Bessemer warehouse, not yet a year old, will become the country’s first unionized Amazon facility and potentially a bellwether for the industry nationwide.
Alabama isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of labor organizing; it’s a right-to-work state with a union membership rate of 8 percent, nearly three points below the national average (itself near an all-time low). The Birmingham suburb of Bessemer, however, has a deep history of strong unions that haven’t been shy about striking. The Amazon facility sits atop land once owned by US Steel, a major employer in the region until the industry’s decline in the latter half of the 20th century. Workers at the mills there belonged to United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in North America.
These days, the state is home to 12,000-plus poultry workers represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. When the pandemic hit, the RWDSU became a regular feature of local news reports about the safety protections it won for its workers. The group from Amazon who first contacted the RWDSU over the summer included workers who had been union members at previous jobs; some had friends and family in the RWDSU. “I truly believe that if we win,” says Joshua Brewer, an RWDSU organizer in Alabama who’s working on the Bessemer campaign, “it will be because grandparents and uncles and parents talked to these young folks who work out here and said, this helped me, and it’s a good thing.”
Employees at Amazon fulfillment centers are tasked with retrieving products from miles of shelves and quickly packing them into boxes that eventually make their way to customers’ doors. Part of the job stress, workers say, stems from the company’s highly automated tracking system. Cameras blanket the warehouses, and the company’s Time Off Task (TOT) system tracks every second workers aren’t picking, packing, and stowing to meet quotas, or “make rate.” Too much TOT is grounds for termination. Workers fear that if a family member falls ill or some bad lunch meat necessitates extra bathroom breaks, that could be it for their job. Human frailty seems “like a kink in their system,” says Brewer. Grievance procedures, which would allow workers due process and union representation in responding to discipline, rank high on workers’ list of demands, as do more frequent, scheduled rest periods.
Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty contends that “Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay, comprehensive benefits from the first day on the job, opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern, and inclusive work environment. At Amazon, these benefits and opportunities come with the job, as does the ability to communicate directly with the leadership of the company.”
Although Amazon’s benefits and $15 minimum wage exceed industry averages, workers at fulfillment centers across the country have long bemoaned the relentless pace of work under the company’s ever-surveilling eye. A September Reveal investigation of Amazon warehouses uncovered a serious injury rate of 7.7 percent in 2019, nearly double the most-recent industry average. The physical toll can lead to high turnover. One 2020 study of California warehouses by the National Employment Law Project found the average turnover rate in counties with Amazon warehouses was 100.9 percent in 2017 (meaning more workers left than started), compared to just 38.1 percent in 2011, the year before Amazon dropped anchor in the state. Amazon calls the study misleading, saying its attrition rate is on par with industry average, although the company didn’t share specific numbers.