In the summer of 2018, after months of speculation, Amazon announced it was coming to Bessemer, Alabama, in the United States. The decision to open a "fulfilment centre" – the company's word for a massive facility where goods are sorted and packed for distribution – was welcomed by local business groups, thrilled at the prospect of thousands of jobs for the greater Birmingham area. Almost three years later, workers at the facility are on the cusp of a decision that could define the American labour movement for years to come.
Last year a group of employees began to have informal discussions about forming a union. Some workers were unhappy at the work conditions at the online retailer. Many of the complaints concerned the lack of bathroom and other breaks. Workers noted that it could take 15 minutes to walk to and from a bathroom or breakroom (the Bessemer facility is the size of 14 football fields). Others were uncomfortable at the level of surveillance – they must log in to e-systems on their phones – and the lack of human contact with managers.
The rumblings of discontent were not isolated to the Alabama facility.
Amazon warehouse workers at a site in Sacramento, California, walked off the job in 2019. They alleged they were doing back-breaking work and demanded paid time off. Similarly, at Amazon’s massive New York warehouse in Staten Island, hundreds of workers delivered a petition to management calling on Amazon to improve working conditions. In recent weeks, there have been reports of Amazon delivery drivers urinating in bottles because they don’t have time to find a restroom.
Amazon has countered that its workers are well paid – employees at the Bessemer site are paid $15 (€12.62) an hour, twice the minimum wage in the state of Alabama. They also have a comprehensive benefits package that includes healthcare.
The Alabama union drive has taken on national importance. Senator Bernie Sanders, long a champion of workers' rights, visited the site last month. "If you pull this off here, believe me, workers all over this country are going to be saying, 'If these people in Alabama could take on the wealthiest guy in the world, we can do it as well'," he told workers at the plant. Celebrities have also weighed in, including actor Danny Glover, rapper Killer Mike and comedian Tina Fey.
But it was the intervention of Joe Biden that perhaps had the most impact. In a video message, the US president – who launched his election campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh – extolled the benefits of unions. "Unions put power in the hands of workers, they level the playing field, they give you a stronger voice . . . unions lift up workers, both union and non-union and especially black and brown workers," he said.
All eyes are now on the vote in Alabama. About 55 per cent of the 5,800 employees eligible to vote participated.
Counting got under way this week. On Friday, the result was announced showing that workers had voted decisively against unionisation. The union has vowed to appeal, amid accusations of voter intimidation. Amazon held mandatory meetings for employees over recent months at which they were encouraged to vote against the move.
White House press Secretary Jen Psaki said o Friday that Biden would not be commenting until the process was definitively completed.
While Amazon has appeared to win the day, the national attention on the union vote in Alabama comes at an uncomfortable time for the company as it faces increased regulatory scrutiny.
The company's power – it is the second-largest employer in the US – has only strengthened during the Covid-19 pandemic, as many traditional retail outlets have shut their doors and consumers have turned to online shopping. Amazon's profits soared by 84 per cent last year, with sales hitting $386 billion (€324 billion). The company's owner and founder, Jeff Bezos, is the wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes, with an estimated net worth of $177 billion (€148.9 billion).
On Capitol Hill there are growing calls to break up big tech companies such as Amazon, amid concerns about their monopoly status. This week’s announcement by the Biden administration of new plans to increase tax on multinational companies targets those companies.
For the moment, however, it seems that the effort to form a union at the Bessemer plant will fall short.
Birmingham, Alabama, was once the centre of the civil rights movement. The famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 helped spark the Civil Rights Act. Today, it seems that employees who want to unionise workers – the vast majority of them black – will have to fight another day.