The richest man in the world holds his breath as he waits for news from a small town in America’s Deep South. The 5,800 employees at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, are less than 0.5% of the workers at Jeff Bezos’ company, but they have in their hands a key decision for the future of the company: whether or not to form the first union. of Amazon’s history in the US. On Monday the deadline to vote ended and now we are waiting for the result. The campaign has been very tough.
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Amazon has even wallpaper the bathrooms with slogans such as “unions can’t, we can” and has sent up to five messages a day to the phones of its workers asking them “not to leave the winning team.” He has also staged compulsory attendance talks to discredit unions, while unions had to settle for campaigning by accosting people in the parking lot. They accuse Amazon of having changed the traffic lights from the parking lot to take time away.
The multinational does not try to hide it. Their official position is that their workers do not need unions, that each of them can negotiate directly with the company. They boast of paying the hour worked at more than double the minimum wage in the US and of offering good health insurance. All this is true, but it is also true that warehouse workers who do belong to a union tend to charge more or less double and that a government study showed that at least 4,000 Amazon employees in eight states had to resort to welfare benefits to be able to live.
Some of the Alabama warehouse workers believe the time has come to improve their conditions. Driven by the coronavirus online sales boom, Amazon increased its profits 84% last year and hired more than 400,000 new employees worldwide. The company, which forces its workers to work overtime based on demand, rewarded them with an increase of 1.7 euros per hour during the worst of the pandemic, but has now taken this extra from them again. Many of his employees at Bessemer are now paid less than when they came to work at the plant, which opened in March last year.
A national battle over the future of employment
Amazon is practically unique among the big tech companies because, because of its business, the bulk of its workers are not highly paid engineers like Google or Facebook, but low-skilled employees who organize orders in facilities like the one in Alabama. It is hard and physically demanding work: many of them walk about 20 kilometers a day carrying products, and others pack them with repetitive gestures that have been linked to occupational diseases. They are all monitored with technology tools every second to measure their productivity.
Unions have been trying to break into Amazon for decades. In its early 1990s, the company explained in its advertisements that it was looking for employees to do the job “in a third of the time that most competent people believe is possible” and sent emails titled “YOU WILL SLEEP WHEN YOU HAVE DEAD”. In 2011, a Pennsylvania newspaper reported that in one of Amazon’s warehouses, the company preferred to have an ambulance ready to serve employees who were fainting from the heat than to spend on installing air conditioning.
At the same time, the company has resorted to threats and even dismissal for years to prevent its workers from having union representation. Although in other European countries such as Spain or Germany they have had no choice but to accept it, until now they had managed to prevent their US employees from doing the same. They have never been as close to a loss as now and it is quite a fluke that it happened in a deeply conservative state like Alabama.
At the Bessemer warehouse, 85% of the workers are African-American and the unions have spoken of their struggle as “a civil rights issue” and aligned with the anti-racist protests of Black Lives Matter. However, the situation is more complex. There are divisions, for example, between younger employees who have only seen lower-paying jobs than Amazon’s and those older who come out of other sectors with better conditions and where unions were traditionally stronger.
Those who want to form the union have received the support of President Biden and also a visit from leftist senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime foe of Amazon. In 2018, he already presented a bill that he entitled the ‘Stop Bezos Law’ to force large companies to return to the government everything it spent on providing poverty relief to its employees. So the employer decided to raise the salaries of his employees to just under 13 euros per hour.
The unions believe that, even if they lose the vote, Alabama will be a before and after for Amazon and for the country. In 1964, a third of all Americans who worked outside of agriculture were union members, but now that number has dropped to 11%. Unions and their Democratic allies hope the trend will reverse and that the first step of change will be taken by 5,800 workers in a small town in the South. We will know the results in the coming days.