Concretely, the employees of the Amazon center in Bessemer, in Alabama, a state in the South of the United States, express themselves by correspondence until Monday on the creation or not of a union within their company. An exceptional moment, given the weight gained in recent years by the firm created by Jeff Bezos. Amazon has more than 1.2 million employees worldwide and a hundred distribution centers in the United States alone.
The referendum, a crucial step
But unlike in Europe, Amazon employees in the United States are not represented by any union. It is therefore exceptional that a vote takes place in Bessemer. There had been other attempts in other centers, without even arriving at the vote. But there, more than 30% of the employees said they wanted to vote, and therefore, according to the law, there is no other choice but to organize this referendum. A crucial step for yes supporters, who hope a union will help them change working conditions at Amazon.
Europe 1 was able to follow a demonstration by employees last week. “Union today, unions tomorrow, unions forever!” This cry is that of the demonstrators gathered near the Amazon center in Bessemer. On this sunny afternoon, there are about fifty of them on a vacant lot, between a few hotels on the highway and a gas station. A tent has been pitched. They distribute leaflets in support of Amazon employees. Participants also hold up signs that read ‘yes to the union’.
A link with “Black Lives Matter”
Curtis Gray is an official of the retailers and wholesalers union, RWDSU. He is proud to participate in an important moment. “It is time to revive the unions. They have been at their lowest for years. It will set an example to put them back on their feet,” he said.
Little by little, other people arrive at the meeting place, many families with young children or older people, veterans of union struggles. A gigantic bus in the colors of the Black Lives Matter movement makes a lap of honor before dumping its occupants. Because today’s demonstration was organized by BLM. No wonder when you consider that over 80% of Amazon employees in Bessemer are black. The trade union struggle is also a fight against racial inequalities.
“ Black people matter in everything they do as employees “
“Black lives matter,” says Angela Angel, local leader of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Not just in the justice system, but also at work. Black people are important in everything they do as employees. It doesn’t matter how much we try to silence them, it doesn’t matter how much they prey on. the largest corporation in the history of the world, they will continue to fight. “
Crédits : Aviva Fried / Europe 1
Employees “not valued”
In a big concert of horns, the demonstration turns into a caravan of vehicles passing and repassing in front of the huge hangar housing the Amazon warehouse. Among the activists, very few Amazon employees who are too afraid of the possible reprisals from the company.
It is in the premises of the Union of Retailers and Wholesalers, about thirty kilometers away, that we meet Daryl Richardson. He has been with Amazon for a little over a year. His wry eyes testify to the difficult life of this 51-year-old African-American. “From 7.15 am to 5.45 pm, I am looking for at least more than 3,500 products for Amazon,” said the employee. “It’s tiring. My wrists hurt, my legs are sore. I have hand cramps. Sometimes the cramps are so bad that I only use one hand to relieve the other. you probably don’t drink enough. Your whole body makes you suffer. And when you come home, you can do nothing but sleep. You are too tired to eat. Every day, we give ourselves to 110% for Amazon, but we don’t feel valued. ” Speaking of his working conditions, Daryl Richardson nervously shakes his hands, a sign of the pains that accompany him every day.
On the Amazon side, however, it boasts of offering employees exceptional conditions for a minimum wage of $ 15.30, twice the legal minimum. An argument used by the company to dissuade employees from unionizing. Amazon has stepped up anti-union meetings to convince employees to vote ‘no’. “What were they saying during these meetings? ‘The unions only want your dues. They cannot give you any guarantees. They are going to take your benefits, your salary. With your dues, they are going to buy themselves new cars.” I asked them during these meetings, ‘If unions are so bad, why are you doing all you can to keep them from coming here?’ Recalls Darryl Richardson.
Crédits : Aviva Fried / Europe 1
But Amazon’s arguments seem to have hit the mark with some employees. While the Black Lives Matter trailer is still rolling, Lavonnette Stokes is stationed on the side of the road in front of the warehouse entrance with a sign that reads ‘Unions, find another cash cow’ . For her, those who demand a union make the whims of spoiled children. “I think a lot of those who are upset are because they listen to each other too much. When I feel like going to the bathroom, I don’t spend 30 minutes there on top of the two 30-minute breaks that I have. we are given, as many young employees do. They are not serious, they discuss among themselves, they do not do what they are paid to, which is to pack. ”
“ Every time I go to work I wonder what they gonna do to me “
Darryl Richardson, on the other hand, wants to believe that unionization will prevail, but he fears that the precariousness of jobs at Amazon has discouraged more than one employee who cares little about making waves. He himself fears retaliatory measures. “Every time I go to work I wonder what they’re going to do to me. Am I going to be fired today? They’re going to find a reason to get rid of me. I think about it all the time. , but as long as I think I’m doing what’s right to make things better for everyone, I don’t regret a thing. ” If ever his wish is granted and the yes wins, it will set a precedent that could lead to unionization in all Amazon warehouses in the United States.
A change with Biden?
In this country, unions played an important role, especially after World War II. Some trade union federations were all-powerful, like the truckers ‘union, or the dockers’ union. But in 1981, Ronald Reagan, by breaking the strike by air traffic controllers, dealt a serious blow to the labor movement, which was already beginning to falter. In thirty years, we have gone from 20% union members in the United States to just over 10% today. More than half of American states have also passed laws prohibiting the requirement to unionize in order to work. And court rulings, including from the Supreme Court, have recently been very favorable to employers. That could change: Joe Biden is known to be pro-union.
The new US president has also provided support to Amazon employees at Bessemer. During his campaign, he pledged to end what he calls “the war on the unions” and to launch far-reaching reforms. For example, he wants the federal state to be able to intervene to guarantee negotiations between unions and employers, where employers often play for time in order not to give in.
Joe Biden also wants to expand the right to strike, or to reverse these laws which prohibit the obligation to organize. He finally wants to increase the federal minimum wage from $ 7.25 to $ 15. Of course, with a very divided Senate, such reforms seem ambitious. He has already had to put off the increase in the minimum wage. But he still sent a very strong sign to the employees: his brand new Minister of Labor is himself a former union leader.
Source site www.europe1.fr