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the historic struggle of Amazon employees in Alabama

                Employees of the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer were invited to vote for or against the creation of a union.  If the “yes” wins, it will be a US first for the online distribution giant, which has led a campaign to convince them to vote “no”.

                                    <p><em>From our special correspondent in Alabama,</em>

The counting of the ballots of the 5,800 employees of the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer begins this Tuesday, March 30 in the suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. In this fight for a union, Amazon urged its employees to vote against the creation of such an association. The second-largest employer in the country, the company, which denies accusations of abuse by employees, fears that unionization will spread to its other US sites.

« We are not robots, we are not machines, we are humans », Launches an activist armed with her megaphone. Gathered in Birmingham in the parking lot of Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the most influential union in mass distribution, Amazon employees who want to be represented complete their campaign.

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The campaign for a union is displayed outside of Amazon ownership. © Anne Corpet / RFI
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    </div>For a month, they tried to mobilize their colleagues and denounced the trying and even humiliating working conditions.  " <em>We are treated like animals.  It is very hot inside the warehouse, the air conditioning does not work except in the room reserved for breaks.  And they only give us five minutes to get to and from the bathroom, when the warehouse is the size of a football field.  It's impossible !</em> <em>», </em>exclaims Linda Burns, employee of the Bessemer site, before adding<em> : «</em> <em>We do our best but it is never enough for them.</em> »

To (re) read: United States: in Alabama, Amazon employees face the company’s anti-unionism

Beside him, Darryl Richardson nods. Employed for a year at Amazon, it was he who contacted the RWDSU central after an altercation with a superior about a pee break deemed too long. ” He told me that these ten additional minutes would be deducted from my working time, I found that unfair and I did some research that evening on the internet to find out which union to contact. », Explains the African-American, who says he is too old to try to apply elsewhere. According to Darryl Richardson, Amazon times the ” UNTIL “, the ” Time Off Task ”(Time spent outside the task) and a warning appears on the screens of those who are absent from their position for more than the statutory five minutes, apart from the single break of thirty minutes per day. Some are dismissed without consideration or serious reason. The working hours are irregular and the surveillance is constant.

Black Workers Matter: Black Workers Matter

In this southern state of the United States, the powers of the unions are reduced and membership fees are not compulsory, which further restricts their power. But the struggle of Bessemer Amazon employees, more than 80% of whom are African-American, has taken on a particular resonance given the history of the region.

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“In Alabama, people have died to claim their right to vote, to equal treatment. Martin Luther King started his civil rights campaign here, and the Amazon employee struggle is part of that tradition “, Asserts Christopher J. England, the president of the democratic party of the state, before adding:” Employees should be respected for their efforts and for their work, regardless of their skin color. »

Several leftist and civil rights organizations have joined the fight of Amazon employees and denounce the inequalities amplified by the pandemic. African Americans have been hit hardest by the coronavirus, while the online distribution giant increased its profits by 84% in 2020. Internet orders have exploded with the imposition of health restrictions, but 20,000 Amazon employees in the United States (over one million) contracted Covid-19.

« When the boss of a company earns nearly $ 80 billion from the pandemic and his employees fight to put food on their tables, pay their rent, they have had to go to their posts in terror to catch a fatal disease is a big deal. We’re here to tell the world that black workers matter, and we ask for the respect we are due », Says Eric Hall, who chairs the Black Lives Matter movement in Birmingham.

Sanitary measures have been put in place inside the warehouses, but the employees see it above all as a new source of coping ” I have to run to go to the bathroom, and if I get closer than two meters away from my colleagues during the trip, I am entitled to a remark from my supervisor “, Synthesizes Linda Burns,” it’s a permanent stress ».

Jeff Bezos’ fortune against unions

As it has done in the past in Connecticut, Delaware or Virginia, Amazon has led an active campaign against the unionization of its employees in Bessemer. The firm attempted to intercede in court to have the vote organized in person, ensuring it could take place safely in the warehouse. Without success.

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The Bessemer Amazon warehouse, with a voting sign on the facade.
The Bessemer Amazon warehouse, with a voting sign on the facade. © Anne Corpet / RFI
    </div>On the other hand, she obtained from the municipality that the time of the traffic light located at the exit of her property goes more quickly to green, officially for " <em>streamline traffic</em> ".  However, any person foreign to the company who ventures into the parking lot is quickly escorted to the exit by security guards, or even by the police, and this red light was for a month the place of campaign of the members of the union of the large distribution.  " <em>They wanted to limit our speaking time to employees, there is no doubt </em>Sighs Mike Foster, RWDSU representative in Birmingham.

Amazon also recruited Morgan Lewis, the most expensive consulting firm on the market, who held meetings to try to dissuade employees from voting ‘yes’. A whole argument well honed by years of anti-union activism was deployed there. And a website has been designed to convince the employees. “Jeff Bezos is trying to stop us just because he wants to keep doing what he wants, without having to negotiate. He spends millions on us instead of helping his employees! », storm Mike Foster, who does not hesitate to compare the boss of Amazon to those of the large plantations in the days of slavery.

Asked to testify before Congress as part of a hearing organized by Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, the billionaire refused to appear. ” The only times we see those responsible is when they come to reprimand us “, Blurted out in front of elected officials Jennifer Bates, an employee of the Bessemer site.

A ballot with uncertain results

However, the arguments made by Amazon seem to have hit the mark with some employees, who were more annoyed by the union’s campaign than by that of their employer. ” Amazon made it clear to us that if we voted to create a union, we would no longer be able to negotiate directly with our superiors. But union dues cost five hundred dollars a month: will the RWDSU defend me properly if I don’t pay it? I doubt », Explains Renée, who assures to have obtained a change of post without difficulty after having sweated six months on the chain of the packages to be sent.

« Amazon has done nothing against me, and is providing me with good health insurance. How can you complain when you receive so much? “, Continues the fifty-year-old, who wishes to remain anonymous, before asserting:” I received dozens of texts from union activists, it was bordering on harassment. There are so many people who don’t have a job. If you’re not satisfied, it’s easy to walk out the door. I don’t need a union, I can defend myself on my own. ”

At the wheel of his slightly broken car, Kalon Jordan, 22, adds: “ I did harder jobs. People who are unhappy would be unhappy anywhere else. The presence of a union will not change anything for them. »

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Kalon Jordan, Amazon employee
Kalon Jordan, Amazon employee © Anne Corpet / RFI
    </div>Amazon also continues to attract job applicants in this locality where unemployment reaches 30% of the population.  Brenda Akers comes out of a job interview and hopes she gets a job.  " <em>It won't be more difficult than being a waitress in the restaurant where I have worked for thirty-five years.</em>, she believes. <em>The salary is the same but will be fixed.  I will not depend on the tip of the customers. </em>»

Brenda thinks, in principle, rather opposed to unions: « They could impose a uniform on us, she fears. But with the heat in Alabama, that’s not a good idea. I prefer to work in the clothes that suit me the best. »

Strong political support

For the Democratic Party, the Bessemer election is a historic opportunity to revive unionism, which is dying in the United States. Only 10% of American employees join a workers’ organization, up from 30% in the 1960s.

The US President has put his weight in the battle and has shown his support for the employees: “ Unions have built the middle class in America, and my administration will support the right of every American to organize “, said Joe Biden in a video posted on Twitter on 1is mars.

And, without however directly citing Amazon, he insisted: “ Workers in Alabama and elsewhere to vote and there should be no bullying, no threat. Make your voice heard ! »

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Bernie Sander came to support Amazon employees fighting to create a union.
Bernie Sander came to support Amazon employees fighting to create a union. © RFI / Anne Corpet
    </div>Three weeks later, Bernie Sanders made the trip to Birmingham to support Amazon employees.  " <em>This is the first time that a president has intervened so clearly in favor of unions</em> “, Welcomed the senator from the left of the Democratic Party, after praising the action of employees.

« Standing up against one of America’s biggest corporations in an anti-union state is an act of tremendous courage, he said in front of a sparse crowd. If unions can be successful here, it will have repercussions across the country. What is happening here is not just about Alabama but the whole nation! ».

RWDSU representatives claim to have already been contacted by employees of fifty other warehouses, a majority of which are owned by Amazon. The battle of Bessemer employees has therefore already spread, even if the result of the vote remains very uncertain and is likely, in the event of a close ballot, to be contested.

Read also: Germany: the giant Amazon faced with a wave of strikes by its employees


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