“Take care of us when you’re in there!” launches an Amazon employee at two unionists in neon vests, posted at the entrance to the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, the scene of a major unionization attempt that the e-commerce giant is fiercely fighting.
The sun has not yet risen, but Steve and Syrena hold up their signs to the attention of the night shift workers who are leaving the premises, and those of the day who take over on this foggy Saturday.
“Thank you for your courage!” can they read in the light of their headlights on the signs stamped RWDSU, the union of the distribution which will represent the 5,800 employees, if they vote in its favor.
This would be a first in the United States at Amazon, which employs 800,000 people in the country, mainly at sorting and packaging sites like this one.
Union members have been taking turns for 5 months at this intersection between a national road and industrial buildings. Behind them, banners calling to vote were displayed on the huge white and gray warehouse, next to a luminous arrow in the shape of a smile, the group’s logo.
The mainstay of volunteers, Steve, came almost every day, 3 a.m. to dawn and 3 p.m. in the evening, first to collect signatures calling for a vote on organizing, then to convince the employees to vote yes, and now to thank them for their mobilization.
“He’s too modest to say it, but some days he collected up to 50 signatures all by himself!” says Syrena.
Move along, there’s nothing to see
More than 3,000 employees have signed an agreement in principle, but victory is far from assured. Without officially opposing the unions, Amazon is campaigning with weekly meetings, texts and posters in the toilets to dissuade employees.
The union even suspects the firm of having asked local authorities to shorten the red light at the intersection to prevent its members from arguing with drivers for too long.
“From October 20 to December 25, we were there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So we got to know the traffic flow well. And one day the red light changed. It turned green almost all the time, ”said Joshua Brewer, local president of RWDSU.
According to the pro-union More Perfect Union media, the county has confirmed that it has changed the duration of the red light at the request of Amazon, officially to make traffic more fluid.
Lafonda Townsend voted yes to unionization, in order to be able to negotiate better working conditions, especially in terms of safety, protection against COVID-19, and excessively high speeds.
During “obligatory, three times a week” meetings, “they would tell us:” you don’t need representatives, you can contact us directly, you don’t need to pay contributions which will rise. to 500 dollars a year “”, relates this African-American worker to AFP.
“We get lots of text messages from Amazon telling us to vote no,” said Frances Wallace, a 20-year-old employee who came to demonstrate in a park on Saturday with a dozen other people.
She shows one of the messages: “JC, 43, was hired in April. He loves working at Amazon. His health insurance saves him $ 800 a month and has helped him pay for braces for his two sons ”.
Mistrust reigns in Bessemer after months of pro and con campaigning, false rumors and tensions, in the media spotlight that has closely followed the potentially historic movement. Previous organizing efforts at Amazon have failed in the United States.
“They pounded the workers day after day, telling them that with a union, they should strike, and then they could no longer pay their bills,” laments Joshua Brewer. “Some employees are afraid of losing their jobs even if this is not true.”
“Hiring consulting firms specializing in the fight against unionization is quite typical, but we have never seen this level of sophistication and fear, of things that they are ready to do to stifle their voice”, he adds.
Asked by AFP at the start of the vote in February, Amazon recalled job creation (5,000), income level ($ 15 per hour, more than double the minimum wage in Alabama) and social benefits.
“More than 90% of our employees at Bessemer say they would recommend Amazon as a workplace to their friends,” spokesperson Heather Knox said.