By ERWIN FREED
On Nov. 20, workers at the newly constructed Bessemer, Ala., Amazon warehouse filed for a union election through the National Labor Relations Board. If successful, the 1500 warehouse workers will be organized with the Retail Wholesale, and Department Store union and become the first union Amazon shop in the United States.
Over the last 20 years, innovations in “just-in-time” production have shifted the axis of distribution from one dominated by storefronts to an expectation of immediate delivery, either at home or in large box stores. While this has wreaked havoc on small businesses, it has also created massive build-ups in shipping infrastructure. Major shipping hubs in New York-New Jersey’s port area, Chicago, and Los Angeles concentrate over 100,000 interconnected workers in warehousing, transportation, and other mechanisms of moving and sorting products within relatively compressed geographical and cultural areas.
In his magisterial 2017 book, “On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War,” Kim Moody showed that the country’s more than 60 “logistics clusters” alone employ well over 3 million workers in shops with high concentrations of both capital and labor, with 85% located in metropolitan areas. Organizing these locations will be dynamite for building working-class power, an explosive force that, so far, unions have been afraid to take in hand.
The nature of shipping necessitates high levels of centralization and capital investment. On the one hand, this means spatially dense distribution of workers within a single industry. On the other, it means ever-increasing levels of monopolization within the different companies in a sector. Both of these conditions give labor organizing in the logistics sector the ability to not only bring the economy at large to a halt, but also to deal a severe blow to the profits of the largest corporations that make up the poisoned heart of American capitalism.
Moody also pointed out how logistics’ low-paid and flexible workforce is made possible by the racist structure of American society and built environments. “All the metropolitan sites of the major logistics clusters are also homes to large ‘ghettos’ and ‘barrios’ housing huge numbers of unemployed and underemployed working-class people who are to a large extent ‘enclosed,’ both spatially and occupationally, by racial sgregation and discrimination. … As such, the workers that … fill the warehouses … within the cluster are poorly paid and treated as dispensable.” Bessemer is majority Black with high unemployment and crime rates and is right next to one of Alabama’s largest prisons.
Even in the relatively small project in Bessemer, Amazon is planning to make at least a $375 million investment and has gotten the green light to construct two more facilities in the greater Birmingham Metropolitan Area starting in 2021. The state, county, and local governments have also committed to substantial tax breaks, return on capital, and infrastructural investment in order to encourage Amazon to build the facilities. These fixed capital costs are a weakness for investors and a strength for workers in the fight over conditions.
The fortress of Bezos
The bosses at Amazon’s U.S. facilities have viciously fought unionization efforts for at least two decades. “Amazon has always been actively trying to dissuade employees from organizing unions,” Marcus Courtney, a labor advocate who attempted to unionize call-center workers at Amazon in the early 2000s, told CNBC last month. “That was true 20 years ago and it’s true today.”
In 2000, when it was a much smaller company, there were a number of organizing drives at Amazon that failed. The company gave smiling promises about stock options with one side of its mouth, while screaming words of vitriolic hatred to its workers with the other. Through intimidation campaigns that included laying off 15% of its U.S. workforce, there was no vote taken to approve collective bargaining with either the CWA or UFCW during that drive. Within the group of 1500 workers laid off for “economic” reasons were all 400 customer-service employees who had been fighting for union representation.
In 2014, a small organizing drive of engineers in Middletown, Del., lost a decisive vote for representation by the IAM. That campaign was notable in how weakly it was organized. Instead of making a real drive to bring in the whole shop to a union, the effort was focused on only 30 out of over 1500 workers at the location. Moreover, the means of organizing was not through pickets, strikes, delegations, and other militant activities to show the strength of the workers and build solidarity, but rather through legal efforts made by both the company and the union bureaucracy.
The coronavirus pandemic sparked a number of job actions in non-union shops this year. Every section of society was forced to recognize the centrality of logistics and service-sector workers, deeming them “essential” and “frontline.” Wildcat strikes broke out in Amazon facilities around the country this spring, as well as at Whole Foods (which is owned by Amazon), Target, McDonalds, and a plethora of other companies. Amazon retaliated by firing at least four workers, including Chris Smalls, who organized a major walkout at a Staten Island Warehouse in March. On April 16, a labor board regional director in Chicago announced that Amazon had illegally fired rank-and-file organizer Ted Miin, but refused to penalize the company.
Only hours before the Washington Post put knowledge of the Bessemer union drive into national consciousness, Vice News’s Motherboard released an extensive article reporting on Amazon’s practices of spying on, intimidating, and using technology against potentially pro-union workers. These tactics are not limited to any particular region but are carried out in a centralized way throughout Amazon’s operations all over the world.
Amazon union organizers step up to the plate
Workers fighting to win representation in the Bessemer facility have a historic task ahead. They also have their work cut out for them. Bessemer is one of the poorest cities in Alabama, with high unemployment and one of the country’s highest crime rates. Amazon will do anything they can to trick the workers against uniting for their shared benefit. The company’s strategy will certainly include exhausting “captive audience” meetings; mobilizing politicians and community figures to speak against the union; and all manner of outright lies. If their actions abroad are any indication, they will hire firms like the infamous Pinkerton agency to spy on and intimidate workers.
At the same time, employees can expect the company to tell them how lucky they are to have jobs during a pandemic, that they are a “family,” and that Amazon is doing everything it can to keep them safe.
In order to stay strong and win the union, Bessemer Amazon workers must recognize that they have collective power and begin to use it. They are facing off against a $1.5 trillion company that has every intention of decisively stopping organizing efforts in its facilities. Now is the time to start flexing their muscles with walk-offs, petitions, and pickets. These will be supported by workers not only around the United States, but all over the world. Union and non-union workers around the country have an obligation to take every opportunity to show solidarity with these workers in their struggle.
Photo: Amazon workers picket in Minnesota in July 2019.