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Est. April 5, 2002
Mar 11, 2021 - Issue 856
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The nearly 6,000 workers at the Amazon distribution center in Bessemer, Ala., who are voting this month to join a union, are potentially leading the way for all Amazon workers around the country to join a union, a most difficult task anywhere in the South.

Most of the workers in Bessemer are black and in struggling for a voice in the workplace (that’s what a union gives otherwise powerless workers) are building on a long history of black struggle in the South for dignity, equality, and justice. That’s what the organizing drive is about and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union is offering just that, as unions have done since they were in effect decriminalized with passage of the National Labor Relations Act in the mid-1930s.

It never was easy for black workers, in the South or elsewhere. First, they fought the racism in the period of Reconstruction, then jim crow, then open segregation including in the union movement, right into the mid-20th Century, when black workers who maintained railroad locomotive engines had to sue the Brotherhood of Locomotive and Enginemen all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to gain admission to the 1944. One of the leaders of that effort was one of the bravest of union leaders, A. Philip Randolph, founder and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a leader in the civil rights movement. It wasn’t easy then and it’s not easy today, as proven by the struggle at Amazon.

Amazon, owned by Jeff Bezos, described by Wikipedia as “an American internet entrepreneur, industrialist, media proprietor, and investor. Bezos is the founder and CEO of the multi-national technology company Amazon. He is the richest person in the world according to the Forbes Real-Time Billionaires ranking.” His net worth was estimated at $192.6 billion.

Bezos is reported by Truthout as paying union-busting consultants some $10,000 a day, plus expenses, to convince the Bessemer workers that the union is bad for them and they can get the same pay and benefits without paying union dues. This lie has been told by “union avoidance” consultants for as long as there have been such entities. Usually, they are law firms that specialize, but sometimes they are incorporated within law firms, but their work is just as dirty, no matter how they are formed.

Their specialty is captive audience meetings, so-called because the workers are directed to attend these meetings to hear every negative thing they can find (they have libraries of documents to pull from) and, when they can’t find what they want, they make it up. It’s all to convince workers that they “don’t need a third party in our workplace” and “my door is always open” for discussion of grievances. No worker ever should believe what they hear in these meetings and it’s not likely that the Bessemer Amazon workers will have been taken in by the slick presentations. Because of labor laws, employers are not allowed to try to coerce, cajole, threaten, or sweet-talk workers out of voting for the union. As anyone who has ever tried to organize a union, the law is only adhered to on occasion. Otherwise, the boss lets the consultant do that work. The union, on the other hand, has very limited access to the workers on the premises and the company makes it most difficult to contact workers off the job.

In the case of the Bessemer Amazon workers, there are three “consultants” and they are treated by management like visiting royalty since the defeat of the union organizing is in their capable hands. In Bessemer, this is very much the case, because it is not just the union that Bezos is trying to crush, but, as is the case in every organizing drive, the employer needs to let workers know who has the power.

Amazon workers in this particular organizing drive have a supporter that is unique in that President Joe Biden has spoken forcefully in favor of the union. He said recently: “Workers in Alabama - and all across America - are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice - one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers. Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”

As pointed out in an article in Truthout (, Biden’s statement on unions is arguably the strongest statement about union organizing by a sitting president, going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who may have been inclined to want workers to join unions, but he never actually said the words. Even with the support of President Biden, it is a difficult struggle the Amazon workers are conducting, simply because of the history of prejudice, racism, and hostility that existed for so long in the nation, but especially throughout the South.

The election at Amazon continues by mail through March 29. The National Labor Relations Board, aware of the intimidation campaign conducted by Bezos and his company, apparently decided to give the workers the chance to vote without the threats and ever-present possibility of surveillance by the company. All consultants at this time are pulling out all the stops and using everything in their bag of tricks to try to force workers to vote “no” in any union election. Workers have told various news outlets that anti-union literature is found throughout the plant, even in the washrooms, and “Vote No” buttons have been evident. All of it is the product of the anti-union campaign.

One of the main things that the consultants hammer home to workers is that the union is a “third party” that will speak for the workers, ignoring the reality that members of their own local are among the negotiators and stewards, along with the local officers elected by the rank-and-file. As in many elections, there are usually three groups: Those who believe in the value of a union and fight for it, a second that is apathetic, and a third that has swallowed the company line and opposes unionization. The union is what gives workers a voice in setting wages, benefits, and working conditions, which have been described often at Amazon as inhumane. The pace is relentless and workers are expected to keep up, just as they are in chicken or other meat processing plants.

Bessemer’s workers at Amazon and the area, in general, know that too many have been left behind. The difference in wealth and income between white families and black families is great, with black families having about one-seventh that of white families. Unionization will not close that gap, either in Bessemer or in the rest of the country, but it will put a dent in the disparity and it will provide the Amazon workers a measure of dignity and justice that is not possible now. The record shows that unionization improves lives of families and communities.

The fourth richest man on earth, Warren Buffett, told The New York Times in 2006, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” And this is from a man who intends to give away much of his wealth.

Why does Bezos, worth some $192 billion, want to crush any possibility of a union at his plant in Alabama? Mainly, it’s because there is class war, the poor are not budging from their poverty because of that class war, and corporations will spend endless money to defeat any sign of worker empowerment. The workers in Bessemer might see that. Bezos, like many other corporate heads and owners, will spend whatever it takes to beat back a unionization effort because it’s what they do. And, when all else fails, they threaten to close up shop if workers vote for a union. In this case, it’s not likely, but he’s still spending freely to keep his workers down. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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David A. Love, JD
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