The eyes of the world are on Birmingham

Eli Cohen
Eli Cohen

Today’s guest columnist is Eli Cohen.

The holidays during Covid-19 are going to be different. Holiday shopping will be as well. The company with the most to gain is Amazon.

But here in Birmingham, they have a new and highly unexpected obstacle—a union election.

On November 20th, a local chapter of the Retail Workers and Department Store Union (RWDSU), filed a petition to hold a union election at the Amazon fulfilment center in Bessemer. They made the petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that enforces labor law. Even this initial step came as a surprise to many. There are no unionized Amazon warehouses in the United States. According to the public documentation I’ve found, only one has formally tried. They ended up falling hundreds of votes short. The process is legally complex, logistically challenging, and extremely time consuming. But the organizers in Bessemer have decided it’s worth the risks.

Why unionize?

The union organizers, who call themselves “Bamazon Union,” say their primary motivation is to increase bargaining power, especially in the areas of “safety standards, training, breaks, pay, [and] benefits.” Neither their website nor the petition includes specific demands, such as an hourly pay rate. Amazon notably began offering a minimum wage of $15 an hour in 2018. Alabama’s is less than half that at $7.25, the lowest allowable by law.

The union organizers appear to be focusing more on changing the overall relationship between Amazon management and the employees themselves. Work inside these warehouses is reportedly grueling, physically and almost entirely dictated by machines, mentally as well. The union website acknowledges that Amazon sometimes addresses issues, but that “it’s all temporary.” For example, Amazon offered a nationwide $2 an hour wage increase in March, but it eliminated the raise at the end of May. By having a union, the organizers argue, workers will have access to legal avenues to hold Amazon accountable.

How the election works

The filing with the NLRB is called an RC Petition, essentially a request for legally-binding union representation. At just over 60,000 members, the Retail Workers and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is one of the smaller national unions in the country, but outside of its New York Headquarters, some of the largest chapters are in the Southeast. The Mid-South Council, based in Birmingham, has almost 6,000 members.

To file the petition, 30% of the warehouse workers must have already signed what’s called a “union card,” a show of support, although it is not binding. Experts say that for a union to petition the NLRB, however, they would typically have much more support, ideally a strong majority. With the petition filed, it may seem that little will happen until the election. But in reality, this is where many crucial details are debated. Both Amazon and the RWDSU will be determined to obtain the most favorable terms possible before election day.

Amazon has already asked to delay the process by a month, but the NLRB declined, only pushing it back by one week. A formal hearing has been scheduled for December 18th, at which point the election date could be set. In the past, many companies have tried to delay elections, as more time typically erodes union support.

Another crucial detail is what’s called a “bargaining unit,” or the number of people who will be represented by the union. The size of the unit is critical. On election day, a majority of the unit must vote to join, i.e. 50% plus just one more worker. When the Bessemer fulfilment center opened in March of this year, Amazon said it would hire 1,500 employees. So the RWDSU asked for a unit of the same size. Amazon has already countered with a new size: 5,723. That means over 2,500 people would have to vote “yes” for the union. Amazon claims it currently employs more than 5,000 full-time, permanent workers at the facility. The union disputes this number, arguing that it “defies logic that a facility built to accommodate around 1,500 full time associates can accommodate 5,723 employees.” These are the details that can make or break a unionization effort.

Past tactics against unionization

Amazon has gained notoriety over the past few years for the lengths it will go to prevent unionization at its warehouses. For example, the company hired private detective agency Pinkerton to monitor unionization efforts; in some cases, sending undercover detectives into their own warehouses. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has strict guidelines about what a company can and cannot do to prevent its workers from unionizing. Overt threats, especially threatening to fire organizers, are illegal. But multiple workers have been fired after attempting to organize, usually due to safety violations. The workers claim those are false pretenses.

Amazon’s aversion to unionization is perhaps understandable. Their business model is especially vulnerable to many of the classic threats of organized labor. Unlike a manufacturing job, which can be done anywhere or even moved overseas to find people willing to work for less, Amazon must store its merchandise near its customers. Their warehouses have to be exactly where they are. Additionally, there is no way to stockpile merchandise and wait out a strike or protest. If Amazon loses too many staff on any day, their most valuable asset—instant shipping—is immediately jeopardized.

Even so, many wonder if Amazon will eventually “automate” these warehouse jobs, i.e. replace human workers with robots. By all indications, that is exactly what Amazon wants to do. But while this “robot replacement” has been speculated about for years, it has yet to arrive. In fact, the task most warehouse workers do—handle diverse items without breaking them—is still incredibly difficult for a robot. The age of automation is coming, but on the immediate horizon, Amazon’s massive workforce is still necessary. In fact, Covid-19 has made them more essential than ever.

Amazon’s pandemic expansion

It’s hard to understate Amazon’s expansion during the pandemic. They’ve hired over 400,000 workers this year. Since July, they’ve hired an average of 2,800 each day. This summer, the company had $88.9 billion in quarterly sales, up 40% from the same quarter last year. The fulfillment center in Bessemer opened at the end of March, just after Governor Kay Ivey announced the first shelter-in-place order. Last month, Amazon broke ground on Project Magic,” a last-mile delivery center which will replace the abandoned Century Plaza. They’ve also announced Project Church,” an expansion of the Bessemer warehouse, and yet another development in Bessemer—three new developments in just one year.

Though the pandemic can account for much of Amazon’s hiring spree, it doesn’t fully explain all the new developments in Birmingham. Such facilities lay the groundwork for Amazon’s one day delivery service, “Prime FREE Same-Day,” which they began offering in select locations last year. Birmingham has yet to be included, but these new warehouses would likely change that.

All of this growth is wonderful for Amazon’s bottom line, but it also makes the company vulnerable—they need their workers more than ever. Last year, a fulfillment center in Minnesota went on strike on “Prime Day,” Amazon’s self-made shopping holiday. With Covid-19, rapid Birmingham development, and the peak of the holidays, the timing of this union election is no accident. When workers are at their most essential, they are also at their most powerful.

Next time you order from Amazon, be it your holiday shopping or just another roll of toilet paper, consider the warehouse in Bessemer where your item almost certainly comes from. It’s impossible to know if the union will succeed, and even harder to know what may come after. Either way, a piece of labor history is being written here in Birmingham. People from all over the world will be watching. We should pay attention as well.

Eli Cohen recently completed a Watson Fellowship, traveling to India, Nepal, and Myanmar to study the intersection of technological development and political power. Before that, he produced public radio at WBHM and studied US Congress at The Brookings Institution. Eli graduated from Pomona College in 2019. He is a Birmingham native.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham.

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5 thoughts on “The eyes of the world are on Birmingham”

  1. Birmingham was the first city to challenge Live Nation and win in a unionization fight. That victory led to a contract that covers 17 live nation venues across the eastern sea board and has made a significant impact for the better on the workers lives. We have a long history of fighting for workers rights and this is another example of Birmingham Leading the nation.

  2. I am not anti-union, nor fanatically pro-union…to me it depends on the company and the type of business. For example, highly exploitative industries like mining, steel production, meat processing, and auto workers once needed and deserved a union.

    But Amazon? I don’t know. Birmingham desperately needs major industries and jobs. Unionizing Amazon – one of the most innovative and highly invested in the world finally chose Birmingham for a major site. Are we going to ruin it for a union, and possibly drive away investment in the region by other major companies?

  3. First, Eli, a very good explanation of this process and the ramifications, and I applaud your neutrality in presentation.

    Karl, those are certainly sensible questions, but it is not in anyone’s best interest to stunt the growth of Amazon or any other business in our region, state or nation. Hopefully there are wise leaders in this organizing effort. The primary effort in most unionizing attempts is to simply give the workers, ‘labor’, a voice in addressing conditions within the work place. Before the boom of union organization in the early 20th century, many of the standards we all enjoy today simply didn’t exist. Weekends were not a thing, harassment was not a consideration, gender equality and maternity needs were not considered a part of business policy, etc..

    I do not know what the particular terms being sought might be, but I certainly support the efforts of our Birmingham brothers and sisters to take a little control of their own fates, and to possibly influence those of their colleagues across the country.

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