In the deep South, an election took place, fraught with every slick tactic imaginable to keep African Americans from voting. Poll boxes were closely surveilled. Predominantly Black employees leaving work were steered away from organizers holding pamphlets and forced to attend long propaganda meetings. Names of anyone who asked questions were written down, making it clear an attempt to rock the boat would result in a loss of employment. Newly hired police officers outnumbered Black workers clocking into their shift. As is precedent, the opposition of this marginalized community was successful in crushing voter turnout and disenfranchising the population. This paints a picture of a harsh reality for Black residents similar to voting during the Jim Crow era, but this particular election took place 56 years after Jim Crow was ended. This was 2021. This was in Bessemer, Alabama. This was a vote to unionize workers at the local Amazon warehouse.
Bessemer, Alabama has a median household income of $32,000 ($27,000 less than the national average), a poverty rate of 25.8%, and is part of a county drawn so fragmented and jagged it looks like an unfinished puzzle strewn on the floor. Bessemer is also made up of almost 70% Black people living under an unwavering Republican reign. It is clear the planter class is still on top in this southern city, and great grandparents of today’s Black residents experienced some of the harshest anti-Black voting laws during the Jim Crow era. After the Civil War, to participate in the democracy they were newly legally a part of, African Americans in Alabama were soon required to take literacy tests, pay a poll tax, and present proof of registration. They also had to be wary of catching a police officer’s eye, as a criminal conviction would take away their vote for life. These were all historical methods whereby racist systems of power prevented Black residents from voting. Now, in 2021, their descendents experienced another insidious sort of Black voter disenfranchisement in Alabama; this time not by the state government, but the massive corporation Amazon.
Facing a dilemma when their disgruntled and largely Black workforce partnered with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to start a union drive, Amazon set to work to disenfranchise them of their rights. Even with almost all worker’s rights laws stripped away from southern states by “Right to Work,” the employer is still required to hold an election if 30% of the workers sign a union card. More than half of the workers at the Bessemer Amazon warehouse signed cards hoping for a union to alleviate them from unsafe working conditions, excessive productivity goals, and timed bathroom breaks. The warehouse employees’ right to vote on whether to take on union representation cannot be expressly taken away by Amazon. However, much like the Jim Crow state governments of yesteryear, Amazon did everything it could to keep the employees from exercising that right. This started with hiring one of the country’s most expensive union avoidance law firms, Morgan Lewis, to plan and carry out an aggressive anti-union campaign aiming to disenfranchise the 85% Black employees.
The anti-union campaign led by three Morgan Lewis hirees being paid $10,000 per day was broken into two phases: the first being captive audience meetings. This was implemented in January 2021, and it has been confirmed in a hearing report that workers were required to attend meetings run by these paid private consultants and managers. At these meetings, employees were assailed with lies about what could happen to their wages and benefits if they had union representation. Daryll Richardson, an employee, testified in the hearing that “at a meeting he attended employees were told that if the Union came in, employees’ pay would ‘drop.’ Employee Kristina Bell, testified that during a meeting she attended the speaker said that employees’ ‘pay could definitely decrease, and you could lose some of your benefits.’” Amazon also devised a seemingly innocent way to poll employees during these meetings: an unassuming table of various “vote no” paraphernalia (buttons, car tags). The employer argued in court that the workers could voluntarily take the materials or not and no list of names was taken down. However, the mere act of having materials out in an area observed by the consultants and HR representatives coerces the worker to make a choice in front of management: do they side with them or the union? This month of propaganda meetings wore the Amazon employees down. They were constantly supervised, their choices, actions, and questions all closely watched. All the while, they shipped, moved, and packed for backbreaking hours, with wrist trackers and cameras timing their every movement to make sure they did not steal a moment of rest from the company.
While Amazon had complete control of their employees’ every move inside the warehouse, the union was fighting hard for the camaraderie of workers outside the parking lot. Union handbillers were able to spread the word about the union by talking to workers as they pulled up to the traffic light after their shift. These conversations on the corner were one of the only ways the union could reach workers and make their case for collective bargaining. Many workers were unfamiliar with labor politics and only knew what Amazon taught them in the captive audience meetings. In late December, union canvassers noticed a city truck parked next to the traffic light. The next day, as soon as cars pulled up the light would click to green and cars would drive away before canvassers could even say hello. Jefferson County confirmed Amazon reached out to them and requested changing the traffic light. Union organizers inside found it impossible to get footing among their coworkers. When employee Jennifer Bates came to work after giving a media interview in support of the union, she had been moved to a line where she was completely isolated from others. When she asked why she was moved, “[Her manager] said that Bates hadn’t been trained ‘properly the first time,’ and they didn’t want her passing bad habits to other employees. Bates speculated that Ecker was referring to Bates’ media interview in which Bates opined that employees were ‘not trained properly.’” (Quoted from the hearing report linked above). Phase one of Amazon’s anti-union campaign proved successful at systemically isolating the workers from one another.
The second part of the union busting campaign was the “get out the vote” stage. Workers were barraged with unrelenting text messages and mail; TV monitors surrounded them saying vote no. They couldn’t even use their timed bathroom break without a “vote no” flyer posted on their stall. One of the most egregious moves of their campaign was the mailbox Amazon had installed on the premises. The company reached out to USPS in January, requesting that a mailbox be installed on their premises. As the vote approached, Amazon reached out to USPS again, urging them to act soon on the mailbox installation. This new mailbox disenfranchised the voters in multiple ways. It created the impression that the USPS box on the Amazon facility was an official polling location, thus implying that the employer was conducting the election rather than the board. The visible cameras pointed at the mailbox created reasonable suspicion among the workers that Amazon was engaging in surveillance of their protected voting activities; creating the fear that the employer could identify who entered and exited the tent. And even after the USPS expressly told them they could not put anything around the box indicating that it was a vote, the company installed a tent with campaign messages like “speak for yourself, vote here.” In the end, with this brash intimidation and two phased union busting, Amazon succeeded at disenfranchising their majority Black workforce, at least for a time. Out of 5,867 employees, only 53% returned their ballots. The final tally, “of the 3,215 ballots cast, there were 1,798 votes opposing the union and 738 in favor.”
But word of Amazon’s actions eventually made it to the desk of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In August, a hearing officer ruled that Amazon’s Ballot Solicitation, Electioneering, Polling, and Surveillance was enough to impede on the employees’ rights to a free and fair election, and recommended the union vote be redone. And while that recommendation is still being considered by the NLRB’s regional director, there is wide expectation that it will be accepted. So while the legacy of Jim Crow voter disenfranchisement is reflected in Amazon’s actions, there is a glimmer of hope that maybe this time it can be rectified. In the meantime, both the union and Amazon have been gearing up for a potential round two. RWDSU has been keeping organizers busy around the facility, and Amazon has continued to put up anti-union propaganda, so it is clear this fight is far from over, but there is still a chance the predominantly Black voices of Amazon’s Bessemer workers will finally truly get to be heard.