BESSEMER, Ala. — “The managers talk to you like you’re a child,” Ray, a 31-year-old Amazon worker, told us when we met going door to door here Dec. 5. A former Walmart worker, he started working at the new Amazon fulfillment center when it opened in March. About two months ago a drive to win union recognition began, and since then hundreds of workers have signed authorization cards for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. “I signed a card,” Ray said.
Ray, and other Amazon workers we met, asked that we not use their last names for fear of retaliation by the bosses. Some 1,500 full-time and part-time workers are employed at the massive facility, not including the many managers and other company personnel.
The opening of the Amazon warehouse, which pays $15 an hour for many positions, was big news in the area and the union-organizing drive is widely known. Bessemer and nearby Birmingham have long been a center for union-organized steel production, pipe mills, foundries and other basic industry, and are close to the coal mining areas of Alabama. Despite the contraction of the steel and mining industries in recent decades, many new Amazon workers have family who are union members and veterans of important labor and civil rights struggles that have taken place here.
The pace of work is extremely fast in the warehouse, Ray and his friend Jerry, who was visiting, said, and the turnover of workers is high. “You have a maximum of nine seconds to handle an item and get it into the ‘pod.’ They want you to do it in five seconds and they track everything. But if you have a larger item, like a TV, you can’t handle it in nine seconds.”
“We’re working 12-hour shifts now and get only two 30-minute breaks,” said Jerry, who used to work at the Dollar General distribution center here. “If you want to smoke or eat outside, it takes practically your whole break just to get out and back. And overtime isn’t voluntary.” Jerry decided to subscribe to the Militant to learn more about other workers’ struggles in the U.S. and around the world.
Both said workers get written up for little things all the time. “If you get written up, you get bumped back to a lower position,” Ray said. Too many write-ups and you’re fired.
Workers notified the National Labor Relations Board Nov. 20 that they want to hold a union election. The company immediately tried to get the hearing pushed back. The NLRB ruled Dec. 2 that the determination hearing will be Dec. 18. Union leaflets explain workers should be prepared for the company to step up their anti-union campaign.
Union supporters have a website at www.BAmazonUnion.org where information on the drive is posted and where workers can sign union cards. Union staffers distribute the cards 24/7 at every entrance to Amazon’s parking lot.
When this worker-correspondent knocked on his apartment door, Frank Jones, who retired from Steelworkers-organized U.S. Pipe in Bessemer four years ago, invited me in to talk about what’s happening at Amazon. His son, who recently got out of the military, works there. “They do need a union in there,” Jones said.
John Benson and Markie Wilson contributed to this article.