BESSEMER, Ala. — The drive by hundreds of workers at the large Amazon warehouse and distribution center here to bring in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to represent them is going strong.
They face a concerted effort by Amazon bosses to use all their resources to keep the union out, from mandatory anti-union meetings in the warehouse to anti-union signs in the bathrooms. The National Labor Relations Board-run election by mail is set to end March 29. Some 5,800 workers at the distribution center are eligible to vote.
There are important stakes for workers all across the country in this fight. Workers need unions to organize themselves to meet the attacks of the employers against our jobs, wages and working conditions. This battle in Bessemer is one front in an ongoing national class struggle.
“An important and far-ranging discussion is going on among working people in Alabama — and beyond — about the union-organizing drive now underway here,” Rachele Fruit, Socialist Workers Party candidate for Atlanta mayor, told the Militant in Bessemer March 6. “The SWP campaign across the country has thrown itself behind this fight, and we’re doing all we can to build support.
“That’s why I’m here this weekend, along with Margaret Trowe, SWP candidate for mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, and campaign supporters from both places,” she said. “Workers involved in the organizing drive need solidarity.
“We’ve met workers of all backgrounds, from young to retirees, from grocery store workers to coal miners, and many are hoping for a union victory,” she said. “Some are talking to family members who work at Amazon about the difference a union can make and why they should vote ‘yes.’”
“I voted ‘yes’ on my union ballot,” Julia Vanderlinden told Fruit, when she and Louisville SWP campaigner Jacquie Henderson spoke with her March 6 in nearby Hueytown, where many steelworkers and coal miners live. One thing going for the organizing drive is the long history of union organizing and struggles in the area. “I learned about unions from my father, who worked in the coal mines for years. My husband is a miner,” she said.
JaMiracle Howard, who lives in the same complex as Vanderlinden and also works at Amazon, told the socialist campaigners that she had decided not to vote in favor of the union. “Amazon is a much better company than the one I worked for before, where I was fired for being pregnant,” Howard said. “Amazon appreciates me.”
“That’s what all the companies tell us,” said SWP campaigner Ned Measel, who works at Walmart. “But what if something happens? Or a manager doesn’t like you? Or we need to fight against speedup? A worker alone can’t confront a giant company as an individual. We need to combine our forces as workers. It takes solidarity and using the power that only comes when we act together, that’s what a union is.
“And we have to see ourselves as part of an international class of workers, the only class that can make a fundamental change to end this capitalist system, which is the source of the crisis working people face,” he said.
Howard decided to get an introductory subscription to the Militant and bought In Defense of the US Working Class. “I want to read that part in there about the miners and the teachers,” she said, referring to the series of militant teachers strikes that swept the country in 2018.
Example of Blackjewel miners
In Hueytown, Shea Harper invited Trowe and this worker-correspondent onto her porch to talk. “I’m so glad you said you weren’t for the Democrats or Republicans,” she said with a laugh. Her son, Stephen, who works as a belt repairman at Warrior Met no. 7 mine in Brookwood, came out and joined us. “I think the union is good, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems,” he said. “The company will do anything to get the coal out, no matter what it takes. They’ve been firing people. It’s not right.”
“We learned a lot about what a union really means during the fight of the Blackjewel miners in 2019,” Trowe said. “There are no union mines left in Kentucky, but when the Blackjewel company went bankrupt and stole the miners’ final paychecks, the miners, their families, their community in Harlan County stood up and said, ‘No!’
“They sat in on the railroad tracks and kept the company from bringing the coal out. They won solidarity from around the country, including from Walmart workers in Louisville, where I work. In the end, they got the money they were owed. Those miners acted and fought like a union.”
“Unions help unite workers and cut across the divisions the bosses try to foster,” Trowe said. “I’m against any kind of discrimination,” Shea Harper said, adding she strongly disagrees with the current “liberal” view that race, not class, is primary and virtually all Caucasian workers are racist.
“There’s less racism among Caucasian workers now than ever before,” said Trowe, “because of the gains of the Black-led mass movement that overthrew Jim Crow segregation, which was especially strong here, and because the capitalist crisis today pushes us together.”
Need unions at Amazon, Walmart
Socialist campaigners Samir Hazboun from Louisville and Lisa Potash from Atlanta, both Walmart workers, met Sharon Godfrey going door to door in Hueytown. Godfrey told them she had worked at the Bessemer Walmart for almost 20 years and became a supervisor, but was forced out of her position because she refused to write up the cashiers. The fight for a union at Amazon is a good thing, she said, adding that workers at the Bessemer Walmart need one too.
She was also interested to hear about the fight of the Blackjewel miners. “You don’t hear about that kind of win!” Godfrey said. “Not on the news. We need to get the word out about this kind of stuff. How much is the subscription?”
She subscribed to the Militant and also bought a copy of Are They Rich Because They’re Smart?
“We call on working people everywhere to send messages of solidarity and to build support for this union fight among co-workers, in your community, in your union local, and anywhere else where you spread the word about the organizing drive,” Fruit said on the way back to Atlanta. “And we’re going to use our campaigns to help spread the word.” Messages of support can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The fight that’s being organized here is very important. It has brought a layer of workers together in the warehouse and inspired workers elsewhere,” she added. “Even if they don’t win this election, the pro-union movement will grow and our ability to fight together to protect our class interests will come out stronger.
“We go back from here better prepared to tell other workers what this fight is about and what the stakes are for all working people,” she said. “And to build solidarity.”