Fear and hope: The Alabama Amazon plant unionizing effort through a worker’s eyes

Last summer, Amazon worker Darryl Richardson was fed up with how he and his colleagues were being treated at work. Every part of their day was being tracked and recorded. Even going to the bathroom had become an ordeal.

Too long off the job in a single day could result in termination, said Richardson.

In desperation, he contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Not long after, he found himself sitting with a union organizer at a Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa.

After a months long campaign of quietly gauging interest and building majority support among the 6,000 employees at the Bessemer distribution center, the union effort was controversially voted down by 1,798 to 738.

On April 19, the union filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board claiming Amazon had engaged in an alleged anti-union campaign that left workers with a simple choice: vote against the union or be out of a job. 

Over 3,000 workers had pledged their support before Amazon’s anti-union campaign was launched, according to the RWDSU. By the time the votes were counted, support for the union was below 16%. 

The RWDSU claimed Amazon created an “atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.” 

In response, Amazon said the union was “determined to continue misrepresenting the facts in order to drive its own agenda. We look forward to the next steps in the legal process.”

But the pursuit of a union, which would be the first at an Amazon in the United States and the largest public sector union drive in the South for years, is far from over. The appeal, which could lead to a tribunal, is expected to take two or three weeks to adjudicate. 

The power of unions on the racial and gender wage gap

A central argument of unions and their supporters — in this campaign and others — is that unions can play a large role in closing racial and gender wage gaps.

On average, Black union workers typically earn nearly 15% more than their non-union counterparts, according to a report by the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.,-based economic and social policy think tank. And white union workers earn around 10% more as well. The same report notes that had union membership remained at the levels seen in the 1970s, the racial wage gap among women would be 30% lower.

Organizers see a correlation in the decline of union membership and an increasing racial wealth gap. Union membership in the U.S., and particularly in the South, has dramatically shrunk over the last 50 years, according to a 2020 report from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based economic think tank. Over the same time frame, the racial wage gap has grown from 20% to 30%.

Union organizers estimate that approximately 85% of the Bessmer workforce is Black while women make up around 60%-65% of all employees.

Richardson, 51, recently spoke to Reckon about the organizing campaign, lessons he learned and the pressure going up against one of the world’s most powerful companies.

Reckon: It took 10 months to come this far and the vote failed. With the appeal pending, what are your hopes going forward and what was your experience like?

Richardson: I hope that if we have the opportunity to go into another election we could try things a little different. On the other hand, I feel like it wouldn’t have made no difference due to the illegal stuff that Amazon has done to us. They had a voting mailbox and were pressuring and harassing people to vote early without really knowing what they were voting for. Not everyone was aware of what the union could bring before they voted, so that was disappointing. And the scare tactics too. They told people they might see their wages lowered and lose benefits.

What have you learned about yourself? Have you discovered a new passion for unionizing and workers’ rights?

Yeah. I felt like I did the right thing, to help make it better for people. If I can get the opportunity to keep trying to make it better, I’m gonna keep on fighting because the people deserve more. I feel like it was stolen from us. People deserve job security. They deserve better benefits and deserve a better pay raise. But I also feel like we haven’t lost and this is just the beginning. I’m gonna keep on standing strong when it comes to making sure that people get what they deserve.

Unions are crucial for closing the racial wage gap. Was race a part of your thinking in this process?

When I got hired at their facility, I thought it was a good place to work. And when I got there I realized there needed to be changes. One part of my thinking was that the majority (of the workforce) is African-American, but everyone deserves better. I don’t care what color you are — if you’re black, green, blue, whatever. If you work there, you’ve been mistreated. And everybody deserves to be respected and to be able to use the bathroom without fear.

What do you think scared some people off from voting at all and what do you think made people vote against the union?

They were confused and undecided due to the anti-union  meetings. They didn’t know much about the union and what it can bring, especially the young generation. They just don’t understand. And so when you put that much pressure on somebody younger, saying they gonna lose the benefits and pay, it can go wrong. They think if you vote you might lose your job. Some were first time workers. For them, that’s good money and they don’t want to risk it.

Do you think that made a big difference, that younger people couldn’t see past the wage and benefits to something greater?

Yeah. You got some who are probably staying at home with mom and dad. They ain’t got responsibilities like a house note, rent, utilities, you know? This is good money to do the things that they do as young people. ‘What do I want a union for? I’m comfortable. I don’t need no one to speak for me. I’m at home.’ Them the ones we have to try to talk to and convince and get them to believe and let them understand where we’re coming from. We wanna make sure everything in their workplace is better so generation after generation don’t have to go through things we’re going through now. So that is a big reason a lot of them chose differently. Anti-unity.

So now some time has passed since the vote, what is the feeling among your pro-union colleagues?

Disheartened, disappointed, sad, overwhelmed, and wondering how did we lose? When I first heard I was upset and I was sad for the people. I see employees going through the same thing over and over again. It really really hurt me and I didn’t understand. I was confused, and I’m still upset.

You still work there. What pressure do you feel having gone up against one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world?

When I walk in I don’t feel afraid but I am always looking for retaliation against me. But I’m still going in and doing what I’m supposed to do, hoping as long as I do my job I’m okay. And like I said earlier, I feel like I did everything I can to try to make it better for the employees.

What’s next for you and this union?

I don’t know what’s next. I hope we get the opportunity to have another reelection. If we do I hope there isn’t more meddling inside the facility. I think the outcome will be better next time. I’m just praying and hoping one day we can make a difference when it comes to Amazon. Whatever occurs. I have to deal with it when it comes, but as long as I feel like I did the right thing, I’m gonna be okay.

The Reckon Report.
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