Alabama’s Amazon union fight and the South’s long, often racist, history with labor organizing

Workers at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse could get the greenlight to hold a second union vote in the coming weeks, setting up another showdown between one of the world’s most valuable companies and its embattled employees.

In early August, the Atlanta regional office for the National Labor Relations Board said Amazon violated labor laws by interfering in April’s union vote. Workers wanted to have more control over the company’s fast paced environment and change the highly controlled environment where output and even breaks are timed. 

Alongside its findings, the federal agency recommended holding another vote, a decision that now rests with the NLRB’s regional office in Atlanta.

In coming to its decision, the NLRB said the evidence against the Jeff Bezos-founded company demonstrated that “the employer’s conduct interfered with the laboratory conditions necessary to conduct a fair election.”  

Amazon said in a statement that the vote should stand. 

“Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate,” said the statement. “And at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company.” 

Having the vote overturned is a big step toward a potentially big win for Amazon’s employees and could become an impetus for improved workers’ rights across the country and in the South, according to Daniel Cornfield, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and editor of the Work and Occupations academic journal.

“This decision is an important victory and extends to workers beyond the South,” said Cornfield, who added that the new pro-union administration in the White House likely affected the decision. “Certainly, the actions of the president, as well as national politicians, and the NLRB can send a message to workers everywhere who are trying to unionize that they have the right to do so and that the employer must allow them to do so.”

Despite raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour, Amazon has been the target of multiple unionization efforts. Amazon employees in Staten Island, New York, also recently lost a disputed unionization vote. The NLRB found that Amazon interfered in that May vote but has not made similar recommendations to hold another.

In response to Amazon, which is the one of the world’s largest private employers and has never lost a union vote in the U.S., the International Brotherhood of Teamsters voted in June to create a division that solely focuses on Amazon.

Unions in decline

In the past 60 years, union membership in the South and in the rest of the country has declined by about two-thirds, but while union membership is still relatively strong in some northern states, the continued erosion has left unions in the South on the brink.

Since 1964, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping records, union membership nationally fell from just under 30% of all workers in 1964 to just over 10.8% last year, the lowest since records began.

In the South, around 15% of workers were unionized in 1964, falling to just over 5% today. 

Because of that gradual slide and general anti-union sentiment, major manufacturers have increasingly identified the South as a place to do business — often having the deal sweetened by lucrative fiscal incentives such as tax breaks, hard cash, and even free land.

Those enticements have brought in billions of dollars in investment to the South, ever since Nissan began pumping out vehicles in Smyrna, Tennessee, at the start of the 1980s. The plant heralded the start of a major foreign and domestic automobile manufacturing hub that today is present in nearly every Southern state.

Today, GMC has a presence in Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee. Ford has two plants in Kentucky, while Toyota has manufacturing plants in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Kentucky. The list of major automobile manufacturers goes on, with Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, Volvo, BMW, and Daimler all operating in the South. 

But very few have a union.

Some of the plants have attempted unionization over the years, but most haven’t even tried. Even the successful ones have been held up by years of court challenges. The Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, has a union, but it required a federal appeals court to uphold the results.

But for every successful union, there are several failures.

Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga failed in their efforts back in 2014 and again in 2019 despite having executive backing, while strong words from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley kept a union from forming at Boeing the same year. The NLRB accused Boeing of moving part of its manufacturing hub to the South in retaliation for past union strikes at its Seattle manufacturing hub.

That complaint was later dropped.

Among the biggest perks, however, are the low-cost workers, lack of regulations and a region where anti-union sentiment has been embedded in the psyche of workers and businesses since the end of slavery. But these companies have brought tens of thousands of well-paying jobs that typically pay above the area median, helping working class families in impoverished regions build wealth. While the costs involved in attracting major companies to do business in the South have often been high, the rewards are numerous.

Black and White

Unionizing in the South has a thorny history that, like so many other things Southern, can trace its complexities through slavery, race and politics.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, white dock workers in New Orleans, for example, competed with formerly enslaved men, who because of destitution and repression were still considered cheap labor, according to the book, “Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, class and politics 1863 – 1923.

The new competition evoked a racist reaction from white workers, who called for the deportation of their Black counterparts “back” to Africa. When Black workers formed a union in 1872 and attempted to integrate the white union, they were ridiculed.

“We were scoffed at,” said Black union president R.T. Matthews at the time, “and rebuked by white men who work along shore, telling us constantly that the negroes broke the wages down, and it caused all to suffer.”

The city’s elite pounced on that racial division, using Black dock workers when white workers went on strike, and vice versa. The situation caused hostility and undermined union efforts for decades, noted the book.

That hostility echoed across the South and the roadblocks to Southern unions continued. 

Not long after the end of World War II, the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched Operation Dixie, an attempt to increase union membership in the South. It was believed that raising wage levels among workers in the South would consolidate the huge wage gains won by unions in the North. The move was in part an attempt by Democrats to transform the conservative politics of the region.

Operation Dixie fell flat in part because of the Jim Crow laws at the time. Just like the dock workers of New Orleans 70 years before, racial divisions persisted, preventing white and Black workers from unionizing.

Southern unionization was dealt a further blow by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which made it harder for unions to strike and is still in force today. The act was passed in the aftermath of the major strike wave of 1945 and 1946. Over those years, five million people went on strike, and included the biggest strike in U.S. labor history. Not long after that, the United States entered into the second Red Scare, a period of anti-communist sentiment that, among other things, tied unions with long-feared prospect of communism. Lasting a decade starting in 1947, the Red Scare saw laws passed that prohibited members of the Communist Party in America from holding office in unions and other labor organizations.

Today, the tactics used by corporations to deter unionization are vastly different. The NLRB official noted that among the tactics Amazon used to interfere with the Alabama union vote was pressing the U.S. Postal Service to install a vote card collection box near the warehouse entrance. The box was then covered in an Amazon-branded tent with cameras pointed at it.

The NLRB said the setup gave the impression to workers that they were being monitored.

While Amazon’s workers in Bessemer will likely have another chance to be the first U.S.-based union within the company, it will still be a formidable task. 

“Large corporations can marshal tremendous legal resources to intimidate and scare workers,” said Cornfield, who also said that the recent decision against Amazon shows how large corporations routinely act against employees. “The important thing to think about with Amazon being charged with intimidating workers is very important for two reasons.

“It’s a very visible act which demonstrates to the American public that large corporations do act illegally to prevent workers from unionizing. And the other being that the public learn that large corporations do have tremendous capacity to dissuade workers from unionizing in legal ways. That educates the public and workers everywhere that perhaps the whole system of union campaign conduct is weighted in favor of the employer, especially these humongous companies that have tremendous resources to deter people.”

The Reckon Report.
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