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Amazon’s Bessemer facility votes on unionization

Employees of an Alabama facility put a spotlight on the working conditions at the company by organizing the vote.

By Isaac Dektor, Staff Writer

Amazon employees are on the frontlines of the nationwide labor movement after an Alabama fulfillment center voted against unionization.

The National Labor Relations Board tabulated 1,798 votes against unionization and 738 in favor, determining that the 6,000 or so employees of the Bessemer facility will not join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. The vote, which concluded March 29, was given national media attention as a majority voting ‘yes’ would have made the Amazon facility the first in the nation to unionize.

The vote came in the wake of reports of unsafe working conditions at the Bessemer site, a lack of protections for employees from COVID-19 and criticism of the company’s treatment of workers internationally.

Tina Brown, sister of Poushawn Brown, an Amazon worker who passed away after being a COVID-19 tester at an Amazon warehouse for four months, also worked for the company at a Baltimore location. Brown describes a company culture that puts profit ahead of safety, in one instance pressuring her to finish her delivery route during a snowstorm after a car accident left her in a ditch next to the highway.

“If you work at Amazon, you will pay for it - physically, mentally, or emotionally - you will pay for it,” Brown said to Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee at a Staten Island warehouse who was fired after leading a unionization effort.

Brown transitioned to a warehouse job under the assumption that the working conditions there would be safer. She found that physical injuries such as broken fingers are common among workers in the warehouse, breaking two of her own on the job. According to Brown, the pandemic made conditions worse — basic protocols such as halting work for deep cleaning, the presence of hand sanitizer, and N-95 masks were practically nonexistent.

The New York Committee of Occupational Safety and Health has cited 80 percent of Amazon employees have been pressured to work with more intensity, 66 percent reported physical pain while at work and 42 percent of those who reported physical pain on the job also reported feeling a continuance of physical pain when not at work.

Smalls wrote in a piece for The Guardian that workers have been galvanized against the company due to insufficient protection of workers from Covid-19.

“I am getting calls from Amazon workers across the country and they all want to stage walk-outs, too,” Smalls wrote. “We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us.”

A group advocating for the unionization of the Bessemer employees, BAmazon Union, states that 19 workers have died at Amazon facilities since 2013.

The effort in Bessemer has faced challenges since its inception, from an unsuccessful attempt to delay the vote, to anti-union classes and fliers that the company exhibits during the workday.

While the vote tally decisively favors not unionizing, the union organizers are challenging the outcome with the NLRB.

Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Applebaum claimed that Amazon interfered with its workers' right to a free and fair election in a statement in early April.

“Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees. We won’t let Amazon’s lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote," Appelbaum said.

The vote was tacitly addressed in late February by President Biden’s anti-union busting message.

“Today and over the next few days and weeks,” said Biden, “workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace.”

Though Biden does not name Amazon specifically, his message is clear in its intent to disavow union busting.

“The choice to join a union is up to the workers - full stop,” said Biden.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership has declined by 9 percent between 1983 and 2015.

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