SEATTLE — Some workers in Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse complain that the company’s aggressive performance expectations leave them little time to take bathroom breaks.
“Where will your dues go?” reads a flier posted on the door inside a bathroom stall.
“They got right in your face when you’re using the stall,” said Darryl Richardson, a worker at the warehouse who supports unionization. Another pro-union worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution said of Amazon’s toilet reading: “I feel like I’m getting harassed.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Amazon, which is fighting the biggest labor battle in its history on U.S. soil. Next Monday, the National Labor Relations Board will mail ballots to 5,805 workers at the facility near Birmingham, who will then have seven weeks to decide whether they want the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to represent them. If they vote yes, they would be the first Amazon warehouse in the United States to unionize.
What’s more, a union victory could spark a wave of organizing campaigns among the 400,000 operations staff at the hundreds of other Amazon warehouses and delivery sites that dot the nation.
“Amazon workers all over the country will see there is a path to have a voice on the job,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “Collective action is contagious.”
A battle for higher wages and improved working conditions in Bessemer and beyond could stall Amazon’s growth, forcing the company to negotiate expansion plans with the union. It would probably increase costs and could even hurt efficiency. Amazon has said its workers don’t need a union coming between them and the company, and some of the nearly five text messages sent daily to its Bessemer staff urge them not to abandon “the winning team.” It’s also pressing its case with leaflets and mandated anti-union meetings.
The company has steadfastly said its workers don’t need the RWDSU, or any union. It offers Bessemer workers a starting pay of $15.30 an hour, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (Alabama has no state minimum-wage law.) That pay, along with health-care, vision and dental benefits and a retirement plan, offers employees more than comparable jobs provide, said Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox.
“We don’t believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views,” Knox said in an emailed statement.
(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
If Amazon workers unionize, it would mark a major milestone for worker representation, which has long been in decline. As U.S. manufacturing has waned, participation in unions has shrunk to about 11 percent last year, down from 30 percent of the nonagricultural workforce in 1964. Some older companies, like 113-year-old logistics giant UPS, are unionized, but major nonunion employers include more recent entrants like retailers Walmart and the Gap.
Amazon is a ripe target, as a major player in logistics, transportation and retail. Adding to its appeal is the rapid growth of its warehouse operations — it added 400,000 workers primarily to its global warehouses and delivery operations in the first nine months of last year.
Amazon is the great white whale, a target that labor groups have longed for years to organize, said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, which is providing personnel and strategic guidance to aid the RWDSU.
“We’ll give them whatever they need to help them win,” Trumka said. “It’s an important, important drive.”
Amazon is one of the nation’s largest employers, with more than 1.1 million workers worldwide, and it has long opposed the unionization of its domestic workforce. For years, U.S. unions have been quietly working to crack the company, with no success. The closest was a bid by a small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at its Middletown, Del., warehouse in 2014. Those workers ultimately voted against forming a union, following a drive led by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
In 2019, Amazon fired an employee who had been outspoken about working conditions inside his Staten Island warehouse and had called for unionization. The company said the worker was terminated for violating a safety regulation at the facility.
Much of its warehouse staff in Europe already belongs to unions, which are part of the cultural fabric of those countries. In Germany, where Amazon has several warehouses, the right to form a union is enshrined in the postwar constitution.
Meanwhile, Amazon has faced fresh scrutiny over the past year for its treatment of warehouse workers. At the beginning of the pandemic, Amazon’s warehouse employees raised concerns about their safety in its busy facilities, where, they said, managers initially didn’t take enough precautions. Amazon has since put in place more measures to address concerns. But even before the pandemic, the company had faced criticism of lack of adequate bathroom breaks, overheated facilities and overly aggressive performance targets for workers.
Many of the workers in the Bessemer warehouse are Black, and the union has framed the fight around issues of “respect and dignity” as well as pay, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said. “We see this as much as a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle,” he added.
Bessemer workers in support of the union who spoke with The Post said they would welcome more protections. They expressed a litany of concerns about issues from a lack of air conditioning during the hot Alabama summer to fears about the novel coronavirus spreading in the facility.
Richardson, the worker there who supports the union, complains about the scant time Amazon gives employees to use bathrooms, breaks that can sometimes require lengthy walks in the massive warehouse. Too much time away from picking items off shelves to ship to consumers — time that is tracked by computers — can lead to reprimands that can slow raises and promotions, and even lead to termination. He also bemoans last-minute directives from managers to work mandatory overtime shifts, sometimes coming just hours before the shift starts.
He says he has been outspoken with managers on these topics. At a mandatory meeting Thursday for workers, where the warehouse’s leadership pressed its case to vote against the union, the 51-year-old rebutted the company’s suggestions that the RWDSU’s goal was to raise money to pay for union leaders’ cars and meals. One Amazon manager took a picture of his employee badge, a tactic Richardson believed was intended to intimidate him.
“They say, ‘Darryl, can’t you give us a chance to fix it?’ ” Richardson said. He said he replied: “I’ve been here 10 months. How much chance do you need?”
Workers at the Bessemer facility filed notice to hold the unionization vote in November.
Amazon sought in early December to delay hearings on the election until after the busy holiday shopping season, a request the NLRB rejected. Last month, Amazon appealed the decision to conduct the seven-week voting period exclusively by mail to protect workers, as well as NLRB staff, from the spread of the coronavirus. Amazon promised safety precautions for in-person balloting. The NLRB’s full board rejected that bid Feb. 5.
As the vote approaches, some workers are advocating for change.
“I ain’t going to lie, I thought it was going to be a great place to work. It’s Amazon,” said Richardson, who started at the warehouse when it opened last March.
Richardson, who makes the 40-mile trip from his home in Tuscaloosa four days a week, took the position after losing his job at an auto-parts-maker when its plant shut down. He was active with the union at his previous job, and he realized shortly after starting at Amazon that workers needed labor representation there as well.
And with the ongoing spike in coronavirus cases, Richardson believes that Amazon should resume the $2-an-hour bonus it instituted at the start of the pandemic but eliminated at the end of May as infection rates across the country began to stabilize.
“We’re not making what we should be making,” Richardson said.
Amazon’s Knox said that the company, like many others, has performance expectations for workers, but workers can use restrooms whenever they need to. Mandatory overtime, Knox said, is communicated to workers no later than their lunch break the previous day. And while Amazon did end the bonus pay program it introduced at the start of the pandemic, its pay and benefits remain higher than those of many comparable jobs, she said.
Another worker, the one who felt harassed by Amazon’s anti-union messaging in the bathroom, worries about safety. She contracted the coronavirus last fall, the same time a co-worker nearby also got the virus. The worker, who stows products as they come into the warehouse from brands and third-party merchants that sell on Amazon’s marketplace, said no one among her family and friends had the virus.
“My assumption is it was someone on my floor who had it,” said the worker, who was hospitalized as her illness worsened.
She’s since recovered and is back to work, even though she thought about leaving. But she believes that a union can make the workplace better.
“I’m not a quitter,” she said. “I want to see it through.”
Amazon has invested $961 million in coronavirus safety measures, including providing more than 283 million masks at warehouses and deploying more than 351,000 thermometers and 16,500 thermal cameras at its facilities, Knox said.
In October, the company said nearly 20,000 of its U.S. employees had tested positive or had been presumed positive for the virus since the pandemic took hold. In a filing in its case before the NLRB, Amazon noted that 218 of the 7,575 employees of Amazon and third parties that work at the Bessemer facility tested positive for the coronavirus in the two weeks preceding Jan. 7.
Fears about contracting the virus have led some workers to seek union representation.
“The equation changes when you are talking about your own life and the lives of your family members,” the RWDSU’s Appelbaum said.
The union drive is all the more astonishing because it’s taking place in conservative Alabama, a “right to work” state where employees in unionized workplaces aren’t required to pay union dues.
“The last place they would have thought they’d have to face this is in Alabama,” Appelbaum said.
But being in a right-to-work state could actually help the RWDSU in the election. That’s because employees who oppose the union, or are indifferent to it, wouldn’t need to pay dues even if the union won the election. So there’s no financial risk for workers who don’t want to become union members.
“Amazon is trying to make dues the issue, even though people don’t have to pay dues,” Appelbaum said.
To win, the union needs yes votes from a majority of the ballots cast, rather than a majority of the nearly 6,000 workers that the NLRB has determined are the bargaining unit. Appelbaum is cautiously confident, in part because more than 3,000 workers have signed cards authorizing the RWDSU to represent them. He acknowledges, though, that some of those employees have left Amazon.
“If it weren’t for employer intimidation and interference, I have no question we would win,” Appelbaum said.
Carla Johnson has already been won over by Amazon. The 44-year-old from Birmingham works as a “problem solver,” fixing orders with damaged packages or ones where the wrong products were picked before being shipped to customers.
Johnson traces her support for Amazon to the way the company treated her when she suffered a seizure on the job in July, two months after starting at the site. She had brain cancer, and Amazon gave her three-and-a-half months’ leave to undergo surgery and subsequent treatments. The bills topped $100,000, but her company-provided health insurance picked up the tab, she said.
Johnson, who is now cancer-free, acknowledged she might still have the same benefits even if the warehouse was unionized. But her experience makes her believe that Amazon cares for her and her co-workers and that a union isn’t necessary. And she worries that a union could disrupt the line of communication she has with her managers.
Before joining Amazon, Johnson worked as a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher in Alabama and was a member of the American Federation of Teachers. She supported that union’s efforts to secure regular raises for its members. But teaching, she said, is different from working at Amazon because teachers have fewer paths to advance to higher-paying jobs than warehouse workers do.
“I want to grow within the company,” Johnson said. “That’s how I want to make more money.”
Amazon is working hard to persuade other workers to join Johnson in opposing the union. Since mid-January, when the NLRB scheduled the vote, the company has ratcheted up efforts to sway workers, warehouse employees said. It set up an anti-union website — DoItWithoutDues.com — discouraging workers from joining the union drive. The company has also held ongoing mandatory meetings for workers on company time, so-called captive-audience sessions, to show videos and run through PowerPoint presentations that disparage unionization.
“Amazon is throwing down their throat that the union is going to take your money,” said a pro-union worker at the Bessemer facility, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fear of retribution.
The worker, who audits machinery at the warehouse to make sure it functions properly, says Amazon sends her multiple text messages a day, with exhortations to work with management.
“We don’t believe that you need to pay someone to speak for you or that you need to pay dues for what you already get for free,” a recent text read.
The employee isn’t swayed by Amazon’s onslaught. She described a co-worker passing out, she believed, from excessive heat in the warehouse. Now, as the unionization vote approaches, she said managers have come by workstations to hand employees water bottles and candy.
Amazon‘s Knox said she didn’t have information about any workers passing out at the Bessemer warehouse, but she said the new facility was built with climate-control systems that kept its average temperature in the summer at 71 degrees.
By rule, Amazon’s frenzy of anti-union campaigning in Bessemer will slow soon enough. The NLRB requires mandatory worker meetings to end 24 hours before it mails out ballots. That’s Sunday. And Knox says the company will comply, though it may still continue to try to persuade workers with other forms of anti-union campaigning.
But if workers vote to join the RWDSU, the fight to unionize Amazon’s workplaces in the United States will have only just started.
“This is just the beginning,” the AFL-CIO’s Trumka said. “I can promise you this is not the last effort.”