The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amazon workers in Alabama say they’re torn over historic union vote

Labor organizers appear to face an uphill battle in a redo of last year’s defeat

The Amazon BHM1 distribution center in Bessemer, Ala., in January. (Cameron Carnes for The Washington Post)

BESSEMER, Ala. — Ashlee Payne started packing boxes for Amazon two years ago, drawn by the salary of $16.80 an hour — $5 more than her previous job as a manager at Walmart.

Since then, Payne, 37, said she’s been happy at Amazon. The warehouse is near her kids’ school, and the company treats her well. Heading into another contentious attempt to form a union here, Payne said she will be voting no.

“I don’t understand the purpose to pay someone to speak for me,” she said. “It’s unnecessary.”

Starting Friday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will mail ballots for a second time to some of the more than 6,100 workers here, asking whether they want to form a union. They have seven weeks to make a decision, and the election is viewed as a critical opportunity to unionize Amazon, the second-largest private employer in America.

The vote is a redo of a failed campaign in April 2021 to organize the Bessemer warehouse, when workers rejected the effort by more than 2 to 1, a crushing loss for the labor movement. Two months ago, the NLRB ordered a revote after concluding that Amazon had improperly interfered in the election.

This time around, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, backed by the AFL-CIO and other powerful players, is sending out hundreds of people to knock on doors, printing T-shirts for supporters and otherwise mounting a more aggressive campaign than last year, when organizers set up a tent outside the warehouse.

The union argues that workers deserve better job protections at the facility — not just pay raises, but better health and safety measures, and a workplace that cares more about them as people. They think there is too much monitoring and dangerous productivity pressure applied to workers, and little recourse for workers who are unfairly fired.

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former workers here suggest that organizers face another uphill battle in a place where working at the BHM1 Amazon warehouse is still considered one of the best jobs in town, with a starting wage of more than $15. While some workers are weary of automated performance measures and near-constant monitoring, others are happy to have a job that offers competitive pay and perks such as health-care coverage and help paying for college tuition.

Labor board calls for revote at Amazon warehouse in Alabama in major victory for union

Amazon authorized Payne to speak with The Washington Post, but numerous other workers echoed her view. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

One such worker said he was pleased to find a job that paid $2 more an hour than his recent construction gig and offered perks he’d never before been able to get at work — including health benefits.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

The Amazon union fight has become an important flash point for the U.S. labor movement, which has long seen a victory in Bessemer as a potential launchpad for union drives in other industries and sectors. Labor advocates successfully lobbied President Biden last year to release a statement in support of workers in Alabama and elsewhere, in a clear reference to the Amazon efforts. Biden’s message did not name Amazon but nonetheless amounted to one of the most significant endorsements of a labor drive by a sitting U.S. president in decades, and was hailed by union leaders upon its release.

The White House has not said whether it will broadcast a similar message this year. But the administration has already taken steps expected to help the union efforts, including by appointing labor-backed members to the NLRB, labor experts say.

Workers at Amazon warehouse in Alabama reject unionization, a major win for the e-commerce giant

Warnings from federal labor officials over Amazon’s practices — including a complaint last week the company was “threatening” union efforts at its facility in Staten Island — send a signal that union leaders say will help discourage company officials from trying to intimidate or interfere with the election.

Still, the campaign faces significant head winds in Bessemer, where fewer than 15 percent of residents have bachelor’s degrees. Workers in Bessemer are among the lowest-paid in the country among cities around the same size or larger. The median household income is about $32,000 a year — similar to the starting wage at Amazon — and the population has been shrinking since the local Pullman Standard railroad car factory shuttered in the 1990s.

Van Sykes, who owns a popular barbecue restaurant in town, said the warehouse has provided a bump for business. Support for Amazon is “all about the paychecks,” he said, adding that Bessemer is the wrong place to try to unionize.

“Southerners are just very independent-type people,” he said. “Why would they choose Jefferson County, Alabama, to fight that fight?”

Amazon employee Perry Connelly, who spoke with The Post at the union hall in Birmingham, said Amazon is taking advantage of a “captive community” where people don’t have a lot of employment options.

“A lot of people, like me, thought Amazon was going to be a great place to work,” he said. “You know, you’re talking about working for a billionaire, a multibillionaire. So you get in there, and it’s unorganized. Managers don’t always know what’s going on.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post).

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the labor movement has no choice but to “take on Amazon.”

“They have a model of work that is unacceptable which relies on dehumanizing the workers,” he said, calling out physical and mental stress from grueling work conditions and Amazon’s reliance on automated systems.

Amazon spokeswoman Barbara Agrait said the facility offers competitive pay and benefits, and more than 450 workers have been promoted since the warehouse opened.

“It’s our employees’ choice whether or not to join a union. It always has been,” she said in an email. “If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site, which is why we host regular informational sessions and provide employees the opportunity to ask questions and learn about what this could mean for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”

Amazon went all out to convince workers not to vote for a union last year — it posted fliers in bathrooms, sent texts and hired consultants to talk to employees about the effort.

The NLRB ultimately called for a second election, in part because of Amazon’s effort to place a U.S. Postal Service mailbox near the entrance of the facility. The union objected to the mailbox, saying it could make some workers think Amazon had influence over the counting of ballots. Amazon said last year that the mailbox’s placement was intended to make voting easy.

A National Labor Relations Board official said on Nov. 29 that Amazon pressured its warehouse workers in Alabama to oppose unionizing in the first election. (Video: Reuters)

The NLRB ruled that the company had improperly interfered in the election and called for a new vote. An NLRB official expressed particular displeasure with the company’s efforts to get the mailbox, writing that Amazon “essentially hijacked the process and gave a strong impression that it controlled the process.”

This time around, Amazon is again holding mandatory classes during work hours for employees to tell them how the union might not result in raises and would add a “middleman” between workers and the company. The controversial mailbox has been moved to a far corner of a parking lot.

Appelbaum said Amazon is still trying to intimidate workers.

“It’s still a fight,” he said. “It’s going to be a fight to the end. And we’re still dealing with what I think is outrageous Amazon behavior.”

The ‘Marvel City’

For the small town of Bessemer, landing an Amazon warehouse was a huge get. The town, about 20 minutes southwest of downtown Birmingham, was founded in 1887 and was so fast-growing in its early days that it earned the nickname the “Marvel City.”

Now, its tiny downtown is marked by boarded-up storefronts. Its population has shrunk to about 26,000, down from more than 33,000 in 1990, said the city director of economic and community development, Toraine Norris. Unemployment surged past 30 percent after Pullman shuttered, and though it has now settled below 5 percent, there’s still a demand for well-paying jobs.

Amazon picked Bessemer, Norris said, after Birmingham applied to be the site of the e-commerce company’s second headquarters, before Amazon ultimately chose Arlington, Va., in late 2019. The application got Jefferson County on Amazon’s radar, Norris said, and the company eventually picked Bessemer — with its acres of wide-open space and cheap real estate prices — for the warehouse.

“There was fantastic community reaction,” he said. “Everybody got excited.”

When the Amazon warehouse opened in March 2020, it was the buzz of the town. And it’s helped convince other warehouses to join, Norris said.

J.C. Thompson, a worker who plans to vote against the union and was authorized by Amazon to talk to the news media, drives 45 minutes from Tuscaloosa for his shifts. He conceded the company still has work to do, especially when it comes to recruiting leadership that wants to stay and work in Alabama. Amazon warehouses are known for high turnover rates in their workforce.

But overall, Thompson likes the job and the regular raises, benefits and paid vacation time.

“Really, what can the union do more than what the company is doing?” he asked.

Biden hails Amazon workers pressing to unionize in Alabama in unusual sign of support

Carla Johnson, who also was authorized by Amazon to speak with The Post, said the company has helped cover the medical costs associated with a brain tumor, and offered her paid time off to recover. Her chemo pills cost her $10 per month, she said, instead of the $3,000 she would have paid without insurance.

Some community leaders argue a union is needed to make sure workers are protected. Eric Hall, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Birmingham, said the community is grateful for the jobs. But he said he also wants to make sure workers are not exploited.

“Although you are paying a $15-an-hour wage, people deserve so much more,” he said.

All-out push

Perry Connelly started at the warehouse soon after it opened. He is now among the hundreds of organizers knocking on doors to get out the message that workers deserve more.

Most people who answer are willing to talk, he said, and union organizers hope that these direct conversations away from the warehouse will make a difference.

Some workers have already changed their minds. Leette Foreman, who started at the warehouse in August 2020 and spoke to The Post at the union hall, opposed the union effort last year. But this time around, she said she’s been frustrated by last-minute changes in her work schedule and what she sees as a lack of opportunity.

“The only time they come to you is when you’re doing something wrong,” she said. “I don’t get no ‘Good job, good work.’ ”

At the Circle K across the street from the warehouse, workers in jeans and sweatshirts or Amazon T-shirts swarm the parking lot during a twice-daily shift change, buying snacks or gas for long commutes home.

One worker pumping gas, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job, said she would support the union despite voting against it last year. Managers at the company need to start caring more, she said.

A common concern among the workers who support the union are the rigid working conditions — workers are penalized if they step away from their work stations for too long.

“I think people are tired of being treated like robots, being managed by other robots,” Appelbaum said. “People want their humanity respected.”

Union in Amazon warehouse fight asks agency to rethink a controversial mailbox

At first, the amount of “time off task,” or time away from their assigned work station, they are allowed seems reasonable, said one former worker, who left the warehouse in 2020 and spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect future job prospects. But once he realized that the bathroom was a few minutes’ walk away, the cafeteria even farther and his car farther than that, the time was quickly eaten away.

“Every minute counted against you,” he said, adding he supported the union effort.

The NLRB will begin counting the votes in late March. Some workers said they were sick of talking about the battle. At the Circle K, one worker said he wouldn’t answers questions if they were coming from the union.

Asked if he planned to support the union drive, the man was unequivocal.

“Hell no!” he called out.

Jeff Stein and Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.