Historic union vote kicks off on Amazon

It could be most tracked expedition in Amazon history: 5,800 ballots are sent Monday to union-eligible workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. In the weeks to come, they will be used to decide the largest US union election in the 26-year-old company, the country’s second-largest employer. It’s an unlikely vote, coming from an unlikely site, but if labor organizers win, the Bessemer warehouse, not yet a year old, will become the country’s first syndicated Amazon site and potentially an indicator for the industry to l nationwide.

Alabama is not exactly known as a hotbed of organizing; it is a rule of law at work with a unionization rate of 8 percent, nearly three points below the national average (itself close to a historic low). However, Birmingham’s suburb of Bessemer has a long history of strong unions that do not hesitate to strike. Amazon’s facility sits on land that once belonged to US Steel, a major employer in the region until the industry declined in the second half of the 20th century. The workers in the factories there belonged to United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in North America.

Today, the state is home to over 12,000 poultry workers represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union. When the pandemic struck, the RWDSU became a regular feature of local reporting on the safety protections it earned for its workers. The Amazon group that first contacted RWDSU over the summer included workers who had been unionized at previous jobs; some had friends and family at RWDSU. “I really believe that if we win,” says Joshua Brewer, an organizer for RWDSU in Alabama who works on the Bessemer campaign, “it will be because grandparents, uncles and parents spoke to these young people who work here and have said, this has helped me, and that is a good thing.

Employees at Amazon fulfillment centers are tasked with retrieving products from miles of shelves and quickly packing them into boxes that eventually arrive at customers’ doors. According to workers, part of the stress at work stems from the company’s highly automated monitoring system. Cameras cover the warehouses, and the company’s TOT (Time Off Task) system tracks every second that workers are not picking, packing and stowing to meet quotas or “do the rate”. Too much TOT is grounds for termination. Workers fear that if a family member becomes ill or if meat for lunch requires extra restroom breaks, it could be for their work. Human frailty seems “like a crease in their system,” Brewer says. Grievance procedures, which would allow workers due process and union representation to respond to discipline, feature high on the list of workers’ demands, as do more frequent scheduled rest periods.

Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty says, “Amazon already offers what unions want from employees: top-notch pay, full benefits from day one on the job, opportunities for career growth, everything. by working in a safe, modern and inclusive work environment. . At Amazon, these benefits and opportunities come with work, as does the ability to communicate directly with company leaders. “

Although Amazon perks and the $ 15 minimum wage exceed industry averages, workers in fulfillment centers across the country have long bemoaned the relentless pace of work under the ever-watchful eye of the company. . September Reveal the investigation of Amazon warehouses found a serious injury rate of 7.7% in 2019, nearly double the most recent industry average. The physical toll can lead to a high turnover rate. A Study 2020 of California warehouses by the National Employment Law Project found that the average turnover rate in counties with Amazon warehouses was 100.9% in 2017 (meaning more workers were left than just starting), compared to just 38.1% in 2011, the year before Amazon anchored in the state. . Amazon calls the study misleading, saying its attrition rate is on par with the industry average, although the company has not shared specific numbers.

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