I organized a congressional delegation to Bessemer, Alabama, last month to show solidarity with the Amazon warehouse workers organizing a union and view their working conditions firsthand. Amazon’s abusive employment practices have been widely reported, but it wasn’t until I talked to the people who clock in for 10 hours every shiftthat I truly understood how completely Amazon dehumanizes warehouse workers.
“Pickers” are expected to transfer merchandise from robots to totes that a conveyor belt takes to packing 315 times an hour. Their every movement is monitored. Employees who spend 10 hours on their feet get only two 30-minute breaks a day. Schedules are changed overnight while employees sleep, leading to late arrivals and “time off task,” which can lead to firing. “You get treated like a number. You don’t get treated like a person. They work you like a robot,” warehouse worker and union supporter Darryl Richardson told The Guardian.
Amazon has a long history of prioritizing production demands over safety and forcing workers to endure grueling conditions or risk losing their jobs. The company, which had 14,000 serious injuries in 2019 alone, has repeatedly tried to downplay injury rates at its warehouses — and sometimes even failed to report them at all. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon required employees to work without proper PPE, did not give them time to wash hands and sanitize equipment, and sent warehouse workers with fevers home without pay. Amazon has repeatedly and unjustly fired employees who called out the company’s coronavirus response. Delivery drivers have even reported urinating in bottles, speeding and running stop lights, and skipping lunch breaks to meet strict demands and avoid termination.
A pattern of discrimination
Amazon workers have filed numerous cases against the company for racial and disability discrimination and sexual harassment in violation of state and federal laws. Some have faced discrimination based on religious beliefs and wrongful termination over medical issues and injuries suffered on the job. Amazon has systematically failed to accommodate pregnant warehouse workers, forcing them to choose between their health and the health of their baby or forgo pay — a choice no parent should have to make.
Is this the American workplace we want? Is this the future of work we want for our kids? Of course not.
In taking on one of the world’s most powerful corporations, 5,800 mostly Black and female employees, along with organizers from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, have already inspired a new optimism and determination among hourly-wage workers across the country, and may have changed the course of this nation’s economic history. Despite coming up short, they showed that workers can indeed fight back — not just for higher wages and safe working conditions, but for justice and dignity, as well.
Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union advocate on Feb. 9, 2021, in Bessemer, Alabama. (Photo: Jay Reeves/AP)
I began my career helping health care workers organize with the Service Employees International Union. I know what these Amazon workers were up against. I know how hard they had to work to get as far as they did. But, like everyone else, I am only just beginning to understand the pent-up energy for change and respect their efforts have unleashed.
Of course, the deck was stacked against them from the beginning. Amazon employs over a million people worldwide, and it has a long history of union-busting tactics. The company has gone to great lengths over the past 25 years to prevent workers from achieving safer working conditions, receiving better pay, and having a voice in the company. Amazon has fired warehouse workers who advocated for sick pay for part-time workers and safer working conditions during COVID as well as workers who attempted to unionize, signaling to other employees that they will be retaliated against if they also support unions.
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In Bessemer, I learned that Amazon deployed its anti-union tactics with the same brutal precision they use to control their workplaces. The company bankrolled consultants with ties to the Koch network and decades of union-busting experience, paying them more in a day than warehouse workers earn in a month.
They coordinated a campaign so invasive that workers in Bessemer told me posters were even hung in bathroom stalls, urging them to vote against the union. They said Amazon pulled them into mandatory anti-union harangues and photographed the IDs of workers who pushed back. Employees received multiple text messages from Amazon every day, saying they should not abandon a “winning team.”
Update labor laws from 1930s
According to workers I spoke with, Amazon’s messaging was rife with misinformation, including claims that paying union dues would make workers unable to afford necessities like school supplies for their children. One text message urged workers to cast their vote by March 1 — even though the voting period didn’t end until March 29. Amazon even colluded with local officials to change the timing of traffic signals near the warehouse to prevent organizers from speaking to workers at red lights. And they hired modern-day Pinkertons — in the form of off-duty, but still uniformed, Bessemer police officers — to harass organizers in the name of “security.”
We can best honor these workers’ fight for economic justice and personal dignity in a 21st century economy by updating labor laws that were written for the economy of the 1930s. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which I co-sponsored, has passed the House and is now before the Senate. It will help level a playing field that is currently tilted steeply in favor of rich, anti-union employers like Amazon.
Since most of Amazon’s Bessemer employees are women and workers of color, union membership is particularly important for them. Nonwhite union members earn 46% more than their non-union peers, and union membership significantly shrinks the gap between men’s and women’s pay.
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The PRO Act would make unionization elections happen much faster and the reduce the employer’s ability to interfere. There would be no mandatory anti-union meetings. There would be meaningful penalties for companies and corporate officers who violate workers’ rights. Workers fired for supporting the union could be reinstated immediately. Most importantly, if it is determined that workers who petitioned for a union representation election lost because of corporate misconduct, the company could be ordered to recognize the union anyway. When workers do decide to form a union, employers would be required to negotiate the first contract in a timely fashion.
I congratulate the warehouse workers in Bessemer for waging a courageous and inspiring campaign for their union and for workers everywhere who punch a clock. Their example, along with a deepening distrust of tech giants and growing support for unions generally, has already sparked a wave of much-needed organizing across the country. Still, without the PRO Act, workers will continue to find themselves buried by Amazon and other companies willing to spend millions to keep bargaining power out of the hands of workers making $15 an hour. The Senate needs to act. America’s workers have earned our support.
Rep. Andy Levin is a Democrat representing Michigan’s 9th Congressional District. Follow him on Twitter: @RepAndyLevin
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