The ongoing union vote at an Amazon (AMZN) warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, has drawn attention in recent days from President Joe Biden, actress Tina Fey, and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, among many others.
Despite the national spotlight, workers at the warehouse continue to endure grueling and unsafe working conditions as well as aggressive anti-union propaganda, said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has organized the union drive.
"It's horrible for workers there," he says. "Workers are being bombarded with anti-union messages."
"If you're sitting on a toilet in an Amazon bathroom, they have placed at eye level anti-union propaganda," he adds.
Biden released a video on Sunday that warned employers against intimidation meant to dissuade workers from organizing a union. While Biden did not mention Amazon by name, his reference to "workers in Alabama" was widely perceived as an allusion to the labor battle at the tech giant.
'Amazon already offers what unions are requesting'
Amazon has aggressively opposed the union drive, hiring the same law firm — Morgan Lewis — that it did when it fought a union drive at a Delaware warehouse in 2014. Plus, the company created a website that warns of onerous dues payments and the negative impact of a union on day-to-day operations.
In a statement to Yahoo Finance last month, Amazon defended its opposition to union organizing among employees in Alabama.
“The fact is that Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay, comprehensive benefits from the first day on the job, opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment,” Amazon Spokesperson Maria Boschetti said.
Indeed, the company pays its workers a minimum wage of $15 per hour, well above the $7.25 wage floor required of employers in Alabama. But the compensation does not make up for the hectic and unsafe conditions faced by warehouse employees, Appelbaum said.
"Workers say to us that no matter what they're paid, they still feel that they don't want to work at Amazon," he says.
"They feel dehumanized and mistreated. They feel that the robots get more respect than the human beings do," he adds. "And the pace is unbearable."
Appelbaum echoed longstanding criticism of the working conditions focused on demanding quotas and digital surveillance that employees say penalized them for taking breaks.
Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus has fueled record e-commerce revenue for the company as hundreds of millions of Americans have been forced into their homes, prompting the hiring of hundreds of thousands of workers and plans to expand its warehouse network. The company announced record sales in a fourth quarter earnings report released last month.
But the pandemic has also elicited a new set of grievances around health risks and compensation tied to the pandemic. By last October, 19,816 employees had tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19, Amazon said that month. Still, Amazon has rejected assertions that it has neglected workers' health.
“Nothing’s more important than the health and safety of our employees, and we’re doing everything we can to support them through the pandemic,” Amazon's Boschetti said in a statement last month. “In 2020, we invested $11.5 billion in safety measures and equipment in our buildings, including masks, temperature screening, plexiglass shields, sanitizing products, additional cleaning teams, and even an on-site testing program.”
Soon after the outset of the pandemic, in March, workers at a Staten Island warehouse held an initial protest over coronavirus exposure fears. In the ensuing months, the demonstrations grew to hundreds of workers spread across 50 warehouses nationwide.
The worker organizing culminated in the union vote now underway at the Alabama facility, where 85% of the workers are Black, according to a union estimate. Voting is set to conclude on March 29.
"It's a unique moment," Appelbaum says. "The pandemic has opened a lot of workers' eyes and people are much more receptive to having a union now than they were before."
"This election is not just about this one workplace, but it's really about what the future of work is going to look like — how workers are going to be treated in the workplace going forward," he adds.
Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.