Vote count to begin in Amazon union drive

·3-min read
Employees at this Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama are deciding whether to unionise

Votes are set to be counted Tuesday on whether to create the first Amazon union in the United States, at a warehouse in Alabama, after a historic, five months-long David vs Goliath campaign.

"I'm proud of the workers at Amazon for standing up and saying enough," said Joshua Brewer, the local president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The RWDSU will represent the Bessemer warehouse's 5,800 employees if they choose to unionize in the vote that ended Monday.

The months-long unionizing battle has sparked national attention and intense debate over workplace conditions at the online retail behemoth, which has more than 800,000 US employees.

"Amazon's biggest fear already happened: 3,000 of their own employees said we cannot work in these conditions ... It exposed a systemic problem in Amazon's warehouses," Brewer told AFP.

Coming at a time when the White House occupant, Joe Biden, has promised to be the country's "most pro-union president," the Bessemer warehouse effort could open the floodgates to unionization drives at other Amazon sites, as well as at other firms.

Unions and political leaders have argued that Amazon employees face constant pressure and monitoring, with little job protection, highlighting the need for collective bargaining.

Amazon has argued that most of its workers don't want or need a union and that it already provides more than most other employers, with a minimum $15 hourly wage and other benefits.

For five months, union organizers in Bessemer have been posted at the intersection between a busy interstate highway and several hulking industrial buildings to make their case.

"We need safe working conditions. We need to be treated with respect and equality," said Amazon employee Jennifer Bates. "We're not getting paid what we deserve to get paid."

Another employee, Lafonda Townsend, said she was initially happy with her pay.

"But then that was before I got in there," she said, describing having to eat fast on breaks "like a prisoner ... because if you're one minute late, there's an hour unpaid time that they're taking away from you."

Amazon went on a hiring spree in 2020 and nearly doubled its net profit to $21 billion, thanks to the explosion in demand during the pandemic.

But the second-largest US employer is embroiled in a bitter communications battle.

- 'Maintain power' -

Its spokespersons recently attacked left-wing politician Bernie Sanders, who supports the union, on Twitter.

They also insisted that no worker had been reduced to urinating in plastic bottles because of a lack of time to go to the bathroom, contrary to media reports.

On site, the company uses all sorts of tactics to dissuade would-be unionists, from text messages touting existing benefits to posters in the toilets.

Many observers say the issue is less about finances, and more about control.

"Amazon is like most US employers, it wants to maintain power over everything and make sure that workers do not have the ability to negotiate over any aspect of their jobs," said Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers University.

"Big tech companies, like other employers, will spend an almost unlimited amount of money in persuading workers not to unionize," she said.

Dawn Hoag, a warehouse quality manager, believes employees don't need representatives to voice their needs.

"If ... all these stories were all true, then there are 5,800 idiots working inside the building where I work, and I don't work with a single idiot, and I'm not an idiot," she told AFP.

But Darryl Richardson, the 51-year-old employee who first called in the RWSDU, said it was time to "take a stand".

"I need job security. I need to be able to retire one day," he said.

Richardson's call has already opened the floodgates, Brewer added.

"We have received over 1,000 different inquiries from about 50 different warehouses so far," he said.

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