Birmingham Mayor Says Amazon Should Listen to Unionizing Bessemer Workers

Mayor Randall Woodfin stopped short of throwing his support behind the Bessemer union drive, but said he would "listen and learn" to workers, and that Amazon should do the same.
February 23, 2021, 2:48pm
mayor birmingham Randall Woodfin talks to Amazon warehouse workers
Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin talks to Amazon warehouse workers. Image: Ben Bishop
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

On Monday, the mayor of Birmingham stopped short of explicitly endorsing the union drive at Amazon’s warehouse in nearby Bessemer, Alabama, but said he supports whatever outcome workers choose for themselves. Thousands of Birmingham residents work at the Bessemer warehouse, according to the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). 

“I think if employees want to unionize, they should have that right,” Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said, after meeting in private with Amazon warehouse workers.

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Woodfin said that he would “listen and learn” from workers and that Amazon should listen to workers as well. He will be reaching out to both Amazon and the mayor of Bessemer, he said.

“What I’ve been trying to do is seek understanding. I think I’m going to be very honest about this,” said Woodfin at an event in Bessemer. “This facility is in the city of Bessemer, so I want to be a good neighbor. Jefferson County has 30 municipals and Birmingham is the largest. I didn’t want to speak out of turn.”

“What we should be concerned about is listening to employees and employers in a position to give a space that works better for employees. I think they should voluntarily do it,” Woodfin said of Amazon.

It was a big day for unionizing Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama. Coming out in full support of the Amazon union drive, 74 year-old actor and activist Danny Glover spoke to the press on the side of the highway opposite the Bessemer warehouse, and greeted warehouse workers ending their day shifts. Glover, a vocal union supporter, has previously helped campaign for union elections in the South, including the defeated 2017 union drive at a Nissan plant in Mississippi.

“MLK said that the best anti-poverty program he knows of is the union,” Glover said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Bessemer lies just 15 miles outside of Birmingham and is a key part of Amazon’s efforts to embed itself within the metropolitan Birmingham area and the surrounding Jefferson County. It employs 6,000 people , has attracted other delivery and logistics firms who are expanding in the region, and there are plans to build multiple delivery stations and facilities.

The union drive began late last summer after workers contacted the RWDSU, frustrated with labor conditions and surveillance in the warehouse. By late December, well over 2,000 workers signed cards supporting an election and the National Labor Relations Board decided there was "sufficient" interest. At the end of January, the NLRB ruled that ballots would be mailed out on February 8, returned by March 29, and tallied the next day. A week later, it shot down a desperate appeal from Amazon to delay the mail-in voting.

This is, surprisingly, only Amazon's second union election. The first took place in 2014, when a small group of technical workers in a Middleton, Delaware Amazon warehouse voted 21 to 6 against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Amazon has fought hard to try and hamstring the unionization efforts at the Bessemer warehouse. The company has brought on contractors to walk around wearing anti-union buttons, but also flooded employees with digital and physical anti-union propaganda. The company has also rolled out its annual buyout offer for Bessemer workers just before a critical vote. 

Amazon's union-busting efforts, if they are successful, would go a long way towards deterring similar actions across the country and allowing the company to pursue its plans for the Birmingham region undeterred. 

The Bessemer warehouse union vote comes to an end on March 29.