The traffic light at Premiere Parkway and Power Plant Road in Bessemer, Alabama, is currently one of the most important intersections in the United States.
On one side, there's an Amazon warehouse. On the other, tractor yards and dry yellow fields, and behind them dense pine forests extending into the hills. Baby blue tractor trailers emblazoned with Amazon's signature smile barrel down the road. In recent months, tireless organizers have had hundreds of short conversations with warehouse workers as they're stopped at the red light, waiting to leave Amazon's parking lot. Largely through these conversations, they've built one of the most promising labor movements in the country.
They're there all day, everyday. They start at 3:45 a.m., in the dark of night. For a time, the lead organizer slept in his pickup truck to make the first shift change. Twenty organizers have lived out of a nearby Fairfield Inn for months, trading off shifts.
It was at this light where many employees signed union cards, formally pledging their support. And then, one day, red lights at the signal started getting much shorter.
Amazon convinced officials in Jefferson County, where Bessemer is located, to change the timer on the red traffic light outside the warehouse, leaving fewer seconds for organizers to chat with workers. Amazon spokespeople say they changed the signal so traffic wouldn't clog the parking lot, but organizers say their whole campaign was predicated on accessing workers during that red light.
"I only have 10 seconds to explain everything I can," Tray Ragland, a 28-year-old organizer, told me when I visited Bessemer earlier this month. "By the time I get to the good part, the red light has already changed."
The geography of the area makes organizing a union difficult. The fulfillment center, which abuts Alabama Adventure, a theme park (Rampage, a wooden roller coaster that reaches heights of 120 feet and speeds of 56 MPH, is its main attraction), is inaccessible to the public. Workers commute by car from Birmingham and its surrounding suburbs. On a patch of grass beside a Circle K gas station, near the off-ramp to the fulfillment center (Amazon's largest type of warehouse), organizers set up a red tent, which served as campaign headquarters, where they took breaks to hydrate and gobble tacos, often late at night under a canopy of hanging lanterns.
In February, I visited Bessemer for four days. One particularly sunny morning, I met Joshua Brewer, the 33-year-old lead organizer on the drive to unionize the 5,800 worker Amazon facility in Bessemer at the Retail Warehouse and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Mid-South Regional Council union hall in downtown Birmingham. Brewer is a former youth pastor from northern Alabama with three young children, and he's the one who’d been sleeping in his GMC Sierra outside the warehouse. On the day I visited, reporters, photographers, organizers, and Amazon warehouse workers flowed in and out of the union hall, eating free danishes, many waiting to talk to Brewer. His desk was strewn with papers and Diet Mountain Dew cans, and his cell phone seemed to ring once a minute with requests from Amazon workers and RWDSU colleagues in New York City.
"It's been chaos. I mean non-stop," Brewer told me, explaining how for months, he and a team of organizers in red RWDSU T-shirts rarely strayed from the small patch of public sidewalk.
"We were getting so many cards signed so fast. I couldn't keep up," Brewer said, gesturing to a crevice at the top of his desk where he stored union authorization cards signed by Amazon workers. To qualify for an election, unions typically need to provide signed authorization cards from one-third of eligible voters to the national labor board to show "sufficient" support. "I was throwing stacks of cards in here because I was terrified that Amazon or someone was going to find them. And if we lost those cards, that was the whole election," said Brewer.
Amazon's massive growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, an increased focus on its working conditions, and its expansive efforts to crush this nascent union have focused the nation's eyes on tiny Bessemer. Supporters say the union will give them dignity, and the simple grace of being treated more like humans and less like robots by a company with notoriously brutal working conditions. Amazon, owned by the richest man in the world, could simply let the union happen. Amazon workers are unionized in Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, and Poland, and still the world's Everything Store marches on. But Amazon does not want this union, which would be the company's first in the United States, and has gone to great lengths to make sure it fails.
Asked why Amazon opposes unionization in Bessemer, Heather Knox, a spokesperson for Amazon, said, “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, and opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment."
"At Amazon, these benefits and opportunities come with the job, as does the ability to communicate directly with the leadership of the company," she continued. “We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce.”
In late March 2020, as the first wave of COVID-19 cases swept the country, Amazon opened BHM1, its Bessemer warehouse, named after the nearby Birmingham airport. State and local officials, both Republican and Democrat, celebrated Amazon's arrival. At the groundbreaking event, Ken Gulley, Bessemer's third-term mayor, whose accomplishments include bringing in Dollar General, Fedex, and Lowe's distribution centers to the city, noted that the Amazon facility marked the single largest private investment in Bessemer's 131-year history. "It's just an awesome day for the city of Bessemer," Gulley said.
But the deal also came at a high cost. Amazon collected $3.3 million in tax incentives and road improvements from Bessemer, and $41.7 million in tax breaks from Alabama. In return, Amazon pledged to bring 1,500 jobs that paid $15 an hour—more than double the state's $7.25 minimum wage—and to donate $10,000 for STEM education at Bessemer City High School. Despite months of attention on the union drive from local and national media, Gulley has not commented substantially on the unionization effort. He declined to comment for this article.
"I thought that working for the richest man in the world meant that he was going to treat us right.”
In recent years, communities in California's Inland Empire, upstate New York, and rural Massachusetts, have protested the arrival of Amazon facilities, charging that the company brings air pollution, traffic jams, and non-union warehouse jobs that push wages downward, while bullying cities and states into offering generous tax breaks. In recent years, Amazon threatened to stop hiring and opening warehouses in Texas and North Carolina until both states offered tax breaks. Most American cities, though, particularly in low-income areas, welcome the company with generous rewards.
"Bezos has made getting government handouts and tax incentives a major pillar of how he grew this business," said Stacey Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "Lots of places are struggling economically. It makes it hard to say 'no' to the appearance of anything that looks like jobs ...It’s impossible to overstate how much those public subsidies and tax advantages helped Amazon grow."
Motherboard could not find any public examples of local pushback in greater Birmingham when Amazon secured the deal for the Bessemer warehouse in 2018. Local businesses welcomed the announcement. A Chevrolet dealership near the new facility raised a flag in its parking lot that read, "Chevrolet Welcomes Amazon."
Many residents of the Birmingham area also welcomed Amazon's arrival. Some were lured by the company's promise of $15 an hour. Others assumed working at one of the world's most prosperous tech companies meant dignified treatment and perks. In the lead-up to the warehouse's grand opening last March, Amazon hosted informational sessions for prospective employees at Bessemer's public housing projects and the Boys & Girls Club.
Workers I spoke to said that getting hired was easy. During the pandemic, Amazon on-boarded nearly half a million new employees worldwide, and opened at least 175 warehouses in the US and Canada. Sitting on the carpet in her bedroom beside a pull-up bar and a collection of stuffed animals, Catherine Highsmith, a 24-year-old Amazon worker, described her interview process.
"It was the easiest job application I've ever done," she said. At a local community college, she did a mouth swab drug test and a "90-second" criminal background check, and she was hired. She signed up for the 12-hour graveyard shift because it paid $17.50 an hour. "All they want to know is 'can you stand up?' 'can you pass a drug test?' They don't care where you've worked," she said.
Many of Amazon's hires at its Bessemer warehouse are recent high school graduates; other workers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s came to Amazon from shuttered factories.
Darryl Richardson, a 51-year-old Amazon warehouse worker who commutes 40 miles to the warehouse from Tuscaloosa, felt let down by the reality of working at Amazon. "I thought that working for the richest man in the world meant that he was going to treat us right," he told me. "I thought we were going to get good pay and raises."
In 2019, when a Mercedes-Benz and Nissan seat manufacturer in nearby Cottondale shut down, Richardson took a 36 percent pay cut from his $23.50 hourly wage to work for $15 an hour as a picker at Amazon. Now, Richardson plucks hundreds of items a day and places them into plastic yellow boxes.
On his new income, Richardson says he can't afford weekend outings to Outback Steakhouse or trips to the outlet mall with his girlfriend. "It hurts," he said. At the seat manufacturer, Richardson had been part of the United Auto Workers Local 2083. "Why me? Why am I going through what I'm going through?"
Richardson says he’s seen managers writing up or firing his coworkers for failing to keep up with Amazon's last minute scheduling changes, or even going to the bathroom.
"They really treat you like an animal, like something that's built for a task.”
A few months after the Bessemer facility opened, Amazon warehouse workers, including Richardson, called up organizers at RWDSU. They planned a secret meeting. In September, roughly a dozen workers and organizers met at a Fairfield Inn, about a mile from the Amazon warehouse, to discuss working conditions at Amazon and the potential for a union.
"We're just a number to our managers," said Richardson. "As long as we can get the quota out, 'Who cares?' in their eyes. I try not to go to the bathroom. I try not to get no water, because I don't want to put myself in a position where they can fire me."
Amazon is famously an analytics-driven workplace. High productivity quotas don't leave time for bathroom breaks, and workers' productivity is surveilled, and gamified and rewarded with digital prizes. If a worker leaves their scanner idle for too long, Amazon starts tracking their "time off task." Racking up too much time off task, by taking too many or too leisurely bathroom breaks or pausing to take a break, can result in a write-up or termination.
Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University and a lead organizer of the 2018 mass walkout against sexual harassment at Google, said Amazon's tactics are similar to the "scientific management" strategy developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s. Taylor took measurements of the most efficient workers with a stopwatch, breaking down tasks into their most basic form, and streamlined those expectations across a factory.
"Under Taylor, expectations were calibrated against someone with extraordinary capabilities and that became the benchmark," Whittaker said. "You see something similar in the way Amazon automates these logics. The rate always goes up, not down. These systems are calibrated to determine how far we can push people."
Multiple Amazon employees at Bessemer say their very personhood feels questioned at work.
"They really treat you like an animal, like something that's built for a task," Catherine Highsmith, the 24-year-old stower and supporter of the union, told me. She stands for hours, scanning incoming goods—bags of dog food, bottles of sunscreen, Advil, hot sauce—and placing them into yellow bins on large shelving units attached to the robots that zip around the warehouse, a role that used to be filled by human beings.
"You're standing there and you have to go take a piss," she said, "but you don't want to rack up time off task, so you just say man, 'I'll just wait another hour until break.'
Highsmith signed up to work at the warehouse soon after she'd been discharged from the National Guard in April as the pandemic was spreading across the country. "I had heard bad things, but I was desperate," Highsmith told me.
Highsmith grew up in a lakeside trailer park in eastern Alabama. In high school, she worked as a cashier at a McDonald's. When she asked about applying for a college scholarship, her school's college counselor "laughed in my face," she said. Like many poor millennial southerners, her job prospects without a college degree were limited. So, on her 18th birthday in 2014, Highsmith signed a six-year contract with the Alabama National Guard. She served out a yearlong mission at Guantanamo Bay, and later lived out of a hotel for a year, on a mission for the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas. "I joined the Army because I was poor and I slacked off a lot in school," she said.
Highsmith was "used to monotonous heavy labor" from her time in the military, but at Amazon, her work days blurred together. She spends her nights scanning and lifting thousands of items in a windowless warehouse. In the mornings, she pops a melatonin tablet and slips on an eye mask to keep out the sun while she sleeps. On days off, Highsmith re-adjusts to a normal sleeping schedule, also using melatonin pills, a process she and her coworkers call "flipping."
"Anybody who has a job knows it's hard to find time for yourself. But when you work at Amazon, your time is so precious," Highsmith said, hugging her well-fed cat.
Highsmith's sentiment is not unique. Workers often spend their 30-minute lunch breaks walking across the cavernous warehouse to get outside to their cars. Golden Stewart Jr., a 22-year-old Amazon packer and aspiring hip hop artist, told me Amazon's refusal to offer ample break time makes the job "miserable." "You don't have time to do anything on your break," Stewart said. "You just exist."
"I have been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety and Amazon doesn't help," he said. "It feels like you're alone all the time. You're really just a cog in an engine." The anxiety is compounded by seeing his coworkers lose their jobs. "I constantly feel like I'm going to get let go anytime."
After the meeting at the Fairfield Inn, RWDSU organizers weighed the risks and benefits of launching a union drive at Amazon; they decided it was worth it. Following a little vetting and training of organizers, the union drive launched in full force. Many of these organizers were workers from unionized poultry plants in northern Alabama who travelled to Bessemer, using a "lost time clause" in their contracts that allowed them to work on RWDSU organizing campaigns.
Other unions that have led high-profile unionization drives in the South in recent years have been accused of being outsiders. But it’s hard to make the same argument of RWDSU.
RWDSU had already played a key role in pushing Amazon to abandon its plans to open a second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens in 2018. It had also been organizing in Black communities in Birmingham and Alabama since the 1960s and 1970s, when union members marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery. Workers at the Bessemer warehouse, which is 85 percent Black and 65 percent women, trusted RWDSU organizers.
During several highly-publicized United Auto Workers (UAW) campaigns over the past decade, at Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen plants, union detractors argued the UAW was an untrustworthy northern outsider. During the campaign to unionize the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama in 2013, an anti-union group famously paid for a billboard along the same Interstate that the Amazon warehouse now sits off. It read: "Don't let the UAW turn Alabama into the next Detroit." Each of these efforts failed. It was hard to make the same outsider argument of RWDSU, which has long occupied a two-story office building in downtown Birmingham.
Amazon workers, many of them Black employees who had worked in unionized factories before, began to support the union because they saw what a union could do to make conditions better. Jennifer Bates, a 47-year-old mother of three grown children, quit her unionized job last May at US Pipe in Bessemer, where she had assembled water and waste pipelines for $19.97 an hour, taking a pay cut to work at the new Amazon facility for $15 an hour, where two of her sisters and 28-year-old daughter had already been hired.
"I saw an article that said Amazon was coming and I had a talk with God, and I got this feeling on the inside that let me know that I needed a change," said Bates about her decision to work at Amazon.
But Bates said she could barely walk after finishing her shift, which she described as "a nine-hour-straight workout."
She would eventually become the first worker to speak out publicly about the union drive, on a local CBS channel, and became a face of the unionization effort. "It was important for me to let other workers know publicly, 'I am one of the workers pushing for a change,'" Bates told me. "I spoke out because I learn very quickly and I know it'd be easy for me to find a job somewhere else."
Bates and Richardson are emblematic of a common dynamic that has happened all over the U.S. Amazon touts its $15 per hour starting pay, the equivalent of $30,000 annual income for a full-time worker, as a selling point. This rate is higher than the minimum wage in most places, and considered good pay when compared to retailers like Walmart and Dollar General. But warehouse work usually pays much better than $15 an hour. The average "order and stock filler," which includes warehouse workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, made $12.92 an hour in the Birmingham area in 2019. But warehouse workers in unionized positions earn upwards of $30 an hour.
On Wednesday, Bates testified before a Senate Budget Committee hearing on income inequality led by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos declined his invitation. "I've had good experiences at many jobs," Bates said. "I won't call one better than the other but Amazon is hell."
Local activists, union organizers, and historians familiar with the Bessemer area say the success of the union drive was foreseeable. "This is happening here because Amazon is the winner of the pandemic and for these workers, the speed-up and short breaks is a human rights issue and a civil rights issue," said Michael Innis-Jimenez, a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Though Bessemer has seen a decline in unionized factory jobs since the 1980s, some union jobs remain. And today, Alabama has the highest percentage of its workforce in a union of any state in the South, at eight percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The region's union history, the global pandemic, and Amazon's windfall profits had created the promising conditions for an Amazon union drive. "If it wasn't for the pandemic and speed-up, this wouldn't be happening," Innis Jimenez said.
During the pandemic, Amazon workers have protested the company's slapdash approach to coronavirus safety en masse. Last spring, at warehouses in New York City, Chicago, and Minnesota, workers defied warehouse leadership, marching out of their facilities during work hours, writing petitions, and calling out sick. Organized worker backlash to Amazon in the United States has never been stronger.
Chelsea Connor, the communications director of RWDSU, told Motherboard that the last time RWDSU attempted to unionize Amazon warehouse workers, at a warehouse in Staten Island in late 2018, the effort petered out. Amazon withdrew plans to bring its second headquarters to New York City and fired Rashad Long, a worker leader of the unionization effort. "The union drive got conflated with the headquarters fight and blew up before it could get off the ground," Connor said, noting that organizers are still in contact with Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island. "This fight in Bessemer is very different. It hasn't slowed down."
Once a prosperous industrial city in the 1930s, and home to a militant union movement run by local Communist Party members, Bessemer fell into hard times in the 1980s as the U.S. moved to import coal from other parts of the world. Today, one in four residents of the majority Black city lives below the poverty line. Less than 15 percent have a bachelor's degree.
Across the Interstate 59/20, Bessemer's main commercial thoroughfare is lined with pawn shops, dollar stores, and title loan companies. At the city's central park, named after its coal magnate founder, Henry F. DeBardeleben, elderly people pass the afternoons in camping chairs spread out in a circle formation, barbecuing and playing religious songs on portable speakers. Past the park, single-story tract homes line sleepy residential streets planted with oaks, magnolias, and pampas grass. Amazon, a 12-minute drive from here, feels a world away.
Highsmith and Stewart, both in their early 20s, are an anomaly. The epic fight to win this election rides on the union’s ability to reach Amazon's 18-to-24-year-old employees, many of whom pro-union workers and organizers say have been the most difficult to reach, either because they’ve been influenced by Amazon's anti-union rhetoric or because they don't see the value in a union.
"For them, this is just a short term job. I try to tell them, 'hey it's okay to support the union.'"
I met with Tray Ragland, a 28-year old poultry plant worker from Albertville at an Applebee's, down the road from the Amazon warehouse. In December, the union had called on Ragland, a shop steward at his plant, to travel to Bessemer to organize Amazon warehouse workers. The son of a unionized poultry worker himself, he is the youngest of the organizers living out of the Fairfield Inn in Bessemer and working on the campaign.
Sipping from a tall glass of lemonade, Ragland told me he felt optimistic about the election, but that he had struggled to persuade younger Amazon warehouse workers to vote at all. (RWDSU and Amazon could not provide data on the age demographics of the warehouse.) "With the young population they're just like we want to work to get our money," Ragland said. "For them, this is just a short term job. I try to tell them, 'hey it's okay to support the union.'"
It was much easier to convince workers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, he noted. "They've known about unions. They've read about unions. They understand."
Other organizers and pro-union Amazon workers mirrored the sentiment, saying many of the youngest workers were ambivalent about the union at best, or amenable to the anti-union rhetoric that managers and anti-union consultants were circulating around the warehouse. Often it took someone's parents or grandparents to convince younger workers to vote yes, organizers said.
"We have this demographic of like, 18 to 22. They're so young they ultimately don't care. They're just trying to get to Friday night," said Brewer. "This job is a short top."
"I always knew I was pro union," said Highsmith, the 24-year-old. "But younger people are more easily manipulated by Amazon telling them 'hey you're only 20 years old and you're making this much money.' Others don't care either way and I don't blame them."
Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, said workers' ambivalent perspective on unions often comes from low expectations of an employer and high turnover at a facility. "You’re talking about workers who never felt like they had a right to a voice on the job," she said. "They don’t even imagine these could be long term jobs. They’re thinking they’ll last a few months, their bodies will be hurting, and they’ll be moving on."
Turnover is notoriously high at Amazon warehouses by design, according to experts. Between 2011 and 2017, when the first Amazon fulfillment center opened in southern California, the turnover rate in five counties with Amazon warehouses leaped from 38 percent to 100 percent, according to a 2020 report by the National Employment Law Project. "It’s in Amazon's interest to have workers who don’t stick around; that's how they keep unions out," said Givan.
When I met Ragland, Amazon's union-busting campaign was in full swing. In late December, the company had launched a pastel-colored anti-union website with dancing dog graphics and images of warehouse workers in Amazon facemasks holding two thumbs up. "If you're paying dues," one section reads, "it will be RESTRICTIVE meaning it won't be as easy to be helpful and social with each other." Amazon also sent out care packages stuffed with anti-union literature and glossy "VOTE NO" instructions, passed out pins and t-shirts, posted anti-union flyers in bathroom stalls, and sent workers text messages on an almost daily basis.
The company also forced workers to attend anti-union presentations during work hours. "They told us: 'You could lose your pay. When you vote for a union, everything is up for negotiation,'" Highsmith said. It wasn't lost on workers that Amazon wanted to spend hours filling workers' ears with anti-union rhetoric, but resisted calls to give workers more time to eat lunch, socialize, and use the bathroom.
"It is important that all employees understand the facts of joining a union and the election process," Heather Knox, the Amazon spokesperson said. "We hosted regular information sessions for all employees, which included an opportunity for employees to ask questions, and provided other education materials. If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it’s important all associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon."
To some degree, these efforts appear to have swayed workers. Motherboard spoke to pro-union workers who say others on their shifts talk about Amazon cutting their wages and benefits if the union wins, and even shutting down the facility. "To be honest with you, I don't think the union will win," said Stewart, the 22-year old Amazon packer. "They're getting told by Amazon what they could lose and they're afraid."
"The narrative is that Amazon will get up and leave," said Deririck Medlock, a 40-year old part-time Amazon stower from the Florida Panhandle, who earns twice as much at his other job, a unionized electric utility company. He says he signed up to work at Amazon during the pandemic to have something to do on the weekend.
Many Bessemer Amazon workers live paycheck to paycheck, but Medlock says using his Alabama Power income, he put a down payment on a $420,000 house with four bedrooms and a two car garage in Hoover, a nearby suburb.
Organizers remain cautiously optimistic that the union will win when votes are counted at the NLRB office in Atlanta on March 30. An outpouring of support from celebrities such as Tina Fey and Danny Glover, congress members, professional athletes' unions, and even President Biden, has excited progressives around the country. Workers say the impact of these endorsements is palpable, but not a game-changer. "It definitely turns heads," said Highsmith.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Glover flew from San Francisco to lend his support for the union. As the sun slipped behind the pine trees, Glover spoke before a swarm of reporters on a patch of grass near the Amazon warehouse. "Martin Luther King, Jr. said the best solution to poverty is the union," he said "That's why I am here today." Amazon workers in their cars drove by blasting their stereos and cheering, and tractor trailers emblazoned with Amazon's logo honked their horns.
A couple workers rolled down their windows to yell "boo" and "vote no" at union organizers. Later that evening, a local CBS TV channel aired a segment featuring one of the few workers jeering during Glover's speech. Brewer shared the clip with me in his office the next morning. "There were so many workers cheering," he said, shaking his head. "Why would they make the story about the workers who booed?"
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In recent days, warehouse workers removed and vandalized RWDSU's tent outside the Circle K gas station, and "Vote Yes!" union signs that line the sides of Power Plant Road. Members of the Democratic Socialists of America Birmingham chapter have been canvassing neighborhoods, asking strangers to put signs on their lawns indicating that they support a union at Amazon.
"We think we're gonna win," said Brewer. "But we think we have a really, really big fight on our hands. This is definitely a very real race. There's absolutely a 'no' base. There's absolutely a 'yes' base."