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The Alabama Workers Trying to Unionize an Amazon Fulfillment Center

South of Birmingham, warehouse employees are voting on whether to form a union. Their decision could have ripple effects around the country. A seven-week balloting period began last month and will end on March 29th.

If a unionization effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, succeeds, it could galvanize similar campaigns at other Amazon facilities.,Photographs by Jared Ragland for The New Yorker

One afternoon in late February, a sixty-five-year-old Alabamian named Randy Hadley stood on a street corner outside an Amazon facility in Bessemer, twenty minutes south of Birmingham. It was about time for a shift change, but the expected exodus from the enormous fulfillment center, which employs nearly six thousand workers, wasn’t happening. “Amazon plays with us,” Hadley said, shrugging. “Sometimes they let them out early during the day. Sometimes they let them drift in and drift out. Usually, it’s a pretty good trickle coming out right about now.” (A spokesman for Amazon, when asked about this, replied, “Due to covid, shift start times and break times are being staggered to promote social distancing.”)

Hadley, the president of the mid-South council of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, has an easy manner and a white goatee. He’s spent most of the past forty years organizing poultry factories and nursing homes, and he didn’t mind waiting—an opportunity to unionize Amazon doesn’t come around often. Although Amazon employees have unionized in other countries, no Amazon facility in the U.S. has a union. Alabama is a so-called right-to-work state, and Amazon, which opened the fulfillment center a year ago, was one of the largest employers to come to Bessemer since a Pullman-Standard train-car plant shut down, in 1981.

Last June, however, Hadley got an e-mail from a man named Darryl Richardson, who had filled out a form on the R.W.D.S.U. Web site. “I had Googled which union could represent Amazon,” Richardson told me. “R.W.D.S.U., they came up.” The form asked for his name, address, and phone number, and had a box for writing in queries. Richardson wrote: “How do I go about organizing?”

Hadley called Richardson and suggested a meeting. “We met one-on-one in Tuscaloosa, at Dreamland BBQ,” Richardson told me. “We ordered dinner—ribs—and we got to talking about what they gonna do and how would they do it. Strategizing.” Soon afterward, Richardson got a few other employees together who felt the way that he did about conditions at the facility. “We started meeting with a few people here in Bessemer, at the hotels,” Hadley told me. Then he and the union headed out to the fulfillment center.

“When we got here, we realized, Wait a minute, there’s more than five thousand employees here!” Hadley said. “That’s more than we thought. I actually turned around—we were standing down there at that gate—and looked at one of the guys who was handing out leaflets, and I go, ‘We gonna need a bigger boat.’ ”

R.W.D.S.U. staffers and volunteers are making hundreds of calls a day, according to the union, reaching more than five thousand employees by phone or text.

Photograph by Jared Ragland for The New Yorker


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That was last fall. The union started collecting authorization cards—they amassed more than three thousand—and the National Labor Relations Board decided that the union had enough support to hold a vote. Amazon insisted that the election should be held in person, but the board, which has been allowing mail-in balloting since the pandemic began, ruled against the company. A seven-week balloting period began last month and will end on March 29th. The effort has garnered international headlines, and a handful of the employees who have been among the most involved, like Richardson, have spoken to reporters from across the country. One of the employees I talked to, Jennifer Bates, is slated to speak at a congressional hearing on Wednesday. Late last month, Joe Biden unexpectedly offered a statement of clear, albeit nonspecific, support for the union push. “Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers,” Biden said. Though he did not mention Amazon by name, he referred to “workers in Alabama and all across America.”

If the effort in Bessemer succeeds, it could galvanize similar campaigns at other facilities. “We’ve already got contacts at other Amazons that we’ve started meeting with,” Hadley told me, fanning out his union flyers before him, as a few vehicles approached the traffic light where he stood. A county official told More Perfect Union that Amazon had asked for the pattern of the light to be altered, so that employees could get to and from the facility more quickly. This leaves less time during stops for organizers to talk to departing workers. “We’ve timed them,” Hadley said. (An Amazon spokesperson denied any attempt to limit conversations between the company’s employees and the union, adding that Amazon works with local officials to insure that traffic flows to and from its facilities as smoothly as possible.)

A woman behind the wheel of an old Honda held eye contact with Hadley for just long enough, then lowered her window. “I’ve already voted,” she said, smiling and taking a flyer anyway. She thanked Hadley, he blessed her, and she drove off. This ritual was repeated a dozen more times in the next half hour. A few cars waved Hadley away, a few ignored him. Some had door knockers hanging from their rearview mirrors with the words “Vote No.”

“A lot of people have already voted,” Hadley said, returning to his clump of grass. “They’re tired. I think it’s gonna be close.”

Amazon has urged its employees to vote against the union in a variety of ways, highlighting the strength of its benefits package and its entry-level hourly pay—more than double the minimum wage in Alabama, which is the federal rate of $7.25 per hour. The company also created a Web site urging workers to “Do It Without Dues”—an arguably misleading message, because in Alabama members of unions cannot be required to pay dues. Amazon has held mandatory meetings for employees at the Bessemer facility about how unions work, and the R.W.D.S.U. has accused the company of spreading misinformation in these sessions. (An Amazon spokesperson said it was important that all employees understand the facts of joining a union and the election process, and that the company hosted regular information sessions to answer their questions.)

“A lot of people have already voted,” Hadley said, returning to his clump of grass. “They’re tired. I think it’s gonna be close.”

Amazon has urged its employees to vote against the union in a variety of ways, highlighting the strength of its benefits package and its entry-level hourly pay—more than double the minimum wage in Alabama, which is the federal rate of $7.25 per hour. The company also created a Web site urging workers to “Do It Without Dues”—an arguably misleading message, because in Alabama members of unions cannot be required to pay dues. Amazon has held mandatory meetings for employees at the Bessemer facility about how unions work, and the R.W.D.S.U. has accused the company of spreading misinformation in these sessions. (An Amazon spokesperson said it was important that all employees understand the facts of joining a union and the election process, and that the company hosted regular information sessions to answer their questions.)

In early March, Amazon held a virtual roundtable featuring employees who oppose the unionization effort, including a forty-two-year-old supervisor named J. C. Thompson and a forty-four-year-old problem solver at the fulfillment center named Carla Johnson. I spoke to Thompson and Johnson by phone; an Amazon communications director, who had arranged the call, joined us on the line. Both employees emphasized that they were already getting what they needed. Johnson, who was diagnosed with cancer last year, and is now cancer-free after a series of treatments, praised the company’s health-insurance plan. Thompson said, “I can walk up to any manager and I can talk to them about anything. I don’t need a third party negotiating or talking for me.”

Meanwhile, R.W.D.S.U. staffers and volunteers are making hundreds of calls a day, according to the union, reaching more than five thousand employees by phone or text. The union hopes to reach every employee at the facility by the end of the month. Joshua Brewer, the lead R.W.D.S.U. organizer for the campaign, told me that “the conversation always seems to kind of circle back to a worker’s desire to just have somebody there on their side.” Workers’ reactions aren’t always positive, and Brewer has gotten the occasional “Fuck you, don’t call me!” and “I’m not funding liberals.” But, he said, “we’re not under any expectation that everyone we talk to is going to be supportive.”

In Bessemer, after speaking with Hadley, I spoke one-on-one with Richardson and two other employees at the fulfillment center who have been active in the union effort. I asked them why they support it, what they think a union could accomplish, and how they expect the historic election to turn out. Their accounts have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Darryl Richardson, fifty-one

“I used to work at a company called Faurecia. We made the seats for Mercedes. And we was union. And some of my people, from Detroit, they was U.A.W., and they worked for Chrysler, G.M. So, I’ve always been union. Raised union. My dad, he worked at tamko, from Tuscaloosa, a roofing company. They was union.

“I’ve been at Amazon for about a year. And I thought it was a good place to work. Amazon, man—nice company, nice facility to work for. But, after I got there, a couple of months, I realized there need to be some changes. They’re changing your schedule while you sleep. You’ve got single parents out there. I got four girls—they’re grown, though. But we shouldn’t go to sleep knowing we’ve got to be at work at seven-fifteen, then wake up in the morning scared it changed to six-fifteen. You’ve got to change the whole plan in an instant. [A spokesman for Amazon insisted that the company’s policy is to alert employees to “mandatory extra time” as much as three weeks in advance and no later than “before the employees’ lunch break the day prior.”]

“I’m a picker. Picker is pulling apart the items and put it in a tote. We’re told which tote to put it in and then push it down the conveyor, and then it goes to a packer, and they pack it and put it in a box and send her off. I’m one of the top pickers in the facility—that’s what I was told. The other day, on the second floor, the learning ambassador, he said, ‘Darryl, you’re the top picker on the second floor today.’ I’m fifty-one years old. And I give them all I can get. I get tired. After three o’clock, I’m drained. I try not to go to the bathroom. I try not to leave off my station, because I don’t want to get no T.O.T. time.

“Any time you leave off your machine—go and get some water, use the bathroom—every minute you are not on your station scanning, that’s T.O.T.: time off task. If you get up to two hours, it’ll lead to termination. I feel like, if you’ve got to go to the bathroom, it’s not fair to get docked for it. Sometimes the bathrooms and the water on each floor are not working. And you’ve got to go to the next floor.

“I think we should all make twenty an hour. And our breaks—out of ten, eleven hours a day, we only get two breaks. And the breaks don’t change if they add an hour to you: it’s your two breaks. So that need to be changed. [An Amazon spokesperson told me that employees leaving their workstation for two hours, not counting breaks, without a reasonable explanation would be subject to the company’s time-off-task policy, and that employees receive an additional fifteen-minute break if they work more than twelve hours.]

“On break, I go out to my truck. When I talk to employees, to the young generation—because they’re the ones we need to talk to, because they’re confused—they don’t know nothing about the union. I tell them, ‘The union don’t come here to take away our pay. If that’s the case, what we calling them for?’ And I said, ‘Before you all make a decision, you all just think about this: If the union was so bad, why are they doing everything they can to keep it out of here?’ And I leave that with them. ‘Why they telling you all to vote no?’

“This an anti-union state. They bring companies down here because they feel like we not going to stick together. But I’m glad to see we the first to try. And I believe the other Amazons around—not just the other Amazons but everybody—I really think they’ll follow. And I hope they do, because we’re not the only one going through this.

“Sometime at night, I sit there and think about, Is what I’m doing wrong, or, Why the company’s fighting so hard? All we want to do is get paid a better rate, get treated with respect, have the opportunity to move up, job security—all of that. What I don’t understand is why a company will fire you when the only thing you want for them to do is be fair?”

Catherine Highsmith, twenty-four

“I slacked off in high school. And so I joined the Army. And then that didn’t work out, either, so I’m here. I have the G.I. Bill, but I’m not planning on going back to school yet. I’ve been actively seeking other employment, but it’s kind of hard when Amazon gives you health insurance—right now, that’s a pretty valuable thing to have. My parents are senior. They live in a camper about forty miles that way. They both work.

“The thing about Amazon is that they don’t care what job you had. They don’t care about your education. All you have to do is pass a drug test. And they said seventeen-fifty an hour, and I was, like, ‘I’m not doing anything else!’ I work night shift, so when I started, it was an extra two dollars and fifty cents an hour. I do ‘stow.’ You stand on a pad and you pull something out of a plastic tote and put it in a pod. I also used to do ‘problem-solve,’ which is where, if something won’t scan, you fix it.

“I had heard that they wouldn’t let you go take a piss, and all that stuff. But when I got there, I’ll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. I’m allowed to go piss whenever I want. Then you start to understand that if you don’t talk, and you work really fast, you’re fine, but if you have a problem—if they mess up your time card, or if you get sick or something like that, if you don’t follow their rules perfectly—then that’s where you start running into problems. I’ve seen it happen to lots of people. And I’ve only been there since October.

“I got sick, and it wasn’t covid—it was just regular sick. If you go on leave, they won’t take you off leave until they get around to it. And I didn’t get paid that week. They were, like, ‘Check back next week.’ Meanwhile, I have to go home and tell my roommate, ‘I don’t have the electric bill. I don’t have the rent money.’ And they’re, like, ‘Not a problem. That’s just how the leave system is.’ Imagine if you had to go home and tell your kids, ‘Sorry, I didn’t get paid because I got sick one day.’ And that’s the whole point of this union thing. It’s not about you. [An Amazon spokesperson told me that human resources manually inputs the returning employees’ information to insure there are no breaks in the payment process, adding that the process depends upon employees promptly filing their paperwork.]

“Stuff that I saw and had to participate in in the Army pushed me pretty far left, I would say. I don’t want that to create a bias, because there’s a lot of people who are pro-union that want nothing to do with leftism or Democrats.

“The first week that I showed up to work, the union organizers were already out on the street. I took the card immediately.

“It’s cooled down now that everybody has their ballots. But, leading up to it, we had to go to these union-busting classes. The last one I had was at two in the morning. One before that was at, like, twelve. I would ask questions, but a lot of the response was, ‘You can see me after and I’ll explain it to you further.’ So it’s, like, ‘I’ll give you some bullshit privately, but this is only for pro-Amazon discussions.’ So I quickly learned that I shouldn’t do that, because I don’t want to get in trouble.

“You see all this propaganda that they have. If I go to the break room—it’s socially distanced, and you use a plastic cubicle, and they have these little flyers that are set up in these frames. And it’s all these people saying, ‘I don’t need a union. I can speak for myself. I like the way things are.’ When I noticed this at first, those people seemed to only be managers or process assistants or learning ambassadors in leadership roles. They’ve been promoted. If you ask somebody who’s been working in stow for the past six months, they probably wouldn’t have the same answers. [An Amazon spokesperson told me, “The materials printed do not include salaried leaders. Those who are featured volunteered to participate.”]

“They had some woman in one of the classes—she was telling me, ‘You might lose your benefits, or your pay might go down, because of the union negotiation.’ I asked why. And she said, ‘Well, it’s a negotiation.’ And I was, like, ‘Well, if you like paying us X amount of dollars and like us having X amount of benefits, what’s the pros for Amazon taking that away?’ And she just kind of deflected and was, like, ‘I didn’t say they were going to—I said it could happen.’

“And you’re not trying to raise your profile. They could find anything. They could be, like, ‘Well, your rates were bad this day. You didn’t stow or problem-solve enough items per hour.’ If they were super dastardly about it. . . . I have nothing. My parents don’t have any money. So I hate to be cowardly, but that’s just kind of how I’ve had to do things.

“When I took the job at Amazon, I didn’t foresee that I’d be working there more than a couple of years. This is not a career thing for me. And that’s O.K. if it is for some people, but I’m still really young.

“My hope for this, if it works out, is it will embolden another place. Because the one in Bessemer—it’s not all that bad there. It’s a new facility. But somewhere else where they’re getting treated really badly—I’ve read the stories. Basically, if it works out, somebody else might say, ‘We can do that, too. We don’t have to sit here and listen to this crap.’ ”

Jennifer Bates, forty-eight

“Marion is near where Coretta Scott King was born and raised. I’m from the same area. I’m the oldest of six. I have three children and seven grandchildren. I started working when I was thirteen. My first little job was at an okra field in the city. That was one of the things in the summertime that most of the kids would do. We would go out there, for a little extra change for the week. By the end of the week, we may have had a dollar or something.

“After turning sixteen, I worked at a local restaurant in my home town with my aunt. I’ve done a lot of things. Working with the police department, as a dispatcher. I’ve been an assistant manager, secretary for a pastor, worked in ministry, worked with youth.

“I worked in stow when I first got here. In the decant department, where I work at now, it’s receiving. That’s when all the trucks come in, we take the boxes off, open them, put them in containers that go to the stow department, scan them in the system, and make sure the count and everything is in. I’m an ambassador now, too. That’s the first step of moving up. We train new employees and also assist management. With stow, you have to walk up and down the stairs if you have to put stuff on the top. It’s a lot of walking, a lot of standing, and then for the pay that we’re getting it’s not worth it.

“Going to break, they do security checks. If the buzzer goes off on you, then you have to scan your badge. You’re not going to lunch now, even if you’re hungry, because I have to go in this little room, undress, take off our jackets, remove all our pockets, pants, take our shoes off, to make sure we didn’t steal anything. That counts against my break. [A spokesperson for Amazon insisted that this was not company policy.]

“You hear the complaints about people going to H.R. ‘They take our hours away from us because they made a mistake and they didn’t give us the mandatory overtime in time.’

“Since the union surfaced, Amazon has tried to do what we’ve been crying out for. They’re sending human resources on the floor on break, so you’ll have time to go talk to them. ‘Is there anything you need? Can we help you?’ They’re being so nice—it’s like they brought out the candy jar.

“They’re giving promotions, to make the younger generation feel good: ‘Hey, I’m not voting for the union, because they just promoted me.’ [An Amazon spokesperson insisted that the company’s promotion process and pace has remained the same since the facility opened, and that it is standard practice for human resources to regularly engage with all associates.] Younger people probably don’t really understand the union, except for the ones whose parents and grandparents have told them, ‘Go sign the card—take it back now. You all need it.’ Still, some are saying, ‘They’re going to take five hundred out of your check every year’ and ‘You’re going to lose your benefits.’

“This is what they tell us at the meetings. One time, there was a Caucasian lady and a Black lady—they both asked about the pay. ‘We’re doing so much work,’ one said. ‘I don’t think we’re getting paid enough.’ The woman running the meeting said, ‘I’m surprised that you all are saying this, because you’re making fifteen an hour and you’re only paying four hundred for rent.’ One girl said, ‘What do you mean? You think it’s cheap to live in Alabama? Where did you get that from?’ I’m sitting behind her, and I said, ‘I pay twelve hundred a month for rent in Birmingham.’ It was one of those things, like, ‘You all are living in low-income, so you ought to be grateful.’

“Amazon says, ‘The union can’t promise you anything.’ But Amazon hasn’t promised us, either, because everything they say they’re giving us—they can take it back, because it’s not in a contract.

“I’ve changed some minds. One girl, she worked with me on the line, in receiving. She’s, like, ‘Why do you all want a union? We’re going to lose our insurance. They said if we could vote the union in, they’re going to shut the plant down.’ So I began to explain to her, ‘Did you know that the organizers, we’re the union, we negotiate with Amazon on what we want?’ She shook her head.

“A lot of folks quit—they couldn’t take it. But we also have a lot of people who stay because we still have bills to pay. We still have to eat. It’s a pandemic right now, and a lot of other places aren’t hiring.

“We didn’t realize it was going to catch fire the way it is, because we’re a small group of people who just want to make a change in our building. So I feel good that there are a lot of people who’s been crying inside now ready to speak outside that ‘O.K., I can say something now and somebody will hear me.’ ”

Randy Hadley, the president of R.W.D.S.U.’s mid-South council, sixty-five

“The first day we came here was October the twentieth. We’ve been here every day since, except Christmas and Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. We have folks here from two-thirty in the morning to seven in the morning. [Organizers are also there for the evening shift change, from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.] We catch as many people as we can. It’s been about fifteen to one this past hour, Yes to No.

“Labor movements, where we drop the ball—and I’ve been in this business forty-three years, so I can say this—is we don’t market ourselves as well as we should. You see these signs? We’ve got the upside-down Amazon smile. We got the Web site and TikTok set up before we arrived. The day we showed up, we put signs in the ground. ‘RWDSU on Your Side.’ ‘Mail Your YES Ballot.’ People steal them and damage them. We put them back.

“Just getting into an election is something no one ever thought we’d be able to do with the number of people here, and the turnover. The employer didn’t take us seriously when we first came down here. ‘It’s just a little old damn union. They’ll just get a couple of cards signed and be on their way.’

“We represent about twenty thousand people in the mid-South council. Poultry plants, nursing homes, dog-food plants, meatpacking houses. We’re not afraid of working. We’ll come out here and stand. Like I say, when you hit Goliath in the nose, you better hit him every day.

“Not everyone is nice. We get people saying ‘Fuck you!’ The old one-fingered salute. But they’re usually in management and stuff, pulling up in a B.M.W. or a Mercedes or a Denali. You know they’re not making fifteen an hour.

“They’ve shortened this traffic light, that light, and they’ve done a light over there. All the entrances. And the way we figured that out is we’d seen two pickup trucks parked off a distance. We actually thought they were surveilling us. I said, ‘Let’s go over and see what this cat’s doing.’ So we walked over there, and he’s sitting in his car with his computer and stuff, and I looked down and I told him, ‘You might want to be careful over here. It’s a little dangerous.’ And then I said, ‘What you doing, anyway?’ He says, ‘I’m doing a time study of traffic.’ On a Saturday afternoon? I found that odd. I was looking at his paperwork as we were talking. I said to my guy, ‘They’re getting ready to recalibrate the traffic lights, so people can’t stop and chat with us.’ And that’s exactly what they did.

“Amazon is trying to turn them at their meetings. During a union-busting meeting, the buster asked if anyone had been a union member. One woman, she said, ‘I’ve been a member.’ The union buster said, ‘What union was it?’ She said, ‘Actually, it was that one standing out there at the gate. I know those guys and those ladies personally—they’re great people.’ Well, they didn’t ask her to come back to the next meeting.

“History shows you’ll have around thirty per cent turnout. I think we’ll have a bigger turnout here by the time they start counting ballots. But I bet it’ll be a week before all the challenged ballots are resolved. Amazon is gonna do everything in the world to delay, delay, delay. That’s been their goal since Day One. [An Amazon spokesperson said that an in-person election, which Amazon wanted, would have been shorter than a mail-in election.] But, if two thousand people vote, we just need a thousand and one to vote Yes.”

[Charles Bethea has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2008 and became a staff writer in 2018. He has published dozens of Talk of the Town pieces, often on political subjects, including the creator of, the gymnastics career of Roy Moore, and a sculptor obsessed with Donald Trump. In addition to politics, he covers local media and the American South. Previously, he was an editor at Outside magazine and a writer-at-large for Atlanta. His work has also appeared in Grantland, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, GQ, Rolling Stone, and Wired. He lives in Atlanta.]