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In Bessemer and the South, Black Workers Hold the Key

Does the ongoing campaign to unionize the Amazon Bessemer warehouse, where 85 percent of the workers are Black, portend a return to large-scale campaigns in the South?

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Over 6,000 workers at Amazon’s mammoth Bessemer, Alabama, facility are headed for a revote on whether they want to join the 60,000-member Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an affiliate of the 1.25 million–member United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

The ballots went out on February 4 and will be counted by March 25. Once again, Amazon is waging an aggressive anti-union campaign, despite the November 2021 ruling from the National Labor Relations Board that ordered a new election due to the company’s violations during the previous election process.

Less discussed, however, is the critical role played by Black workers at the company in even daring to raise the question of unionization in the deep-red, right-to-work U.S. South. Fully 85 percent of Amazon’s workforce at Bessemer are Black, with Black workers leading the union campaign.

This fundamentally matters.

Win or lose, the campaign is a testament to Black organizers’ power in the fastest-growing region in the country with the lowest union density. Black workers in Bessemer are raising essential questions about the New South, unions, and racial discrimination in the high-tech economy.

The campaign by the Black workers in Bessemer will have ripple effects across the South and the country—yet it presents a quandary for a labor movement that still lacks a cohesive and comprehensive strategy to organize Black workers, particularly in the South. The Amazon battle takes place in a context of more than 150 years of post–Civil War aggressive labor control that combines white supremacy with anti-Black violence, limiting the growth and the potential of unions across the region. As union density decreases further, there is a major untapped well of Southern workers. If organized, they would simultaneously bring the movement new members and prevent further dilution of labor standards in the North.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach, sees the fight at the Amazon warehouse as one of historic proportions. “Bessemer is our economic Selma,” he has said. “The fight for union rights and living wages is our economic Selma.”

BLACK WORKERS ARE 11 PERCENT more likely than the general population to be in unions. A 2007 study found that workplaces that are majority–Black female and were organized by Black women union organizers have the highest likelihood of success of any unionization campaign. By 2032, Black and brown workers will be a majority of the American working class, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute. This basic demographic fact underscores the critical importance of the labor movement doing whatever it takes to expand organizing of Black and brown workers.

Bessemer is a city of 27,000 people just outside of Birmingham; it is 72 percent Black. A little over a quarter of city residents live below the poverty line, compared to 15.5 percent within the state and 13.4 percent nationwide. The census’s 2015–2019 estimate of per capita income was $19,420, compared to $27,928 for the state of Alabama, and $34,103 nationwide. The state has never passed a minimum-wage law, so the federal level of $7.25 is in effect there.

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While Amazon has used the Black Lives Matter logo on its anti-union literature, the fact remains that unions do more than any other organization to reduce racial and gender inequities on the job. According to a 2021 fact sheet from the Economic Policy Institute, union workers as a whole make significantly more money than non-union workers. However, the wage gap among Black and Latino workers is larger than that for the overall population, with unionized Black workers making 13.1 percent more than non-union Black workers in comparable jobs, compared to a 10.1 percent union wage differential for workers overall. Latino workers make 18.8 percent more than non-union Latino workers.

Amazon’s anti-union campaign in last year’s election included successfully lobbying the Postal Service to install a mailbox that workers alleged was surveilled by the company, changing traffic light patterns to ensure that union organizers had less access to workers, and conducting “thousands” of anti-union meetings that its employees at the Bessemer warehouse were compelled to attend. Those actions resulted in the NLRB’s November decision to order a new election.

The ugly nature of the anti-union campaign tapped into a long history, in which the Southern oligarchy fiercely resisted the growth of unionization. Robin D.G. Kelley, a historian at UCLA who has studied Alabama’s complex labor history, noted the connections between the Old South’s anti-union violence and Amazon’s modern high-tech union-busting effort. (In 1937, the ACLU labeled Birmingham as one of the nation’s 11 centers of labor repression, where “repression was continuous, not incidental.”)

The anti-labor repression of old has been replaced with “new means—consultants and propaganda, but it’s not radically different,” Kelley told the Prospect. “You had goon squads and company police then, but the new technology now doesn’t change the strategy.”

“The strategy in the Jim Crow South was to divide and rule. What you do get now, like before, is a propaganda campaign that’s meant to intimidate and scare workers. What is true is that the very Jim Crow system that made Black workers more precarious, pushed wages down for Black workers and therefore all workers is still in play,” he added.

Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, his history of the Black Communist-led Alabama labor movement of the 1930s, noted that “race pervaded virtually every aspect of Southern society. The relations between industrial labor and capital, and landlords and tenants, were clouded by divisions based on skin color.”

The legacy of the Jim Crow era where white workers in the South were convinced to not join unions because of skin color is still apparent in the current low level of union density in the state, despite the fact that it is the highest in the South. Alabama ranks 34th nationwide, with 5.9 percent of the state’s working population in unions.

Erica Iheme, a Birmingham-based organizer with the economic justice advocacy group Jobs to Move America, said that Amazon takes advantage of patterns set in the Jim Crow era. Recent decades “brought new industry and dropped it right on top of old Jim Crow,” she said. “There have been no adjustments to how we treat workers. They’re paying above minimum wage, offering health care, that’s awesome—but at what cost? Bodies are being broken down,” Iheme said. “The reality is that workers in Alabama are treated very poorly. Frequently, being able to advocate for themselves on the job is far-fetched. They’re very afraid for job security, retaliation. It sets the tone for creating this culture of fear in their workplace and accepting whatever the boss gives you.”

But the campaign for unionization at the Bessemer warehouse has altered this dynamic, said Iheme. “This campaign goes so far beyond the workers at Amazon as an employer,” she said. “It really sets a tone for what employers can or cannot get away with when workers try to form a union.”

One of the bigger misconceptions about American labor history is the notion that the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (CIO) campaign to organize the South—called Operation Dixie—in the aftermath of World War II was an unmitigated failure. In fact, Operation Dixie organized hundreds of major workplaces. To be sure, the rate of union victories per election was significantly lower than in the North, and Operation Dixie failed to make significant gains in the industry of the program’s largest backer, the Textile Workers Union of America. Nonetheless, large masses of industrial workers, many of them Black, did unionize with CIO unions at that time. As a result, Alabama’s union density in 1983 was higher than New Jersey’s is today.

At the time, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) ran a competing program to organize the South. The AFL had many unions that contained discriminatory charters limiting membership to whites only, or allowed their locals in the South to do so. The CIO’s successes, by contrast, were heavily dependent on the self-activity of Black workers in the South. (The RWDSU union organizing at Bessemer was founded as a CIO union. The AFL and the CIO merged in 1955.)

Operation Dixie was massively hamstrung by a failure to hire Black staff, target majority-Black workforces, and, a year after it began, by the Red Scare, which led to the expulsion or demotion of many organizers and activists who were committed to interracial unionism. Indeed, as the CIO was financing Operation Dixie, its leaders were sponsoring massive membership raids on one of the unions most committed to racial justice, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

In its earliest years (the CIO first took shape in 1935), even prior to Operation Dixie, the CIO had had major successes in the South. One of the key victories was of the nascent Steel Workers Organizing Committee-CIO (SWOC) (now the United Steelworkers) at U.S. Pipe in Birmingham in 1939. Higher-paid “skilled” white workers had attempted to have the central union in the factory be the AFL-affiliated International Molders Union. The majority-Black workforce backed the pro–social equality SWOC and prevailed when workers voted for the SWOC. The U.S. Pipe workforce is still unionized by the USW, 83 years later. (It is worth noting that long-term Steelworker leader Fred Redmond was elected as the first Black secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 2021.)

Jennifer Bates spent ten years as a unionized worker at U.S. Pipe, and when she moved to Bessemer, she took a job at Amazon in May 2020. There, she “saw some things that needed to be done to better sustain the workers there,” and today she is a leader of her union’s campaign inside the warehouse.

Racial discrimination, including in promotions, is just one of the issues that Bates, a Black woman, believes rankles many of her co-workers. Amazon, Bates said, discourages promotions through seniority. At the warehouse, “we watch a lot of outside people come in to take senior positions, which could very well be done from the inside by workers who have already been there for a couple years. [Instead] employees that already know the jobs have to train managers from the outside. Disproportionately, these folks who come from the outside are white.”

In her ten years at unionized U.S. Pipe, Bates found a workplace far less hostile to workers of color than at Amazon. She told the Prospect that she saw “more promotions from within and better relations with managers. I saw my co-workers become managers. I saw them move from managers up into the main office, because of seniority and promotion from the inside. It was in the contract—promotion by seniority, skills, and ability.”

In contrast, Bates pointed to an Indian American co-worker of hers who had an engineering degree from India who has been unable to get promoted off the floor, as well as Black co-workers with college degrees in similar positions, while less qualified whites frequently are hired in as supervisors. The New York Times reported in a June 2021 exposé that this was by design, and that Amazon worked deliberately to limit advancement for hourly workers—a policy that has incandescent racial-discrimination impacts given the composition of Amazon’s hourly workforce nationwide. A senior Amazon executive, Dave Clark, has been quoted as wanting to prioritize hiring “wicked smart” individuals straight out of college. Nationwide, 33 percent of Amazon’s laboring workers are Black, compared with 3 percent of the company’s professional workers.

Cynthia Hewitt, a professor of sociology who directs the International Comparative Labor Studies program at Morehouse College in Atlanta, framed the union campaign as attacking the South’s plantation economy. “I think the main thing [coming from a union victory] is an organized working class that would defeat the plantation economy structure we still live under here,” she said. “You attract corporations by having low-wage labor—that to me is the fundamental problem facing the South. Inequality is huge because you have a disorganized labor force, and it is disorganized because it’s split on racial lines,” she said. By contrast, she continued, “Organized workers and unions are the most formidable proponents of solidarity across race and gender. The only reason why democratic forces lose to more exploitative and elite-dominated forces is because the solidarity is not there. They are able to maintain a racist narrative which is a holdover from the destruction of Reconstruction.”

The historic alliance of white supremacy and the formidable combination of capital and state have long served as a massive roadblock to organizing and economic justice in the South. Employers have always divided races against each other, paying what W.E.B. Du Bois identified as the “psychological wage” to white workers to undermine alliances. This underscores the consistently lower levels of unionization in the South, as well as the vociferous anti-union attitudes of some Southern white workers.

That said, the RWDSU does have deep roots in the region. The union’s Mid-South Council headquartered in Birmingham represents over 6,500 workers and is the main affiliate of the larger UFCW international union in Alabama. Henry Jenkins, a late longtime organizer with the union in Alabama, recounted how his car was shot at when he was organizing workers in Montgomery, the state’s capital, in 1962, and how the Klan and Jim Crow police would interfere with his labor organizing. The RWDSU marched with Martin Luther King Jr. to Selma in 1965, and was the first union to negotiate Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday in 1968. “This campaign is as much a civil rights struggle as it is a labor rights struggle,” said Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU’s president. “You can’t be for justice for some and not for all, and that includes economic justice. In Alabama, it is a largely Black workforce whose voices are being silenced through Amazon’s union busting,” he said.

Jennifer Epps, the executive director of the LIFT Fund, a foundation that supports Black worker organizing, said that the leadership of Black workers at Amazon points to the historic nature of the Amazon campaign. “The workers, I believe, particularly the Black workers, are the tip of the spear. If they are able to win on standards and a good contract and a union and a voice on the job and workplace protection, that’s going to open us up for workers all over the country and the world.”

The campaign continues to face huge headwinds, however. Unions have a lower percentage rate of victory in second revotes than the first campaign. Amazon is a very sophisticated anti-union employer. The PRO Act, legislation that would significantly reduce the ability of employers to thwart their employees’ efforts to join a union, appears dead in Congress for now. However, the Biden administration on February 7 released a laundry list of recommendations for the administration to take through executive action, including most notably bringing back the Obama administration’s “persuader rule,” which would significantly increase transparency around employers’ union-busting activities.

The proposals, however, fall far short of the most expansive executive action the administration could take: expanding union rights at federal contractors like Amazon, as recommended by Elias Alsbergas last year.

Also creating both headaches and opportunities is the sheer level of turnover at the facility, which is reflective of Amazon’s turnover nationwide—the workforce has turned over 50 percent since the last election. (This has been actively encouraged by Amazon founder and chairman Jeff Bezos, who has described a stable workplace as “a march to mediocrity.”) While the new employees present the opportunity for the union to show a new face, high-turnover workforces can also be difficult to organize because successful union drives are typically built on relationships that the passage of time can foster.

Win or lose, to build on what Black workers have accomplished thus far in Bessemer is significant. In the wake of the George Floyd protests of 2020—which led to an enormous uptick in Black worker activity—it is ever more important to combat white supremacy and anti-Blackness and to organize more Black workers into the labor movement. The current gap between what unions know and what they need to know about Black workers, their needs and concerns, and their communities is just too vast at times to secure victory.

In recent years, Black workers in the South have faced down opposition just as concerted as they now face at Amazon. The successful organizing and first-contract campaign that the United Food and Commercial Workers, the RWDSU’s national union, waged at Smithfield in North Carolina, uniting Black and Latino workers at a massive meatpacking plant in 2008, was a genuine breakthrough. That victory, however, required real, long-term investment, partnership with community organizations, and multiple elections before the workers prevailed. Will that set the template for what happens at Bessemer? Supporters of equity and justice must hope that it does.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook is a writer and researcher with expertise in health care, retirement policy, and capital markets. He is a regular contributor to The Intercept and has written for The Nation, Al Jazeera, and In These Times.  More articles by Matthew Cunningham-Cook.

Marc D. Bayard is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the director of its Black Worker Initiative.