For the last seven weeks, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, have been voting by mail on whether to unionize. Their ballots are due today, March 29th, and counting will begin the next day. If the union win, the warehouse employees would become the first members of Amazon’s US workforce to unionize, a momentous event at a company that has long aggressively resisted labor organizing, and one that could be a first step toward improving conditions at the country’s second-largest employer. Here is what’s happened so far and what might happen next.
The vote is taking place at an Amazon warehouse called BHM1 in Bessemer, Alabama, outside Birmingham. It opened recently, beginning operations last March, but by the summer workers had grown frustrated enough with conditions there that they reached out to the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which had a presence at nearby poultry plants and other businesses. By November organizers had gathered sufficient signatures to petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election, which is being held by mail due to the pandemic. In total, nearly 6,000 workers are eligible to vote.
Employees say Amazon’s demanding and automatically enforced productivity metrics make work grueling, stressful, and dehumanizing. Amazon tracks two metrics: the average rate at which workers perform a task, called “takt time,” and how much time they spend not scanning items, called “time off task.” If workers fail to maintain a fast pace, they get reprimanded or fired.
“It’s hard to do, especially when you have a lot of big products coming,” said Perry Connelly, a worker at BHM1 who supports the union. “It got to the point where people started complaining about going to the bathroom and coming back and something being said to them about their takt time going up.” This is a common complaint among workers at BHM1 and other Amazon facilities.
In an emailed statement, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said that “like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian – be it a corporate employee or fulfillment center associate, and we measure actual performance against those expectations.” Knox said performance is “measured and evaluated over a long period of time” and that “we support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.” Knox also said that workers “are allowed to grab a snack, water, or use the toilet whenever needed” but did not directly address workers’ complaints that they are penalized for doing so.
“I just want the people to get treated with respect”
“He didn’t kick none of that money back to his employees who were actually working and in the trenches for him”
“A lot of the employees at Amazon are Black, and a lot are tired of being treated any kind of way, talked to any kind of way, and being treated like they’re less than anyone else,” said Connelly. “With Black Lives Matter coming in, it’s showing that you have a voice now — let’s do something with it. Right now, the union is another entity of that voice.”
Amazon is the second-largest private employer in the US, with 800,000 employees, and it has fiercely resisted attempts at worker organizing. The only other unionization effort to make it to a vote was in 2014, with a small group of repair technicians in Delaware, and it failed after an aggressive anti-union campaign. More recently, the NLRB found that Amazon threatened and fired workers who protested the company’s handling of COVID-19. While the Bessemer effort would only organize a single warehouse, it would show that it can be done. Already, employees at other Amazon facilities have expressed interest in following in BHM1’s footsteps.
If the union wins, its fight won’t be over. Companies often stonewall in negotiations over a first contract, requiring further public and political pressure from the union. “There are so many examples of where unions win elections, and eventually they walk away because they cannot get the company to bargain in good faith and to get to a first contract,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University.