,An Amazon-sponsored billboard urging employees to return their unionisation ballots is seen on March 28, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. Employees at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer are currently voting on whether to form a union, a decision that could have national repercussions. — AFP
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BESSEMER, United States: “Make sure you take care of us!” a worker shouts to two union organisers in orange vests standing at the entrance of Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama – ground zero of a battle over unionising the American retail giant.
The sun is not yet up, but the two organisers Steve and Syrena gamely wave their posters to catch the attention of night-shift workers pouring out of the huge facility and of day-side employees taking over on a foggy Saturday morning.
In the glare of car headlights, one can read the words on their posters – “Thanks for your courage!” – along with the initials RWDSU, for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which will represent the warehouse’s 5,800 employees if they support it in a vote ending Monday.
That would be a first in the United States for Amazon, which employs 800,000 people in the country, most of them in sorting, packaging and shipping centres like this one.
It would also be a major coup for a union movement in historic decline – now representing only 11% of nonfarm American workers, down from 30% in 1964.
Coming at a time when the White House occupant, Joe Biden, has promised to be the country’s “most pro-union president”, it could open the floodgates to unionisation efforts at other Amazon sites and other firms.
A labour crossroads?
For five months, union organisers in Bessemer have been posted at the intersection between a busy interstate highway and several hulking industrial buildings.
Behind them, banners calling on workers to vote hang from the immense white-and-gray warehouse, next to the illuminated, curved arrow resembling a smile – Amazon’s ubiquitous logo.
Steve has come almost every day – three hours at dawn and three in the evening – first to gather signatures demanding a vote on unionisation, then to persuade Amazon workers to vote yes, and now to thank them for mobilising.
“He’s too modest to say it, but sometimes he would be signing 50 people in a day,” said Syrena, who, like Steve, declined to give her last name.
The vote ending Monday is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
More than 3,000 employees have signalled their tentative support, but victory is far from certain.
Amazon, while not officially declaring opposition to unions, has waged a determined campaign, holding weekly “informational” meetings, sending text messages and putting up posters in restrooms in an all-out effort to defeat the union initiative.