Union Busted

It’s a five-hour drive from my home in New Orleans to Birmingham, Alabama; six with stops and traffic. I set out early, in time to catch Sen. Bernie Sanders and rapper Killer Mike address dozens of Amazon workers in the parking lot outside the local union hall of the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union, the RWDSU. The press corps was roped off in a thicket of cameras behind staggered folding chairs, dispersed to ensure social distancing. People were helping themselves to the boxed lunches of pulled pork and chicken sandwiches that were stacked on a hospitality table for anyone needing a late meal.

This was the home stretch of a seven-week National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) campaign to determine if workers in the 850,000-square-foot warehouse known as Amazon Fulfillment Center – BHM1 in nearby Bessemer would unionize. The voting period was set to end in two days. Approximately 5,800 receivers, stowers, pickers, and packers would decide whether to become the first group of Amazon employees in the United States to join a union.

I was there to meet Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, who’d joined the fight at the request of a few Amazon workers there. He was coming down from New York City to help oversee the vote count. While waiting for him, I drove to Bessemer to see the fulfillment center. In the window of a local plumbing supply business was a sun-bleached “Welcome Amazon” sign. It must have gone up when the center opened last March.

Woolly clouds hovered over the flat top of the mammoth warehouse, which is the size of about 15 football fields. Three organizers were posted at the exits to the center’s parking lots, with RWDSU signs, ready to answer any last-minute questions. A French television crew was interviewing one of them. A police cruiser stationed nearby, a permanent fixture, had its blue lights flashing. Occasionally a car exited the parking lot and everyone would greet each other before the drivers turned on Powder Plant Road and sped off. Now and then another passing car would honk in solidarity as it drove by.

Bessemer is one of those neglected places in America where breaking your body for $15 an hour is often a good, even the best option available.

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