In late March and early April, I found myself glued to the news. The small town of Bessemer, Alabama, made made headlines when the workers in one industrial warehouse began a quest to unionize against Big Tech’s biggest employer: Amazon. Conditions within the warehouse had become grueling. Workers toiled for ten hours each day without adequate time for rest, all while being tracked and monitored by management via mobile phone apps. Their battle to unionize was a fight for more than just equitable wages; it was a fight for respect.
The news coverage of this battle was comprehensive as labor hawks on both sides of the aisle eyed the developing situation with keen interest. Celebrities and politicians came together to lend their voices to the cause. Senator Bernie Sanders made a personal visit to the warehouse in support of the impending vote. President Joe Biden also weighed in on this issue, praising the workers in a struggle many believed to be futile. The week-long vote was suspenseful for anyone following the prolonged battles of labor being waged in our country.
Then on April 9, the motion failed. Nearly eighteen hundred employees voted to oppose the effort to unionize, while less than eight hundred members cast their vote in favor. I was devastated. Bessemer vs. Amazon highlights just how difficult it is for the labor system to unionize any of the Big Tech companies, to say nothing of the largest and most anti-union among them. Those that opposed unionization created a narrative that a collective bargaining entity couldn’t deliver on the promise of pay rate increases and improved working conditions. They argued that Amazon already pays over minimum wage scales, provides a package of health care benefits, and matches 401(k) contributions. The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union that tried to organize the Bessemer warehouse continues to assert that Amazon employed scare tactics to incite fear in those employees who were unknowledgeable about union practices or the legacy that the labor movement has in this country. It is easy to view the defeat in Bessemer as just that—a defeat.
However, this incident has raised attention in the press, leading to renewed union interest in other Amazon warehouses, as well as other areas of manufacturing. Awareness of unions in the American workforce and the good they represent are gaining traction. Our values resonate with a workforce that is overworked, underpaid, and looking for any recourse. This is especially true of our younger generations, who are staring down the barrel of one of the most inhospitable job markets in American history.
When faced with the decision to unionize or remain without representation, the question becomes, What Does the Union Mean to You?
This incredibly intimate question is different for each member. Our Local has built its legacy over the course of ninety years. Diverse technicians from every walk of life have been a part of making it the force it is within the labor movement today. When I asked myself this very question, there were too many answers to count. But in light of the COVID-19 crisis, I have become more aware than ever of the importance of continuing healthcare and pension benefits of all members and their families. I am eager to fight for family services like paid maternity and paternity leave and I am grateful for the resources available for members to continue education in their skill sets in order to expand their knowledge and learn new technologies.
The union also means working towards safer working environments and better working conditions both during and after the pandemic. I appreciate the industry wide initiative to keep our sets as COVID free as possible. I am thankful to the AMPTP and IATSE for brokering policy that allows employees to be tested on a daily/weekly schedule. I have been covid tested over one hundred times since mid-August, on various shows. There is a comfort in knowing the certainty of my health during a pandemic, so I can concentrate on my work without the anxiety of infecting others. On the other hand, the issues of short turn around and meal penalties continue to persist. I do not appreciate the sixteen meal penalties amassed in a single day due to poor scheduling on behalf of production. The need for rest and mental breaks is imperative in our high paced, stressful environment.
The Amazon vs Bessemer Warehouse union vote is not over. As of the printing of this article, the future of this vote was resting on the laurels of a mailbox installed on the Amazon premises in February of this year. Amazon employees were encouraged to drop off their votes at this mailbox via alerts on their phone. Evidence of email exchanges between the USPS and Amazon’s top execs were used in overturning the election. The presence of the new mailbox on site is both confusing and intimidating to employee voters. We won’t know the decision of the National Labor Board to throw out this election for quite some time, but it has raised interesting questions about Unions in America today and more importantly, what our union means to us.
Be Strong. Stand Proud. Be Courageous.