Alabama Postcard | IRIS

New York correspondences

13 avril 2021

“With courage, our employees have said no to unionization! They understood where their interest was! “, Did not stop repeating with jubilation and cynicism the representatives of Amazon during the weekend.

It should have been “a historic vote”, “an unprecedented victory for the workers”, “ a first for the e-commerce giant in the United States ”, but it was the no camp that won. The initiative undertaken by employees of an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, in favor of the creation of a union, ended on Friday April 9 with a bitter failure at the polls.

3,215 ballots, 1,798 against unionization, 738 only in favor of RWDSU – the national distribution union that the employees behind the vote wanted to join.

This more than disappointing result which marks a clear victory for the leader e-commerce is also a personal failure for Joe Biden who had strongly supported the yes camp and who presents himself as the most pro-union president in recent US history.

“Amazon spared no effort during this campaign to manipulate and frighten its employees. Because if the yes had prevailed, it would have been on a national level an earthquake for the company ”, reacted Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU. “But we will not let them get away with their lies, their deceptions, their illegal activities and their policy of intimidation,” he added.

Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the employee vote, Amazon made its case against unionization by bombarding them with text messages and phone messages while threatening them with layoff plans, or even relocation, just in case. the pro-unions would win.

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One of the arguments of the web giant was to recall that, in its warehouse in Bessemer, wages start at 15 dollars an hour – more than double the minimum wage in Alabama – and that its employees receive benefits. , such as health coverage.

It is true, but this is to forget the infernal work rates – sometimes ten hours a day -, the virtual impossibility of going to the toilet outside of breaks, the lack of a real lunch break, the lack of security protections – especially against Covid-19 – and insufficient wages for the work required.

Not to mention the never-paid overtime, the daily insults and humiliations and the prevailing racism – nearly 80% of the employees at the Bessemer site are African-American and some petty bosses are notoriously known to belong to white supremacist groups.

For Rebecca Kolins Givan, professor at Rutgers University, “labor law in the United States is biased against the people it is supposed to protect… It is extremely difficult for employees to organize a union and incredibly easy for employers. to brutalize them to prevent them ”. “Amazon spent a lot of money in Bessemer hiring the best anti-union lawyers in the country and relentlessly sowing fear and uncertainty among the site’s employees. Their investment paid off, ”concludes the university bitterly.

An Alabama elected official told me on Saturday on condition of anonymity that if Amazon’s intimidation of their employees could sometimes appear to be akin to those of the Mafia, it was the same with local politicians. “If we protest anything, we are threatened to shut down the sites – when it is not something else. Who would want to be held responsible for thousands of layoffs? No chance of being re-elected with that! With Amazon, for what of blackmail, we are all in the same boat ”.

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The saddest thing about this whole Bessemer story is that, as almost always in the United States, there was no convergence of struggles. Everyone preaches for their parish and ignores the others.

No convergence of struggles between employees of the site and those of other Amazon repositories, no convergence of struggles with the anti-racist movement either. Black Lives Matter which, however, in March provided support for unionization in the warehouse where, as mentioned above, nearly 80% of employees are black.

Most people voted with their very short-term personal interests in mind. At least, what they believe to be their interests … But we can understand it, the majority of Amazon employees in Bessemer are African-American women, most of whom left school around the age of 15 and many of them they are single mothers. Frightened by the threats to close their warehouse and relocate in the event of a yes victory, what other reaction could these women have had? In a country where social protection does not exist, who would want to find themselves overnight without work and without health insurance with two or three kids to feed?

All America remembers that in 2019, the firm of Jeff Bezos gave up setting up its second headquarters in the popular district of Queens in New York, after local elected officials, including the Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, and the muse of the American left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, asked that the site can be unionized …

It is therefore a sad episode which has just ended in Alabama. A sad episode not only for the employees of the site who will continue to be exploited without having the possibility of expressing themselves, but also, and as already said, for Joe Biden who sees himself here cut off in his impetus in favor of the middle classes and popular by a savage capitalism more resilient than ever. Capitalism without shame today embodied to perfection by the GAFA.

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PS: While writing this column, the lyrics of Johnny Hallyday’s song came back to me, Alabama Postcards, written in 1982: “Postcards from Alabama, your colors are outdated (…); good kisses from Alabama, white power and burnt crosses, silent majority, disguised democracy (…) ”.


Essayist and researcher associated with IRIS, Romuald Sciora lives in the United States. Author of several books on the United Nations, he recently published with Anne-Cécile Robert of Le Monde diplomatique “Who wants the death of the UN?” »(Eyrolles, Nov 2018). His latest essay, “Poor John! America of the Covid-19 seen by an insider ”appeared in Ebook by Max Milo in 2020.

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