A warehouse located in Bessemer, in the state of Alabama (south-eastern United States) created a surprise by initiating the creation of a union within Amazon USA. Despite the efforts of the internet commerce giant to put an end to this project, a vote is currently underway to consult the 5,800 employees of the warehouse. It could pave the way for the unionization of hundreds of thousands of employees within Amazon.
It’s a small revolution that has been taking shape in recent weeks at Amazon USA. For the first time, a union is about to emerge, in one of the multinational’s warehouses, in a region rather known for its conservatism: Alabama. All eyes of the country are therefore on the city of Bessemer (about 30,000 inhabitants), since an election is being prepared there.
In fact, the 5,800 warehouse workers have until March 29 to decide on their desire to be represented by a union (“union”). If a majority of “yes” wins, they can be defended by the RWDSU, (Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union), one of the largest unions in the country. It would also make Bessemer the first syndicated Amazon warehouse in the entire United States.
Get rid of unionized employees
A vote that promises to be tense, in a country where unionism has rather bad press, in particular in multinationals. Amazon’s hostility to unions is no secret. The digital giant is known to sharpen its strategy by recruiting consultants opposed to unionism and dismissing employees showing union inclinations.
Not to mention that the American legislative framework is quite confused, as explained by Marjorie Alexandre, Confederal Secretary for the International Sector of OF.
International Convention 87, on freedom of association and the protection of the right to organize, was adopted by the 187 member countries of the ILO (International Labor Organization), but has never been ratified by the United States.
Permanent monitoring of employees
But why do you want to unionize now ? Working conditions at Amazon are regularly denounced. Marjorie Alexandre thus recalls that the practical firm
permanent monitoring of the productivity of its employees, subjecting them to frantic rhythms and constant pressure. All with more than doubtful methods: cameras monitor employees and measure work, rest time and even that spent in the toilet.
Amazon management can use these elements to justify a dismissal, she adds.
UNI global union [fédération syndicale internationale ndlr]
warned about biometric mass surveillance. Amazon goes so far as to use artificial intelligence to track the productivity of its employees. On the program, analysis of workers’ emotions, through their social networks, the intonations of their voices, or even the expressions of their faces … Methods that have created a general feeling of fed up having reached a critical point since the health crisis .
The pandemic as a catalyst
Indeed, the 2020 pandemic precipitated things, analyzes Marjorie Alexandre.
Beyond the working atmosphere, the coronavirus epidemic has brought to light a series of problems. Insufficient health and safety conditions: delivery people had very little protective equipment, same for workers in warehouses.
Not to mention that Amazon has greatly benefited from the pandemic, with 83 billion euros in turnover in the third quarter of 2020, an increase of 40% compared to 2019. A colossal result including employees, who continued to working on the front line, are far from having reaped the fruits … and that gave rise to the idea of unionizing.
Amazon did everything to prevent the vote from taking place, by trying to have it postponed, which was refused by the federal agency in charge of unions (NLRB). But the giant does not admit defeat, far from it.
Amazon’s anti-union argument ?
We already offer you the maximum. The company, which opened the warehouse in the town of Bessemer in March 2020 and created more than 5,000 full-time jobs there, prides itself on paying its less skilled workers $ 15.30 (€ 12.67) the hour – double the hourly average in the rest of the country – to offer competitive health insurance and other benefits. But faced with the continuing vote, the second largest employer in the country (more than 800,000 people) does not hesitate to discourage Bessemer employees by other methods.
Methods of union harassment
Amazon creates a real anti-syndica climatel, hammers the confederal secretary.
Leaflets are distributed, posters put up in the toilets, information meetings are organized. They make employees believe that they will lose their rights if they are part of a union and invite them to save the 500 dollars that the membership fee would cost. A website has even been created for the occasion: “mustwithoutunion” (“do it without a union”). Practices that fall under union harassment.
If the March 29 vote is successful, it could pave the way for unionization for hundreds of thousands of workers at Amazon, and across the United States.
Federating against a giant like Amazon would send a positive signal to employees around the world, she emphasizes. FO remains cautious, but optimistic.
In 2014, another attempt was made in another state (Delaware), but was nipped in the bud. But today, the context is very different, with in particular a bill called PRO (“protecting the right to organize”), subject to debate in the coming weeks..