D.ARRYL RICHARDSON is proud of its appeal. One of nearly 5,800 employees at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, says he was the first to call the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to ask it to organize its colleagues. As a result, employees have been voting by e-mail in ballot since February. After that ends on March 29, Bessemer could become a union-linked factory, Amazon’s first to operate in America after a quarter of a century.
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The outcome is uncertain, but the campaign is popular: lovable drivers honk their horns as they walk past placard-wielding activists standing outside the Amazon factory in the spring sun. Barely 10% of American workers today are unionized, but according to Gallup, a pollster, 65% of Americans approve of unions. They were last so beloved in 2003. One of the activists calls the fight in Bessemer a “David and Goliath” fight and says the little guy might win.
Stuart Appelbaum, head of the RWDSU, says this mood transcends efforts in one warehouse. It has caught national attention – politicians and activists from out of state have gathered for months to stand on the roads outside the warehouse to show their support. Public understanding of the hardships facing frontline and key workers in the pandemic has sparked sympathy. Mr Appelbaum speculates that the vote could help shape “the future of work”.
That may be an exaggeration, but other youthful workers, particularly those in tech and retail, have been captivated by the competition. Employees at Amazon factories across America, Mr. Appelbaum said, have reached out to say they can follow Bessemer’s lead. And for some African Americans, the campaign is seen as part of a broader push for better treatment. In Bessemer, most of the workers are black and about half travel to nearby Birmingham, a town with a grim history of assaulting workers, including prisoners who used to be cheaply rented out to toil for private employers.
The vote takes place at a time when politically seems unusually ripe for unions. Organized labor has an outspoken champion in the White House. Joe Biden, who began his presidential run from a union building in Pittsburgh, pledged to be “the most pro-union president” ever. In February, he released a video – timed to reinforce the union effort in Bessemer – in which he said that “every employee should have a free and fair choice to join a union”.
This week, the Senate confirmed Marty Walsh, a former Boston worker and mayor, as its labor secretary, for the first time in decades that a former union leader holds that job. Mr. Biden’s administration also supported agricultural labor unions this week in a case before the Supreme Court. The court must decide whether to overturn a 45-year California law that allows unions to organize uninvited by entering farmers’ land. Donald Trump’s administration had backed two farms seeking to repeal the law and said it had punished companies unfairly. Mr. Biden wants to keep it.
Biden’s administration also supports the PRO Act, a union-friendly bill passed by Parliament this month after languishing in Congress for over a year. It only attracted a handful of Republican backers and is widely opposed by employers, but a poll shows that 59% of the public is in favor of it. The law would strengthen the powers of the National Labor Relations Board, give independent workers more rights to organize, and weaken the provisions that exist in many states – known as “right to work” laws – that discourage union activity.
The Senate is almost certainly not going any further. But its promotion by Mr. Biden looks politically deliberate. By doing this, he can fend off leading Republicans who have themselves made pro-union statements. Josh Hawley, a Missouri senator, declared in November that the Republicans were now a “workers’ party.” Marco Rubio, of Florida, said this month that he supports the union organization at Amazon for waging a “culture war against working-class values.” (Republicans also hate Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s billionaire boss, who also owns the Washington Post.) However, neither supports the PRO Act, or the idea of unionizing other companies.
Dan Kaufman, who has written about the politics of anti-union movements, says such pro-union comments from Republicans count as merely a “performative tribute to the working class.” But even tributes can be attractive. Trump managed to get votes from a healthy 40% of union households last year. Mr. Biden outperformed him and received 56% support from union voters. But Mr. Biden knows that getting support from union housing is no longer easily guaranteed for Democrats as it once was.
Back in Bessemer, the mood reigns. Jennifer Bates, one of the union’s organizers, believes the labor movement has already won a victory, regardless of the outcome of the vote. “We woke up a giant,” she says.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the heading ‘The battle of Bessemer’