DARRYL RICHARDSON he is proud to make his call. One of nearly 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, says he was the one who first called the Union of Retailers, Wholesalers, and Large Stores (RWDSU) to ask you to organize your co-workers. As a result, since February, staff have been voting by mail. After the conclusion of March 29, Bessemer may become a unionized plant, Amazon’s first in the United States after a quarter-century of operations.
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The outcome is uncertain, but the campaign is popular: Sympathetic drivers honk their horns as they pass billboards waving activists standing in the spring sun in front of the Amazon plant. Today, only 10% of American workers belong to a union, but according to Gallup, a pollster, 65% of Americans approve of unions. The last time they were so loved was in 2003. One of the activists calls the Bessemer battle a “David and Goliath” fight, and says the little one could win.
Stuart Appelbaum, head of the RWDSU, says this vote transcends efforts in a single warehouse. It has drawn national attention: politicians and activists from other states have gathered for months to stand on the roads outside the warehouse to show their support. Public understanding of the difficulties frontline and essential workers face in the pandemic has generated sympathy. Appelbaum speculates that the vote could help shape the “future of work.”
That may be a stretch, but other young workers, especially in the tech and retail industries, are caught up in the contest. Workers at Amazon plants across the United States, Appelbaum says, 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 travel halfway from nearby Birmingham, a city with a sad history of mistreatment of workers, including prisoners who used to be hired cheaply to work for private employers.
The vote takes place at a time that seems unusually mature, politically, for unions. Organized labor has an open advocate in the White House. Joe Biden, who started his presidential career from a union headquarters in Pittsburgh, vowed to be “the most pro-union president” of all time. In February, he posted a video, timed to boost the unionization effort at Bessemer, in which he said that “all workers should have the free and fair option to join a union.”
This week, the Senate confirmed Marty Walsh, a former Boston worker and mayor, as its labor secretary, the first time in decades that a former union chief has held that position. The Biden administration also supported farmworker unions in a Supreme Court case this week. The court will decide whether to undo a 45-year-old law in California that allows unions to organize, uninvited, onto farmers’ lands. The Donald Trump administration had backed two agricultural companies seeking to repeal the law, saying it unfairly punished the companies. Mr. Biden wants to keep it.
The Biden administration is also supporting the PRO Act, a pro-union bill that passed the House this month after languishing in Congress for more than a year. It attracted only a handful of Republican supporters, and employers broadly oppose it, but a poll suggests 59% of the public are in favor. The law would strengthen the powers of the National Labor Relations Board, give freelancers more rights to organize, and weaken provisions that exist in many states, known as “right-to-work” laws, that discourage union activity.
The Senate will almost certainly take it no further. But Biden’s promotion seems politically well-judged. Doing so helps you defend yourself against top Republicans who have offered pro-union statements. Josh Hawley, a senator from Missouri, declared in November that Republicans were now a “party of the working class.” Marco Rubio, from Florida, said this month that he supports organizing at Amazon because the firm had waged a “culture war against working-class values.” (Republicans also don’t like Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s billionaire boss, who also owns Washington Post.) None, however, endorse the PRO Act, or the idea of unionization in other companies.
Dan Kaufman, who has written on the politics of anti-union movements, says such pro-union comments from Republicans count as a mere “performative tribute to the working class.” However, even tributes can be attractive. Trump managed to get votes from a healthy 40% of unionized households last year. Biden surpassed it and garnered 56% support from union voters. But Biden knows that getting the support of the unions is no longer as easily guaranteed for Democrats as it once was.
Back in Bessemer, the atmosphere is triumphant. Jennifer Bates, one of the union organizers, believes that the union movement has already won a victory regardless of the outcome of the vote. “We have awakened a giant,” he says. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “The Battle of Bessemer.”