NY Times: Amazon Union Drive Takes Hold in Unlikely Place

By, Michael Corkery and Karen Weise Link to full story: http://nyti.ms/2MjJ6OI Workers at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are to vote next month on whether to unionize, the largest and most viable effort of its kind involving the technology giant. The largest, most viable effort to unionize Amazon in many years began last summer not in a union stronghold like New York or Michigan, but at a Fairfield Inn outside of Birmingham, in the right-to-work state of Alabama. It was late in the summer and a group of employees from a nearby Amazon warehouse contacted an organizer in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. They were fed up, they said, with the way the online retailer tracked their productivity, and wanted to discuss unionizing. As the workers arrived at the hotel, union officials watched the parking lot to make sure they had not been followed. Since that clandestine meeting, the unionizing campaign at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., has moved faster and further than just about anyone has expected. By late December, more than 2,000 workers signed cards indicating they wanted an election, the union said The National Labor Relations Board then determined there was “sufficient” interest in a union election among the warehouse’s roughly 5,800 workers, which is a significant bar to hit with the government agency that oversees the voting process. About a week ago, the board announced that voting by mail would start next month and continue through the end of March. Just getting to an election is an achievement for unions, which have failed for years to break into Amazon. But persuading the workers to actually vote for a union is a bigger challenge. The company has begun to counter organizing efforts by arguing that a union would saddle workers with dues without any guarantee of higher wages or better benefits. This will be the first union election involving the company in the United States since a small group of technical workers at a warehouse in Delaware voted against forming a union in 2014. Much has changed since that vote seven years ago that has allowed organized labor to make inroads with Amazon employees in a place like Alabama. Most of that change had come in the past year during the pandemic, as workers from meatpacking plants to grocery stores have spoken out, often through their unions, about the lack of protective gear or inadequate pay. The retail union has pointed to its success representing workers during the pandemic as a selling point in Bessemer. “The pandemic changed the way many people feel about their employers,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the retail union’s president. “Many workers see the benefit of having a collective voice.” Union organizers are also building their campaign around the themes of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of the employees at the Amazon warehouse are Black, a fact that the retail union has used to focus on issues of racial equality and empowerment. And leading the organizing effort are about two dozen unionized workers from nearby warehouses and poultry plants, most of whom are also Black. Since Oct. 20, the poultry workers have been standing outside the Amazon gates every day starting at 4:30 a.m., urging workers stopped at a traffic light to join a union. “I am telling them they are part of a movement that is world wide,” said Michael Foster, a Black organizer in Bessemer, who works in a poultry plant “I want them to know that we are important and we do matter.” Unions have been forming in other unlikely places this year. This month, more than 400 engineers and other workers at Google formed a union, a rare move in the mostly anti-union tech industry. The Google union is meant primarily to bolster employee activism, while the union being proposed at Amazon in Bessemer would eventually be able to negotiate a contract and would seek to influence wages and working conditions. The unionization effort comes as Amazon has embarked on a hiring spree during the pandemic. Amazon now has more than 1.2 million employees globally, up more than 50 percent from a year earlier. But the company has also begun to face pressure from its corporate employees, over climate change and other issues, and from many warehouse workers around the country who have felt emboldened to speak up. The attention is only likely to increase with Amazon on pace to surpass Walmart as the country’s largest employer in a few years. Success at the Bessemer warehouse, which only opened in March, could inspire workers in the booming e-commerce industry more broadly, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “If you can do it in Alabama, we can do it here in Southern California for sure,” he said. “It would have a huge ripple effect.” In a statement, Heather Knox, an Amazon spokeswoman, said the company did not believe that the union “represents the majority of our employees’ views,” adding, “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.” The company created a website that suggests that the union’s dues — which could total about $9.25 a week for a full-time employee — will leave workers with less money to pay for school supplies. “Why not save the money and get the books, gifts and things you want?” the website says. An early version of the website included photos of happy-looking young workers, including the image of a Black man leaping in the air that appeared to be from a free stock photo website. On the site the man and a woman are pictured in an image labeled “excited african-american couple jumping, having fun.” Asked about the site, Amazon called it “educational” and said it “helps employees understand the facts of joining a union.” (As of last Tuesday evening, the company had removed the stock photos including that of the leaping man.) Race has often been at the heart of unionizing campaigns in the South. A century ago, multiracial steel and coal miners unions around Birmingham were a “cockpit of labor militancy,” Mr. Lichtenstein said. In the 1960s, unions — including the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — gave Black workers a venue to assert their civil rights and gain more equality in the workplace. Organizing was dangerous work. A Black organizer with the retail union in Alabama named Henry Jenkins recalled being shot at and receiving death threats at his home. At one point, a bomb was found in his car outside a church in Selma. Mr. Jenkins died in November 2011 after an illness. The retail union has been influential in the Northeast, where it represents workers at Macy’s and Bloomingdales. But its strength has also grown in the South, particularly in poultry, an industry with traditionally dangerous jobs and a work force that with many Black employees. This spring, the union was active in publicizing deadly virus outbreaks in poultry plants. The union’s mid-South Council president, Randy Hadley, called out the industry for “egregious inaction” in providing basic protections for workers. Buoyed by its rising profile during the pandemic, the union trained a group of workers to start organizing additional poultry facilities across the South. When the Amazon workers reached out, the union, which had failed to gain traction at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island two years earlier, decided to redirect the poultry workers to the Bessemer warehouse. Unlike in past campaigns, the union decided it would keep mostly quiet during the Alabama organizing drive. “Some people do not expect us to succeed,” said Josh Brewer, who is leading the organizing effort. “I believe we can do it.” On the evening of Oct. 20, two dozen poultry and warehouse workers showed up outside the Amazon gates. Mona Darby, who has spent the past 33 years processing chickens, immediately started approaching the Amazon workers in their cars as they headed home. Ms. Darby grew up in Alabama, one of 18 children. She started working as a housekeeper for local doctors and lawyers when she was 15. But she wanted more stable work, health care and retirement benefits so she got a job in a chicken plant. Today, the starting wages in Alabama’s unionized poultry plants are about the same as those at Amazon. (The average hourly wage at the Bessemer warehouse is $15.30). But Ms. Darby said the union provided her with protections and job security that other jobs lack. “You can pay me $25 an hour, but if you don’t treat me well what’s that money worth?” she said. On that first evening at the Bessemer warehouse, Ms. Darby said a white man approached her and said Amazon didn’t want a union and he didn’t want her “Black ass on our property.” “You are going to see my Black ass out here all day, every day,” Ms. Darby said she responded. Ms. Darby said she saw the man remove his name badge before he walked up to her. She told a police officer present what the man said, but he didn’t take notes. The Bessemer police said they had no record of the incident. Amazon declined to comment. On Dec. 18, lawyers for Amazon and the union gathered on Zoom to discuss how many workers would be part of the potential union. The hearing dragged on for days, as Amazon’s lawyer asked questions in minute detail about the warehouse, until the federal hearing officer eventually cut the testimony short. One issue Amazon has insisted on is that the election be held in person at the warehouse. The company even offered to rent out hotel rooms for the federal election monitors to help them isolate from contracting the virus in an area with an infection rate of 17 percent. The N.L.R.B. ruled against in-person voting on Jan. 15, stating that a company paying for hotel rooms for government employees was not a good idea. On Friday, Amazon asked for a stay of the mail-in election, arguing that infection rates were declining and insisting that voting should take place at the warehouse. Until all the votes are cast, Mr. Foster and the other poultry and warehouse workers are planning to stay outside the Amazon gates. He said some of the Amazon workers were fearful of being seen talking to the organizers at the stop light. On a few occasions, Mr. Foster has said a prayer with workers before the light changes to green. “We want to show them we are not leaving them until this is done,” he said.

RWDSU ENDORSES FIVE KEY WOMEN CANDIDATES FOR NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL

(NEW YORK, NY) –  Today, following the launch of its NYC Policy Platform, RWDSU: Strong Values, Strong Communities, at a forum attended by 140 candidates last month, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) announced its endorsements of five strong women candidates running for seats in the New York City Council in 2021.  Carmen De La Rosa (District 10)  Pierina Sanchez (District 14)  Amanda Farias (District 18)  Tiffany Cabán (District 22)  Briget Rein (District 39)  “The RWDSU is excited to support this exceptional group of candidates. New York City is hurting and more than ever, we need elected officials who will stand up and fight for workers and their families. Each of these candidates is deeply committed to taking up this challenge of advocating for those who need it most during this crisis. “Each of these candidates represents the future of New York City. Increasing transparency in procurement, reforming land-use, regulating e-commerce, and creating good union jobs when the city spends money rest at the heart of our city’s economic recovery and creating a more equitable future. The RWDSU knows that these candidates stand with us on these important issues. For this reason, they have our support,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).  The RWDSU is committed to supporting candidates in 2021 who will stand up for workers, support good union jobs and represent it’s 45,000 members in the city. The union will be making additional endorsements in key races. 

Apply for the 2021 RWDSU Scholarship!

The 2021 RWDSU Al Heaps Scholarship application is now live. The RWDSU Alvin E. Heaps scholarship is given annually to RWDSU members or members of an RWDSU family, and rewards good grades and a demonstrated understanding of the role of unions in workers’ lives. The Scholarship honors the legacy of former RWDSU President Alvin E. Heaps (1919-1986). The next scholarship has a submission deadline of May 31, 2021. Download and print the scholarship application here! And, don't forget to check out Union Plus scholarship programs. RWDSU members are eligible for Union Plus benefits.

New Contract for New Jersey Bus Drivers

RWDSU Local 108 members in New Jersey who work as bus drivers for Tri-State Transportation have ratified a new three-year contract. “This contract recognizes that private sector bus drivers are professionals, with significant wage increases and other improvements,” said Local 108 President Charles N. Hall, Jr. The contract brings $1 per hour pay raises each year of the agreement, and will reduce employees’ health care premium costs. In addition, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday will be added as a paid holiday.

6,000 Amazon warehouse workers will hold union vote in Alabama on Feb. 8

Amazon warehouse workers at an Alabama warehouse can begin voting by mail in early February on whether to form a union, a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer ruled Friday. About 6,000 employees at the fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama will cast their ballots beginning on Feb. 8 to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Ballots must be received by the NLRB’s regional office by March 29, then the board will begin counting the ballots beginning at 10 a.m. CT on the following day. The decision represents a blow to Amazon, which had pushed for the election to be held in person at the Bessemer facility, known as BHM1. Read more about it at CNBC

Details Count Once Again in Marijuana Legalization Push

The legalization of cannabis in New York is once again on the agend for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many state lawmakers. But even as the proposal is being pushed in part to aid a cash-strapped state by generating more revenue, the measure could once again face similar scrutiny over how it aids communities affect by stricter drug laws of the past.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday formally called for the inclusion of a marijuana legalization measure, pointing to the need to generate more cash for the state, but also as the criminal justice issue it has been considered for years by advocates. "This will raise revenue and will end the over criminalization of this product that has left so many communities of color over policed and over incarcerated," he said.  And progressives are going to be closely watching to ensure that is the case with whatever final measure is agreed to. A joint statement from the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Bernie Sanders campaign chair and Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Appelbaum pointed to the need for an equitable distribution of revenue, workplace compensation and the right to join a union.  read the rest at NY1

RWDSU Commemorates Martin Luther King Jr. Day

This month, Americans everywhere salute the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), Dr. King's legacy has special meaning. We take special pride that, in 1968, the RWDSU was the first union anywhere to negotiate a contract guaranteeing Dr. King's birthday as a paid holiday. The RWDSU was among the earliest supporters of Dr. King's grassroots drive to challenge racial injustice in the South.  In Chicago during the 1960s, RWDSU provided an important forum for Dr. King to speak out against poverty in America's cities.  Later, thousands of RWDSU members stood shoulder to shoulder with other Civil Rights Activists during the historic 1963 March on Washington. Dr. King saw the Civil Rights struggle and the labor movement as closely linked.  He was a constant ally of Union Activists and most have forgotten that Dr. King was in Tennessee to support a Living Wage for Sanitation Strikers on that terrible April day in 1968 when he was slain at the age of 39. Dr. King spoke about the importance of the labor movement on many occasions, some of which you can read about below. In reflecting on the life and work of Dr. King, the RWDSU recognizes the fight he began is not over until equality for all is a reality, and it is up to our generation of RWDSU members to complete his mission. Below is our 2021 commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Click to enlarge)  

STATEMENT FROM RWDSU PRESIDENT STUART APPELBAUM ON THE STORMING OF THE CAPITOL

“The events that occurred in our nation’s capital yesterday should have horrified all people living in our country. The very act of storming the U.S. Capitol in the name of overturning this election directly undermines our democracy. At the same time, we are dismayed by the wholly inadequate response from law enforcement officials. “Throughout the pandemic, we have seen a historic movement for racial justice grow in this country. Unfortunately, the response from the President, law enforcement, and the national guard at many Black Lives Matter rallies throughout our cities could not have been more different. It pains us to watch the security at the Capitol put up little to no resistance as they both let in and escorted out the people attempting this coup against our nation. We have to be clear - the probable reason that this coup attempt was not dealt with in the same way as the Black Lives Matter rallies was because the people attempting it were white and not seen as threatening. We must call this out and take a stand against the deep racism that allows a situation like this to take place. “It cannot be lost on us that Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to “take action” and “stand by” for January 6th as he continues to spread conspiracies and lies about the results of this election. In the labor movement, we’re used to employers using these same kinds of tactics to undermine workers’ rights and keep working people disempowered. As a union, we know how to overcome division and bring people from many different backgrounds together with a common goal for justice. Although Trump lost this election, we can’t expect this way of thinking to disappear once he is removed from office. We need to join together across race, gender, and class lines to push back against Trumpian logic and this rise of the far right. Our democracy depends on it,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).                                    # # # The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) represents 100,000 members throughout the United States. The RWDSU is affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). For more information, please visit our website at www.rwdsu.org, Facebook:/RWDSU.UFCW Twitter:@RWDSU.

Housing Works employees join RWDSU

Housing Works employees gave themselves a late Christmas present last week. Employees at Housing Works, in a vote of 88% to 12%, agreed to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) after two years of organizing efforts. The vote was conducted via mail-in ballots that were sent to the Labor Board on Dec. 14. The union will now represent all 605 Housing Works employees in the five boroughs and help negotiate a contract with Housing Works this year. Workers at the bargaining table will reportedly deal with all issues involving health care, retail, social work and legal. Workers hope that their affiliation with RWDSU will help them fix issues that have exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve complained about long hours and low wages at the organizations’ thrift stores and bookshops around the city citing an average pay of $16 an hour during 16-hour days and six-day weeks. Read more at Amsterdam News  Continue reading

STATEMENT FROM THE RETAIL, WHOLESALE AND DEPARTMENT STORE UNION

Cannabis Legalization Provides Opportunity for Working People  (NEW YORK, NY) – Today, Governor Andrew Cuomo reaffirmed his commitment to legalize adult-use cannabis in New York ahead of his State of the State address. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) represents workers in the medical cannabis industry across New York State. Stuart Appelbaum, President of the RWDSU and John Durso, President of Local 338 RWDSU issued the following joint statement:  “Legalizing adult use-cannabis will create incredible opportunities for New York’s communities at every level of the industry, from ownership to management to the workforce. It’s been estimated that our State has the potential to see 30,000 new jobs just from this industry and as a result, we must ensure that these are quality, union careers and that neighborhoods that have long been struggling have access to these jobs. As a labor union, a key component of the work that we do in advocating for working men and women is related to fighting for economic and social justice. Legalizing cannabis is a natural bridge for this work, and we appreciate that it’s one of Governor Cuomo’s priorities this year. We’re looking forward to working with Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature to ensure that 2021 is the year New York legalizes adult-use cannabis,” said John R. Durso, President of Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW and Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).