Alabama’s Amazon union kicks off final chapter in state’s tumultuous labor history
A postal vote starting this week on whether Amazon Bessemer fulfillment center workers can be represented by a union has gained worldwide attention, in large part because of Alabama’s reputation. as a state of the right to work.
But Alabama’s history shows a lingering and, in some cases, strong history of union turmoil and action.
“If you go from California to Maryland,” said Michael Innis-Jimenez, professor of American studies at the University of Alabama, “Alabama historically has the highest number of union employees in the Deep South. and the lower southwest. Obviously that doesn’t compare to traditional union states like New York or Illinois or California, but it’s high.
Ballots are sent out on February 8 to more than 5,000 workers in a mail ballot on whether workers at the Amazon center want to organize with the Retail, Wholesale and Retail Union. department stores (RWDSU). With a membership of up to 18,000 members in Alabama, the RWDSU represents more than 100,000 across the United States
Workers must return the ballots by March 29.
The National Labor Relations Board said it would be the largest mail-order election campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic and that it was drawing attention as the first major push for a union among workers in Amazon since 2014.
Alabama is a right to work state, which means workers cannot be coerced into joining a union or paying union dues. These laws have been in effect since the early 1950s.
Nationally, just under 11% of American workers were represented by a union in 2020. Alabama was below that average, at 8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number has fluctuated over the past few years. The state’s union density rate peaked recently in 1993, averaging 14.7%, and declining in 2017 to 7.4%.
But at the post-war industrial heyday in Alabama, union density was estimated at 30%, with intense union activity in mining, steel production and textiles. And, as with the Amazon push, Alabama’s labor history has at times been central to the state’s enduring struggle for race and civil rights.
“At first glance it’s probably surprising, but once inside you realize that it’s not that unusual, especially for the Birmingham area, especially a working-class suburb (like Bessemer),” Innis said. -Jimenez.
At a rally Saturday for the union in Bessemer, Joshua Brewer, an organizational director for RWDSU, alluded to the history of the organization in the region.
“It’s a union town. It has been a union town for a long time, and it will continue to be a union town, ”Brewer said.
Historian Wayne Flynt, who has written extensively on labor issues in several Alabama stories, recounted a story his father told about a fight between union workers and strikebreakers during a strike in the 1930s. Baseball bats and ax handles were the order of the day.
“He said it was the most damn fight he had ever seen in his life,” Flynt said. “He decided he didn’t want to be a part of it.
Alabama saw widespread organization in the latter part of the 19th century among miners. In the early 1900s, the United Mine Workers believed they had enlisted about 65% of the miners in Alabama, both black and white. But, as historian Robert Norrell wrote in “The Making of Modern Alabama,” race has been used to break strikes.
During a miners’ strike in 1908, Governor Braxton Comer called on the state militia to tear down the tents where the striking miners lived. He threatened to rewrite vagrancy laws and jail striking black miners, and warned strikers not to block train tracks unless “they want to be run over.” The strike was broken off.
The union mobilization was so strong in the 1930s, in fact, that the American Communist Party opened an office in Birmingham. In 1931, a mob killed six black sharecroppers who were seeking to organize near Camp Hill, throwing the body of a man on the steps of the Tallapoosa County Courthouse in Dadeville to be used for target practice. .
In July 1934, textile workers in Gadsden and Guntersville quit their jobs, triggering a nationwide strike that some consider the largest labor dispute in U.S. history. But the effort failed, in large part because of the fractured nature of the textile industry.
Flynt said the history of labor organizing in Alabama is largely forgotten because the state’s industrial strategy has focused on “selling Alabama as cheap labor.” .
“Our whole recruiting strategy has been – we won’t tax you, we won’t regulate you, and we won’t side with the workers against you,” he said.
Innis-Jimenez said Alabama also challenges conventional ideas about who belongs to unions. While membership largely involves working-class whites, their involvement has not traditionally been automatically affiliated with the political left.
“When people think of unions, they think of progressives or Democrats – it’s considered politically a blue thing,” he said. “Of course, this was thrown out the window with Trump. Because you have white working class trade unionists who have backed Trump. At first glance this is probably surprising, but once you get down to it you realize that it is not that atypical, especially for the Birmingham area, especially a working-class suburb.
Race was one of the reasons for fractured union activity, Flynt said. While union meetings often featured haughty fellowship rhetoric, that same spirit was not evident once the meeting was over.
“Once the blacks got out of the meeting, they were back in an apartheid society,” he said. “Whites and blacks had common economic interests, but not much beyond that. And it’s hard to build a union when people don’t trust each other.
RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said race still plays a role in the organization today, as organizers pointed to the high percentage of black workers at the Bessemer Amazon Center.
“Alabama was one of the most organized states in the union before the right to work legislation,” Appelbaum said. “I think what’s really important about this campaign too is that it’s as much a struggle for civil rights as it is a union struggle.”
What happened to unions in Alabama in the second half of the 20th century mirrored national trends. The influence of organized labor began to wane with the decline of industries – steel, coal, and textiles. The unions themselves also lost their influence as America’s middle class grew after World War II.
Innes-Jimenez said Amazon probably wasn’t expecting a labor organization in Alabama – unlike it might have expected in New York or Chicago. But the RWDSU has a regional headquarters in Birmingham and a base among poultry workers. And much of the activity has been local, he said.
“The organizers are Alabamians,” he said. “I think it makes a difference. You have workers organizing and there is no great outside union leader.