ALABAMA – As employees at Amazon’s Fulfillment Center in Bessemer met with a Congressional delegation on Friday to air grievances about poor working conditions at the facility, online supporters called for a boycott of the retail giant on social media to show solidarity with workers.
The boycott is urging Amazon Prime customers to interrupt their television subscriptions and to stop buying from the multi-national e-commerce and digital streaming company the week of March 7, thru March 13.
While RWDSU, the union attempting to organize Bessemer workers says it has nothing to do with boycott, it is thankful for the increased awareness about the way Amazon treats employees.
“We are not involved with that, but we appreciate that so many people around the country and around the world want to support these brave workers,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum says.
According to RWDSU organizer Michael Foster, the lack of job security has workers at Amazon’s Bessemer Fulfillment Center constantly walking on eggshells.
“The people there have reached out to me because of heat exhaustion,” the Dakota, Alabama native and poultry worker says. “I have people that have told me they have passed out. People have told me they are not tracing Covid-19-related cases.”
Not only are workers unaware that they might be working alongside Covid-positive colleagues because of a lack of contact tracing, according to Foster. Workers who have gotten sick with Covid-19 at the Bessemer facility have been denied sick days, often only seeing minimal relief after their bills have already piled up.
“They had issues with their schedules being changed in the middle of the night,” Foster also says. “They wake up in the morning, and then they find out they were supposed to be at work already. They then end up docked for things like that.”
The Democratic representatives who came out to listen the Bessemer workers on Friday, included Andy Levin of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri, Terri Sewell of Alabama and Nikema Williams of Georgia.
“[Workers] talked about the indignity of not being able to go to the bathroom without having to worry if they will be fired,” Appelbaum says. “They talked about how they are surveilled every moment of the day. They talked about the pressure they were under and how unhappy they are compared to other places where there has been a union.”
According to Appelbaum, workers at the Bessemer facility must sort and pack boxes for shipment in less than 10-seconds. The emotional stress is so great that suicidal thoughts are not uncommon. Other workers have reported urinating in soda bottles, so as not to leave their workstations.
“They are only allowed two hours of paid time off to use the bathroom and eat at work,” says Foster. “The facility is the size of 13 football fields. Sometimes, the bathroom is occupied, so they have to go to another bathroom on a different floor. The facility is four floors high.”
Despite having approximately 5,800 workers at the facility, the bathrooms on each floor usually have stalls that can only fit two people and it takes up to 10-minutes just to get to the other side of the facility if you are not near the restrooms, Foster adds. The size of the facility also means little time to eat for workers.
Additionally, workers at the Bessemer Fulfillment Center are expected to perform mandatory overtime and move incredibly fast, which is creating many hazardous conditions.
“Amazon is trying to intimidate the workers,” Appelbaum says. “Workers were required to attend a mandatory meeting, where they are pretty much a captive audience to lectures that are anti-union.”
The one-hour mandatory meeting are tacked onto the workers’ 10-hour work day shift, according to Appelbaum. Breaks are not included.
“When anyone questioned what the company was saying, they were photographed and asked to speak to [the bosses] later,” says Appelbaum. “Amazon put up a ballot box at the Post Office, put up a tent around it with anti-union messaging, and told workers if they wanted, to cast their ballots there.”
Workers are also told they could lose their benefits, get less pay or lose their job if the facility closed because of unionization, according to Appelbaum. Some were reportedly told to take a $1,000 severance if they wanted to leave. Other anti-union messaging include direct phone calls and texts warning employees against organizing; bathroom messaging that is eye-level with toilets; posters and banners with anti-union propaganda; and walk-throughs with 200 managers from across the country while employees worked.
“Almost half the ads in the television market are Amazon ads,” Appelbaum says. “They tell workers if they unionize they have to pay union dues. But Alabama is a right-to-work state, which means nobody has to pay a penny.”
According to Foster, workers at Amazon’s Bessemer fulfillment center are predominantly women of color who are afforded neither dignity or respect.
“They are expected to work at an unbearable pace,” says Appelbaum. “They are managed by an algorithm. They are disciplined by an app on their phone and are fired by text message.”
Workers at the Bessemer facility have been organizing since October. More than 30% have signed union cards, according to the RWDSU president.
“People began voting February 8, and all ballots are due by March 29,” Appelbaum says. “Amazon’s business model is feeding off of public subsidies; not paying taxes; and dehumanizing people. That is a model that we can’t allow in the American workplace.”
Foster agrees, and believes that unionization efforts in Bessemer will ripple across the country.
“This will affect other workers tremendously,”says Foster. “I have been hearing from other Amazon facilities already. I believe, regardless of this outcome, the labor movement is alive again.”