Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union holds a sign outside an Amazon facility where labor is trying to organize workers on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.
( AP Photo/Jay Reeves, file
Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. The fight over whether or not to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama is heating up as the vote count of its nearly 6,000 workers got underway on Tuesday.
Linda Burns: All of those packages, I'm going to tell you all a little bit what we went through to get you all all those packages. For one, when this union come in, that frown is going to be a smile. Everybody is going to smile. We're going to stop crying. We're going to stop worrying. We're going to stop doing all of that, because we are Amazon. Bezos, he's just a CEO, but we are Amazon.
Tanzina Vega: That was Linda Burns, an Amazon facility worker. Though it's unclear when we'll see the results of the vote, the historic union drive is expected to be a watershed moment for the labor movement in the United States, and especially in the American South, a region that has historically been difficult for workers to organize. For more on this I'm joined by Keri Leigh Merritt, a historian, writer, and author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Keri Leigh, welcome to the show.
Keri Leigh Merritt: Thank you so much for having me.
Tanzina Vega: We're talking here about unionizing efforts in one Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama. Why has that gotten so much national attention?
Keri Leigh Merritt: I think multiple reasons, but number one, the South has always been the most anti-labor region in the whole entire US and particularly the deep South. That has its roots, of course, in slavery and the failures of reconstruction and any kind of reparations, particularly for the descendants of the enslaved. This has created huge inequality, not just in wealth, but in labor practices and in political power. The South is where the right to work States come from, which has now taken over much of the rest of the country, much of the Midwest, all of these really bad anti-labor laws have originated in the South.
Tanzina Vega: You mentioned right to work. I'd love to define that before we go on on this, what is a right-to-work state?
Keri Leigh Merritt: Many different laws make up these right-to-work States, but the main one is they essentially gut unions by saying that workers do not have to pay union dues. Of course, unions rely on these dues to put up any kind of fight against management. By telling workers they don't have to pay union dues that essentially guts union power or any kind of labor power in the South. You essentially have a deep South that, with the exception of very few industries, is almost without unions altogether.
Tanzina Vega: How does the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama fit into the history of organized labor in the US because we have seen a renewed interest in unions. Then at the same time, as you mentioned, there's been a dwindling power of unions themselves. Where does this fit into that broader conversation, what's happening in Bessemer right now?
Keri Leigh Merritt: I think this Amazon warehouse in particular is one of the biggest that Amazon has. I think it's over 6,000 employees. You also have a big racial disparity here, as opposed to most other places. This particular plant is over 85% Black. It is amazing to see that, I always say in the South, it's one of the most progressive places in the deep South, particularly with Black workers and even with poor white workers. There are many instances of multi-racial organizing and working for the same economic and labor issues, but
because the elite white southerners, basically the heirs of slave-holders were never really overthrown, you've got this incredibly monopolistic, monopsonistic South and the disparity not only in wealth but in political power is so great that the elite whites have always been able to crush out any labor solidarity or any major labor movement. There've been so many throughout history in the South. Not only just right after reconstruction, but also in the populist movement in the 1890s and during the 1930s and 40s where you literally have communists and socialists that were organizing.
There is this long movement of interracial cooperation and fighting for the rights of laborers and workers, but, unfortunately, the balance of power has historically been so unbalanced that these movements have always been pretty much stamped out.
Tanzina Vega: If efforts at this warehouse in Bessemer are successful and these workers are able to form a union, what does that mean exactly? They will be part of a larger union, won't they?
Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes. Basically, it means that they then have the power to work with management to come to some understanding. This doesn't mean that they immediately have some union contract. It just gives them the opportunity to work out a contract with management. It's essentially just giving them the power to start this process. I think on a national level, this has become so symbolic and even on an international level, international press is covering this like crazy.
I think if they win, it shows such hope in this country for the labor movement, larger labor movement. I think it's so badly needed right now because we're still dealing with after effects, obviously of the recession of 2008, but also what's coming, the backlash from the pandemic and all the jobs lost here. It's just going to make people at the lower end of the economic spectrum just desperate. That's honestly what you need, to have a strong labor movement because people have to feel like they're almost to the point of having nothing to lose that they've got to get out there and fight.
Tanzina Vega: Would you suggest that workers here are at that point? Because particularly when it comes to Amazon, we've heard so many, even recently, so many stories about-- There're competing narratives, which is Amazon's marketing push and its commercials on television to show its workers are happy and satisfied with their jobs and have adequate personal protective equipment. Then there are the narratives that emerged through reporting and elsewhere that say, Amazon workers have to urinate in plastic bottles and aren't allowed to take bathroom breaks and are being surveilled at every turn. What would this actually do for Amazon workers and would it affect Amazon workers nationally?
Keri Leigh Merritt: It would give them so many more opportunities to claim rights for themselves. I know there's been much made about Alabama and the South. It's a low-wage region and they're paying $15 an hour, which is a pretty good payment, but that's not exactly what this is about. This is about workers' rights and workers' protection, even the protection of immigrant workers. This is so much more than that. I think we also have to think about it in terms of, we don't have the rights in this country that every other country has in terms of social safety nets, in terms of universal health care and so all of those things are dependent on jobs in this country, unfortunately.
We have to have that tied in to some labor package for jobs to be anywhere close to humane for people in this society and all of these aspects, unless the federal government changes the entire way this country runs, they're going to have to be fought for at the labor level.
Tanzina Vega: What are some of the barriers to organizing that have been put forth, whether with Amazon directly or other companies where we see people trying to unionize, in some cases successfully, in other cases not?
Keri Leigh Merritt: Historically, the police have been used. We've seen that again in Bessemer. Reports are coming out that officers there are being paid by the company in their off time to come and police the grounds and police all around where these workers live. It's really a tactic of intimidation and it's been a long-standing tactic in the South. You go back to even the Klan and all of these white supremacist organizations and at the heart of a lot of these was keeping laborers and keeping workers down in their place.
Tanzina Vega: That's police intimidation, that can't be legal.
Keri Leigh Merritt: It's not, but again, like I said, particularly in the South, and particularly in rural areas in the South, power never really changes hands. You've still got this small cadre of elite white people who control everything from politics to economics, to the carceral state. I think that's why we're couching this labor movement in terms of civil rights because it really is civil rights.
Tanzina Vega: We talked about what would happen if this is a successful vote, which we won't know for a while. It could be days. It could be weeks before we know the final result of the vote here, but what if it's not successful?
Keri Leigh Merritt: I think if it's not successful, there'll be a lot of sadness and a lot of people really disheartened, but we've just got to take a few days, feel our feelings and get over it and realize that this is a movement. It's a larger movement and go onto the next project. They will have another year where they can vote again. Really try to get organizers in there, get at the grassroots level and reorganize, but focus on the rest of the nation as well and really, really try to tie this into civil rights and make this a movement because, as a historian, I really believe I'm seeing the beginnings of another civil rights movement. Hopefully, this is a historic time. This is one of the few times in people's lifetimes, where there is a chance to really make a change, and I think we're seeing it.
Tanzina Vega: There is a little bit of support, that we understand, coming even from in Washington. President Biden and the Democrats are pushing for something called the PRO Act, which would make labor organizing easier. Keri Leigh, what are your thoughts on the PRO Act? It's not directly related to Alabama and Bessemer and Amazon, but it could have further implications.
Keri Leigh Merritt: Oh, it is amazing act. It would gut the right-to-work laws, essentially, which is incredibly important. Of course, that would change much of what's going on in the South and the Midwest, but it would also make it easier to form a union in all of these places. Probably one of the most important aspects of it is it changes things in favor of striking workers so that if somebody is on strike, they cannot be fired while they're on strike. That would change the labor game completely, for people not have to be worried that they're fired if they go on strike.
Tanzina Vega: Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian, a writer, and the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Keri Leigh, thank you for joining us.
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