By: Sid Salter
Organized labor’s organizing efforts in the South in recent years have focused on equating union membership with social justice. Over the last decade, that narrative has been soundly rejected in union votes and in most cases by workers with significant percentages of Black workers.
The most recent example came in Bessemer, Alabama, as some 6,000 workers in Amazon’s BHM1 Fulfillment Center there resoundingly rejected the organizing effort by the New York
City-based Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) – with 1,798 votes against the union and 738 in favor of it.
Amazon officials said the post-election numbers reflected that “less than 16 percent of the employees at BHM1 voted to join the RWDSU union.”
In a statement, the internet giant said of the union election: “It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true. Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, accused Amazon of “lies, deceptions and illegal activities” in the union vote fight. The union said is would formally object to the election at the National Labor Relations Board.
The Amazon union battle saw President Joe Biden weigh in by video in support of “workers in Alabama.” Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a Democratic congressional delegation, and actor Danny Glover joined in support of the effort to unionize the Bessemer warehouse.
Glover has been active in union organizing efforts across the country and particularly in the rural South. Mississippians have seen Glover often in union vote efforts in their state. During the 2020 presidential election, Glover was a surrogate for self-described Democratic Socialist and independent Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during a Mississippi campaign event.
Sanders supporters at that event got a reprise of a March 2017 joint visit by Sanders and Glover to Mississippi designed to promote unionization of one of Mississippi’s two automobile manufacturing plants – this time without Sanders.
Called the “March on Mississippi” in 2017, the United Auto Workers, Sanders, Glover, the NAACP, and fellow political travelers appeared in Canton to continue to peddle the narrative that “workers’ rights equal civil rights.”
With our state’s undeniable history of civil rights atrocities in our past, Mississippi makes an almost cinematic background for presenting the narrative that both Mississippians and the wider world should equate civil rights with organized labor’s quest for a union vote at the Nissan plant in Canton.
As noted, the struggle for “civil rights” sounds far more noble and desirable than what is actually happening in Bessemer and across the landscape of manufacturing plants in the South. The same dynamics frame the Amazon union fight in Alabama.
The right-to-work states in the South like Alabama and Mississippi are the prime targets. The bottom line is that unions are in decline and are actively seeking to infiltrate Southern manufacturing and warehouse operations to survive.
In defending RWDSU allegations, Amazon officials – who offer a starting wage of $15.30 per hour – said: “There are 40 million Americans who make less than the starting wage at Amazon, and many more who don’t get health care through their employers, and we think that should be fixed. We welcome the opportunity to sit down and share ideas with any policymaker who wants to pass laws ensuring that all workers in the U.S. are guaranteed at least $15 an hour, health care from day one, and other strong benefits. Our employees have seen tremendous benefit from what we offer, and we think every American family deserves the same.”
Labor unions are components in negotiations between workers and employers. But union membership neither guarantees nor generates social justice or the advance of civil rights.