March 23, 2021
Moral leader Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II joined Amazon workers in Alabama for the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Monday as those workers vowed not to back down in the face of aggressive anti-union tactics from the company owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.
Rev. Barber, who spoke in the final week for employees to vote, compared the unionization effort at the plant in Bessemer, Alabama, to the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965.
“This is the first viable attempt to form a union at Amazon in the United States,” said Rev. Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. “You all are first just like the folks who were first to cross that bridge. This is not just Bessemer; this is the world. Bessemer is now our Selma.”
The battle to suppress the vote and the battle to suppress labor rights has been the tactic used by the Southern white aristocracy to hold onto their money. And it’s still true,” he said. “The same money that’s behind voter suppression is behind blocking labor rights. And we need to understand that.”
Employee Linda Burns said Amazon paid her for just two of three weeks she was out of work when she contracted COVID-19.
“I’m ready to fight,” she said. “I am tired. I want everybody to hear me. We’re in this together. If I have to come to Missouri, Cleveland, California, New York, I’m fighting for everybody. Not just me. It’s not all about me. It’s for everybody. And I’m ready. We’ve got to fight for our rights.”
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is organizing the almost 6,000 people who work at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, who include 85% Black people. The deadline to vote is March 29, after which the National Labor Relations Board will count the ballots.
Through the pandemic, Amazon saw a 200% rise in its profits, but ended hazard pay of as much as $2/hour, even as 20,000 Amazon employees contracted COVID-19. At the same time, Jeff Bezos has seen his wealth skyrocket from $113 billion to $189 billion. With this increase, he could have paid every Amazon employee a bonus of $94,000 and still maintained more than $100 billion for himself.
Other anti-union tactics include signs in bathrooms, Amazon worker Jennifer Bates testified last week at a congressional hearing. Amazon also sends messages to workers’ phones and forces employees to attend almost hour-long meetings each week, she said.
Burns was one of two workers who spoke at the Moral Monday program, which also included union organizer Mike Foster and Rev. Carolyn Foster, tri-chair of the Alabama Poor People’s Campaign, which invited Rev. Barber to speak at the rally.
Amazon worker Emmit Ashford said his colleagues are frustrated and tired but believe they have no other options than to work at the warehouse.
“We have to not settle for what has been given to us but demand what we deserve, and we cannot sit by and let our fellow man be taken advantage of. There’s so much out there for everyone. There’s enough for everyone. Yet, it’s not given to us, and that is not right. We cannot continue like this and we won’t continue like this, and America says we will not continue like this. We are in this together, not just in Alabama but across the country. And we have to continue fighting, no matter what happens with this vote. The bell has been rung, and it won’t stop here. It will continue from sea to shining sea.”
Mike Foster said the Bessemer workers “are showing the encouragement to the people around the world that they don’t have to stand for what somebody is just giving them. These people understand that they need a seat at the table in order to be heard. … We say we don’t want a minimum wage. We’re looking for a living wage. We’re tired of just paying bills.”
Rev. Foster noted that just like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Alabama is again in the spotlight “in a fight for human dignity and respect as Amazon workers struggle to organize to join a union. For me, this is a throwback to what I lived through growing up in Birmingham in the 1960s. The intimidation and coercion I hear Amazon workers are experiencing feels very much like what civil rights activists experienced in my childhood neighborhood. The Alabama Poor People’s Campaign has helped to amplify the efforts of the workers and show community support especially during this last week to vote.”
After the in-person event in Bessemer, the program went online with other PPC leaders and powerful labor leaders voicing their support for the Amazon unionization drive.
“Today we’re calling out this Goliath of Amazon with powerful David — the 6,000 of Bessemer,” said Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “Call your senators and say, we stand for labor rights. We stand for living wages. We stand for voting rights, and we will keep on organizing until we win those all.’
“This is way beyond Bessemer,” said Roz Pelles, strategic adviser for the Poor People’s Campaign. “This is going to change the lives of the workers at Amazon – each one. It’s going to change Bessemer. It’s going to change the state of Alabama. It’s going to change this country.”
Former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama:
“ … this place was born of unions. This place was born with organized labor, whether it was the steel mills or the coal miners, they were all here in Bessemer and Fairfield and Midfield. That’s where these cities and communities grew. So it’s actually fitting that this fight takes place in Bessemer. The South has been the place of so many divisions. We gotta be the place of healing, we gotta be the place of unity, and there is no better place, no better time than standing with our brothers and sisters in unionizing the workers at Amazon. It all starts here, and the sky’s the limit.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten:
“It is the new Selma. But more than the new Selma, It is Moses across the Nile. It is every single freedom movement we have because if we do not have the freedom to have a decent wage, a decent life, then what are we doing for our families? So all of us are here in support of every single worker in Bessemer, every single worker in Amazon, to fight for their dignity, their rights, and their respect, and to ensure that in this country we call America, there are real rights to economic freedom and economic wherewithal for every single worker and family in America.”
Elizabeth Powell, secretary-treasurer of the American Postal Workers union:
“The struggle for economic and social justice, workers’ rights, human rights, voter rights, civil rights and dignity and respect has never been easy. It is about a continuing struggle for all of us. So sisters and brothers and working families, do not be deterred from casting your vote and let nobody turn you around. … We know that strengthening the labor movement in the South is critical to any effort to transform this country and that unions are essential for working people.”
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry:
“The 2 million members of SEIU and the millions more fighting for $15 and a union have a message to the Bessemer workers today: You are courageous. You are fearless. And you are already winning. You have risen up against the world’s most powerful corporation owned by the world’s richest man, and you’re doing it in a state that has a history of siding with corporations over working people. Know this, all of us, millions of us are with you. You’ve exposed what’s wrong with Amazon raking in obscene profits during the pandemic on top of the already obscene profits they were making before keeping wages low for the majority black, brown, white workers in that warehouse in Bessemer, but all across the world you’ve made clear the inhumane speed of work in these warehouses, and we know that these issues aren’t just in Bessemer. “
AFSCME President Lee Saunders:
“Let me be clear, and President Biden himself has said this, too: the choice to unionize belongs to workers and workers alone — free of coercion, free of intimidation and free from retaliation. The stakes are high and the battle lines are clear in this campaign. On one side you’ve got one of the richest and most powerful companies on the face of the earth. On the other side — a proud and courageous working people, seeking a better life for themselves and their families insisting on a better, safer working place; demanding, fighting for dignity and respect, fighting for a voice on the job and a seat at that table.”
CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens
“Anyone who’s been part of a union organizing campaign knows just how much courage it takes to stand up when the person who signs your paycheck starts to threaten you. But most of us can only imagine how it feels to do that when the person you’re up against is one of the richest billionaires on the planet. So to our sisters, brothers, all of our union siblings in Bessemer, thank you for fighting this good fight. Your bravery and your persistence are inspiring our entire labor movement.
“Let’s remind Jeff Bezos: there’s one thing he can’t buy and that’s your yes vote.”
Clayola Brown, civil rights director at AFL-CIO and president of A. Philip Randolph Institute:
“Every time we do something for ourselves we are doing it not just for ourselves. We are doing it for dignity; we’re doing it for respect; we’re doing it for humanity and for the next group of workers that come along, so that the battle they fight will not have to be quite so hard.”
AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson, who visited Bessemer last week and saw a mailbox that Amazon at the warehouse where Amazon has told workers to place their ballots:
“And I saw that mailbox that Amazon put there in violation of labor law, in violation of the instruction from the NLRB, where they are telling people that you have to go vote there and they’ve got a camera trained on it. And their supervisors calling people at home saying we didn’t see you vote yet. You gotta come in and vote tomorrow and people are thinking this is my supervisor, I’ve got to come to work and vote. This is undermining voting rights. This is directly connected to the voting rights issue in this country right now and all of the efforts to suppress the vote. But you’re standing up and you’re calling BS on them and claiming your own power.”
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