If you’re looking for poverty and violent crime, Bessemer, in the great state of Alabama, is your town. It was also Amazon’s pick for a huge distribution facility with 6,000 workers, which opened exactly one year ago. Today the results might be in for a landmark union organizing effort and vote at the spanking new facility, built in the former coal mining, limestone, and steel-making town of 27,000, just outside of Birmingham.
Is the Tide coming back for unionism in America, with President Biden rooting for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union and Bernie Sanders making an appearance?
Or, is the second biggest US employer behind Walmart going to use its $15 per hour wages plus hiring bonus and health insurance to carry the day? It’s a fascinating contest because Amazon pays so well in a starving community, yet the union feels it has a good chance to organize the facility.
Both sides have a lot invested and think the election will be tight. Why? What does it mean for the machining world?
Jeff Bezos hates unions when they threaten his company, though his newspaper, The Washington Post, has been friendly to organized labor, unless it pertains to Amazon.
You don’t go to work at an Amazon distribution facility if you are looking for a picnic. The work is physically demanding, repetitive, and very tough on the hands and wrists. If you work on the line, you are likely to be exhausted after a 10-hour day. Many of the workers are not young and have never done hours and hours of handling boxes, day after day. It isn’t coal mining or steel making. The facility is air conditioned and well lit, but make no mistake, Amazon pushes its people very hard, hand and forearm injuries are common, and many people do not last.
A woman who did domestic work once a week in our home eagerly took a sorting job when Amazon opened one of several facilities in the south suburbs of Chicago. She hoped the hourly wage, health insurance, and opportunity to use one of its perks, paying for a community college course in surgical instrument sterilization, would raise her up in the world. She ended up with severe hand and wrist disabilities from continually handling boxes, a common malady.
It is hardly a secret that Amazon is hoping and planning for robots to do more and more of the demanding and difficult work in its spectacular facilities, but we’re not there yet, and Amazon needs a million humans to pack and drive everyday.
These days, unions are seldom interested in attempting to organize smaller machining companies. My observation is that workers in such firms are generally heartily anti-union. In the machining world today, there is a shortage of skilled people. Workers who show initiative have ample room for advancement in a highly competitive milieu for talent.
If Amazon loses the election today, it will be more about working conditions than money. One of the biggest gripes about working for Amazon is that employees don’t even have time to use the bathroom in private. Drivers routinely take plastic bags with them to relieve themselves.
Amazon always wins these elections because money talks. Amazon has argued that the cash and perks are worth the sore wrists and urinating in plastic bags. It builds facilities where Google doesn’t recruit. If it loses in Bessemer, that does not necessarily mean the Tide has turned, even if Joe and Bernie will cheer the results.
It will just mean we will get robots and driverless vans a year or two earlier.
Question: Have you ever been in a union? What was it like?