The most consequential union vote in the United States is all but sure to fail. Workers like CoCoa Eatman are one reason why.
The 58 year-old military veteran works at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the site of one of the highest-profile organizing drives in recent memory. Yet when the votes are counted in late March, Eatman and most of her colleagues are expected to reject the union for the second time in as many years.
Eatman wasn’t necessarily opposed to unions. She was just “anti this union,” she said. “When people say stuff is hard, I’m like, there is no job hard at Amazon! None! I pick just like a robot. Up, down, up, down.”
Insider heard similar stories during recent meetings with more than 20 other Amazon employees in Bessemer. Most of the workers who spoke to Insider said they trusted the company to pay them well, protect them from serious injury, and provide avenues for promotion. Some have had negative experiences with unions in the past. Union organizers, challenged by the immensity of the 6,000-person facility and rapid employee turnover, are waging an uphill battle to persuade enough workers to vote yes before the March 25 deadline.
The election is a bellwether for union organizing across the US. After decades of waning union membership, there’s been a spurt of union activity lately, with recent wins at Starbucks and REI. As the second-largest US employer, Amazon is a major target, with similar votes coming at other warehouses soon. But if the company prevails in Bessemer for a second time, that may stall the resurgence.
In late February, when Insider visited, tensions were mounting over a standoff that had visibly consumed the town. At local restaurants, conjecture swirled about the outcome of the vote. Pro-union yard signs dotted front yards on the 30-minute drive from Birmingham to Bessemer, while an Amazon-sponsored billboard urged drivers to “Vote Now!” Some churches played videos during their services extolling the union drive.
Pro- and anti-union workers have been sparring verbally on social media and in front of the warehouse. Some workers are so strongly opposed to a unionized Amazon warehouse that they’ve undertaken their own anti-union campaign. Eatman is one of the leaders of this group, which has pooled hundreds of dollars to print “Vote NO!” T-shirts to hand out to their colleagues.
Amazon has fanned the flames. After some workers claimed union organizers yelled at them on their way into the warehouse, Amazon sent text messages to every employee in the facility characterizing pro-union workers as violent and threatening, according to copies of the texts seen by Insider. An Amazon spokesperson said the company prioritizes worker safety, and that it investigates and appropriately responds to allegations that workers had been made to feel unsafe.
When asked how he felt about the union, one employee, who asked not to be named, said it “should get the fuck out of here.”
When a few colleagues started organizing with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union in late 2020, Eatman was scared. It wasn’t that she was unfamiliar with unions. On the contrary, like other residents of the former industrial hub near Birmingham, she was scalded by memories of labor unrest.
Her father and two brothers were in an ironworkers union. When they went on strike in the 1970s, the family lost three incomes. “They got to a stalemate, and nothing happened but that we suffered,” Eatman said. “My mom had to take care of everything.”
In contrast, Amazon paychecks keep coming. Though the work could be grueling, it was better than some of the alternatives in the area. On Eatman’s first day at the Bessemer facility, 18 months ago, her feet hurt so badly that she almost quit. But that could have meant going back to a job like her previous one, where she worked in a hospital kitchen in Birmingham for $10.70 an hour. That job left her with an injury so severe that she required surgery on her knee and ankle, she said.
At Amazon, Eatman earns $16.90 an hour. Her health-insurance costs have fallen by half. And for the first time in her life, she’s saving for retirement through a 401(k), she said. She dipped into that nest egg to help pay for those “Vote NO!” T-shirts. (Amazon hasn’t pitched in to help buy the T-shirts, Eatman said, noting the company “had nothing to do with this.”)
Other employees at the Bessemer facility had first- or secondhand experience with unions: If they hadn’t been part of one, a parent, spouse, sibling, or child had.
The warehouse sits at the heart of a once bustling industrial hub. US Pipe, US Steel, and other unionized foundries, mines, and mills — many now abandoned or operating at low capacity — loom large in the landscape between Bessemer and Birmingham.
Coal mining has been at the center of much of the region’s labor activism. Just down the road from the Amazon warehouse, known as BHM1, about 1,100 coal miners at the Warrior Met mine have been on strike for almost a year. Many have been forced to get a second job to pay the bills; a handful work at BHM1.
The region’s labor history has proved a double-edged sword for organizers at the Bessemer facility. Like Eatman, many workers Insider spoke with have bad memories of unions hobbled by pro-business legislation, wage stagnation, and foreign competition. The Warrior Met strike has made some apprehensive about unionization, even though strikes are exceedingly rare, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker indicates, and would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority vote of workers.
“I’ve seen steelworkers. I’ve seen mine workers. I’ve seen teachers unions,” said Darin Gunter, an employee at the warehouse. “And I’ve seen the ugly side: the fights, the strikes, the nails in the tire.” He pointed to local media reports of violence and vandalism on Warrior Met picket lines.
Some workers also told Insider they didn’t see the Amazon warehouse as a workplace that needed a union. They said unions made sense for mines, trucking, auto plants, and other places where workers were put in serious danger or paid below market rate — conditions they said weren’t met at Amazon.
“I’m not against unions, but it’s got to be something that’s going to offer us something better than we have,” said Dawn Hoag, who voted against the union.
Nationwide, Amazon workers are twice as likely to get hurt as workers in non-Amazon warehouses. Their injuries are usually sprains, strains, and other types of musculoskeletal disorders caused by repetitive motion and lifting heavy objects. Amazon said it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in safety improvements and has more than 8,000 safety personnel.
On average, workers who incurred those types of injuries at an Amazon warehouse were out of work for 103 days to recover, an analysis by Washington state’s workplace safety regulator found. The agency also found that Amazon had more costly workplace injury claims than other industries, such as meatpacking and logging.
But to many of the workers Insider spoke with, even those who reported feeling pain at work, Amazon didn’t feel like a dangerous workplace.
Local poultry plant employees “go in, and there’s a couple of digits that are gone,” said Paula Dillard, an Amazon employee who voted against the union. “I don’t see anyone losing a finger or a limb at Amazon.”
Michelle Wallace, a 57-year-old Amazon worker who voted against the union, suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome that she contracted while working as a hairstylist. She said she likely wouldn’t be able to retire for another 18 years and was willing to tough it out at Amazon.
“With my age, I’m going to experience pain,” she said. “I’m going to take an ibuprofen and keep it moving.”
Amazon’s detractors argue that working in a warehouse is a dead-end job with little chance of progression. In Bessemer, that’s often not the view.
The starting pay is $15.80 an hour, or about $32,000 a year, in line with the average individual income for the county. Most of the 21 workers who spoke with Insider said their pay rose when they came to Amazon, in some cases by as much as 50%.
“People are worrying about, ‘Well, Jeff Bezos has all this money. He can give us another dollar,’” Wallace said. “You don’t worry about that. You try to better yourself with this company.”
Workers who opposed the union said they believed there were opportunities to advance at Amazon.
Anna Couch started working at the Bessemer facility when she was on her way out of rehab. Before Amazon, she’d held a string of service jobs. She said of Amazon, “It was the first job I was ever praised and acknowledged for how hard I was working.”
Couch was rapidly promoted to learning ambassador, a role that involved training an endless stream of new hires, but no pay increase. Couch, who voted against the union, said she was pleased by the recognition and hoped the role would help her land another promotion. An Amazon spokesperson said more than 450 employees have been promoted at BHM1 since the facility opened two years ago.
But most hourly employees who want to be promoted will likely be disappointed. Amazon intentionally makes it difficult for hourly employees to land internal promotions, a former human-resources vice president at Amazon told The New York Times. Hourly employees stop receiving raises after three years to pressure what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos considered low-performing workers out of the company, the report said.
Andrea Hatcher quit in February after less than five months. She has a master’s degree in human resources, and she wanted to be considered for a job as an area manager or for a role on the warehouse’s HR team.
“It was like pulling teeth, even being acknowledged that I wanted to move up,” said Hatcher, who voted for the union before she left. “I thank God I didn’t become a manager,” she added. “They work us like dogs in there, and I would have wanted to treat the workers with dignity.”
Some workers said the company could pay more. Like many parts of the country, the area around Bessemer is crunched for labor, propelling wage inflation, said Donny Jones, the chief operating officer of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. The CVS warehouse in Bessemer pays $17 an hour. At the Wayne Farms poultry plant in Decatur, starting pay is up to $18, plus a $3,000 retention bonus.
“What I’m earning right now is not a living wage. Absolutely not,” said Dale Wyatt, an Amazon warehouse worker organizing in favor of the union. “I’m living paycheck to paycheck.”
Wyatt said he had so much credit-card debt that he was in collections, and his car was repossessed last year. “Amazon has the power to pay a lot more than they do,” he said.
Amazon’s own anti-union messaging, broadcast in text messages and mandatory meetings during the workday, has also swayed Bessemer warehouse workers against the union.
At these gatherings, workers who asked what would happen to their salaries after three years were told that if they worked hard, there wasn’t any reason they wouldn’t be promoted, five workers who attended said.
Company representatives also repeated that nothing was guaranteed during contract negotiations, some workers who spoke with Insider said. They said that left them with the impression that a union contract would mean lower wages or worse benefits.
Absent a contract, Amazon can lower wages without negotiation. Some workers who spoke to Insider said they hadn’t considered that possibility, or that they could vote to reject an unsatisfactory contract.
Such trainings, known as captive-audience meetings, have long been a sore point for labor activists. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 1966 that employers could compel workers to attend such meetings and discipline those who didn’t show up. An Amazon spokesperson characterized the meetings as “regular informational sessions” that “provide employees the opportunity to ask questions and learn” about how a union could affect their jobs.
In conversations with Insider, many workers explained their decision to vote against the union by repeating talking points from captive-audience meetings. If you haven’t been promoted after three years, “you’re doing something wrong,” Eatman said. “You should have moved up by then.”
Another worker, who asked not to be named, said he had voted against the union because he worried contract negotiations would mean lower wages. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
In a complaint last month, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union asked the NLRB to rule that workers should be allowed to opt out of captive-audience meetings.
“It’s not fair when one side can force you to listen to their opinion and the other side is optional,” said Wyatt, the union organizer.
The union’s uphill battle has left Jennifer Bates exhausted. She’s been working to organize her colleagues at BHM1 for almost two years. She has testified before Congress and appeared on national TV. CNN called her “the face of a union.”
But Bates said the organizing she’s done in the past year has worn her out completely. And if this vote fails, she plans to quit.
Last year, the union lost a vote on the same issues. A federal labor panel threw out the results and ordered a do-over, saying Amazon had improperly influenced workers’ votes. This time, the union has reached more workers at their homes as the pandemic wanes, and it has made other inroads in the community. But the signs are mostly ominous.
Almost 100 people attended a pro-union rally in late February, held next to a Waffle House down the road from the warehouse. Most of the attendees were members of other local unions — mine workers, auto workers, and electricians — who turned out to support the Amazon union drive. Only a handful of employees from the facility attended. Almost all were members of the union’s organizing committee.
Some workers may be too intimidated by Amazon to publicly show their support for the union, said RWDSU spokesperson Chelsea Connor, who also cautioned that some of the employees Insider spoke to may have been concealing their true feelings about unionization out of fear of retaliation from Amazon.
Ultimately, one of the union’s biggest challenges has been connecting with warehouse employees for long enough to make its case and sway opinions.
The union has found it particularly difficult to fight what may be one of Amazon’s most effective weapon: high employee turnover. Almost half of Bessemer warehouse workers have been replaced in the past year, according to union officials. Nationwide, the turnover rate was even higher among Amazon’s hourly warehouse associates, The New York Times reported.
Amazon churned through workers so quickly that one union organizer said it was difficult to build a solid base of employees committed to supporting the union.
When Amazon decided to rely primarily on short-term labor to staff its warehouses, “they did it to destroy the union,” Bates said. “Every week, every two weeks, we’re educating new people. Our work is never done.”
Do you work at Amazon? Got a tip? Contact reporter Katherine Long via the encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-206-375-9280) or email (email@example.com).
Here's Why Amazon Is All but Sure to Win Union Vote in Bessemer Again – Business Insider
The most consequential union vote in the United States is all but sure to fail. Workers like CoCoa Eatman are one reason why.