The Amazon union vote isn’t the only big labor story in Alabama right now – Grid News

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The Amazon union vote isn’t the only big labor story in Alabama right now

Braxton Wright and 1,000 of his fellow unionized miners at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama, will soon have been on strike for one full year over a dispute with management about their contract. To make ends meet in the meantime, Wright has been working at Amazon’s warehouse in nearby Bessemer, where another labor battle is afoot.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is trying to unionize more than 6,000 Amazon warehouse workers for the second time. Last year, a vote failed amid what the National Labor Relations Board deemed inappropriate interference by Amazon.

The two labor disputes are indicative of a long history of contentious labor action efforts in Alabama and in the South. And they are a test of whether a “strike wave” — a seeming surge in labor efforts across the country, including at Starbucks locations and strikes at Kellogg’s and John Deere plants last year — is a genuine resurgence of unionization in the United States or an illusion.

Union membership nationwide has fallen steadily for decades, and the South is no exception — in fact, it’s a driver of the trend. Nationwide, the share of workers who belong to unions declined in 2021. In the South, union membership fell by 13.5 percent in just the one year.

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Work stoppages have precipitously declined, as well. In 1979, for instance, there were 235 work stoppages — about 20 times as many as there were in 2021, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote for Bloomberg last year.

If Bessemer workers unionize, it would certainly be a major victory for the labor movement, but whether it is a bellwether is an open question.

“There’s not been a wave of organizing in the South or in Alabama that I can point to and say, ‘Those people have told me I was inspired by Bessemer,’” said Jacob Morrison, one of the hosts of the Valley Labor Report, a pro-union talk radio show based in Huntsville, Alabama. “But I do think that people heard the word ‘union’ for the first time in a very long time because of that campaign.”

Two efforts, one state

This is a big week for both labor efforts in Alabama. In Bessemer, Monday is the last day ballots will be counted for the unionization vote, which lost its first effort by a vote of 1,798 against, 738 for (2,536 workers voted in the election, and more than 500 ballots were challenged by either Amazon or the union). “Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and they overwhelmingly chose not to join the RWDSU last year. We look forward to our team in BHM1 having their voices heard again,” Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, told Grid via email.

The push is an example of the challenges faced by unions in states that passed right-to-work laws in the late 20th century across the South and Midwest. This type of law creates disincentives for workers to join a union, even if their shop is unionized. Nonunion members are still covered by any negotiated contracts, but they don’t have to pay dues and unions can’t force them to join.

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If a Starbucks in Birmingham were to unionize, for example, the union could not require every employee at that Starbucks to join or pay dues, even though workers would be covered by a union-negotiated contract.

Business interests pushed these laws through as ballot initiatives with support from local chambers of commerce, trade groups and national religious organizations. By the end of the 1970s, all Southern states had right-to-work laws. Support for right-to-work laws in the South was also a backlash against racial integration in newly industrialized workplaces following World War II, when white-run unions, beginning to realize that Black and white workers had shared interests, began organizing integrated unions.

Over time, right-to-work laws combined with a lack of education about the history of unions in Alabama have created some confusion, according to Morrison.

“I have literally encountered people in Alabama who thought that union membership was illegal,” Morrison said. “That’s a big barrier to organizing.”

A collage of four pictures of union miners in 1993.

Braxton Wright’s wife, Haeden, who herself comes from a union coal-mining family, said, “For years, you didn’t hear a lot about labor unions. If you weren’t in a union, if your family wasn’t in a union, it’s just something you weren’t exposed to.”

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This week also marks one calendar year since Warrior Met Coal miners, striking about 30 minutes away, have been demanding a return to contract conditions the miners had in 2015 before the mine company filed for bankruptcy. The union is organized under United Mine Workers of America, which has had a presence in the state since 1890. It’s thought to be the longest strike in the state’s history and has cost the company at least $6.9 million.

After Walter Energy, which owned Warrior Met, filed for bankruptcy in 2015, union members said that workers agreed to take cuts in pay, benefits and holidays to keep the company running when it was sold to private equity firms Blackstone, Apollo Global Management and KKR. The company has since been taken public (Blackstone, Apollo and KKR no longer have ownership), and its largest shareholders are now the Wall Street asset management firms BlackRock and Vanguard.

“We’re not striking for more; we’re striking to get back what we had in 2015,” said Haeden Wright.

Reached by email, Warrior Met declined to comment on the union’s claims. In November 2021, Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent letters to Apollo and Blackstone decrying their “extractive practices” in the purchase and initial public offering of Warrior Met. Warrior Met has since paid billions in dollars of dividends to its shareholders.

Participants in the two labor efforts are keeping an eye on each other. Braxton Wright said he’s taken an active role in trying to convince his co-workers to vote for the Amazon union. In his early days working at the Amazon facility, he wore his camouflage print UMWA shirt to work. Then some of the RWDSU organizers gave him one of their red shirts to wear on the job. While he waits for a resolution of the strike at Warrior Met, he’s been talking up the benefits of unionization to his Amazon co-workers — many of whom, due to high rates of turnover at the warehouse, weren’t around for the first union election last year.


Kathleen Kirkpatrick, the climate and strategic initiatives director at Hometown Action, a rural organizing group in Alabama, said: “When the Amazon warehouse election came up in Bessemer, there were grandparents and aunts and uncles, prior generations, related to young people who were working at Amazon that were saying, ‘Yes, you need to join the union.’”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this story.

  • Olivia Paschal
    Olivia Paschal

    Freelance Reporter

    Olivia Paschal is a freelance writer, a former investigative journalist and a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Virginia.