America is indeed a different country. Or, more accurately, it is a dozen different countries all sited across one land mass. But one of its acknowledged traits is that, when it comes to individual rights, it is the undisputed Land of Protest. Civil marches, protests, riots, dissent, are part and parcel of the American myth.
But could it be that, like beauty, protest is only skin deep? The saga and outcome of the recent Amazon workers’ vote on unionisation would give cause for any observer to blink in disbelief.
It had started so well. Three years ago, Amazon announced it was opening a ‘fulfilment centre’ – the company jargon name for a massive warehouse where goods are sorted and packed for distribution – in Bessemer, Alabama, one of the most neglected, derelict, impoverished areas of the country. It would employ 6,000 people, an economic bonanza for the benighted region.
The jobs came, the centre opened, but before long many of the employees found that working for Amazon wasn’t all sunshine. The work was gruelling, the surveillance on site relentless, bathroom breaks, where they were allowed, were impossible to avail of, human contact with fellow workers or supervisors was nonexistent. The pressure to perform was ruthless; each worker’s target was set at packing 300 items an hour for dispatch.
The simmering discontent at Bessemer found echo at Amazon plants across the US, where the company workforce is now nearing a million. Worker unrest led to requests to the RWDSU – the national union for distributive workers – to unionise the Bessemer plant. And last month, after tenacious resistance from Amazon, it came to ballot time – did the workers at Bessemer want union representation, or not?
The campaign became a national issue. Politicians of every hue jostled to be seen on the workers’ side. Celebrities gave the campaign a resounding endorsement. Bernie Sanders came to Bessemer to encourage the effort; President Biden, who proclaims himself to be the most pro-labour president in decades, extolled the benefit of unionised labour in a well-timed video.
Most crucial of all, it was noted, 85 percent of the Bessemer workers were black, just at a time when a wider push for better treatment of blacks, given expression by movements like Black Lives Matter, was surging. The folk memory of many, who had seen their fathers and grandfathers hired out as cheap labour to work for private employers, was still fresh. Surely the ballot could only be a foregone conclusion?
But what seemed like an open goal for the union turned out to be nothing of the sort. When the votes were counted, less than half the workforce had bothered to take part. Of the 2,500 who did, 70 percent voted against joining a union. It was a shattering blow to the union that had envisaged the Bessemer campaign as the start of a nationwide war on Amazon’s work practices.
In the aftermath, there have been allegations of intimidation by Amazon. The workplace had been plastered with anti-union posters; employees had been contacted individually and persuaded to row in behind the company; a ballot box had been placed on company property, a subtle form of coercion, according to the union.
Amazon counters that, in fact, the workers realised how well off they were, without any need for a union. Employees at Bessemer are paid the equivalent of €12 an hour, which is twice the minimum wage in Alabama (which stands at €240 for a 40-hour week). And Amazon had reminded them that, were they to unionise, their union dues would be the first slice off their take home pay.
For now, the battle of Bessemer is over. But if one were to substitute the word ‘amazing’ for ‘Amazon’, it might provide a truer reflection of the potency of US protest.