By Nandita Bose
The Congressional delegation includes U.S. Representatives Andy Levin, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Terri Sewell, and Nikema Williams. Workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to become the first Amazon employees to join a union.
The visit comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s recent message where he defended workers’ rights to form unions. While he did not mention Amazon, he referenced “workers in Alabama.”
The move by the Alabama workers, which is being backed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), could help kickstart a new chapter for the labor movement in the southern states, where unions have long struggled to gain a foothold, labor experts said.
Union membership in southern states is half that of the national average, according to data from Bureau of Labor Statistics.
One of the main reasons for this has been fewer job opportunities in the region and political hostility toward unions, said William Gould, a labor law expert at Stanford Law. Gould is also a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.
“But that is changing because of how companies such as Amazon have really tested the limits of workers’ endurance,” he said, adding that the pandemic had exacerbated existing health and safety issues.
Amazon did not respond to requests for comment. A company spokeswoman has previously said it does not believe the RWDSU represents the majority of employees’ views and that Amazon offered “some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
Bessemer, which is about 15 miles (24 km) away from Birmingham, the most populous city in the state, is majority African American – a fact that has also made the fight an important one for several lawmakers.
“More than 80% of workers at the Amazon plant are Black. Their incredible organizing is Black liberation in action,” Cori Bush said on Twitter.
Andy Levin, who will visit the Bessemer warehouse on Friday, told Reuters he was going to tell workers at the facility “how incredibly courageous they are.”
“I consider this election in Bessemer… to be the David and Goliath story of labor relations in the 21st Century,” he said.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington, Additional reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)