(Adds comments from a lawmaker and Amazon)
By Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON, March 5 (Reuters) – A group of U.S. lawmakers visited an Amazon.com Inc facility in Alabama on Friday, lending their support to a growing push to unionize workers at the e-commerce firm.
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 in the United States 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), is a critical one for the U.S. labor movement that has struggled with declining membership in recent years.
Representative Sewell from Alabama, whose district the facility falls in, told Reuters the delegation’s message to Amazon workers at the facility is that “we have you’re back” and their focus is on making sure there is a “free and fair election.”
“This is an extension of workers’ rights and it is an extension of civil rights,” Sewell said.
The vote could also 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.
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 (NLRB).
“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 spokeswoman Heather Knox said she 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,” Bush said on Twitter.
Levin, who visited the Bessemer warehouse on Friday, told Reuters, “I consider this election in Bessemer… to be the David and Goliath story of labor relations in the 21st Century.”
Levin also called Amazon’s policies “egregious”, especially those such as “trying to force an in-person election in a pandemic hotspot.”
The NLRB decided on Jan. 15 to not allow in-person voting due to safety concerns during the pandemic. Employees will vote through mail-in ballots.
Amazon spokeswoman Knox maintained that “Amazon proposed a safe on-site election process validated by COVID-19 experts that would have empowered our associates to vote on their way to, during and from their already-scheduled shifts.” (Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington, Additional reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Aurora Ellis)