A steady stream of federal lawmakers have been trickling into Alabama to cheer on workers hoping to unionize at an Amazon Inc warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, cementing the union drive as the highest profile American labor fight in recent memory.
The labor push has seen a stream of Democrats but even won the support of some Republicans who are keen to posit their party as one that backs the working class – and whose top leaders are also hostile to Amazon owner Jeff Bezos.
On Friday, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of the most influential progressive lawmakers in American politics, is scheduled to appear alongside a small set of other liberal figures at a public event to meet Amazon workers looking to unionize.
Sanders’ visit follows congresspeople Andy Levin of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri, Nikema Williams of Georgia, joining congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama in traveling to the warehouse in support of the unionizing efforts.
Joe Biden has also suggested support for unionization, albeit rather opaquely.
Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a high-profile Republican, recently penned an op-ed saying he is standing with “with those at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse today”.
On Wednesday evening, a senior Amazon executive, Dave Clark, weighed in on Sanders’ upcoming visit. That sparked a Twitter back and forth between Clark and Sanders’ spokesman, Mike Casca.
It’s unusual for a union vote to attract this much attention from out-of-state lawmakers but that’s just what has happened among workers at the e-commerce behemoth in one of the most conservative states in the country. The outcome could trigger a chain reaction of similar efforts across the country.
Either way lawmakers and political activists argue that the push has reinvigorated a national discussion about the importance of unions and the tactics companies, including Amazon, use to try to convince employees not to unionize.
“Win or lose, this is a dramatic development in terms of organizing at Amazon,” said Larry Cohen, the chairman of the Sanders-aligned Our Revolution outside group. “It needs to be expanded to Whole Foods and across the country and that it should be multiple unions and they need to work as one. That’s the lesson in terms of how you organize in the 21st century.”
Among the 800,000, none of them are unionized. But the union vote in Alabama has spurred supporters in other parts of the country to encourage local Amazon employees to try and unionize as well. The push has also sparked a larger discussion about the conditions in which Amazon warehouse employees work.
And in Alabama, it’s helped galvanize Democrats. The state Democratic party has been supportive of unionizing as has the local chapter of Our Revolution.
The actual outcome of the vote this month remains a mystery. Interviews with those close to the deliberations, activists and lawmakers all reveal an expectation that the outcome will be by razor-thin margins.
Privately, even supporters of unionization worry that in such a conservative state, the vocal support of liberal Democrats, including unapologetically lefty ones from Brooklyn, could have an adverse affect on the vote. It is Alabama after all.
“The stakes are huge and I think this is one of the first serious attempts to try to unionize an Amazon warehouse,” said Paco Fabian, the director of campaigns for Our Revolution.
On its weekly national calls with local chapters from across the country, Our Revolution has hosted organizers helping in the unionization effort. They have also featured Amazon warehouse workers on the call.
The vote has helped spur a heated discussion in Washington over legislation that’s already passed through the House of Representatives aimed at adding protections for union workers, called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act or “Pro Act”.
“No matter how the union vote goes in Alabama, this effort has sparked a new push for unions across the country. When do you see my colleagues go down to Alabama of all places to join unionization efforts?” Congressman Mondaire Jones of New York, one of the co-sponsors of that legislation, said in an interview. “This intimidation being perpetrated by Amazon, one of the greatest offenders of monopoly power in our economy, is a particularly high-profile expression of the problem that exists so long as these tech companies are able to govern us rather than be governed by the United States Congress.”
Asked what it would mean if workers voted against unionizing, Jones suggested that outcome would be because of intimidation tactics.
“To the extent that workers at Amazon in Alabama are not voting to unionize, it is my belief that that is due to intimidation tactics by Amazon and their allies, including members of the Republican party in Alabama,” Jones added “It’s why we need he Pro Act, which would actually hold those employers accountable and set protocols for free and fair elections where votes are free and voter intimidation-free.”
Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, a freshman Republican lawmaker, took to the Senate floor earlier in the week to argue against that legislation and in the process argue against the rush of national figures coming in to support unionization supporters.
“There’s been a lot of attention paid to this lately. We’ve had Hollywood actors, celebrities, members of Congress and even President Biden trying to help tip the scales toward unions’ favorable outcome,” Tuberville said. “Let me be clear, Alabamians don’t need Hollywood elites telling them what to do. We should all trust they’ll make the decision they think is right for them and their families and that’s what right to work is all about, the right to choose. This is still a free country after all.”