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A delegation of Democratic House lawmakers traveled to Alabama to lend their support to Amazon workers in the middle of a critical vote to organise the company’s first-ever labour union.
The nation’s second-largest retailer, behind Walmart, does not have a labour union in the US. Workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, would be the first to join.
A group of roughly 5,800 mostly Black workers at the centre are voting through 29 March to determine their membership with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, establishing what labour leaders and lawmakers believe is of the biggest union elections in US history.
Rep Bowman said the union drive underscores the urgency for better worker protections, as he criticised what he called Amazon’s “culture of abuse” and worker surveillance.
“Are we dealing with machines or widgets, or are we dealing with human beings?” he said at a press briefing at the union’s Mid-South Council hall in Birmingham.
In a video posted to social media, Mr Bowman said that “instead of coming out and meeting with us and having a conversation with us”, Amazon posted two signs outside of the facility telling members of Congress to support a $15 minimum wage (all of the attending lawmakers voted to support the inclusion of a wage hike in the most recent coronavirus relief legislation).
“This is the most important election for the working class of this country in the 21st century,” Rep Levin told workers in Bessemer. “This is the biggest election in the south in a generation.”
The company has campaigned against union membership, directing Alabama employees to an anti-union website, holding meetings with workers and sending text messages warning them against “giving up your right to speak for yourself”.
Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said in a statement that Amazon wants to “provide education” about the union and election process “so they can make an informed decision”.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has indicated he will step down from the company’s leadership by the end of 2021 and step into the role of executive chairman.
The union effort has attracted high-profile support across the US, including from members of the National Football League, Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, actor and activist Danny Glover and Senator Bernie Sanders, among others.
On Sunday, President Joe Biden – who has vowed to by the “most pro-union president” – posted a video statement supporting workers’ rights to form unions and warned against employee intimidation; he did not mention Amazon specifically but he mentioned “workers in Alabama” in a post on Twitter.
“It’s a vitally important choice – one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers,” he said. “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president supports workers’ right to organise but added that he will not comment on specific cases with the National Labour Relations Board, which oversees union efforts.