Socialist Alternative

Bessemer, AL: Black Lives Matter at Work

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Socialist Alternative has been on the ground since late February to do everything we can to help win this vital campaign. We spoke to Kourtney (name changed), who has worked at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Bessemer (BHM1) since April 2020 as well as Eric Hall who is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter Birmingham Chapter and a prominent supporter of the union drive.

Nearly 6,000 warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama have the potential to kick off a new era of union organizing in the United States. Situated in a part of the country that is majority Black, with more than 70% of warehouse workers being Black, the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement on this drive is obvious – both in the motivations workers express for organizing, as well as the large impact of BLM organizations supporting this drive. 

This union organizing campaign with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is setting a positive example for the entire labor movement by wholly and unapologetically embracing the idea of Black Lives Matter. BLM organizations in the Birmingham area (Bessemer is a suburb of Birmingham) are organizing the community and doing everything they can to support the union drive. Cooperation and solidarity is the only way working people can defeat both racism and bad working conditions – and the workers are now learning exactly that from this experience. 

“We [BLM] understand that not just with Amazon … but in many cases and instances that Black labor has not not been appreciated, Black labor has not been valued,” explained Eric Hall, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Birmingham Chapter. “And so, in a message of solidarity with supporting the union, we’re demanding that Black lives be valued and all workers should be treated with value and dignity.” 

On the other side, Amazon has had its own reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement and upsurge in anti-racist ideas. Amazon knows it’s bad PR to be led by an elite, white, male dominated executive team that answers to Bezos himself while its majority Black workers in cities like Bessemer and around the country face brutal poverty. 

It is in the spirit of cynically appearing “anti-racist” that Amazon created the Black Employee Network (BEN), an example of Employee Resource Groups (ERG) or “affinity groups” which exist in 90% of Fortune 500 companies. Nominally, these groups are a pathway to raise issues faced by groups within the corporation (an admission in and of itself that their reporting pathways are ineffective at starting structural change). More accurately, however, they exist as a way to get the buy-in of a small minority of the affected group – usually those in management or on management track – and to give those people a space for networking while paying lip service to events like Black History Month. 

Why Bessemer, AL? Why Now?

After multiple recent union defeats in the South, with an entrenched anti-union political establishment, and at the notoriously anti-union Amazon, why now, and why in Bessemer, Alabama do workers have a strong chance to unionize the largest workplace in years? 

The second wave of the BLM movement following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 saw an increase in the determination and lengths to which Black people and working class people would go to win a better life. Alongside this, the Trump presidency exposed how little effort corporate America will make to fight racism, white supremacy, bullying, and general oppression. The COVID pandemic introduced the concept of “essential workers” which of course included Amazon employees. In 2020, while the rest of us were locked down, Jeff Bezos made $80 billion, or $40 million per hour. The disparity between the living experience of working people during the pandemic – including the short-lived and totally inadequate hazard pay – and the profits of the billionaires have pushed millions to question the system and look to other ways to fight back. Amazon workers, and others at e-retail chains, carried a particular burden during the past year. As businesses shuttered nationwide, millions became reliant on home delivery, putting a tremendous strain on an already strained workforce. Amazon responded abysmally to the demands of workers for better COVID protections. In this context, the BAmazon union drive couldn’t have come at a better time.  

Protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police rocked Birmingham and provoked a curfew implemented by the mayor. Right-wing law makers in Alabama are seeking to crack down on protest further by making “rioting, looting, and other violence” felony charges. Lynching, burning crosses on lawns, and the firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church are all within living memory.

What Socialist Alternative has found after speaking to hundreds of working people in Birmingham through our extensive canvassing and tabling in support of the union drive is both a strong mood to support the BAmazon union, but also a mood of unity in general. With a long history of unionized steel plants in the area, many working people are in favor of unions and have relatives in unions or explicitly say they’d like to be in a union. In fact, several of the leading workers in the Amazon union drive had previous experience in unionized workplaces, even holding elected positions as shop stewards. 

Suffering under structural racism for generations, the poverty rate in Birmingham is two times higher for the Black population than for white residents. Alabama has the second worst income inequality in the country, and it’s gotten worse: the poorest 20% of workers have seen incomes decrease 13.5% since the 2007 financial crisis. Abandoned homes, shops and malls are commonplace in working class neighborhoods, especially historically Black neighborhoods. 

This harsh economic reality, along with the eye-opening reality of the pandemic economy which has so prominently favored big corporations and billionaires, has created a strong pro-union consciousness among working people, which is noticeably even stronger in the Black community. There may not be any time in the last few decades as favorable as the present for efforts to organize the unorganized. Working people, unions, and the left need to strike while the iron is hot.

Black Lives Matter at Work

American history is littered with examples of the working class using unions to advance far-reaching economic demands. The eight-hour workday, the weekend, an end to child labor, unemployment benefits, wage increases, the list goes on. But these struggles were not born out of thin air, they started off as conversations between coworkers about things in the shop that just seem wrong. 

Whether it’s working seven days a week, being paid too little, or barbaric productivity standards like we see at Amazon. What a union provides at its core is the ability for workers to democratically and collectively fight for better working conditions. Historically, however, the most fighting unions that have won the greatest gains for the working class have not limited their demands to the just the conditions within the four walls of their shop.

In the 1930s, with the emergence of the radical CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), radical union organizers understood that building a militant, fighting labor movement required the incorporation of broader social demands alongside strong economic demands. This included calling for an end to segregationist policies in the workplace and fighting broadly for civil rights for Black Americans.

This is the tradition the Bamazon Union is heroically continuing. Black Lives Matter has been a key rallying cry of the union and they are demonstrating in practice what it means for the labor movement to incorporate broad reaching social demands into their struggle.

The entire labor movement can learn a great deal from this. Imagine if, under the banner of “Black Lives Matter at Work,” unions mobilized their members to protests and brought real anti-racist campaigns into workplaces everywhere. This would be a tremendous step toward building the multi-racial unity of the working class necessary to win any number of decisive battles ahead.

The majority Black workforce in Bessemer is strongly aware and supportive of the BLM movement. While she didn’t attend the protests around George Floyd’s death, Kourtney made sure to participate in her own way: “I wore Black Lives Matter shirts to work, and I still wear it.” 

There is a strong sense among the workers in Bessemer that the struggle for Black Lives Matter is intimately tied to the ways in which workers are exploited by major corporations. Jennifer Bates, one of the leading workers in the union drive, put it succinctly in a recent speech: “It’s not just about Amazon right now, this is something that’s been going on for a long time. These big corporations… look at us like we’re smaller people, but they don’t understand that the workers hold the foundation of the big companies. The workers are the ones who make the billions, we just don’t get an opportunity to speak… Black lives matter, working people matter. And a lot of times the working people are the ones who get ignored.”

Socialist Alternative has consistently pushed this exact approach:

“Building a united movement does not mean that the demands of Black and Latino workers should be subsumed into the most basic economic demands. It means the broader working class needs to take up the demands of Black and Latino workers. Building the unity needed to win the battles ahead will require the building of a labor movement committed to fighting for overarching economic demands alongside demands against racist policing, segregationist policies in housing and education, and against white supremacist and vigilante violence against communities of color.”

As Eric Hall explained in a recent speech, “We know that Black people, ever since the beginning of time, our labor has been taken advantage of… this fight is for all of the Black people that’s fighting to be seen as human, to be heard, so that’s what we’re fighting for and that’s why we’re here today.”

Over the last year or more, there have been debates within the BLM movement about what tactics are most successful, as protests alone have not produced the desired changes. BLM Birmingham’s current approach of mobilizing all its resources to support this union drive can have a direct impact in the lives of thousands of Black workers and point one direction forward for the movement. BLM moving into the economic realm, demanding that Black Lives Matter at work, is a crucial part of affecting real change alongside mass protest strategies and broader demands such as defunding the police to fund housing and education, and democratic community control over the police. 

“We have to start a conversation about the wealth gap that exists for Black workers.” – Eric Hall

Working with other community groups, BLM Birmingham has taken this message to the community by canvassing and uniting other Black groups like the NAACP in support of the union drive. 

To put it succinctly, rebuilding a strong, fighting labor movement in this country will require unions unapologetically taking up the fight against racism as a central part of their approach. The racist divide-and-conquer tactics of the bosses must be defeated through systematic organizing on the basis of cross-race unity and class solidarity. On the other side, in order for the fight against racism to achieve real concrete victories that change lives, BLM needs to unite with and orient toward the labor movement and utilize the social power of the working class to win gains for Black workers and all workers.

Corporate Co-Option Strategies

Amazon received millions in subsidies from the local government to open the fulfillment center in Bessemer and now subjects employees to a brutal pace of work and monitors their time down to the second. In conditions compared to “modern-day slavery” by some employees, workers’ every movements are monitored by the latest technology: from lasers that track entering and leaving workspaces to bracelets that track movement. 

“You have a workplace where 85% of the employees are Black, and you literally see policemen in the parking lot with their lights on when you arrive,” she said. “What kind of message does that send? It feels like a prison. We’re working for the richest man in the world. You can’t give us hazard pay? You can’t provide more opportunities for raises so we can afford to live in safer housing?” Explained Jennifer Bates a leading worker.

Corporations the country over have cynically tacked #BlackLivesMatter onto their branding while actively exploiting black workers. Amazon has done this by condescendingly giving away candy and tee shirts to celebrate events like Black History month. Taking the co-optation one step further, Amazon (as well as most other major corporations) has a dozen Affinity Groups which are created by corporate management, this includes its Black Employee Network (BEN). The Affinity Groups are designed to help the company cut across struggles for better pay or conditions. 

For most workers, particularly those not on a management track, BEN appears to have two functions: giving out BEN tee shirts, and organizing some activities around Black History Month. For Amazon executives, BEN provides them with an “anti-racist” cover while doing nothing to address the exploitation of their Black workers.

Evidently Amazon believes that tee shirts and candy bars are good strategies for motivating people. They even use these rewards to motivate faster work. “We’re adults. Do they think we don’t have bills to pay? What am I going to do with a candy bar? I have too many shirts already!” exclaimed one worker at the union hall during a heated discussion about the BEN. 

In the leadup to Black History Month, Kourtney described the efforts of the BEN. “They set up tables with pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.” Both these inspirational leaders would have strongly supported the union drive, not Amazon’s attempt to placate workers at their wits’ end due to constant speed ups.

The Black Employee Network pays mere lip service to this country’s long history of racial oppression, and says nothing of the perpetuating role of corporations like Amazon itself. Amazon has a similar approach with Women’s History Month and LGBTQ pride celebrations. 

Eric Hall pointed out that the real role of the Black Employee Network is defined in relation to its position on the union. “I do understand that from the way it sounds or the way it has been presented to me that the Black Employee Network is a group that is more in opposition to having a union. I don’t know if that’s the group they’re using or putting in place to silence the voices or put in fear tactics … to not supporting or not voting for the union. ”

We shouldn’t be surprised. The vast majority of big corporations have similar groups to the BEN within them. In fact, they were initially developed in response to the growing civil rights movement in the 1960s. Corporations currently spend up to $8 billion on diversity and inclusion training each year. Despite these trainings being a booming business, little progress has been made.

How the Working Class Fights Racism

In the words of Fred Hampton, leading member of the Black Panthers before he was killed by the Chicago Police and FBI, “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with Black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

Socialist Alternative has long argued that organizing new unions and revitalizing existing unions is crucial to the fight against racism. During the #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd protests we wrote:

“It is possible to win limited anti-racist reforms absent a full scale revolt against capitalism as we’re seeing play out through the current Black Lives Matter rebellion where certain concessions are being made. However, even significantly reducing the funding of the police, a demand which we wholeheartedly support, would not in and of itself address institutional racism. 

“It would not change the fact that it would take a typical Black family over 52 million years to reach the wealth currently held by the Walton family, owners of Walmart. It would not change the fact that the Forbes 400 richest Americans own more wealth than all Black households plus a quarter of Latino households. Or that majority-white public schools receive on average $773 more dollars per student than majority-Black schools.

“The multiracial working class has a crucial role to play in the ongoing fight against racism in the U.S. and we need a labor movement comprised of unions that do more than issue sympathetic statements. 

“This needs to include mass organizing campaigns in non-union workplaces like warehouses, call centers, the service industry, and the gig economy. It will need to include the democratization of existing unions to allow for real debate and discussion. It will also mean ending the unions’ political practice of writing blank checks to Democratic Party politicians, a practice that has hamstrung the movement for decades. 

“Achieving this transformation will mean multiracial slates of worker activists contending for the leadership of existing unions. In other cases it may mean the creation of new unions. It will require a rank-and-file rebellion to overtake unions as a central tool for our class in the ongoing battle against exploitation and oppression. If we are able to transform the labor movement into a force committed to uniting the working class in the fight against the bosses and billionaires, we could begin the project of taking down capitalism and building a new world that does not require racism, sexism, or oppression of any form.”

A massive change is happening in Bessemer. Working people are seeing through the corporate strategies to placate BLM and social movements. A victory for the Amazon workers would be a victory for the entire working class and Black people in particular. This is why Socialist Alternative is committed to doing everything in our power to help win this union and shout from the rooftops one of this campaign’s most important lessons: when the labor movement and the fight against racism become one, far-reaching change becomes possible. 

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