Politics

Biden Praises Labor Unions Amid Historic Amazon Warehouse Worker Drive

If successful, the Amazon workers organizing in Alabama would form the company’s first unionized warehouse.

The Southern Workers Assembly organized a National Day of Solidarity with Amazon workers organizing a union in Bessemer, AL with the RWDSU. | YouTube/ Southern Workers Assembly
The Southern Workers Assembly organized a National Day of Solidarity with Amazon workers organizing a union in Bessemer, AL with the RWDSU. | YouTube/ Southern Workers Assembly

President Joe Biden, a Democrat who praised unions on the campaign trail, posted a statement late Sunday broadly supporting labor organizing efforts, as a group of Amazon workers in Alabama aim to form the company’s first unionized warehouse. While Biden didn’t directly mention Amazon in his statement, his tweet recognized the Alabama workers — and observers have heralded his remarks as some of the most pro-union in nearly a century of U.S. presidencies. 

“Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field,” Biden said in a roughly two-minute video posted on social media. “They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment.” 

Workers in Bessemer, Alabama, which has a more than 70% Black population, are voting on whether to organize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Mail-in voting started in February and will run through March 29.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, thanked Biden in a statement. 

“As President Biden points out, the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is by organizing into unions,” Appelbaum said.  “And that is why so many working women and men are fighting for a union at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama.”

In his remarks, Biden also explicitly condemned union-busting practices — which according to multiple reports, Amazon has engaged in. The country’s second-largest employer has reportedly sent text messages urging workers to use a mailbox on-site by March 1, even though the deadline is much further out, and the National Labor Relations Board denied the company’s request to require in-person voting.  

 “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” Biden said. 

As HuffPost reported, he also referenced the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which explicitly encourages collective bargaining. 

Biden added: “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice. And it’s your right, not that of an employer, it’s your right.”

The Amazon union drive comes during a once-in-a-century pandemic that has disproportionately put low-wage workers at risk, compared to their white-collar counterparts who can more easily work from home. It also comes after the resurgent, historic Black Lives Matter movement last summer gained unprecedented national support

The AP reported that Alabama specifically has been anti-union, and that Amazon — which last saw a worker-led union effort at a Delaware warehouse in 2014 that ultimately failed  — will have a tougher time leaning on anti-union talking points this time around. 

According to the AP, “Companies typically villainize union organizers as out-of-staters who don’t know what workers want. But the retail union has an office in nearby Birmingham and many of the organizers are Black, like the workers in the Bessemer warehouse.” 

Last year, Amazon workers went on strike alongside those at other companies including Whole Foods to demand better working conditions. That collective action came after Amazon fired Chris Smalls, a worker at a Staten island warehouse who led a strike over coronavirus safety concerns. The company also fired at least two employees who criticized its response to the climate crisis as well as working conditions.

Andrew DeVore, an Amazon executive who heads up “labor and employment” issues for the company, also abruptly left his post on the board of a liberal legal organization, the Intercept reported over the weekend. In the wake of criticism around Amazon’s response to coronavirus walkouts, attorneys involved in the organization had sent a letter to its president demanding DeVore’s resignation.

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