“[W]e are not robots designed to only live to work,” Jennifer Bates stated during a hearing before the Senate Budget Committee earlier this month. In her testimony, Bates explained why she and many of her coworkers are fighting to unionize the Amazon warehouse where they work in Bessemer, Alabama. “We work to live. We deserve to live, laugh and love and have full self-fulfilling lives.”
At Amazon, she said, “They seem to think you are just another machine.”
Bates is an active member of the pro-union campaign now entering its final stretch in Bessemer. On March 30, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will begin counting ballots from the warehouse’s union election, in which nearly 5,800 Amazon employees have had the opportunity to vote on whether to affiliate with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
In their efforts to prevent unionization, Amazon spokespeople often argue that the company already offers its employees a $15 minimum wage, healthcare, and retirement benefits. Yet as Bates’s testimony illustrates, the Bessemer warehouse’s predominantly Black workforce is organizing for far more than $15 per hour and a 401(k). Instead, the unionization drive in Bessemer represents the modern continuation of Black workers’ enduring struggle for an expansive vision of economic and labor justice in the United States.
Bessemer itself has been home to a vibrant tradition of Black labor organizing for generations. During the early 20th century, the greater Birmingham-Bessemer area became a major southern industrial center as coal, iron, and steel companies exploited the region’s cheap labor. In Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, the historian Robin D. G. Kelley shows how Black southerners employed in these industries engaged in tenacious labor organizing throughout the New Deal era. While organizing within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and more radical unions such as the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Black workers developed their own anti-capitalist critiques and demanded respect for their communities. These Black unionists never limited their priorities to narrow issues such as wages and hours. Rather, they viewed unionism as a way to assert their very humanity, leveraging unions to advocate for safer working conditions and to protect one another from a racist criminal justice system.
Black workers tied their labor activism to broad goals of justice and racial equality in other industries across the South. During the 1940s, tobacco workers at the R. J. Reynolds plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina—then the largest tobacco manufacturing facility in the world—organized a CIO-affiliated union to push for improved working conditions and greater autonomy in the workplace. As the historian Robert Korstad documents in Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South, this majority-Black union extended its advocacy far beyond the shop floor, registering thousands of Black voters and advocating for a more equitable social welfare agenda in Winston-Salem. “In a society in which the exploitation of black laborers went hand in hand with their exclusion from politics and most social services, black unionists could hardly avoid linking workplace issues to community concerns,” Korstad writes. As a result, “civil rights advocates increasingly looked to mass unionization as the best hope for overcoming the tangle of oppression that excluded blacks from full participation in American life.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Black workers in major industrial centers outside the South grounded their unionization efforts in similarly expansive visions of economic and labor justice. In Detroit, Black auto workers formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to pursue greater self-determination in their working lives. Chief among these workers’ concerns were speed-ups, insufficient break times, and highly regimented work schedules—many of the same problems that Amazon employees are now highlighting in Alabama. According to the scholars Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution, DRUM and League members also argued that automation had created dehumanizing working conditions in the plants, another critique shared by the Bessemer workers today.
As this history shows, the Black workers seeking to unionize their workplace in Bessemer are not merely reacting to conditions that originated with Amazon. Instead, these workers are carrying forward a long struggle for dignity in the workplace, one that has animated generations of Black labor activists seeking economic stability and, as Bates put it, the chance to live.
Furthermore, Black workers’ ongoing demands for jobs that provide dignity and economic stability reveal the persistence with which the American economy has denied them such employment. In the modern post-industrial economy, the South remains a crucial proving ground for Black workers’ ongoing fight against this paradigm, especially as low taxes and right-to-work laws have attracted low-wage industries to the Sunbelt.
Understanding the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer as a modern correlate to the steel mill, the tobacco plant, or the auto assembly line enables us to see the Bessemer unionization drive’s greater significance. The Bessemer union election is about more than Amazon, more than a minimum wage. By continuing a struggle for labor justice that has driven generations of activists, Black workers in Alabama are pursuing a broader vision of what American life could be, but has never yet achieved.