May 6, 2021

Robin D.G. Kelley: Amazon Union Drive Builds on Decades of Black Radical Labor Activism in Alabama

9 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Today is the deadline for mail-in ballots as nearly 6,000 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, decide whether to form the company’s first union. A “yes” vote could be a watershed moment for the U.S. labor movement. On Friday, Senator Bernie Sanders traveled to Bessemer to speak at a rally and called the unionization drive a “historical” struggle.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: If history teaches us anything, it is that big money interests do not give you anything. You’ve got to stand up and fight for it. And in this, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, dealing with the wealthiest individual in the world, there is no excuse for workers at Amazon not to have good wages, good benefits and good working conditions. And if you pull this off here, Birmingham, Alabama, if you pull this off here, believe me, workers all over this country are going to be saying, “If these people in Alabama could take on the wealthiest guy in the world, we can do it, as well.”

AMY GOODMAN: Joining Senator Sanders were workers who make an average of $15.30 an hour. Upwards of 80% of the Bessemer workers are Black. The majority are women. Their push to unionize comes as Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos saw his fortune soar by $75 billion in 2020, in the pandemic, is set to become the world’s first trillionaire within this decade. He’s already the world’s richest person. This is Amazon worker Linda Burns.

LINDA BURNS: I had to get a second job. They’re taking out two — Bessemer tax, Birmingham tax. They’re taking out insurance. They’re taking out stocks. They’re taking out all that stuff. When they get through, guess what. I might have $300. Three hundred dollars is not enough to live on. We all know that. … I’m tired, but I’m not tired. And I’m going to fight for my right, for our right, for my employees. I’m fighting for all of us. I want America to know: We are in this together. We’re not alone. And I thank God for all the support and help that we are getting, because we need it, because we cannot fight theirselves by ourself.

AMY GOODMAN: Another high-profile supporter of the Amazon unionization drive has been rapper Killer Mike, who spoke at Friday’s rally in Bessemer about what is at stake with today’s vote.

KILLER MIKE: I want their vote to go through. But if it doesn’t, I won’t be ordering from Amazon again. If that vote does not go through, if these conditions do not improve, then I’ll just be walking on out to the store with a mask on. But what I won’t do is, by being a customer, enable the richest man and the fastest-growing company to use slave labor any longer. These people have been treated as badly as my grandmother when she sharecropped in this same state. These people have been denied the basic lavatory rights that you would allow any child going to school in an eight-hour day. These people, in the name of the convenience of [bleep] getting dropped at our door, are being used and abused as though they are tools and their life can be thrown away because it’s peak season. So, what I’m going to tell the public, past the union, past Mr. Bezos, is if they won’t treat their people right, who are we if we stand on the side of evil just to get a package to our door two days?

AMY GOODMAN: The tech and retail giant Amazon has been fighting the union drive. Voting counting begins tomorrow and could take many days.
Well, for more on this historic moment and the history of radical Black organizing in Alabama, we’re joined by Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of history at UCLA, who studies social movements, and author of many books, including Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, in which he describes an earlier high-stakes union battle in Bessemer, Alabama, when thousands of workers walked off the job at the massive iron and steel companies in Bessemer and nearby Birmingham in the 1930s to demand union recognition and higher pay. Professor Kelley is also author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
Professor, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of this struggle today, and put in the context of the history not only of radical organizing in Alabama, but in Bessemer itself.
ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Right, right. No, no, this is definitely the most significant labor struggle of the 21st century, no doubt. In fact, this is the largest NLRB election in three decades, I mean, because this is a big plant. You’re talking about 5,800 to 6,000 workers.
Now, in terms of Bessemer, Bessemer basically is part of Greater Birmingham, so it’s hard to separate the two. These were industrial sections of a state that actually has long and continue to have the largest unionization rate of any Southern state. Now, one of the things that we — we make this mistake of thinking the South as, like, backwards, as conservative, but the South has been the epicenter of the country’s most radical democratic movements, which is why it’s completely, you know, unsurprising that Bessemer, Alabama, would be the place where you would have a kind of renewed labor movement, where the fight against the largest corporation would begin, because the South is where you have long struggles, not just in Alabama, but waterfront workers in New Orleans and Charleston, workers in the rural areas. But in Bessemer, in particular, this is really the home of the International Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union, which was formed in part with the help of the Communist Party.
And I want to really emphasize that what makes the history of Alabama unionization important was the role of the left. You know, the fact is, the reason why we have anti-labor legislation, we have violence against labor in Alabama, what appears to be conservatives, the reason we have Jim Crow and the disenfranchisement of Black people, the most draconian anti-immigration laws, is precisely because those who rule the South know the potential of an interracial labor movement, because they’ve seen it.
To go back to the 1930s, two things made a difference: the Communist Party, as I mentioned, because communists who were down there, Black and white, mostly Black, did not join the party or build a union because they were involved in some kind of economic calculation — they were fighting not for themselves, but fighting for each other. They were fighting for a better, less oppressive world. And in many ways, their activism really mobilized the labor movement in Bessemer, in Birmingham. The other factor, of course, was the New Deal. And we have to remember that under the New Deal, under Roosevelt, this was the friendliest period of federal government’s relationship to labor. That didn’t mean it wasn’t a bloody struggle. But what it meant was that this is when you get the National Labor Relations Board as a result of the Wagner Act. This is when certain unfair practices are outlawed.
So, in thinking about the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union, they also went up against a behemoth, in this case, the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, which was sort of equivalent to the Amazon of its day. It’s a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. The company used police violence, private security. They used other kinds of intimidation tactics, especially around racial division. And also, they were allowed to develop company unions, which, under the Wagner Act, was legal. And those company unions, of course, they failed. They tried to drive a wedge between Black and white workers. They couldn’t do it.
What ultimately undermined the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers — and this is a very important part of the story — was anti-communism. When the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947, it really undid a lot of the labor protections of the Wagner Act. It outlawed secondary boycotts. It outlawed closed shops, sympathy strikes. And, most importantly, it required union officers to sign these loyalty oaths, these affidavits affirming that they’re not communist. And leaders who did not sign would lose access to the NLRB protections. And those same unions, Mine, Mill among them, were kicked out of the CIO in 1949, in part with the help of the NAACP. And this is a story that is relevant to today, because, of course, Jeff Bezos gave a lot of money to Black organizations during the Black spring in June of 2020.
Finally, it’s not an accident that after Taft-Hartley, after the push out of Mine, Mill, which really weakened the labor movement in Bessemer, that’s when Alabama becomes a right-to-work state, in 1953. The story doesn’t end there, because even after that, you have a period of deindustrialization, concentrated poverty, the loss of industrial jobs, ongoing struggles against state violence, and then you get a new set of organizations that emerge, like the Jefferson County Welfare Rights Organization, Alabama Economic Action Committee, the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic Justice. These are the organizations that, in many ways, laid the foundation for a kind of civil rights, social justice, Black Power kind of union organizing, and also multiracial organizing, which really laid the foundation for what’s happening in Bessemer with the Amazon workers.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you expect to come out, as you follow this closely, of this — of the vote?
ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Well, you know, I suspect that RWDSU will win. But winning is not always winning for sure. I mean, when you think about what’s at stake, if they win the vote, there’s no possible way that Amazon is going to kind of lay down and kind of let things happen. What typically happens is, one, Amazon is going to contest the election. And even if they lose, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to win a contract, because unions have to have a bargaining agreement. And it’s not uncommon for unions to win recognition and, like a year later, not to have a contract. And it’s quite possible, though unlikely, that Amazon could say, “You know what? We don’t want a union here, so we’re going to up and leave.” Now, that’s the dark side.
The light side of all this is that the genie is out of the bottle. There’s already efforts to unionize at other Amazon plants. The momentum of this campaign has really, like, revamped and revitalized the labor movement across the country. And so, Amazon has lost, in many ways. Even if the vote is negative, Amazon still has lost, because now we have a kind of popular, national discourse, a conversation, about why unions make a difference.
And one of the things that I think is important to remember is that Amazon tries to sell itself as like the pro-worker, progressive organization. And in fact, they have signs up around the plant — in not just that plant, but other plants — saying, you know, “We support Congress’s push for a $15 minimum wage, so that they can come up to our wages.” Well, the fact of the matter is that unionized labor, warehouse workers, poultry workers, in Bessemer and around Bessemer, make more money than $15 an hour. Twenty dollars an hour is prevailing wage for unionized labor. So, if you’re in the union, you’re going to make more money. Black workers who are unionized make 16% more than those who are not.
So, the fact of the matter is that it’s all based on a kind of a lie. The lie that Amazon is pushing is that all these workers are going to lose $500 a year on dues, and no one is going to know what happens to those dues. And those dues could be used to pay for groceries. If you can make $20 an hour and control the pace of work and create worker protections, say, and provide, restore the $2-an-hour hazard pay that they rescinded back in May — if you can do all that, then it doesn’t really matter. You know, you can pay — you can buy your groceries. You can pay your rent. But right now they’re paying starvation wages at $15 an hour, which is not that much money in the first place. So —
AMY GOODMAN: Professor —
ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Yeah, go ahead.