Southern Human Rights Organizing and the Amazon Workers Struggle

by Margaret Kimberley, published on Black Agenda Report, December 20, 2023

Jennifer Bates is an organizer with the BAmazon Union , the effort to organize Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama. BAmazon Union is affiliated with the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU). I spoke to Ms. Bates at the Southern Human Rights Organizers Conference (SHROC) which was recently held in Nashville. SHROC is an opportunity for human rights organizers and defenders to come together to share strategies, learn from each other, and build relationships. It’s a gathering of grassroots organizers and human rights defenders from across the U.S. and Global South. Ms. Bates and I discussed the history of the struggle in Bessemer, working conditions at Amazon, and the challenges of union organizing in the south.

Margaret Kimberley: What should we know about working conditions at Amazon warehouses?

Jennifer Bates: The working conditions are terrible. The working conditions don’t have the employee at heart. Working at Amazon is more so profits over people. And there’s a phrase I use to say, we’re just a “sweep away.” So almost like if you fall out on the floor and pass away, they just take a broom and move you on and put someone else on your station.

I’ve never seen the injury rate like Amazon’s. And most of the time they rush to put employees back to work with injuries. They even call doctors. I had one doctor tell me they were trying to force them to release workers back to work knowing that they were still injured. They’re not reporting to EEOC (the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) like they should. And I think at one point where two people died within one day, like a night shift and the day shift. And that week, EEOC said that Amazon only reported one, even with the accidents, they said we have no lost time accidents, they’re not reporting the injuries, because they are pressuring the employees to come back to work.

MK: People order from Amazon, because it’s so fast. But that means the speed that most people like in getting something they want, that takes a toll on the workers, correct?

JB: That’s correct. They are telling you we want more, but they don’t think, they really don’t care about the injuries that are caused. And we have people with back problems. People who have knee injuries, arm and hand injuries as well. I just had surgery a couple of months ago for an injury that I had. There are people on crutches, you know, people have fallen dead. Mandatory overtime during peak season, you know, people are ordering those packages. They’ve got to get them within two days, so they’re pressuring their employees to get those packages out as fast as you can, which has taken a toll on them mentally as well.

MK: And what percentage of the workers at your warehouse are black?

JB: 80%

MK: And the other 20%?

JB: They are a mixture of Indian, white, Latino.

MK: And you’ve had I believe two votes to form a union and you’ve lost those votes. Why do you think you lost?

JB: Well, the first one we lost, the second one is still in court. Yes, we have a hearing within a few weeks. We still have ballots that haven’t been counted yet. So we’re waiting on the Labor Board to make a decision on that case, but what happened was in the first the first election, we had over 3,000 cards from employees who signed the cards, to state that they want a union and once we turn those cards in the Labor Board said okay, well, we got more than enough.

And I think the system is kind of weak when it comes down to our workers, because at that point, they gave the opportunity to the company, “Hey, it’s time for you to run a campaign.” But why run a campaign when you have 3,000? They even had classes where they bring in employee relations people, you know, you’re teaching the people in these captive audience classes, where you’re saying that you’re teaching them more about why they don’t need a union. In fact, I call it confusion, and manipulation classes in fear tactics, because that’s what I experienced in it, and you have people who are afraid, because Amazon ran their vote.

So they put their fear in the younger generation. And some of the older people, those people who may be the only income bringing the all income in the household, and they were in the south, right? Because we’re in the south, there has always been a fear of bringing in unions or people going to lose their job, because why? Because it’s low income anyway. And there has always been a fear pushing Alabama and the politicians designed to keep unions out. Because what happens is it gives power to the people.

MK: You know, that fear has to be very strong, because the conditions you described, one would think you’d want union representation. I’ll call it propaganda to get people to vote no, when they clearly want to say yes. Given that the working conditions are so bad, how long do most people last? Is there a high turnover rate?

JB: Yes, high turnover. And Amazon is so bad that we can be teaching people on board to unionize one day, but then a few months later, those people are no longer there. Some people will decide that they can’t stay to work under those conditions, or husbands or spouses say you know what you need to get out of there, I don’t need you to work under a heartless company like that, you know, you’re getting injured.

MK: How long have you worked there?

JB: I’ve worked there for three and a half years.

MK: And how did you come to be a leader in this organizing effort?

JB: When we first began, Darryl Richardson was the one who called RWDSU. But it was several of us who were talking about it who had been a part of unions before. Richardson and some others who came from another facility in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who had been a part of unions and realized that what was going on there was an abuse of power.

People are getting fired. There was no opportunity to present their case to say that’s not fair, or that’s not true. So we knew the benefits of being a part of a union organization.

So I think, because I wasn’t afraid of management, I pushed the campaign. Amazon tried to tell the employees that it’s just the union who’s just trying to come in here and take their money. So at some point, Darryl, and I had to come forth and say, “No, it’s not just these people who are coming in here, there are a group of people who contacted RWDSU, because we want a union here.”

MK: We are meeting here at the Southern Human Rights Organizers Conference. Everyone in attendance is not from the south but we come to learn from people like yourself, about the work that you’re doing. Tell us about why you came and why you think it’s so important to have these opportunities to gather.

JB: Actually I spoke with Jaribu Hill and Aaron Greene earlier this year, in June, I was on a zoom with them. I like to learn. And because I like to learn, I also like to teach. And I realized that education is power. And without power, we can’t move forward, without knowledge, we can’t move forward. So I decided to go and I wanted to share what our efforts were and to share our struggles as well. And once I got to SHROC I realized that there were so many other dimensions of human rights in this country, and especially in the south, I didn’t realize that there were other struggles, other than just in Alabama. And it was a blessing to me to not only teach, but to be taught and have knowledge.

MK: You said the vote is in court now, what is the process? What’s going to happen next?

JB: We won’t know until we go to the hearing. And I guess we’ll give our testimonies on the illegal actions of Amazon during that campaign. There were a lot of illegal actions taken by them. And we get to present our evidence. We found a lot of you ULPs, unfair labor practices. There’ll be a decision later on, on whether the Labor Board will rule in our favor that we will run a new election. We have 500 ballots that weren’t counted. They were contested by Amazon. Those ballots will be counted, I think, and we’ll just make a decision on whether the other election will be overturned, and we’ll push another election or whether we’ll be certified as a union. So the hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet. It was supposed to be in September, but they postponed it and moved it up because we had to add a couple more charges. I think one was when they fired me at Amazon.

MK: But they reinstated you?

JB: Yes, they reinstated me the following week, but they still didn’t allow me to work. They put me on a leave of absence. But they went to the media, and told the media, “Oh, yeah, we reinstated Jennifer Bates and it was a misunderstanding, a miscommunication, and that lets you know that our system works. We heard her side of the story. So they told a journalist that they reinstated me, but once I returned to work that day, it said that I was inactive. Because I had an injury I was on light duty, lifting 10 pounds or less. I went back to the doctor but each document I brought back, Amazon continued to deny.

MK: And how can people be supportive of your organizing efforts?

JB: Continue to tell our stories right now. And if we have other actions to come and be a part of them. Open avenues like social media, if you see an article about what’s going on use your platforms to get the word out.

MK: Thank you.

*Featured Image: Jennifer Bates testifying before Senate Budget Committee hearing March 17, 2021

Margaret Kimberley is the author of Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents . You can support her work on Patreon and also find it on the Twitter , Bluesky , and Telegram platforms. She can be reached via email at .

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