Q&A with Bessemer, AL Amazon Union Organizer Jennifer Bates

August 27, 2021

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(This article first appeared in the September-October issue of the American Postal Worker magazine)

Earlier this year, workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, AL fulfillment center worked to unionize their workplace with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). While the initial vote came up short, the election garnered widespread attention for Amazon’s brutal union-busting tactics, dangerous working conditions, and the bravery of the workers in the facility fighting for better conditions.

We spoke with fulfillment center worker Jennifer Bates, one of the campaign’s lead organizers, on the lessons she took from the union drive, the importance of workers coming together in solidarity at Amazon, and why she believes the company will one day have a union. This interview has been condensed for space and clarity.

APWU: Before Amazon, your previous job was at a unionized workplace. What do you feel are some of the biggest differences between a union and non-union job?

You have less harassment. In the unionized facility, it’s not as easy to attack or to fire someone, as Amazon did. Also, everything is in a contract.

When something happens, management has to always revert back to what’s in the contract. That’s one of the differences that I know worked well. They knew what they could and could not do to employees, as far as mistreatment or intimidation, or firing for no reason.

APWU: What made you decide to start this fight?

The first week [at Amazon] was rough for me. I was shocked that the elevators at the four-story facility Q&A with Bessemer, AL Amazon Union Organizer Jennifer Bates were only for material. I began to see people getting fired for small things instead of being given a warning or being shown the right way to do it.

When going to human resources, you’re ignored, and they’re talking and laughing about someone who got fired. Once, I went out to break one day, and I was stopped by security to do a random security check. When they made me take my shoes off and empty my pockets, and I asked if I would get that time back for my break. They said no.

APWU: What did you feel was the most rewarding part of the organizing experience so far?

The most rewarding is the opportunity to open up an attic that has been closed for years. Not only did the community in Bessemer, in Birmingham, and in all of Jefferson County get a wind of what’s going on at Amazon, but the whole country was able to stand up and speak out. I really get emotional every now and then because I think about, what if we had never stepped up and said one word? Because it’s not just at an Amazon fulfillment center, these same tactics are happening across the country. So that’s the biggest reward for me, is that we spoke up, we spoke out, and sounded an alarm.

Not only did the alarm go off, but this time in history, during a pandemic, other workers began to stand up and say: "Wait a minute. This is happening to us too.” And they have given me courage to stand up and speak out on the devaluing that this country has been giving to us for a long time as a workingclass people.

APWU: What did you think was the most successful way to talk to workers about the benefits of being union?

Being in a position to explain to them it’s about having a better way of life and having a better foundation. Because if you have to come and work overtime in an unsafe environment, then that’s not satisfying. Letting the worker know that they are someone, they are valuable, and when the management of their company tells them that they don’t deserve [fair pay and a safe workplace], you have a mind to think and say: “You know what? I do deserve this. The skills that I bring to this facility, if I did not bring them, the CEOs wouldn’t have what they have.”

People are now waking up and understanding more about what a union means and how having one would open doors to have a better life.

APWU: Do you think that one day Amazon is going to be union?

Yes, without a doubt. Because I’ve heard from several people who work at different Amazon [locations], who are ready to unionize. Before we even started the campaign here, we had no idea that there were issues going on at other places. So, because everyone is waking up, I believe that one day some, if not all, of Amazon will be unionized. But we have to continue to do it.

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