BEFORE the union election at Amazon’s BHN1 Facility in Bessemer hit national headlines, Alabama’s only union talk radio show was the paper of record. The Valley Labor Report, hosted by rank-and-file unionists David Story and Jacob Morrison, has built a considerable archive of interviews with Amazon workers, their local supporters, and union organizers voicing concern over Amazon’s unclear and unsafe workplace safety protocols, mandatory overtime, productivity quotas, and concerns about the transmission of COVID-19 among the facility’s workforce. Over the past several months, the voices represented by The Valley Labor Report have swelled into a chorus of national support for the union, the first Amazon warehouse vote since a failed attempt to unionize Delaware technical workers in 2014. A victory for workers at Bessemer would represent one of the most significant achievements for labor organizing in decades. Much to the chagrin of corporations everywhere, it would also contribute to a fresh wave of union organizing in the U.S.
With the help of notorious union-busting firms, Amazon has responded by inundating workers with anti-union text messages, holding mandatory workplace meetings with captive audiences (a managerial tactic that bosses and their attorneys use to intimidate workers), and offering “quitting bonuses” to workers who resign before filing a vote in favor of unionization. In public interviews and statements, Amazon management counters the accusations of pro-union employees by citing a superior, safe workplace environment where associates feel comfortable to freely express their concerns, despite a well-documented history of crushing labor organizing and dangerous and deadly working conditions at Amazon facilities.
While benefits and higher wages are the commonly understood demands that drive organized labor, the chief concern for Bessemer Amazon workers is the ratification of a union contract and the workplace protections it would confer. Contracts require management to demonstrate Just Cause when disciplining or terminating an employee and creates a formal grievance procedure for workers to defend themselves with representation. Without a legally recognized and bargained agreement, what is given by bosses can be just as easily revoked. While Amazon is urging its workers to #DoItWithoutDues, its consistent record of aggressive and retaliatory behavior has only accelerated support for a union vote, including from President Joe Biden.
The clash between militant pro-union forces and well-funded capitalist opposition is one of the most significant in recent memory for the southern United States. However, while the Deep South is often portrayed as an implacably reactionary region, the Amazon union vote in Bessemer is only the latest act of organized resistance in a long history of struggle by Southern workers — many of them deeply religious — for a voice in the factories, mines, and cities built by their labor.
A Cauldron of Struggle
Fewer than ten miles south of Amazon’s Bessemer facility stands Red Mountain, a collection of hills that provided an abundant source of iron ore for industrialists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bessemer takes its name from a cost-effective technique for processing molten pig iron into manganese steel and, like the rest of Central Alabama, sits on a sprawling array of raw mineral deposits called the Birmingham District. It was these natural resources that transformed the region from a series of cotton plantations and swamps into a hub for the budding industrial revolution in the South. To capitalize on a new commercial opportunity, Henry F. Debardeleben, the Alabama-born industrialist and heir to the Pratt Family Fortune, created a new town southwest of Birmingham, attracting a workforce to rapidly expand his industrial investment portfolio and solidify his place among the barons of the booming southern steel industry. Combined with the area’s natural resources, the new industrial mode of production spreading across the United States remade the Deep South into a land ripe for profits — and a cauldron of struggle against racial and economic exploitation.
In his book on Alabama’s radical Black labor movements in the early 20th century, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, historian Robin D.G. Kelley describes industrial Birmingham by juxtaposing burning chimney furnaces against a backdrop of lavish mansions. Throughout the book, he recounts how Birmingham’s Black and white workers regularly clashed with “resident and absentee mine and mill owners,” transforming the city into “a cauldron of class conflict.” The national pivot to industrial manufacturing and away from agriculture sharply affected the South and a new mode of production was consolidated within a postbellum racial caste system, one that forcibly placed the vast majority of Black workers at the bottom. Like the antebellum planting elite who sent cotton picked by slaves to the North for manufacturing, Birmingham industrialists turned the city into an extractive colony for exported steel, powered chiefly by labor from descendants of enslaved Africans.
Decades of corporate mergers and developments in the international market had triggered corresponding changes for workers, who responded with severe and militant resistance. Among those undeterred by the power of their capitalist opposition, Kelley depicts elders in the African Methodist Episcopal Church well-versed in both the Hebrew scriptures and the writings of Vladimir Lenin, unions of sharecroppers resisting the peonage of debt, and communist-led rank-and-file organizers who recruited scores of miners and factory laborers. The widespread narrative of the working classes’ abject defeat at the hands of the antebellum sharecropping elite and their descendants in the industrial aristocracy looms large in historical memory. But it is a self-serving narrative of the capitalist class, one that directly aids the wealthiest among us while suppressing the revolutionary past — and present potential — of Southern workers.
“I Am A Man”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech was delivered the day before his assassination in Memphis, 1968. He arrived days earlier at the urging of Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights leader who was an instructor for the Nashville sit-ins, and then-pastor of the Centenary Methodist Church. On April 3, King delivered his now-famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” to the city’s 1,300 striking sanitation workers, an overwhelmingly Black workforce who, on February 11th, escalated their four year organizing campaign with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 1733 by a worker-led walkout.
While their unanimous vote to strike included demands for the recognition of their union and raises averaging .40 cents per hour, their quick action that Sunday evening was motivated largely by the deaths of two workers at the hands of a faulty mechanism left untended by austerity in the city budget. Only two weeks earlier, Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death after taking shelter from the rain in the barrel of their truck. Theirs was an all too familiar dilemma for Memphis’ Black citizenry: Cole and Walker lost their lives because pulling over risked potential harassment and violence from whites, while postponing their route meant furlough without pay (a policy reserved for Memphis’ Black city workers).
Despite this gruesomely and needlessly violent event and the workers’ justifiable outrage, Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb — a real estate heir and segregationist — refused to recognize the union and encouraged workers to individually take advantage of his office’s “open door policy.” Loeb and the Memphis city council would spend the coming months waging war against AFSCME Local 1733 and their community supporters, meeting every demand for a union contract with hostility and violence. In response to their strike, Loeb hired scab replacements. When community faith leaders organized solidarity marches and opened their churches to meetings and rallies, the police attacked them with mace. As National Guard troops stood armed and ready, Black workers fighting for dignity and respect from the city they cleaned marched together, armed with placards that read “I Am a Man.”
At the core of Local 1733’s material demands were moral principles of dignity and respect, bedrock ideals that interlink the struggles of workers across history. When RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum describes the present-day Bessemer union vote “as much … a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle,” he evokes powerful historical continuities among both capitalist tycoons and the workers across industries and states who rose to oppose them. The struggle against racist capitalism and for dignity at work in Bessemer is inextricably tied to Memphis, Selma, Sleeping Car Porters in Seattle, nurses in Charleston, and Detroit auto workers, when civil rights unionism, Black Power, and multiracial solidarity shattered images of a reactionary heartland.
In a notorious anti-union training video circulated by Amazon to its Whole Foods workers in 2018, Amazon claims to support “labor organizing,” boasting of a “variety of open-door mechanisms” for labor disputes, while discouraging unions for their tendency to “hurt innovation” and “customer obsession.” Despite the carefully chosen words of its hired spokespeople, the generous workplace communication policy Amazon proudly touts is little more than union busting cliche, a tired tactic that conveniently papers over Amazon’s most egregious offenses. Amazon’s “open-door” policy didn’t prevent Paul Vilscek from jumping to his death at a Las Vegas Amazon warehouse earlier this month, a recent fatality among slews of suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and mental health episodes suffered by workers at Amazon facilities.
While constructing barriers around Paul Vilscek’s body to prevent observers, Amazon supervisors allegedly told concerned employees unaware of details to continue working, then sent them home several hours later (Amazon later released a statement declaring their support for “our employees during this difficult time”). The innovative, open workplace trumpeted by Amazon is a cheap cover for a documented pattern of abuse, intimidation, and exploitation, features Amazon shares with other mega corporations. When it comes to the health, safety, and security of their workers, like the Southern industrialists before them, Amazon will always call security before calling 911 — and Amazon workers have had enough.
During Robin D. G. Kelley’s live interview this month with The Valley Labor Report, I asked him if he had advice for historians attempting to capture the legacies that inform the Amazon union drive. He responded with an exhaustive list of relevant scholarship on topics from Virginia coal miners to freedom struggles in the Mississippi Delta, countless threads that compose “a recent history that hasn’t been told yet.” I was reminded of the updated preface to Hammer and Hoe in which Kelley remarks on the “political and personal context in which [the book] was written,” including his work as an anti-apartheid activist, his encounters with the writings of C.L.R. James and Cedric Robinson, and the eventual shift in his PhD concentration to history of the US South. By excavating the neglected stories and struggles of Southern Black workers, Kelley bears witness to histories of struggle that are buried and neglected in collective memory, ones that reverberate loudly in our contemporary moment.
To follow Kelley’s example is to document an event of biblical proportions, an irruption of the power of the downtrodden in their protracted struggle for dignity and respect. To bear witness to the Bessemer Amazon workers, we must see them as inheritors of an emancipatory legacy in the South. To tell the truth about the oppressed unleashes the universal power of solidarity. It is a mission evocative of the Epistle to the Hebrews, to go out and bear witness to Christ’s sacrifice and seek the coming city (μέλλουσαν ἐπιζητοῦμεν).
Indeed, reporters on the ground confirm that many of the union activists think of their activism as an extension of their religious ministry. Amazon workers, RWDSU organizers, and their supporters repeatedly invoke their faith and ministries as a driving force in coming to the defense of workers and the union vote in Bessemer, envisioning a modern-day David and Goliath story, as Kim Kelly reports at Vox. The Bessemer community and their allies in the labor movement have yielded to the call of working-class solidarity, as their Southern forebears did. Their sacrifice for others is a profoundly historical, even religious, act, and a powerful reminder of the numerous ways workers have stood together against historic evils, even as their legacies were quieted or erased by the amnesia-inducing forces of capital. In a city whose population is over 70 percent Black, the union vote in Bessemer is part of the continuing struggle to extend civil rights into the workplace. Come what may on March 29th, it bends the arc of history a little further toward justice.
Kyle Kern is a historian and Secretary-Treasurer of the Central Florida Industrial Workers of the World. His writing has been featured in The Activist History Review, H-Net, and Protean Magazine.