Stories That Matter: How Harper's Uncovered Amazon's Union-Busting Tactics
Daniel Brook spoke to past and current employees at a warehouse in Alabama and found a workforce that largely failed to connect the dots between the struggle for civil rights and labor organizing.
When Daniel Brook read about the attempt to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama earlier this year, he found himself questioning the narrative that dominated much of the mainstream media coverage. Story after story spoke of what an unlikely, unpromising place this was to stage the first attempt to unionize workers at the gigantic company.
Brook knew better. Thanks to a tip from his father, who was born and raised in Birmingham, he had read several histories of the area. He knew that, as a major steel-producing region — the Pittsburgh of the South, as it was often called — greater Birmingham was a hotbed of union activity in the New Deal era and well beyond.
Given that history, he saw the attempt to unionize the warehouse in nearby Bessemer, Alabama, as not strange at all, but rather a shoot that had emerged from dormant but fertile ground. Intrigued by this attempt at rebirth, he took three road trips to the area from his New Orleans home beginning in February to talk to both current and former employees.
His feature story, “Hard Bargain: How Amazon Turned a Generation Against Labor,” is in the July issue of Harper’s magazine. It is a welcome correction to the historical amnesia of much of the coverage as well as convincing evidence that on-the-ground reporting remains the best way to debunk stereotypes and discover people’s deeper motivations. In short, he went in expecting to find a racial divide — and ended up finding a generational one.
Brook is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Nation, among other publications. His books include The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction, A History of Future Cities, and The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.
Was it your idea to report on the Amazon organizing drive?
Brook: Yes, I pitched the story to Harper’s. I saw a story in the Washington Post just as I was starting to dip my toe back into in-person reporting after the COVID quarantine period. I knew I could drive up to Bessemer from New Orleans and wouldn’t have to get on an airplane.
I knew there had been auto plants in Mississippi and Tennessee that tried and failed to unionize. Those efforts had a strong racial breakdown; African-American workers were much more pro-union than white workers. I thought I was likely walking into a similar situation. But when I got to Bessemer, I realized there weren’t enough white workers for it to matter what they thought in this particular election.
I didn’t realize the workforce is more than 80 percent African American. Does that reflect the racial make-up of the area, or are other factors at play?
Brook: Jefferson County is 40 percent black; the workforce at the lowest level of that plant is over 80 percent. That seems to be a general trend with Amazon’s hiring nationally. Shortly after my piece came out, the New York Times got ahold of some hard data on Amazon’s workforce. They found that, at the lowest job-category level in Amazon’s warehouses, the workforce was plurality Black in 2019. In sheer numbers, they had more black employees than white employees, even though America has 4.5 white people for every black person. So you can see that Blacks are radically overrepresented. How much of that is systemic racism vs. intentional hiring patterns is not clear. It’s a question Amazon won’t address.
So there was no racial divide to navigate, but you did find an enormous generation gap in terms of support for the union. Were you expecting that?
Brook: That surprised me. I went to places that were very white, working-class, overtly Trumpy social spaces, and found the older people were reflexively pro-union. I went to young, woke, African-American places like the local vegan soul food restaurant, and found a fair amount of either skepticism about the union or agnosticism about labor organizing.
What is that about?
Brook: There was not a sense among younger people about the importance of the labor movement to the larger civil rights struggle. There wasn’t a sense that participation in a Black Lives Matter protest, or voting for the Joe Biden–Kamala Harris ticket, should translate into support for a labor union. You can write volumes about the links between the labor movement and the civil rights movement. [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] March on Washington was put together, logistically, by the labor movement. But the way civil rights history is taught in America, all mention of labor organizing as central to the movement has disappeared.
At the other end of the spectrum, you had older people — including Donald Trump voters — who were reflexively pro-union. Unions were part of the social structure of Birmingham for earlier generations.
A lot of the older workers who got the organizing drive started had been union members doing other jobs in the Birmingham area. I met one who had worked for U.S. Steel. The individual who started the drive had worked in a unionized auto parts plant earlier in his career.
How willing were people to talk to you?
Brook: It was easy to find people who work at Amazon to talk to, because there were so many of them; almost 6,000 people were eligible to vote in that election. Everyone in the city worked there, used to work there, or knew someone who worked there. I could get current workers to talk a little, and former workers to talk a lot.
I found a lot more “no” voters than “yes” voters. I was a little concerned that reflected selection bias, with people who supported the union being less likely to talk to a reporter. But once the votes were counted, there were about two “no” voters for every “yes” voter.
Had Amazon instructed workers to avoid talking to the media?
Brook: I don’t know. When I was looking for sources, one worker put up my cell phone number in the break room, and it was taken down. The company in general is incredibly press-shy, which is ironic given that Jeff Bezos owns one of the country’s leading newspapers. They were almost impossible to get anything out of — beyond anything I have ever encountered in my career. I kept asking for a local company representative who could show me around the plant or just meet with me to discuss their strategy, but it never happened. The company did respond to fact-checking from the magazine, rather selectively.
They closed the warehouse to the media, so almost everything I learned about the campaign is from talking to workers in the parking lot — and almost all of them voted “no.” They had a very elaborate campaign inside the plant. There was swag! There were little hanging “vote no” signs to hang on the mirror of your car.
Why hide all that from the public? Were they afraid of bad publicity?
Brook: They’re in sort of a weird spot. In principle, they subscribe to all of the United Nations and International Labour Organization conventions. They say that on their website. They never fully acknowledged that they ran a “vote no”’ campaign, I think because that would make it impossible to claim in good faith that they’re supporters of the ILO labor rights conventions and the U.N. human rights conventions. “‘Vote no”’ campaigns run afoul of that. They’re considered coercive.
What mistakes did the union organizers make, in your view?
Brook: I was surprised that the union never did anything as simple as have a day when people wear pro-union shirts to work, which you can’t be fired for. Also, Biden made a statement in support of the union, but not until halfway through the voting period. That’s like endorsing somebody at 3 p.m. on election day. Most of the votes had already been cast.
One of the things the union has been saying is “it’s hard to organize the warehouses because there’s so much turnover.” The turnover rate is enormous; in general, these Amazon warehouses have over 100 percent turnover annually, which means more people quit every year than ever work at the facility at any given time.
I talked to a lot of people who said “I’d support the union if I still worked there, but I don’t anymore.” But if you have so many people there who hate it so much that they’re going to quit, can’t you mobilize that dead-ender corps?
The worker you spotlight in the story, Carrington Byers, has his own cosmetic company, and he clearly sees his Amazon job as one small step on his road to wealth and success. Did his story, and others’, suggest to you that the American dream of making it rich is alive and well, and this makes collective action difficult?
Brook: Not everyone in the plant had a side hustle like Carrington. The attitude was more, “this is just another gig.” I talked to one worker who quit and went back to waitressing, which she found preferable to basically working in a factory.
At the vegan soul-food restaurant, I spoke with a lot of young men who were self-employed. They did things like painting houses, home repair, construction. I got the sense that they may be making more money at the Amazon warehouse, but it wasn’t worth it. It was too demeaning. That resonated with me. Being a freelancer, I lose out in terms of dollars, but I don’t have a supervisor breathing down my neck. As long as I hit my deadlines, people leave me alone.
That said, when I worked at a newspaper, I did try to organize the workers — unsuccessfully. That was at the Philadelphia City Paper, an alt-weekly that no longer exists. There’s currently an uptick in organizing among journalists, which I think is long overdue.
Speaking of membership organizations, are you a member of Amazon Prime?
Brook: I am not. But I have shopped at Amazon. During the pandemic, I needed some record sleeves. I have a family friend who runs a local record store; I could have done whatever was necessary to buy it from their store. But I bought them from Amazon. They came from the Bessemer warehouse. So I am a customer of the Bessemer warehouse.
I have very mixed feelings about that. But the issue of monopoly power is central to any debate about shopping in the age of Amazon. The real way to solve a problem like Amazon is through trust-busting and regulation — not consumer action.
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Predict: What Happens Next?
“This story is not over by any means,” according to Daniel Brook, who notes the National Labor Relations Board is weighing the various objections to the company’s behavior during the union election. “It seems very likely that the NLRB will find merit in one or more of the union’s objections to how the vote was conducted,” he said. “I think it’ll be very likely to order another election at that plant.”
Looking at the bigger picture, he notes that the Teamsters “now have a national campaign to organize its workers. There’s a lot of worker activism at Amazon facilities across America right now.” That said, he argues that the real question is whether such efforts can succeed “without reforms of American labor law, and without stricter application of anti-trust laws.”
“The penalties for breaking labor laws are so light that it’s almost in the company’s interest to violate the law,” he says. “If it is found that they violated the law, there is another election. If the worst penalty for any crime was just getting a do-over, there would be a lot more crimes!”
Read: More on Working at Amazon
The New York Times digs deep into Amazon’s operations, and examines the poor treatment alleged by many of its workers: “The Amazon That Customers Don’t See,” June 15, 2021
Molly Kinder, who studies the present and future of work for the Brookings Institution, discusses the failed unionization attempt in this podcast: “What Does the Amazon Union Effort Signify for Labor in America?” April 9, 2021
The Teamsters spell out their big-picture plans for unionizing Amazon workers: “Teamsters Union Votes to Make Organizing Amazon Workers a Priority,” June 24, 2021
Meet: About the Author
Tom Jacobs is a former senior staff writer for Santa Barbara-based Pacific Standard magazine, and a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. He tracks and analyzes trends in the arts and social sciences, with an emphasis on psychology, the role of culture, and the cultivation of creativity. A native of Chicago, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University.