The most closely watched union election in recent history is underway in Alabama, where almost 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse near Birmingham are voting on whether they want to form a union. The election has attracted attention from President Biden, N.F.L. players and Hollywood actors, making it a high-stakes test of whether a union has a role in one of the country’s biggest employers.
The unionization effort, which began last summer, is the largest and most viable organizing campaign among Amazon workers in the United States. Here is what you need to know about it.
Who are the workers behind it?
The unionization push came from a group of largely Black workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., which is just outside Birmingham. Late last summer, they approached a local branch of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has grown in the South, particularly in poultry, an industry with traditionally dangerous jobs and many Black employees.
The union deployed organizers who worked at nearby warehouses and poultry farms to focus full time on talking to workers at the Amazon warehouse. By late December, more than 2,000 workers signed cards indicating they wanted an election, the union said. The National Labor Relations Board determined that those signatures signaled “sufficient” interest in holding a vote.
Why is this happening now?
Two big forces have helped drive the unionization effort: the pandemic’s focus on essential workers and the racial reckoning brought on by Black Lives Matter protests.
Amazon opened the Bessemer warehouse in March 2020, just as the coronavirus was taking hold in America. The pandemic made clear the critical role essential workers, many of whom were Black and paid hourly, played in serving customers and the economy broadly. Amazon had extraordinary growth last year, as people turned to online shopping instead of venturing into stores. It went on a huge hiring spree, ending the year with 1.3 million employees and $386 billion in sales.