A group of gravedigger in Columbus, Ohio who just negotiated a 3 percent increase. The poultry factory that processes chicken nuggets for McDonald’s. The workers who make Cap’n Crunch in Iowa. The women’s shoe department on Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union is not the largest union in the United States, but it is possibly one of the most diverse. The total membership of around 100,000 workers seems to reach into every conceivable area of the American economy and ranges from the cradle (they make tanner baby food) to the grave (these cemetery workers in Columbus).
And now it may be on the brink of breaking into Amazon, one of the world’s most dominant companies that has fought back any attempt to organize any part of its massive workforce in the US since its inception.
This month, a group of 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, votes to join RWDSU. It’s the first large-scale union vote in Amazon’s history, and a workers’ decision to organize would have an impact on the labor movement across the country, especially as retail giants like Amazon and Walmart gained power and added workers during the pandemic.
The Amazon campaign, said Stuart Appelbaum, union president, “is about the future of work and how working people will be treated in the new economy.”
For some labor activists, the union and its early success in the Bessemer camp are the avant-garde of modern organizing campaigns. It’s social downright and social media savvy – posting a TikTok video with the assistance of rapper Killer Mike, and tweeting a recommendation from the National Football League Players Association during the Super Bowl.
“It’s a bit of a weird duck union,” said Joshua Freeman, professor emeritus of labor history at Queens College, City University of New York. “They continue to transform over the years and have been very inventive in their tactics.”
The union is also racially, geographically and politically diverse. Founded during the heyday of organized labor in New York City in 1937 – and perhaps best known for representing workers at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s – most of its members now work in legal states in the South and the rural Midwest.
While the union’s overall membership has stagnated over the past decade, the membership in its office in the Middle South, which includes Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana, has nearly doubled from 4,700 in 2011 to about 9,000, reflecting aggressive recruitment efforts The poultry, storage and health industries can be traced back to the Union. More than half of the members across the country are paint workers.
In the Mid-South office that runs the organization at Amazon, local officials start almost every meeting with a prayer, lean in for gun rights, and say that about half of their members support Donald J. Trump’s re-election bid. (Unlike the national union, which President Biden publicly supported, the southern office did not issue endorsement for either candidate.)
“We are known as a church union,” said Randy Hadley, president of the Mid-South Council. “We put God first, family second, and then our work.”
The retail and wholesale workers union is led nationally by Mr. Appelbaum, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Democratic Party employee from Hartford, Connecticut, who has written about his identity as a gay Jewish labor leader.
Since becoming union president in 1998, Mr. Appelbaum has carved out a niche by organizing workers from a variety of professions: airline caterers, clerks in fast fashion stores, and gardeners in a cannabis grow house. “When you buy a joint, look for the union label,” Mr Appelbaum said jokingly.
The strategy has helped the union continue to thrive, even though its core workforce in brick and mortar retail stores continues to shrink when shopping goes online.
The union often links its organizing campaigns to the wider struggle to promote the rights of vulnerable workers, such as the predominantly gay, lesbian, trans, and non-binary clerks in sex toy stores in New York and undocumented immigrants working in the city’s car washes.
After World War II, the union campaigned for black soldiers who became unemployed at Macy’s, who paid the highest commissions. “It has a history of being a militant, lively, left-wing crowd,” said Professor Freeman.
Even the Alabama office, which has leaned further to the right on some issues, has advocated workers in locally unpopular ways.
Mr Hadley said one of his greatest accomplishments was negotiating a paid leave on Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan at a Tyson poultry factory in Tennessee that employs large numbers of Somali immigrants.
“We had Muslims in the facility, they said, ‘We’ll look like Christmas this day,’ and I thought, ‘Who should I judge? “Recalled Mr. Hadley, a former meat cutter.” I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ “
Recognition…Retail, wholesale and department store union
The Muslim holiday, ratified in 2008, replaced the working day as one of the paid holidays allowed to workers in the facility and has been criticized by some as un-American.
Over the years the union has faced some powerful enemies. In the 1960s, the black organizers were threatened – one was even shot at – as they tried to recruit workers in the food industry across the south.
Johnny Whitaker, a former dairy worker who started out as a union organizer in the 1970s, said he grew up in a white family in Hanceville, Alabama, without much money. Even so, he was shocked by the working conditions and the racism he experienced when he started organizing in the poultry factories years ago.
Black workers were classified differently than their white counterparts and paid much less. Women were expected to engage in sexual acts with managers for hours in exchange, he said. Many workers could neither read nor write.
Despite threats that if they organized themselves they would lose their jobs, thousands of poultry workers have joined RWDSU over the past three decades, even though the industry is still largely non-unionized.
When a small group of Amazon workers reached out to the union in late August about their interest in organizing the Bessemer camp, Whitaker admitted that there were “great internal doubts” about the idea.
RWDSU had attempted to lay the foundations for organizing the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island in 2019, but efforts failed when the company announced its plans to build a second headquarters in New York, known as HQ2, in part because of the political pressure on allow organization in its facilities.
“What we learned from HQ2 was that Amazon would do anything to avoid a union at any of its workplaces,” said Appelbaum.
At the time, Amazon said it canceled its plans after “a number of state and local politicians made it clear that they will oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the kind of relationships that are required to.” move the project forward. ”
But the more the workers in Alabama talked to the union about their working conditions, the more Mr. Appelbaum and others believed the camp was fertile ground for the organization.
Employees described the controls Amazon has over their work lives, including tracking their time in the bathroom or other time spent in the warehouse outside of their primary job. Some workers have stated that they can be punished for spending too much time on specific tasks.
“We’re talking about bathroom breaks,” said Whitaker, the union’s executive vice president. “It’s 2021 and workers are being punished for peeing.”
In an email, an Amazon spokeswoman said the company was not punishing workers for taking toilet breaks. “These are not our guidelines,” she said. “People can take bathroom breaks.”
The campaign in Bessemer produced some strange political bedfellows. Mr. Biden expressed support for Alabama workers to be free to vote in the Mail-In election ending later this month. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio went a step further and encouraged Bessemer workers to join union organizations to protect themselves from the “guard culture” at Amazon.
If the union wins the election in Bessemer, efforts to recruit court workers will continue. In a right to work, workers are not required to pay union dues even if they are represented by a union.
At a Quaker Oats plant in Iowa, which is also a right to work, RWDSU is finding ways to encourage workers to join the union by posting the names of workers who have not yet joined on a bulletin board.
“Always organize in a right to work,” said Mr. Hadley.
In the early afternoon of October 20th, Mr. Hadley met with about 20 organizers before going to Bessemer’s camp to begin their labor enrollment campaign. The organizers should stand in front of the camp gates and speak to the workers early in the morning and in the evening when their shift changes. In an encouraging conversation with the group, Mr. Hadley referred to the story of David and Goliath.
“We’re going to punch David in the nose twice a day,” he told the group, referring to Amazon. “He’ll see our union every morning when he comes to work and I want him to think of us when he closes his eyes at night.”