Every shift, Darryl Richardson clocks in to the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, at 7:15 in the morning. He walks up four flights of stairs, and waits. Soon a robot arrives with a pod, which holds inside it the parts of someone’s Amazon order. Richardson picks out the items, places them in a tote, hits a button, and starts the process all over again. He does this for 10 to 11 hours a day, except for two breaks lasting 30 minutes each.
The work is grueling, and last year, Richardson decided to do something about it. He contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to ask about the process of unionizing his Bessemer facility. Now he and his co-workers have entered the final days of voting on whether to unionize, an outcome Amazon has vigorously fought to avoid. If the company loses, other warehouses could unionize quickly behind Bessemer: In the weeks since RWDSU went public with its organizing drive, over 1,000 Amazon workers in other cities have inquired about a union.
Though Amazon pays its warehouse associates $15 an hour and offers some limited benefits, Richardson describes dehumanizing conditions inside his warehouse. Workers still aren’t paid enough for their physically demanding labor, he said, and Amazon is so greedy for their time that they can barely go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Amazon needs a union, he told Intelligencer, and they need one right now.
I’m a picker. And you got employees called stowing. Stowing is putting into a pod the items that you ordered, and I’m the one who takes them out. I wait till the robot come around. A monitor lets me know, when the robot come around, what I pull from in that pod. I pull the item from the pod, I put it in a tote.
From 11 to 10 hours a day, only two breaks, it’s very stressful. It’s very tiring. Oh, you be sore. Your wrists be sore. Your legs be sore. You be cramping up. It’s devastating and it’s really rough. There really ain’t no way to stay comfortable because you’ve got to move when the robots move. Every minute that you don’t pick, you get “time off task” [also known as TOT]. If you leave your space and go to the bathroom, your time is getting docked. If you get up to two hours of TOT, that leads to termination. It really is not fair for employees to get fired for going to the bathroom. Sometimes the water in the bathrooms isn’t working on the floor, and you have to go down another flight of stairs to go to the bathroom.
I organized because of the TOT policy, employees being fired for not being six feet apart, promotions, pay raises. Oh, you are definitely not getting paid for what you do out there. Only two 30-minute breaks within 11 to 10 hours. It’s not right. It’s just an indication that you need to do some changes. I never worked for a company that would dock you for going to the bathroom. Who would do that? They change the schedule while you sleep. I can lay down at night, knowing my schedule, wake up in the morning, and it’ll be changed to 6:15 a.m. You get time taken from you because you don’t know they changed your schedule. You want me to keep on looking at my app, to see if my schedule changed, while I’m asleep? What is this? Oh, I just don’t understand that. The reason I want the union is because I thought Amazon was a good place to work. I realized, wow, there need to be some changes.
I met with an organizer about three times, one-on-one. I got about five or six employees willing to help me. We met with organizers, and started strategizing.
In and out of the stalls in the men’s bathrooms they put anti-union flyers. In and out of the facilities, they say “vote early, vote no.” In the break room, on the tables, “ten ways we don’t need a union.” Amazon management, from out of town, walking around talking to employees about why we don’t need the union. You know, scare tactics. But they don’t come to me.
When I have my break, I have to leave the facility. When I’m in there so long and working so hard, I have to go outside. I always go to my truck. But it hurts when I’m on break and I see the anti-union signs. I feel bad. I feel disappointed. I feel like I’m not appreciated. I can’t understand why the company treats employees like they treat employees, and run around, trying to convince them they don’t need no union. I don’t understand why they say we don’t need no union when they go around firing employees without just cause? For not being six feet apart, when it’s difficult to stay six feet apart in the facility. We get tired. We want to have job security. Nobody should come to work and feel uncomfortable, not knowing if they will get fired for going to the bathroom.
You want to feel good about your workplace. You want to feel like you’re appreciated. But it’s not like that there. That’s why we need a union.
We have confirmed cases of COVID just about every week. And they don’t let us know where the employee worked, I don’t feel Amazon is cleaning properly. Sometimes when I get to my station in the morning it’s still dirty, trash everywhere. It’s hard to get a supervisor in the station because they don’t walk around to see what you’re doing or what you need. You’re taking a chance every day. Of course I feel unsafe. Everybody’s got responsibilities, everybody needs a job. We just can’t not be at work.
They don’t care about Black lives. I feel like they try to make it seem like they do, especially when it comes to Martin Luther King. They’ve got fliers and pictures of Martin Luther King and Black history in the hallways. They’re just trying to make it seem like they do care, because the majority of the plant is Black. Eighty-five percent of it is Black and most of them that are Black are Black females.
The union will change job security. And promotions. The union will go by seniority. And UPT time, unpaid time off. What I mean by UPT is if you’re 15 minutes late, they’re gonna automatically take an hour away from you. [Ed. note: Amazon workers are only allotted 20 hours of unpaid time off per year.] You’ve got big turnover in the company because employees get fired because of the time. The union will stop you from getting docked time for going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water. And better pay rate, and better benefits. Mainly, I just want to not get fired for not being six feet apart. I just want employees to get treated like they’re supposed to, and in my heart, I feel the union can bring it.