Amazon Unionization Vote in Alabama Has Big Implications for Michigan Workers

Rep. Andy Levin has been to Bessemer, Alabama, to visit Amazon’s facility there. He says it’s a pivotal moment for America’s working class.


Votes are being counted in the effort to unionize Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

As part of the weekly series MichMash, WDET’s Jake Neher and Slate’s Cheyna Roth talk with Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), who says the vote has big implications here in Michigan.

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The unionization effort is perhaps one of the biggest moments for the organized labor movement in years. And given Michigan’s long history with unions and the significant number of Amazon facilities in the state, the Bessemer union vote is something Michiganders should be watching closely.

Amazon’s status as an industry behemoth means this is one move that could spark more unionizing efforts, especially in a growing sector like online retail.

Levin, who has a long history with the labor movement here in Michigan, has traveled down to Bessemer to see this effort up close. He calls the vote a “hopeful work moment for the American working class.”

He says Amazon is symbolic of what is happening with work today – the switch to the online sector and massive amounts of delivery that go with it. Right now, workers at Amazon say the company’s expectations are far too high — they have to touch a package every 8 seconds, they’re closely monitored and barely able to take breaks, among other allegations. Levin said without a union, the nation will be headed in the wrong direction for this growing type of industry.

“It’s a signal to the whole world that workers in America are going to get together and make a better workplace for themselves in the 21st century.” — Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.)

“I couldn’t even believe what that job’s like,” he says. “They pee in bottles because they don’t have time to go to the bathroom.”

“It’s not right,” Levin continues. “And when that happens in American history, in our democracy, workers get together and form their own organizations so they can have a say in making their workplace safe, just [and] fair. And that’s what’s happening in Bessemer. And it’s a signal to the whole world that workers in America are going to get together and make a better workplace for themselves in the 21st century.”

Amazon tweeted following those allegations: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.”

After the backlash of Amazon’s denial, the company issued an apology and backtracked its denial. Amazon claimed, “This is long-standing, industry-wide issue and is not specific to Amazon.”

Levin is optimistic about the vote to unionize in Bessemer, though he recognizes that the workers are facing an uphill battle.

“I can’t predict these workers can win given all the intimidation they faced,” says Levin. “But I guess my point is, even if they don’t, even if they don’t win, it just shows the urgency of us passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act so workers in Michigan or Alabama, or any other darn place in these great United States, can have the basic freedom to form a union if they want to, just to come together with other brothers and sisters at the place they work and have a voice in that workplace and in that industry and in our economy. Unless we do that, we’re not going to rebuild the middle class in this country — full stop.”

Given the issues that come with Amazon and its alleged treatment of employees, Levin says he has mixed feelings about Michigan having so many Amazon facilities. But he says that there’s no stopping the changes in technology. As a result, “what we need is worker voice and power in change, to make it human, to make it just, to make it fair.”

More from MichMash:

Supporters Hope Infrastructure Spending Can Help Reduce Inequality in Michigan

Michigan Legislature’s Family Leave Policies Fall Behind Rest of State

How Pandemic Politics Have Made Public Health Response More Difficult

Sexist Language Reignites Conversations About Misogyny in State Government

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  • Cheyna has interned with Michigan Radio and freelanced for WKAR public radio in Lansing. She's also done some online freelancing and worked on documentary films.

  • Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.