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A Turning Point in Bessemer, AL? | Interview with Amazon Worker-Organizer, Darryl Richardson

By now, it’s obvious to just about everyone that something serious is taking place in Bessemer, Alabama. In the heart of the Deep South, a majority-Black and women workforce of about 6000 workers at an Amazon facility is marching towards unionization against all odds. After an unsuccessful attempt from Amazon to compel in-person voting during a pandemic, ballots were sent out on February 8th and voting-by-mail will proceed through the end of March on whether the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), currently spearheading the organizing drive, will represent the bargaining unit. A victory would be of tremendous significance for the 1.2 million people working at Amazon around the world as well as the organizing terrain of the entire South. That the region has been the fatal weak link of the US labor movement as well as the historic base of social and political reaction in the heart of empire are two faces, first observed by W.E.B. DuBois, of the same fact.  The how and why of this incredible effort is just as important as the when, taking on a life of its own shortly after the initial days of the BLM Uprising of 2020. As numerous outlets have remarked, anti-racism surrounding the horrors of the pandemic has played a significant role in rallying this majority-Black and women workforce to the unionizing effort. In light of this historic sequence, “mobilizing” in street movements and “organizing” drives in workplaces, in the minds of activists familiar with the insights of Jane McAlevey, should not be counterposed nor the former assumed simply as icing on the cake. The development of serious street politics is why many workers are responding to this union drive in the first place. If the pandemic exposed the weaknesses and horrors of how our society is organized and what its priorities are, the uprising set an example of how you strike back and set new ones – and workers at Amazon and elsewhere took note.  Bessemer, in fact, carries its own tradition of resistance in the Deep South with a history of militant unionism going back over a hundred years into its coal mines, chiefly among the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, and carried further by civil rights activism in the post-war decades. Just as Bessemer’s past shows a missed, alternative history, Amazon workers there today are showing us a necessary, alternative future. 

The organizing drive at Bessemer, of course, faces serious challenges. RWDSU originally planned on a bargaining unit about a fourth of the size of the existing one until Amazon intervened – and management is working hard, not short of cash during the pandemic, to keep the new layers quiescent. But should the NLRB election return a victory to the facility’s workers, Round Two will begin with the fight for a contract. Counting nearly 90,000 members, the Democratic Socialists of America is the most important socialist organization in the South as well as the country and can actually make something happen. With literally thousands of members concentrated in big cities, where real constituencies can be rallied and swelled, the DSA’s potential as a fighting organization is a new ingredient, whose absence particularly in the South, many defeated organizing drives in the region have felt poignantly – and all the more important given that the wider labor movement isn’t in a great place. So it’ll be left up to the DSA, BLM chapters, and their allies to give battle everywhere for solidarity with the Bessemer workers and do everything necessary to swell their ranks of support across civil society – community groups, religious organizations, student associations, other labor unions and so on. The territory seized by solidarity coalitions will not be given up easily after a successful contract campaign, and a unionized Bessemer facility will be a headquarters of class struggle and reserve of militant support for organizing the entire region. S.U. spoke with Darryl Richardson, leader of the original organizing core at the Bessemer facility, to get more of the story.  

How did the organizing drive get started?

I’d been at Amazon for ten months. As I realized we need some representation, I made the phone call [to RWDSU]. Me and a couple of employees got together. We were just talking. I knew them anyway, before I started working out there and all of us started working at the same time. We met with the union, and we talked, and that’s how it got started.

Oh, so you all knew each other! Mind if I ask how?

I used to work at Faurecia Automotive, in Cottondale, Alabama. We made the seats for Mercedes. I started there in January 2011. I say a year or so [later] we unionized there, and I was a big part of that. I worked there nine years and we lost our contract to another company, so we were shut down. So, I know the changes the union should make, we used to have a union, I know it’ll be better: seniority, job security, we have a grievance process, they just can’t walk you out, because they don’t like the hair I got on my head. Like I said, it would be better to me. [A union] can make a difference.

Did you have much exposure to organizing before your experience at Faurecia?

I didn’t come in to unionize it. I always was passionate about people getting treated right. That was in me, anyway. I got people that were [there at Faurecia] from Detroit, Michigan, that worked for Chrysler and GM with a union. So, I just like helping people. I just want people to get treated like they deserve to get treated. I don’t want to see anyone get treated like Amazon treats their employees.

The RWDSU president has said that the organizing drive is a civil rights struggle as much as a labor one. What does this mean to you?

The majority of the workers are African American. We probably got 60-70% Black employees working out there. There’s a lot of things and issues that need to be changed. Lots of things with communication. We got no job security. They can be better when it comes to safety, they could be better when it comes to pay-rate. Employees aren’t being paid for what they deserve. Employees are getting fired for not being six feet apart. When you go to the bathroom, you get TOT time [time out of task time], anytime you leave your station, you get TOT time. If I have to go to the bathroom, it depends on what I have to go to the bathroom for or what I have to do in the bathroom. I get docked for every minute that you ain’t scanning and off your station, that’s takt time [time it takes to process an item]. And depending on how much takt time you get, it can lead up to a write-up and can lead up to termination. I just feel like it ain’t fair. And you have water dispensers on the floor. Some of them are not working. You have to work so far to get water – it depends on where you’re at. We only get two breaks out of ten to eleven hours. They change the schedule without you knowing. I can lay down to go to bed and wake up in the morning and my schedule’s changed. It’s just not fair, you know. I don’t understand how they can sleep. And how they can rest with treating employees like that. You know, I just feel like somebody had to take a stand. Just speaking for me, I got to the point, where I don’t like going to Amazon under the type of working environment that we’re working in. Nobody should feel like when you’re pulling a lot, you don’t want to be there. No one should feel uncomfortable at their workplace. You should feel like you have job security. You should feel safe. You should feel like its no problem when you need someone to communicate with. It shouldn’t be like that. I feel like the union can make that change when it comes to promotion, when it comes to having a voice, when it comes to not getting fired, because, like I said, everybody deserves to get treated fair. Everybody deserves to get paid what they’re worth. 

You shouldn’t feel like you’re a robot. You shouldn’t feel like you’re a machine. You shouldn’t feel like you’re just a number. Everybody is human. Everybody gets tired. We feel like we should have more than two breaks. It’s just, like I said, I’m so passionate about it, because I don’t like to see employees get treated any kind of way, I don’t like to see employees get fired for no reason, especially going to the bathroom. And you have elderly people, I’m 51 years old myself. It’s [only] so much I can do, especially when I’m giving you my all. I get tired, too. Black, white, grey it don’t matter to me; everybody deserves to get treated right. I just don’t like seeing employees go through something that they don’t deserve to go through.

What role has racism played in the workplace? Is this something you’ve experienced? What do you make of the organizing drive taking off amidst the summer’s Black Lives Matter uprising?

It’s a whole lot of favoritism. It’s about “who you know” to get promoted. It ain’t what you do, your performance, it’s who you know. I been there ten months, I’m still doing the same thing. You got people walking in the door getting positions. Everybody wants to get treated fair. Everybody wants to get treated equal. When it comes to seniority, it doesn’t matter with Amazon. It doesn’t matter with how your job performance is. I can’t say I was thinking about the protests when I made the call; they did happen around the same time, but it could be coincidental.

Were the demographics at Amazon similar to Faurecia Automotive?

It was predominantly Blacks, too. 

What’s the mood like at work, right now? 

It’s hard to say, because you’re stuck working at your machine. But when it comes to how people feel about the way things are going now, I feel like the anti-union meetings convinced a lot of the young generation, especially the ones that are undecided. I think they’re scared; they feel like they’re going to lose their job, lose their wages, [they hear] “the only thing they want is your union dues,” “they need money,” “we can shut the company down and move somewhere else.” “The union can’t guarantee you anything.” It’s a lot of scare tactics. The young generation don’t understand what the union is about. Of course, they’re scared, because nobody wants to lose their job, and nobody wants to get retaliated against. The majority of the ones, like myself, we are living from check to check. We trying to maintain. I myself don’t want to lose my job. Sometimes, I feel like they’re going to retaliate on me, but somebody got to take a stand. And there needs to be some change. I feel like if I wasn’t going to do it, then nobody was going to be brave enough to do it. I’m just passionate about employees getting treated fair and the pay rate they deserve. 

Can you paint a picture of what the conversations on the shopfloor are like? A lot of us are wondering how you’re inoculating coworkers from Amazon’s propaganda?

When I’m able to talk to someone who is ‘undecided’ or ‘not sure’ on my break time, I ask. When I hear “I don’t know or I’m undecided”, I lead in with “what’s the issue?” When they tell me the issue, I just break it down and tell them, “you deserve better.” Don’t ever think you deserve less. You always feel like you deserve better, when it comes to safety. When it comes to job security. When you go to the bathroom, you shouldn’t be docked for this. Nobody should have to go through that. You shouldn’t have to wake up in the morning and see the schedule changed. Some of them say “well, I don’t need no one to speak for me, I can speak for myself”, I say “ok, I understand what you’re saying but right now, they’re not listening to you. You deserve better, and if you speak for yourself, they don’t have to fix your problem. They’ve proven that to you. And they’ve proven that they can take away your pay.” When we started there, we were getting $17 an hour, and they took that two dollars away from us. They proved that they could take money from us each time they get ready. And [I say] “just think about it, and I’ll leave you with this: if the union was so bad, why are they doing everything they can and spending all of this money to keep it out of here. If I didn’t know anything about the union, or didn’t know what the union was about, the first thing that would come to my mind is: they’re throwing everything they can to keep the union out of here, it must be good!” So, I leave them with that and walk off and I tell them, “I respect y’all’s opinion and y’all have a right to your own opinion, but y’all just think about it like that.”

How are you feeling, right now, about the vote – about it all, really?

I can’t get it off of my mind. I’m thinking about it all the time. Even when I’m off, I’m thinking about it. Right now, I’m very confident that it’s going to come in. I’m very confident that we’re going to win. I hate to feel like we’re not going to get it. If not, I can’t … I can’t stay out there. There’s going to be so much retaliation to me. It’s going to be a job loss when it comes to me. On the other hand, as long as I feel like I did everything I can, to try to help the people and try and make it better out here, I’ll be alright. 

In that horrible event, defending you against retaliation will be everyone’s task across the country. But hopefully, the vote will come in and we’ll have to think about the fight around the contract, which will also be everyone’s job. As you look ahead, what are you thinking?

We appreciate everybody’s support. I really appreciate it. Because I didn’t know it was going to be this extreme. Even I’m surprised. Like I said I appreciate all the support everyone is giving us. I don’t regret anything I started, or that I did. Like I said, I feel good about it, I think we’re going to win. I just want the people to keep on supporting us – now and then – and like you said, whole nation, everybody is watching us. I’m just glad everybody is supporting us and will keep supporting us, now and then.

In an old union town like Bessemer, what’s the community support been like?

I’m actually from [and live in] Tuscaloosa. [Other people are from] Demopolis, Eutaw, they come from everywhere. There are a lot of employees from where I came from, Faurecia Automotive, who are there too. The support I hear that we have in Bessemer is good. Like I said, I’m glad to have the support we have. I’m just overwhelmed. In Birmingham, I get emails, tweets, “we support you,” “keep up the good work,” “stay strong,” “thumbs up.” Labor Valley Radio Station, NFL football team support, the president, Bernie Sanders. We got a nice, good support system, everybody’s watching. 

What have you learned from the experience at Faurecia and Amazon?

Organizing … me, I just wait. There is a time for everything. I just wait until the people get real, real, real, real, real tired. When they have nothing else good to say, and when I feel like its time, and I feel like people are ready, just by hearing a conversation walking past employees, just by hearing them talk to other employees, that’s how I get the feeling, “okay, it might be time, we might be able to do this.”

What do you think this struggle means for workers elsewhere?

It’s going to make a huge difference when it comes to organizing other companies – especially other Amazons. When it comes through, if it comes through, I really hope I have the opportunity to go help another Amazon. I hope everybody stands strong and does what they need to do and make it better, wherever they’re working at, and go forward. I just want everyone to stand strong. If it comes through with us, in an anti-union state, if we can succeed and do it, everybody else can, too. 

To the rest of the Amazons, we appreciate the support; we wish that you stand strong. Whenever y’all feel like you need to make it better, y’all go for it. You’ll have the same support system, the same opportunity, that we have. If y’all get treated unfair, y’all stick together and you can win. The union can’t do nothing but make it better, get you a voice. The union isn’t coming into hurt or take away, [it means] job security, better promotion and making it fair. 

You can follow the Bessemer unionization effort here.

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