Organizing Gravediggers, Cereal Makers and, Maybe, Amazon Employees

on Mar25
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A group of gravediggers in Columbus, Ohio, who just negotiated a 3 percent raise. The poultry plant that processes chicken nuggets for McDonald’s. The workers who make Cap’n Crunch in Iowa. The women’s shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is not the largest labor union in the United States, but it may be one of the most eclectic. Its membership, totaling about 100,000 workers, seems to reach into every conceivable corner of the American economy, stretching from the cradle (they make Gerber baby food) to the grave (those cemetery workers in Columbus).

And now it is potentially on the cusp of getting into Amazon, one of the world’s most dominant companies, which since its founding has beaten back every attempt to organize any part of its massive work force in the United States.

This month, a group of 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are voting whether to join the R.W.D.S.U. It is the first large-scale union vote in Amazon’s history, and a decision by the workers to organize would have implications for the labor movement across the country, especially as retail giants like Amazon and Walmart have gained power — and added workers — during the pandemic.

The strategy has helped the union to keep flourishing, even as its core work force in brick-and-mortar retail stores continues to shrink as shopping moves online.

The union often ties its organizing campaigns to the broader struggle to advance the rights of vulnerable workers, such as the predominately gay, lesbian, trans and nonbinary employees in sex toy shops in New York and undocumented immigrants working in the city’s carwashes.

After World War II, the union advocated for Black servicemen who were being shut out of jobs at Macy’s, which paid the highest commissions. “It has a history of being a militant, feisty, left-wing crowd,” Professor Freeman said.

Even the Alabama office, which leans further to the right on some issues, has stood up for workers in ways that are locally unpopular.

Mr. Hadley said one of his biggest accomplishments was negotiating a paid holiday on Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, at a Tyson poultry plant in Tennessee, where a large number of Somali immigrants work.

“We had Muslims in the facility, they said, ‘We look at that day like Christmas,’ and I thought, ‘Who am I to judge?’” recalled Mr. Hadley, a former meat cutter. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Credit…Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

The workers described the control that Amazon exerts over their work lives, including tracking their time in the restroom or other time spent away from their primary task in the warehouse. Some workers have said they can be penalized for taking too much time away from their specific assignments.

“We are talking about bathroom breaks,” said Mr. Whitaker, an executive vice president at the union. “It’s the year 2021 and workers are being penalized for taking a pee.”

In an email, an Amazon spokeswoman said the company does not penalize workers for taking bathroom breaks. “Those are not our policies,” she said. “People can take bathroom breaks.”

The campaign in Bessemer has created some strange political bedfellows. Mr. Biden expressed his support for the Alabama workers to vote freely in the mail-in election, which ends later this month. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida went even further, encouraging the Bessemer workers to unionize in order to protect themselves against the “woke culture” at Amazon.

If the union wins the election in Bessemer, the effort to court workers will continue. In a right-to-work state, 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 state, the R.W.D.S.U. finds ways to motivate workers to join the union by posting the names of workers who have not yet joined on a bulletin board.

“In a right-to-work state, you are always organizing,” Mr. Hadley said.

Early in the afternoon of Oct. 20, Mr. Hadley met with about 20 organizers before they headed out to the Bessemer warehouse to begin their campaign to sign up workers. The plan was for the organizers to stand at the warehouse gates talking to workers early in the morning and in the evening when their shift changes. In a pep talk with the group, Mr. Hadley invoked the story of David and Goliath.

“We are going to hit Goliath in the nose every day, twice a day,” he told the group, referring to Amazon. “He’s going to see our union every morning when he comes to work, and I want him thinking about us when he closes his eyes at night.”

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