Over the last few weeks, organizers seeking to form the first union at an Amazon plant have invoked the work of Georgia’s voting rights activist in their appeal to employees.
BESSEMMER, Ala. (CN) — It’s the last pro-union sign workers see as they turn right onto the road that leads up to the Amazon plant: an image of Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, mask on, arm flexed while her left hand rolls up her sleeves a la the World War II-era Rosie the Riveter poster.
“We can do it!” A masked Abrams is saying.
And then the worker turns right, drives past the yellow gates and up to the plant ground zero to what Congressman Andy Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, called at a press conference Friday “the most important election for the working class of this country of the 21st Century.”
Levin, a former trade union organizer and director, is one of five representatives from a congressional delegation who traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, to signal their support for the workers seeking to form a union at the Amazon plant there.
On one side is a group of workers who say they are dissatisfied with the regimented and breakneck pace the company sets in its plant and the treatment they received during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are about 5,800 people who work at the plant.
And then there is Amazon, ecommerce titan and one of the largest companies in America. Its owner, Jeff Bezos, is one of the wealthiest men in the world.
None of its plants in the United States have been unionized.
Due to the pandemic, workers are casting their yes/no vote to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, by mail. The count starts March 30.
And in the midst of all of this: Stacey Abrams.
While workers have been voting, people like President Joe Biden, actor Danny Glover and Abrams, a former gubernatorial candidate, have voiced their support.
It is Abrams’ endorsement the union organizers have seized upon. The Rosie-the-Riveter Abrams sign stands at three locations, at least, on the roads around the Amazon plant, including right at its main gates. And in that way, Abrams has become an icon of sorts in the push to unionize the plant.
Abrams, after an unsuccessful run for the governor’s mansion in neighboring Georgia, began organizing and registering voters. The result was one for the history books: Georgia flipped blue. President Joe Biden narrowly won the state. Weeks later, runoff elections placed Democrats in both of Georgia’s senate seats. And Abrams was the woman behind it.
She expressed support for the union drive in Bessemer in a two-minute video posted to Twitter on Feb. 20. Abrams said when she was growing up, her parents struggled because they were not members of a union. In college, she said she worked with the AFL-CIO.
Urging the Amazon workers to accept the union because they deserved dignity and well-being, Abrams said: “Collective bargaining is democracy in action in the workplace, where representation is critical. … when voices have been silenced throughout our history, unions have also been a place to give voice to working families. And for people of color in America, unions have been our allies in progress as they evolved.”
Emails sent to the organization Abrams founded, Fair Fight Action, seeking comment about the signs in Bessemer were not returned.
Joshua Brewer, organizing director for RWDSU, said the handful of signs featuring Abrams went up soon after she issued her statement.
According to Brewer, the majority of the plant’s workers are Black and women.
The image of Abrams rolling up her sleeves makes for “an inspiring figure that’s saying ‘hey, gotta take our voice to the polls, we gotta vote, we can do it and we can do it together,’” Brewer said.
The sign was standing outside as the congressional delegation of five Democratic congressmen stood outside the plant to chant, record video and take photos Friday. They had come, they said, to stand in solidarity with workers.
Most of the delegation were Democratic newcomers to Congress. The longest serving member on the trip was Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who entered Congress in 2011 and is currently Alabama’s only Democratic lawmaker in Washington. She was joined by Levin and Representatives Nikema Williams of Georgia, Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri.
Speaking at a press conference in Birmingham, Levin described conditions in the Amazon plant as a “strange, 21st Century dehumanized workplace where people are on a clock in a way we couldn’t even imagine when we were young workers, [where] people are monitored and surveilled.”
In June 2018, Amazon announced it would open the fulfillment center in Bessemer – its first center in Alabama, just outside of Birmingham. The 1,500 workers Amazon said it would employ full time in the 855,000 square-foot facility would work side-by-side with the company’s robotics.
In a statement, Amazon said of the congressional visit to the entrance of their plant, “We hope these members of Congress will spend this same amount of energy on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour—as Amazon did for all of our employees in 2018.”
It’s a message Amazon tried to drive home to the lawmakers. A digital billboard along Interstate 20 and three signs on a hill above the lawmakers during their visit carried the same message.
Williams was the former chair of the Georgia Democratic Party and the first Black woman to sit in that position and said she worked with Abrams.
When asked about the Abrams sign, the congresswoman said it served as a reminder.
“What Stacey showed us was possible in Georgia needs to be replicated across this country. She’s shown us not to be afraid of our power, to step up and to own our power,” Williams said.
Williams, who represents the district once represented by the late civil rights icon John Lewis, said the labor movement, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the current conflicts over voting rights “is all interconnected.”
According to Michael Innis-Jimenez, an American Studies professor at the University of Alabama, the area around Birmingham has historically been a good place for unions, thanks to the mining and steel industries that sprang up there after the Civil War.
When the auto worker unions came into the South, they were perceived as outsiders coming into a place and they were rejected. However, the RWDSU has a long history in the Birmingham area and the plant is made up of majority Black workers.
“I think that, in this case, makes a difference because of the historical ties between organized labor and the civil rights movement,” Innis-Jimenez said.
RWDSU’s regional office is in Birmingham, Innis-Jimenez noted, and when civil rights protestors marched in the city, the union helped co-sponsor and organize the marches in which MLK participated.
The image of Abrams was first drawn two months ago by cartoonist Clay Bennett, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for editorial cartooning when he worked at The Christian Science Monitor. These days, he works at The Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Writing by email, Bennett said the original image was published on Jan. 5, the day Georgia voters went to the polls to decide whether the U.S. Senate would remain in Republican or Democratic hands.
“It was an appeal to the coalition of voters who have been empowered by the massive voter registration campaigns in the state,” Bennett wrote. “The hope (represented in this cartoon by voting rights champion Stacey Abrams) was that those registration drives might finally result in Democratic Party gains.” (Parentheses in original.)
He said he finds it satisfying that the image captured the mood of voters in that early January race. Less satisfying is the fact the meaning of the original image was cropped away and the cartoon altered with the addition of a mask without his permission.
“In these ‘copyright be damned’ times we find ourselves in, I’m resigned to the fact that my cartoons will be used without my permission, but I absolutely hate to see my cartoons altered to change its intended message,” Bennett wrote.
One of the last things Williams and some of the other lawmakers did while at the front of the plant was taking photos with the Abrams sign.