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Opinion | Alabama’s labor movement is showing up and making history

“Not everyone is or knows a union member, but if you do, you know the importance of our fight.”

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The year 2020 was one like no other, especially for America’s labor movement. The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting economic fallout have underscored the vital importance of having a collective voice in the workplace, as well as the urgent need for labor law reform.

Don’t believe me? Then let the numbers do the talking. Since the onslaught of the coronavirus crisis, the collective wealth of all U.S. billionaires has grown by more than $1.1 trillion. Meanwhile, the collective wealth of the entire bottom 82 percent of the workforce has declined by 1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To add insult to injury, low-wage workers, people of color and women have all disproportionately suffered throughout this pandemic. Someone who hasn’t suffered? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. His wealth increased from $113 billion in March to $182 billion today. That’s a 10-month growth of 61 percent. If this growth was distributed to all of Amazon’s 810,000 American employees, each would receive a bonus of approximately $85,000.

Unfortunately, corporate CEOs and billionaires like Bezos aren’t showing up for those who are suffering. Well, it’s a good thing the labor movement was born out of the principle of showing up because that’s exactly what union members across Alabama are doing. And we’re making history.

Take the revolution happening in our Bessemer Amazon plant, for example. When the facility first opened in March, its employees — a majority of whom are women and people of color — quickly realized they weren’t safe working in its dehumanizing conditions. What they did realize, however, was that they had the rare opportunity to fight for a collective voice that could institute real change.

Next week on Feb. 8, the facility’s 5,800 employees will begin voting by mail on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a part of the United Food and Commercial Workers. If they vote yes, the Bessemer warehouse will make national history as the first Amazon facility in the country to unionize.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon has launched a fierce union-busting campaign wrought with disinformation and fear tactics meant to scare employees into voting no. Let’s be clear: These workers need and deserve a union. No one should go to work in fear for their lives or livelihoods. The corporation’s invasive union-busting tactics will not win.

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In another example of Alabama’s labor movement being there for those who need help, when we got the news that a devastating tornado had touched down in Fultondale on Thursday, Jan. 25, we immediately sprang into action.

Tragically, the tornado ended up causing significant damage, including the destruction of two of our own union sibling’s homes. As a result, union members on the ground from the Central Alabama Building Trades, United Way and the Central Alabama Labor Federation have begun massive clean up efforts, including crane work to sort and remove damaged property. In addition, a list has been sourced with more than 400 union volunteers who have said they want to help with both cleanup and rebuilding. Thanks to the labor movement’s deep network of allies who share our same mission, our efforts can serve a dual purpose by both engaging our members and by demonstrating the power of collective action and a collective voice to the community at large.

We confidently believe that Fultondale will fully recover from this natural disaster. And we also have full faith in Bessemer’s courageous Amazon workers as they begin their union vote next week. Not everyone is or knows a union member, but if you do, you know the importance of our fight. That’s why when workers need our help, time and time again, we show up. And we’re not going anywhere.

Bren Riley
Written By

Bren Riley is the president of the Alabama AFL-CIO. The Alabama AFL-CIO is a federation of unions that represents over 50,000 union members and is made up of 37 international unions from across the state. The Alabama AFL-CIO serves as part of the national AFL-CIO, which is made up of 12.5 million workers.

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