U.S. and World Politics

Amazon Fires Alabama Union Leader Who “Lit the Spark of the Current Rise of Labor Activism”

By Kenny Stancil

Amazon on June 2, 2023, fired Jennifer Bates, a warehouse worker and lead spokesperson of the unionization campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, without cause.

The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) described Bates as the “woman who lit the spark of the current rise of labor activism.” Her termination comes as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) continues to investigate RWDSU’s claims that Amazon violated federal labor law in order to vanquish a union drive broadly supported by local residents.

According to RWDSU, the firing of Bates also comes amid a “monthslong worker’s compensation nightmare. Bates continues to suffer from crippling injuries received while working at Amazon, which she spoke out about during the unionization effort, and for which has lengthy documentation.” The union added that “Bates hit three years of service this May, an ominous number for Amazon workers whose pay scales top out after three years.”

“I went to work for Amazon because I believed in the future world of work, but at Amazon there is no future for workers like me,” Bates said in a statement. “I have tirelessly worked for Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama since it opened. Everything hurts and it’s permanently changed my life forever, but I stayed because I believe Amazon can be better, and I believe with a union we can build a brighter future for workers across the company.”

“I’ve given my back to Amazon these past three years. I’ve given my arms and shoulders to Amazon these past three years. And I’ve given every fiber of my soul into organizing Amazon these past three years,” said Bates. “For them to treat me like this is unfathomable.”

“But let me be clear, Amazon, your termination of my employment will not stifle workers’ organizing, for when you fire leaders, it only brings more people ignited into the movement,” she stressed. “We are a movement, we will not be stopped, and I know my union, recognized or not by you, has my back. We will fight this, I will not be silenced, we will not be stopped.”

RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum lamented that “Amazon terminated one of the most public pro-union worker leaders we’ve seen in a generation over an alleged paperwork issue, for which there is ample documentation.”

The issue “can and should be easily resolved by a human,” said Appelbaum. “Instead, Jennifer Bates is being subjected to termination by AI due to a glitch in the company’s own software.”

“Outrageously, Jennifer’s is just one example of horror stories burdening thousands of Amazon workers every day,” Appelbaum continued. “Workers suffer from life-altering injuries through their work at Amazon, including repetitive motion injuries and 911 emergencies, which send workers to the hospital regularly, some never to return again. Continually nameless faceless HR is either nowhere to be found or excessively difficult to track down.”

“Amazon spared no expense in its union-busting throughout the Bessemer campaign, and today is just another in a litany of examples of how this company will stop at nothing to stifle workers’ efforts to unionize,” the union leader noted. “Amazon blatantly broke the law throughout the campaign, knowing that any potential penalty would be insignificant. Amazon’s goal was to prevent—by any means—its employees from having a collective voice through a union in Bessemer.”

“Labor law reform is critical if workers are to find any hope,” he added. “Amazon’s behavior must not be tolerated.”

In the spring of 2021, RWDSU came up short during its initial organizing drive at Amazon’s BHM1 warehouse in Bessemer—the first union election at one of the e-commerce giant’s facilities in United States history.

Afterward, the union filed 23 complaints with the NLRB, accusing Amazon of illegally threatening employees with loss of pay and benefits, installing and surveilling an unlawful ballot collection box, and expelling pro-union workers from captive audience meetings during which management argued against collective bargaining.

The NLRB eventually threw out the results of the first election and supervised a new vote in the spring of 2022. The results of the second election were inconclusive. Although there were 118 more votes against unionization than for it, the final outcome hinges on how the director of the NLRB’s Region ten office decides to count 416 challenged ballots.

Following last year’s contested vote, RWDSU lodged 21 objections to Amazon’s conduct during the election with the NLRB, accusing the company of yet again interfering with the rights of its employees to organize for better conditions without fear of retaliation.

“Workers at Amazon have endured an insanely and needlessly long and aggressive fight to unionize their workplace; with Amazon doing everything it can to spread misinformation and deceive workers,” Appelbaum said Friday. “Today’s news is shockingly just another case of Amazon’s misconduct in a growing mountain of [unfair labor practices], objections, and charges against Amazon.”

“The company violated the law in the first election and did so again in the re-run election, and now is firing union leaders in the facility to all but extinguish any embers of union support in the facility,” said Appelbaum.

“We will continue to hold Amazon accountable and ensure workers’ voices are heard,” the union leader emphasized. “Amazon’s behavior must not go unchallenged, and workers in Bessemer, Alabama must have their rights protected under the law. We urge the NLRB to carefully review Jennifer’s case, when it’s filed, and the countless other issues at hand to ensure no company, not even with the bottomless pockets of Amazon, is allowed to act above the law.”

In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Mary Kate Paradis said that company records “indicate that Ms. Bates failed to show up to work for a period of time and didn’t respond or provide documentation to excuse her absences.” She added that “Ms. Bates has the opportunity to appeal the decision.”

RWDSU said that Bates has tried multiple times “to provide the necessary paperwork” but “has yet to hear from the company about her appeal.”

Note: This piece has been updated with comment from Amazon.

Common Dreams, June 2, 2023