Background:One of the most historic union drives of our era is underway right now at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, a southwestern majority Black or African-American suburb of Birmingham. Workers are fighting to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. After the National Labor Relations Board dismissed Amazon’s motions to delay the union vote, ballots were sent to workers in early February. The union vote ended this week with the counting to begin March 29, 2021. If it is successful, workers at the Bessemer facility will become the first unionized Amazon workforce in the United States.
On February 22, 2021, the actor-activist Danny Glover, a life-long advocate of workers’ rights, visited the site to show support for the 5,800 fulfillment center workers.
Maximillian Alvarez, TRNN Editor-in-Chief, drove hours from Baltimore to Bessemer to sit down with Glover to talk to him on site. Glover also is a board member of the Baltimore-based Real News Network (TRNN). Following are excerpts from Alvarez’s interview with Glover. The full interview can be found on TRNN’s YouTube and podcast channels.
Alvarez: What compelled you to come to Bessemer?
Glover: First, I was asked to come down. It’s a very important moment for workers—this challenge right here, with a company that [aside from Walmart] employs more people than any other company in the country, located here in the South, which is always considered to be a place where unions never fared well. And yet, we know there’s a history, particularly here in Alabama, around the miners and smelter workers’ in the ’30s and their struggle for unionization—and, really, during the whole period of Jim Crow, particularly with the organizing of Black workers. Right here in Alabama, you had the cotton [mill workers’] strike in the ’30s. So, there’s a history of resistance here to the oppressive conditions that people work under. And the South, of course, has its own history, one that carried the weight of the moral issue around slavery.
[Amazon controls] the working conditions the workers work under, the wages that they’re paid, and whatever benefits that they may accrue without any say from the workers themselves. And the best structure for them to have a say in their lives is unionization.
So, to be here at this particular moment is important. And part of my own history is in the South: My mother’s from the South, rural Georgia, and she found her way outside; she was able to go to college. She didn’t have to pick cotton in September, because she was going to school in September. And then, I come out of a union family, through the U.S. Postal Service—my parents came to the Postal Service in 1948. So, there are a lot of reasons why I would be here and, certainly, I’m here in the service of justice, workers’ justice. It seems to be one of my life’s purposes, outside of doing the work that I do on the stage and in front of a screen.
Alvarez: How do you see the struggle for workers’ rights and labor justice—how does that connect to the larger struggle for liberation and dignity?
Glover: Organized labor in the era of industrialization—since the industrial revolution (over the last 200 years or so)—has fought for the most fundamental rights, human rights, all over this country and within the world itself. And that fight brings a kind of class consciousness, as well, which is an understanding that one of the elements that is essential to capital (or money) and the ways it expands itself is: How do you control labor? How do you undermine labor? How do you de-radicalize labor? And when you’re fighting for the basic means of paying rent or putting food on the table, those are real things.
We’re talking about a country where the majority of the population lives in the urban areas and often crowded areas (and it’s like that around the world, too). Whether through forced migrations and enclosure laws, or through voluntary migrations to find work and everything else, this process of industrialization drove people to the city and drove them right into the places where they had to sell their labor in order to survive. And I think that is what we are dealing with—it’s the same now. No matter how much technology we have, no matter how much we dismiss the whole idea of unions, the point is that human beings sell their bodies, sell themselves for a price, in order to survive. They don’t grow their own food, they have to purchase their food. So, all these intricate relationships are surrounded by systems that are often unjust, and you have to place some sort of context or place some sort of structure around it to make sure that the benefits of what they produce are shared in some way. I’m babbling right now, to some extent, but you see how this sets the picture for this particular moment…
And so, from the robber barons of the 19th century (the latter part of the 19th century) to now, their objective was always the same thing: How do we control labor? How do we now exploit labor? Not just control, exploit it, because their objective is exploitation. How does that added value that they bring go to them so less of it goes to the working force, the people who create the value? Because they (the workers) create the value.
And that’s why we’re here right now—it’s that simple. We have the [second] largest employer in this country—certainly the largest employer in this area now—and there are 5,800 workers here who have an opportunity to say, “We want some sort of safeguards for ourselves. We want to be in a position where we set out a certain standard, which we believe is important for us to be able to negotiate around our wages, benefits, and working conditions.” Right now, this large company, Amazon, controls all of that. They control the working conditions the workers work under, the wages that they’re paid, and whatever benefits that they may accrue without any say from the workers themselves. And the best structure for them to have a say in their lives is unionization. That was the case 200 years ago, and it remains the same now, as well.
Alvarez: Let’s be honest, we don’t really get a good labor history education in most parts of the country. So, could you talk about how this union vote connects to a longer tradition and history of labor struggle in the South?
Glover: Alabama had major deposits of iron ore. During the Civil War, I believe that the center for where the armaments that the South made was in Selma, Alabama. So, they had the material. And that’s in the latter part of the wonderful book “Hammer and Hoe,” which Robin D.G. Kelley wrote about the labor history in the South, the struggle of formerly enslaved Africans here post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction, and during the period of Jim Crow. The purpose was always to find various ways to diminish their capacity. And so, there is a rich history of labor struggle around here. As I told workers here, “You’re part of a continuum; you’re part of an ongoing struggle that began long before you. And, certainly, that struggle has led you to where you are today in your own efforts to build solidarity and in your own demands to build better working conditions for workers.”
As I told workers here, “You’re part of a continuum; you’re part of an ongoing struggle that began long before you. And, certainly, that struggle has led you to where you are today in your own efforts to build solidarity and in your own demands to build better working conditions for workers.”
Now, economically, since 85% of the Amazon workers in Bessemer are Black, unionization elevates your standard of living and diminishes the wealth gap. We can talk about the wealth gap in different contexts, but the point is that unionization has been a platform to raise people from low wages to the middle-class. And that is what we’re talking about here. We know the dynamics of poverty within Alabama and how they affect those who are the most underserved, and we know that all the other kinds of disparities that we have in our society (healthcare disparity, etc.)—those are a part of this region, too. Unionization is a way of mobilizing, not just under the rubric of controlling what happens in the workplace, but it’s a way of organizing the community, as well; it elevates the community’s sense of self-purpose in all facets.
So, when we’re talking about unionization, we’re talking about other aspects, as well. Unionization creates citizens, it provides a platform for citizens to take action. And that is the case here, no matter if… You know, we can talk about whether the Mayor or the City Council of Bessemer are Black and everything else. They function on another level… But unions function in ways that strengthen the community itself.
Alvarez: How has it been when you’ve talked to the workers themselves in Bessemer and the union organizers here at the RWDSU? What have you been hearing from them when you talk to them about this union vote and about their working conditions at Amazon?
Glover: It’s unbelievable, some of the hardships that they have, the difficult ways in which they have to maneuver around. There’s surveillance on these workers in Amazon unlike any other kind of systems of surveillance on workers. They’re probably the most watched workers—every single detail of their work is being watched. And, in some ways, the demands placed on them to get their workload out… it’s basically unattainable. The periods that they have for breaks, for finding a restroom, the accommodations there, the availability of restrooms—all those different things are a concern. And here’s the thing: They have no control at all. Here’s a modern country where workers have no control and no say in what happens in the workplace, and it’s all left to the discretion of the managers themselves. This system has used technology in ways that we haven’t seen before (in creating Amazon’s wealth and business model, and in creating the working conditions around that model, as well).
I mean, some of the stories have been quite saddening. And these people come here to work. They apply for jobs to work, and they give what they have to work. But some of the conditions that they work under, whether it’s inadequate breaks, or a feeling that you’re being watched, or being treated often in inappropriate ways… Amazon controls that. They control your paycheck and they control so many different things that workers have no say in.
Alvarez: Could you talk a bit more about where Amazon as a company is going and why it’s so important for workers to have more of a say in that direction?
Glover: First of all, Amazon is a global company, and certainly, it deals with unions in other places. There are places in Europe where they have a relationship with unions. So, the question is always: Why not here, in its home base? Why are they so resistant to having a union in Amazon’s home base? Why are they using every device available to them to dis-encourage workers from joining the union, or voting to have a union? So, it’s significant from the vantage point that it sets the tone, I think, for all workers.
Unionization is a way of mobilizing, not just under the rubric of controlling what happens in the workplace, but it’s a way of organizing the community, as well.
When we talk about winning battles… the battles that workers win aren’t permanent—because they’re always struggling under different dynamics, new dynamics arise outside the workplace, within the workplace. When you have the unions, you’re empowering the worker. And that’s the most important thing that I think we have to say: We’re empowering workers. We’re empowering the community itself. Amazon… where are they going to go? They came to Bessemer, a place where, certainly, work has declined. Because of technology and automation, work has become unavailable. Good-paying jobs have become unavailable here for many reasons. Some of the work that would have happened here may have been outsourced to another country. But in advanced countries, like in Europe, where there are strong unions, Amazon deals with those unions. They have to deal with these unions in ways that they may feel uncomfortable with, but at the same time it gives workers power. And as I said before, it also gives the community power.
Alvarez: What strikes me as a real, I don’t know, bizarre phenomenon in the mind of the American worker is that, so often, we don’t feel like it is our right to have a say in our working conditions. Right? We feel like we’re asking too much, even though we spend most of our lives at work. Why do you think that is?
Glover: I remember watching something long ago, which said (and this was in the developed world): The moment that people begin to structure their lives around their own independence and self-sufficiency, then they become dangerous, to some extent. Because they’re empowering themselves.
What happens is that power — those people who dictate our lives, shape our lives, shape what we think all the time… what they do, what that power does … only provides what they think you need, not what you actually need.
A better way to say that is that power diminishes those expectations. But the point is: Sometimes you gotta catch yourself in those moments where you can think philosophically about what is really happening here. And what power does is essentially attempts to give us what they want to give us, not what we need.
Alvarez: How would you convey to people that this is something that they should care about? How can we learn to see struggles like the one happening in Bessemer as part of our common struggle for a better world? And how would you encourage people to get involved in that struggle like you have?
Glover: Philosophically, there are a lot of reasons why I think we should get involved in making a better world. We can talk about it from the side of redistributing resources. Amazon has fared very well. I think its value has doubled or tripled during the pandemic—I’m not sure what the numbers are. But apart from that… I don’t know how to tell people, really. Because we all end up selling our labor some way, and most people are, unfortunately, in a position where they themselves need and would want more control over what happens in their workplace.
The struggle here in Bessemer is important because it has the possibility of not only changing the lives of these workers here, but also of providing the courage to foster other battles and other struggles.
One of the things, Max, is that I come down here out of passion for the work itself. What I’ve always felt from the beginning is that, for everything I do, if I’m there, it’s because I care. I’m not there for any other reason. If I’m asked to come here, it’s because I care about the issue itself, and the issue is important to me. And I think it takes that from all of us—to say that this is important to us. This struggle has significance for all of us who work, for all of us who feel discriminated against, for all of those who feel powerless at points in time. (And we already feel powerless because of COVID-19 and all the restrictions and hardships it has imposed on our lives.)
So, I just think that this… after the 20th century fights for labor, fighting for rights, fighting for equality (whether it’s with women, whether it’s with minorities, etc)—at any point in time, the struggle for access and the struggle for a world that works for all of us is what we need to talk about.
And unionization and the struggle here in Bessemer is important because it has the possibility of not only changing the lives of these workers here, but also of providing the courage to foster other battles and other struggles. ( This interview was edited for clarity by Bernice Elizabeth Green, OTP.)
Founded in 2003, The Real News Network is a nonprofit, viewer-supported center for digital media, dedicated to telling the stories that matter and lifting up the voices and struggles that so often go ignored by mainstream media. www.therealnews.com
“As I told (Bessemer workers): ‘You’re part of a continuum; you’re part of an ongoing struggle that began long before you. And, certainly, that struggle has led you to where you are today in your own efforts to build solidarity and in your own demands to build better working conditions for workers’.” – DANNY GLOVER