Jennifer Bates testified before the United States Senate earlier this month, but she’s just now starting to get nervous. “I’d gotten over the butterflies, but this week my stomach is amplified with them because the closer we get…” she says, pausing to search for the right way to express exactly how she’s feeling. We spoke to Bates just days before the Monday, March 29th deadline for employees of Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, to vote on whether to unionize. She has spent the past five months trying to convince them that doing so is their only recourse against the long hours, the mandatory overtime, the sore feet. It won’t be long before she knows the results. The votes will be counted on a livestream this week.
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“Oooh!” Bates says finally about the return of her butterflies, closing her eyes and rubbing her hands together at the idea that the organizing drive will soon be over.
Bates, a 48-year-old mother of three and grandmother of seven, took a job at the Amazon plant in Bessemer last May, two months after it opened. “By the third day I was hurting, and I looked around and realized it wasn’t just me,” she said during her Senate hearing. “I told my sister who also worked there at the time, and she just told me it only gets worse.”
A few months later, Bates and a few of her coworkers reached out to the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Stores Union, and in November they announced their intention to make the 5,800 employees in Bessemer the first Amazon workforce to unionize. The campaign has received national media attention, drawn nods of approval from celebrities and politicians (including President Biden), and ignited a new conversation around the exploitation of the working class in an era of rampant inequality. (Meanwhile, Amazon’s profits have nearly doubled as the pandemic has ravaged the country.) If the Bessemer employees vote to unionize this week, it will mark one of the biggest victories in the modern labor movement’s history, and set the stage for other Amazon workforces around the nation to take similar action.
Bates discussed her experience rallying Amazon’s employees in Bessemer to take on Jeff Bezos for the latest installment of “The Next Wave,” Rolling Stone‘s series on the new leaders who will shape America’s future.
What was your first job? What do you remember about that experience?
My mother’s cousin had an okra field. I was 13 years old. In the summertime, a lot of us in the neighborhood would get on the back of this truck and we would go down and pick okra. That experience taught me the concept behind working and getting paid for work, taking a break and eating lunch. At the okra field, we picked the okra but then there was a time where we shut down and we had our lunch. We had an opportunity to sit down and chat with each other, and then we went back to picking okra and then we got our money at the end of the day or the end of the week. That was my first job. My first legal job was at Hardee’s, when I was 16 years old.
You said during your recent testimony before the Senate that Amazon treats you like “another machine.” What’s happening throughout the course of a typical work day to make you feel this way?
We’re all just like machines. They’ve been down all night, and they’re fresh starting [in the morning]. What really gets me is once we get close to lunch or close to break a manager or PA [process assistant] comes by and says your break is in an hour, you have to wait another hour before going to break. Then the next time we go to break they come and tell us the same thing: another hour and a half before you go to break. It started being constant, every day. We don’t have a regular time to go to break, and it’s very inconsistent. One day I heard an older gentleman ask a PA why he couldn’t go on break at his regular time, and you could tell he was tired because he was leaning over. She said, ‘If you don’t go when I asked you to go, you won’t get a break at all.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Did you just hear what she said to me?’
I’ve seen people get fired. One guy, a young guy fresh out of high school, he went under the conveyor belt. She took his badge and she scanned it. He said, ‘I may lose my job.’ The next day, he came back to work and they said he got fired. There were no signs to tell him not to go up under the conveyor belt. Some people were saying it’s common sense, but it’s not common sense for someone who’s never been on a job before or worked in a place with a conveyor belt, you know?
I’ve seen managers pull people off the line because we have TOT, which is “time off task.” If you’re not logged into the computer, then the manager has to know where you are and she has what we call scrub time, which is when you scrub people’s time because they’re doing something else. A manager will pull people off and have him doing spider work, which is taking work to other employees. Human resources sent this young man a message saying he had three hours of TOT. He said, ‘Well, I was doing spider work. My manager took me out.’ She said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ He said, ‘Yes, I did, just pull the cameras back, you guys will see what I was doing.’ They did not even look at the cameras, and the manager realized she did take him off, but she did not go talk to anybody about it.
I’ve seen people walking out limping. I was limping. It was just a plethora of people in pain. I was getting ready to get on the elevator one day. There is only one little small elevator in Amazon you can use when you first walk in. Maybe six or maybe 10 people if you smush them in can get in it. We’re not allowed to use the [other] elevators. I was wondering why people are always taking the stairs. You have a four-flight facility, and all these elevators that they have for product, and the sign says they’re for material only, no riders. So there are tons of these elevators. The problem I have is why they wouldn’t do that for the employees. That didn’t make sense to me.
What do you like about working for Amazon?
What I like about it is my coworkers. We all come in and we all have different lives, different stories, and we have a good relationship with each other. I like being a part of assisting the community, to go in and know that people are getting a nice package. But the impact of the work is never enough for [Amazon]. I think I heard a kid say one time, ‘You know, the more you do for your parents to make them happy, the less they feel they need to champion you. The more you do, it’s just not good enough.’ So working at Amazon, the more you do, they’re just not satisfied. It’s a constant push, push, push to get it done.
Jeff Bezos declined an invitation to participate in the Senate hearing, which focused on the income inequality crisis in America. What did his absence say to you?
It said to me what I’ve been saying all the time, which is that he doesn’t care about his employees. It’s his way of turning his back, just like when he stepped down [as CEO]. I’ve already given you competitive wages. I’ve already given you good benefits. He keeps saying those are awesome benefits. I keep saying it’s just like giving me a wheelbarrow and calling it a car.
What inspired you to step up and take a leadership role in this fight?
I’ve been a leader for a long time. I’ve done ministry work. I was a youth leader. I was a praise and worship leader. I’ve been a team leader before, and at Amazon I’m a learning ambassador, so I teach other employees. A lot of people are afraid to speak out, and I’m one of those people that’s like, ‘Hey, you know, let’s do this, and let’s do this, let’s take care of this.’ But what really pushed me was hearing people sitting outside on breaks complaining that they can’t quit. One of the young ladies said her daughter asked her when she was crying one day because of her wrist, ‘Why don’t you just quit?’ She said, ‘I can’t because who’s going to pay the bills?’ So just getting together with a couple of coworkers and understanding that there were plenty of things that needed to be fixed. We took a step forward. We kind of kept it private, but we knew that if we didn’t get a union that a lot of us wouldn’t stay. Before we did it there was still a high turnover of employees quitting. That’s not normal.
I’m sure this effort has gotten more attention than you ever thought possible when it began. Was there a specific moment when you realized this was going to be a big national news story?
The first time when I said it’s going to be big was when Bernie Sanders sent out his tweet. Then we started to hear from people all over the country. It really hasn’t sunk in still. People ask me now if I really understand how big it is. Just this weekend I think I sat down and really realized that even New York did an Amazon day of action. I was shocked, you know. Right now, after five months, it’s just now hitting me. We were just a few people in a small town just trying to organize a union in our facility, and now it’s this big. It’s shocking.
How has this affected your life outside of work?
It’s been draining. It’s been draining. When this is all over with, I’m just going to take a couple of days. I haven’t been able to visit my grandkids as much as I used to, but I told them that I’ll get back to doing that. It’s a good thing we have video and I talk to them a lot. It’s been really tiring, but we’re not going to stop until we get to the end. As far as going out socially, you know, all of that has been stopped. It’s crazy. Going in to work, I don’t know if I’m going to get fired today. I don’t know if they’re going to try to harass me. I’ve seen management standing around watching me and then they start telling us no talking. So it’s been a little different.
Amazon launched a huge union-busting campaign to convince employees that a union is against their best interests. What have you been saying to employees who might be buying into the company’s propaganda about unions and are hesitant to vote to organize?
What I’ve been saying is that Amazon tells us that they have a good benefit package. Let’s do it without dues. Why pay for something that you get for free? I ask them, “Look at your pay stub. Do you pay the premium for your insurance?” Yeah. “Are you here on your off day to work overtime?” Yeah. “Are you really making enough money to make ends meet?” No. One young lady tried to get an apartment and they told her she doesn’t make enough money a month to pay for her own apartment. If Jeff Bezos says he’s giving you all of this, ask him to put it in a contract. Another thing I bring up is that at Amazon, raises stop after three years. At one of the union-busting classes, I asked them to tell the class when Amazon’s raises stop. He said, “Well, why would we continue to give you raises when we hope that you are promoted in three years.” So in three years, there will be no more raises. So the 5,800 employees here will possibly be making a little under $17 an hour if they work 10, 20 years from now.
Have you been contacted by employees at other Amazon workplaces who are thinking about organizing?
I’ve had a few people from other Amazons who have been waiting to unionize even before us. They contacted me while we were in the midst of our work but they were talking about it before us. Some of their cases are worse than ours.
There have been a lot of failed attempts to get unionization campaigns off the ground at Amazon workplaces. What do you think it is about the effort in Bessemer that has allowed you all to break through?
One of the things I can say is that we sought out the union organization, [the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union], and I think what happened with one or two of the other ones is they tried to take it on by themselves. A lot of us had already been in places that were already unionized. We had a group of people and a union that was strong and didn’t just come to help, but stayed. We followed protocol. When we did that, they gave us the materials that we needed and the information that we needed. This being the South, they say that there are no unions here, but we do have unionized places and I think one of the things is that Bezos continued to amplify what he’s already given. There was a sense of letting us know that you’re not getting anything else. It was his ego that kind of woke us up. This is a small city, predominantly black. You said you were giving us minimum wage, you’re already getting this. You’re not saying that you’re going to help out anywhere else. So it kind of opened our eyes to a lot and it made us fight even harder.
If you could tell yourself one thing before starting this union drive, what would it be? What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
That I would be doing this. The night before I came to Amazon I was supposed to report back to my old job. I lost sight in my eye, and I was getting eye injections. While I was out, my sister said Amazon was hiring, and I put in an application. The night before I made my decision, I cried literally for two full hours before I went to sleep because I didn’t know what to do. I knew I was leaving my old family, but I didn’t know why. I just knew deep down that I had to leave. I wish I had known that this was going to happen, but I guess sometimes you’re not supposed to know. You just gotta walk into it because sometimes you can mess it up.
What do you feel like this effort has already accomplished for you and your coworkers, regardless of how the vote goes?
I feel like we’ve really stood up for something. People always say you stand up for something or you’ll fall for anything. Not only did we stand up, we really voiced how we really feel and we continue to speak how we really feel, and we’ve noticed changes. One of the signs Amazon had up on our way out is that “if you see something, say something.” As I walked out of that door for numerous days, I always wondered, so who does it really apply to? That was one of the reasons why I said I see something, and we’re going to say something.
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