How cancer put me off joining Amazon union

Carla Johnson

Carla Johnson turned 45 on Tuesday, a milestone she thought she might not hit.

On July 12, she walked up to an Amazon warehouse manager in Bessemer, Alabama, and said she was feeling unwell.

Shortly afterwards she had an attack on the floor. She was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with brain cancer.

She’s just the type of person you’d expect to have backed a recent vote to create the first Amazon workers union to secure her post-surgery job.

Yet despite being a union member in her previous career, she was among the majority of workers – two to one, actually – to reject the proposal.

“Amazon has been a godsend for me,” she says.

Carla was a teacher in Birmingham, Alabama for 14 years. She taught 12- and 13-year-old children’s science.

Carla Johnson before she was diagnosed with brain cancer

In 2019 she decided to work for a contractor – preparing students for exams. Then the pandemic struck. Because students no longer went to school, the work dried up.

She looked around for other jobs and found a company that was actually recruiting people: Amazon. Her first shift was in May.

“I started packing first. Depending on the item, I packed it in the box, gave it an address, and put it on a conveyor belt to be shipped to the customers. It wasn’t something that was difficult.”

On a Sunday in July, her world fell apart. After her attack, she remembers telling the paramedics to call her mother, but no more.

She has had surgery to remove a brain tumor and has undergone chemotherapy. Her treatment has cost around $ 170,000 (£ 123,000) to date. She says she could never have paid without insurance.

Carla Johnson in the hospital

Understanding industrial relations in the US is impossible without looking at healthcare.

A job isn’t just a paycheck, it’s a ticket to a longer, healthier life – for employees and their families.

Crucial to Amazon’s strategy of winning a union vote was the employee health plan. “Starting salary of at least $ 15 an hour and comprehensive health care from day one,” was the oft-quoted message.

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Amazon’s tactics had a dark side, however. The union wanted to talk about excessive workload, bathroom breaks and pay. Amazon pushed the story that the union could take away benefits for workers, including health care.

Employees were bombarded with messages, including texts, claiming that the terms of employment could be handled by the union.

A text message to an Amazon administration employee

“You could end up with more, the same, or less” is the message from a union information website set up by Amazon.

In practice, it would be highly unusual for a union to negotiate away existing benefits – and it would be natural for Amazon to take away the benefits.

“The only way that happens is if the employer decides to take them away. The union will not claim, ‘Let’s reduce the working conditions for the workers,'” said Stuart Appelbaum, head of the trade union for retail, wholesale and department stores. who are pushing for Amazon workers to unite.

Mr. Appelbaum is angry. He believes Amazon was playing dirty – that the messages given to Amazon employees at, say, “union education meetings,” known by the union as “captive audience meetings,” were misinformation disguised as fact.

A photo of a ‘break room’ in Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer

The Amazon center itself was shrouded in anti-union reports – in the bathrooms, break rooms, and entrance, for example.

Darryl Richardson voted for the union. But as he tried to convince others, he realized that Amazon’s reporting was working: “They were afraid that health care would be taken away. That’s why many of them voted” no “to the union. We have the outcome we have now, because they threatened them, that benefits and wages would fall. “

Darryl himself had been fired from his job at a car factory during the pandemic. He is grateful for the job he has and does not want to leave. But he believes Amazon’s union characterization was imprecise, especially when it came to wages and health care.

Another area of ​​controversy was union money or dues. Critics say much of Amazon’s story was based on the idea that workers should pay the union money. Alabama, however, is a right to work. No employee has to pay subs. So has Amazon broken the law in their messaging?

“It’s not clear,” said Prof. John Logan, an employment expert at San Francisco State University.

“They are very adept at operating in the gray areas, which is why they are so effective. You know some of what they say is clearly legal. Other things are kind of pushing the boundaries of the law – and the weakness of the law. law. “

Amazon says, “It was important that all employees understood the facts of joining a union … If the union vote were passed, it would affect everyone on the site and it is important that all employees understood what that mattered to them. meant “.

But whether the reports were on the right side of the law or not, one thing was overlooked by many observers who thought the union could win.

The pandemic has created unemployment that has disproportionately affected black communities.

About 85% of the workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer are black.

And that means that this was a workforce acutely sensitive to arguments around wages, benefits and the future of their job.

The union argues that Amazon’s tactics amount to “harassment” of employees and pose a legal challenge. Amazon denies the allegations.

“Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon reports from the union, policymakers and media than from us,” said a spokesman.

Carla returned to Amazon in November. “I felt that the things the union offered, I already got,” she says.

She spent her birthday having a spa day then watched her youngest son play baseball. She is now in remission and is firmly convinced that she would not be alive if she had not worked for an employer with good health care. Maybe she’s right.

And what about trade unions? Well, union membership has been declining since the 1980s. Only 6% of Americans who work in the private sector are union members.

And unless unions can find a way to convince people like Carla that they can positively impact health care, benefits and wages, that won’t change.

James Clayton is the BBC’s North American technology reporter in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @ jamesclayton5.

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