Braxton Wright and 1,000 of his fellow unionized miners at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama, will soon have been on strike for one full year over a dispute with management about their contract. To make ends meet in the meantime, Wright has been working at Amazon’s warehouse in nearby Bessemer, where another labor battle is afoot.
The two labor disputes are indicative of a long history of contentious labor action efforts in Alabama and in the South. And they are a test of whether a “strike wave” — a seeming surge in labor efforts across the country, including at Starbucks locations and strikes at Kellogg’s and John Deere plants last year — is a genuine resurgence of unionization in the United States or an illusion.
If Bessemer workers unionize, it would certainly be a major victory for the labor movement, but whether it is a bellwether is an open question.
“There’s not been a wave of organizing in the South or in Alabama that I can point to and say, ‘Those people have told me I was inspired by Bessemer,’” said Jacob Morrison, one of the hosts of the Valley Labor Report, a pro-union talk radio show based in Huntsville, Alabama. “But I do think that people heard the word ‘union’ for the first time in a very long time because of that campaign.”
Two efforts, one state
The push is an example of the challenges faced by unions in states that passed right-to-work laws in the late 20th century across the South and Midwest. This type of law creates disincentives for workers to join a union, even if their shop is unionized. Nonunion members are still covered by any negotiated contracts, but they don’t have to pay dues and unions can’t force them to join.
If a Starbucks in Birmingham were to unionize, for example, the union could not require every employee at that Starbucks to join or pay dues, even though workers would be covered by a union-negotiated contract.
Over time, right-to-work laws combined with a lack of education about the history of unions in Alabama have created some confusion, according to Morrison.
“I have literally encountered people in Alabama who thought that union membership was illegal,” Morrison said. “That’s a big barrier to organizing.”
Braxton Wright’s wife, Haeden, who herself comes from a union coal-mining family, said, “For years, you didn’t hear a lot about labor unions. If you weren’t in a union, if your family wasn’t in a union, it’s just something you weren’t exposed to.”
“We’re not striking for more; we’re striking to get back what we had in 2015,” said Haeden Wright.
Participants in the two labor efforts are keeping an eye on each other. Braxton Wright said he’s taken an active role in trying to convince his co-workers to vote for the Amazon union. In his early days working at the Amazon facility, he wore his camouflage print UMWA shirt to work. Then some of the RWDSU organizers gave him one of their red shirts to wear on the job. While he waits for a resolution of the strike at Warrior Met, he’s been talking up the benefits of unionization to his Amazon co-workers — many of whom, due to high rates of turnover at the warehouse, weren’t around for the first union election last year.
Kathleen Kirkpatrick, the climate and strategic initiatives director at Hometown Action, a rural organizing group in Alabama, said: “When the Amazon warehouse election came up in Bessemer, there were grandparents and aunts and uncles, prior generations, related to young people who were working at Amazon that were saying, ‘Yes, you need to join the union.’”
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