When Amazon opened a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., in March 2020, they probably did not expect it to become a flashpoint for a national conversation about union organizing, race, and working conditions in Amazon facilities. But workers organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) mounted a campaign that quickly ballooned into a massive media event, in a struggle that organizers referred to as a David and Goliath story.
Unlike David, however, the first stone was not enough. On April 9, a ballot count showed the majority of workers voted against forming a union.
While reports of disappointment reverberated through the media, on the following Sunday, Michael “Big Mike” Foster addressed a rally for organizers in Bessemer with a different tone. Foster, the lead organizer on the ground for the RWDSU and a poultry worker for almost 20 years, told Sojourners that he said: “I had better not see a hung down head in this parking lot, because God has used us to be the foundation of what’s about to happen all over the world.”
“We’re going to get it to a re-vote, and once we do that, we’re going to claim victory,” Foster said. “See, I learned in this process that the race is not given to the swift, but [to] the one who can endure to the end. And God said if you do not give up while you are enduring, your blessing is right there at the end.”
Theological language might seem out of place from an organizer in a secular union, but faith has been a constant piece of the campaign in Bessemer. While the first vote was a loss for RWDSU, the historic effort offers important lessons for the relationship between faith, labor organizing, and the struggle for racial justice.
Where were the churches?
In a fiery reflection on the Bessemer campaign, organizer and researcher Jane McAlevey chastised the RWDSU for failing to secure support from local faith communities. McAlevey wrote that media coverage often identified the faith permeating the union but pointed out that “there was a near-total absence of Bessemer or local Birmingham faith organizations on the endorsement list of the campaign.”
The lack of support was not entirely for lack of effort, but organizers and Christians in Bessemer both wonder what could have been different, and what might be different in future.
Foster said the union drive made a point to reach out to the community, and churchgoing people were part of the outreach. But it was largely individuals — not congregations — that represented the church in their efforts.
Jacob Morrison, secretary-treasurer of the North Alabama Area Labor Council, visited Bessemer to support and report on the campaign several times, and he was active in the RWDSU’s phone banking campaign. He told Sojourners he had read criticisms that organizers failed to reach out to churches, but he adds that the union also did not reach out to the Birmingham Democratic Socialists of America, who still managed to appear at many RWDSU events.
“You don’t have to be asked to participate in a union campaign if you are driven enough,” Morrison said.
Rev. Thomas Beavers of New Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, known in nearby Birmingham as “THE STAR,” was an exception to the limited support from churches and spoke publicly in support of the union during the campaign.
“There were not a whole lot of other clergy involved,” he told Sojourners. “I don’t take that as a sign that they don’t want to be involved. A lot of us didn’t know, or if we did, we found out about [the union drive] last minute. I do think that the efforts could have been better if the clergy were reached out to.”
Supporting the union drive was a natural extension of other ministries at the church, where a major focus is workforce development, including advocating for just working conditions. Beavers found out about the campaign from a Black Lives Matter organizer familiar with the church’s work. Organizers estimate Black workers make up 85 percent of employees at the Amazon warehouse.
“Somebody reached out to me, but it was not the labor union,” Beavers said. Clergy are concerned, he said, but there was a communication gap between warehouse organizers and institutional churches.
A prophetic labor movement
Gaps between institutional and individual faith traditions in labor and racial justice struggles are not new, according to historian Robin D. G. Kelley. He told Sojourners that the intermingling of politics, religion, and race in labor history has always been complicated.
“If you look at history, even beyond Alabama, the most successful labor campaigns — especially involving Black workers or interracial unions — have always had the support of the progressive clergy,” Kelley said.
But, he added, even the civil rights movement did not always have the support of established churches. The power of spiritual language in social movements, Kelley said, is not “a matter of getting ‘the Black church’ on board.”
“There is a prophetic tradition that is distinct, even from organized, established churches, that runs through these movements,” he said. “Some of the most visionary, progressive, labor-oriented figures are those who were on the outside of the church, on the edge.”
This distinct prophetic tradition is clearly alive and well among organizers in Bessemer.
“For me personally, I just don’t like to use the word religion,” Foster said. “It’s my faith that I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost Spirit, and wherever I go, whatever I do, I will implement that.”
The unique faith present in the campaign also transformed the people who were part of it. “I had already been going through a crisis of faith,” Morrison, who grew up in a white, conservative Pentecostal sect in Alabama, said. Christianity in that context, he said, made people complacent, waiting for a reward in the afterlife.
Alternatively, Morrison said the RWDSU organizers had a faith that taught, “Jesus is there fighting with me for justice and for what’s right. Not only will there be a reward later, there can be a reward today, if we stand together in our faith.”
The experience drove Morrison deeper into biblical studies and learning about liberation theology.
The prophetic current may not fit so comfortably in the pews of some churches, but as organizers regroup for another push in Bessemer, it could also provide a bridge between the union and local churches.
“The role of the clergy is to speak truth to power,” Beavers said. “Some people liken it to a prophetic role. In the Bible, the prophets came, and nobody wanted to see them coming. If we do not speak up on behalf of what God would be pleased with, loving God and loving other people, then who will? But we can’t speak up if we don’t know.”
Casting a moral vision
For Kelley, leaning into a prophetic tradition is a good sign for the labor movement. He said the United States has been moving toward secularized language and politics. In contrast, the labor movements in Alabama in the 1930s were like revivals, where union meetings would open with prayer and use prophetic themes.
“That doesn’t happen nowadays,” Kelley said. “Now, you go around in a circle, you acknowledge one another … your presence. You use a lot of Christian language ... But it’s kind of New Age, it’s not necessarily grounded in moral discourse.”
Whatever the faults of the Bessemer campaign, Kelley sees the powerful moral language as an important strength for organizing. Similar language can be found in the Poor People’s Campaign, co-chaired by Rev. William Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharis. The two came to Bessemer to support the organizing efforts, employing spiritual language to underscore the importance of a broad, moral vision for social justice.
“The success of future labor struggles, working class struggles in the South in particular, will have to embrace that moral vision, whether it’s coming from a church, common sense, or from a kind of prophetic Christianity that just exists in the ether, in the culture,” Kelley said.
A moral vision expands the horizons of organizing beyond one union drive or bargaining campaign, which could provide a firmer ground for organizing down the road.
“It’s one thing for workers to say, ‘We can’t keep taking pay cuts because we can’t afford to pay our bills, pay our rent, or feed our children,’” Kelley said. “It’s another thing to say that is immoral, we can’t live in a society that allows companies and governments to allow people to live in such precarity.”
“What’s really offensive is the fact that we could tolerate a society that allows people to live at the edge of houselessness, that permits people to work twelve hour shifts where they can’t see their families, that fires people just because of the bottom line,” Kelley said. “We want a moral society that says that the least of us should be empowered to be able to protect our interests, to make sure that none of us falls through the cracks.”
Foster echoed those sentiments in his own prophetic voice.
“This is the mission that God is trying to show everybody: that if you can love and take care of one another, there won’t be a homeless person, there would not be a starving person, everybody would have the necessities that they need, simply because we care for everyone, equally, instead of allowing a group of people who may be brown, black, or whatever color to be oppressed,” Foster said.
Neither does Foster shy away from what might be considered offensive rhetoric.
“It’s a new day in time, and if people don’t hurry up and realize that, I would fear for them to feel God’s wrath, simply because they’re not being obedient.”
With a prophetic faith and fighting spirit, Foster and the union are carrying that moral vision into the next phases of the struggle in Bessemer. The RWDSU is challenging the results of the election with the National Labor Review Board, saying Amazon used coercive tactics to prevent a fair vote. The RWDSU has been getting calls from other warehouses across the country, and Amazon’s long history of unjust labor practices is under heavier scrutiny. The union has committed itself to the long haul, and as Foster said, the first campaign is a foundation.