The Site Of The Historic Unionization Campaign At An Amazon Warehouse Is Like A Lot Of American Towns: People Want Good Jobs, And That Means Not Just Wages But Dignity And Respect.

By Kristin Toussaint

Bessemer, Alabama, a town of 27,000 located 15 miles southwest of Birmingham, drew international attention earlier this year when 5,800 workers at its recently opened Amazon fulfillment center voted on whether to unionize (they preliminarily lost). Although the headlines focused mostly on impli­ca­tions for the e-commerce giant, underneath lies a story of an American community reinventing itself. Bessemer was once a steel town, the site of a Pullman Standard railcar factory, and part of Alabama’s labor history. As the region’s thriving economy started to fizzle out in the 1970s and ’80s (the Pullman plant closed in 1981), Bessemer, whose population is more than 72% Black, 22% white, and 4% Hispanic or Latino, with more than 25% living in poverty, was left searching for thousands of new jobs to fill the manufacturing industry’s void.

Like so many cities across America, Bessemer has tried to remake itself in a corporate America oriented more around logistics than manufacturing. The town sits between two interstates, making it an attractive distribution hub to serve the Southeast. When Amazon announced in 2018 that it would open a fulfillment center there, it promised at least 1,500 jobs. Others soon followed: Carvana, the online auto dealer valued at more than $40 billion, announced its own distribution and fulfillment center (450 jobs, at a promised average annual salary of more than $35,000), and developer Clayco, which was contracted to build centers for Lowe’s (150 to 200 jobs) and Dollar General. Even some manufacturing remains, but it is also modernized: On the site of the old Pullman plant now sits Blox, a design and construction firm that makes modular buildings, mostly for hospitals.

Bessemer’s revitalization efforts, from construction and engineering to service-sector restaurant jobs, highlight that there is no one industry like steel that can prop up a local economy today. These are the people who make Bessemer work. But they’re also the faces of today’s American worker.

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