Alabama has been in the national news a lot lately, usually for reasons that are not particularly good. Political foolishness and storm damage account for most of it, but the unionization election at the Amazon fulfillment center has produced the most ink for the past several weeks. That center is in the Birmingham suburb of Bessemer, which was originally best known for manufacturing the Pullman car, the sleepers that were popular on passenger railroads for many years.
(In recent years, it is probably better known as the home of The Bright Star restaurant, the oldest family-owned restaurant in Alabama, famous for Greek and seafood, in addition to having a visiting chef from Commander’s Palace in New Orleans train kitchen staff on occasion.)
Most such stories include a statement that Alabama is a “right-to-work” state, which –while true–is also a bit misleading. The origin of that principle is the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a Federal law that prohibited what was called a “closed shop,” that is, a requirement that all employees hired under specified conditions must be a member of a specific union.
Alabama common and case law has always upheld that position, and in 2016 Alabama codified it a constitutional amendment, but there have been strong labor unions in our state for all my life.
Long known as “the Pittsburgh of the south” because of Birmingham’s large steel manufacturing industry, the steel workers union was ubiquitous during my childhood and for many more years. The large US Steel facility was close to Bessemer and many of its employees lived there.
All the high-rise buildings in Birmingham and most on the UAB campus were framed by members of the Iron Workers union, and of course the large coal mining industry in Alabama employed only members of the United Mine Workers of America, whose Welfare and Retirement Fund was one of father’s first HME company’s largest customers for many years.
After the decline of steel making and mining, union influence in Alabama largely disappeared, with the auto workers unable to organize any of the plants built here by Mercedes, Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai. Industrial recruiters from Alabama, both state and local, often tout the right-to-work conditions as benefits for potential employers considering Alabama locations.
Regardless of how you feel about unions, the outcome of this elections will have major consequences for both Amazon and Alabama, which behooves you to pay attention. These comments were prompted by this story in the New York Times.
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