Jewish Union Chief Sees Battle to Organize Amazon Workers as Modern-day Passover Story

As workers at an Alabama warehouse await the results of a ballot over whether to unionize, Stuart Appelbaum explains why this fight is different from all other fights

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum at the entrance to Amazon's fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this month.
U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum at the entrance to Amazon's fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this month.Credit: DUSTIN CHAMBERS/REUTERS
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – As workers at an Amazon facility in Alabama voted this weekend on whether to form the company's first-ever union, in the highest-profile labor event in decades, some American Jews celebrating Passover couldn't help but compare Jeff Bezos to a modern-day Pharoah.

One of them was Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has conducted the unionization drive at the tech giant’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama.

Appelbaum’s career has been largely informed by his Jewish heritage, he tells Haaretz, so for him it was natural for him to link the two events – which even included sending out a prayer for people to add to their seder ceremony. “Just as matza symbolizes the hardship of slavery and the Jewish people’s hasty transition to freedom, in the modern day it symbolizes the difficult working conditions and treatment as well for working women and men at Amazon warehouses everywhere and their fight for change, dignity and respect,” the prayer read.

The unionization ballot among some 6,000 workers at the Alabama warehouse has captured the national attention, serving as a de-facto referendum on U.S. attitudes toward income inequality, racial injustice, workers’ rights and big tech. The workers voted Sunday and the result is expected sometime this week, a landmark moment in America’s history of organized labor and collective-bargaining rights.

Efforts in Bessemer have become an inflection point for the labor rights movement, Appelbaum believes, due to many societal factors coalescing at once. “We see this campaign as being as much about a civil rights struggle as it is an economic and labor struggle,” he says.

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos in Washington some 18 months ago. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

“We’ve seen income inequality expand beyond anything we imagined, and the focus on systemic racial injustice has resonated with a lot of working people of color who want to stand up for justice at their workplaces,” he adds, noting that the Black Lives Matter movement is supporting the workers with the understanding that unionization is a necessary response to racial injustice. Over 70 percent of the city’s residents are Black, while Appelbaum’s union estimates that over 85 percent of workers at the Amazon plant are African American.

Widespread concerns about big tech’s power in general, and Amazon’s influence in particular, has further led to this campaign capturing unprecedented media attention. “The skyrocketing levels of inequality, which were exacerbated by the pandemic, are really personified by the staggering personal wealth of Jeff Bezos,” Appelbaum says. The Amazon founder, who is set to hand over CEO duties to Andy Jassy later this year, is currently worth $180 billion, according to Forbes.

“Amazon as a corporation is transforming industry after industry. It’s become a dominant force in our economy and in society,” he adds. “If left unchallenged, it’s going to determine what the future of work will look like. A future with dehumanization of workers is unacceptable.”

Central to the union drive are complaints of “unbearable” working conditions, including an unrelenting pace, constant surveillance and general mistreatment of workers. “The pandemic has highlighted that a lot of workers who are often invisible are now understood to be essential,” Appelbaum says. “Society would not have survived without them, and they are deserving of recognition and appreciation.”

Appelbaum believes that no matter the result, the campaign itself has already been a huge success. “This topic has been put on the front burner,” he says. “People are hearing more positive news and have a greater understanding of unions than they ever have had before.”

He is further heartened by noteworthy public support – including a statement from U.S. President Joe Biden that Appelbaum deems “the most pro-union statement ever made by a president of the United States” – that has helped Bessemer capture the zeitgeist.

“People are talking about unions in places where the word ‘union’ has never come up: Teen Vogue, Elle, gamer publications, late-night television shows,” Appelbaum says. “People now know they can stand up to their employers. If people in right-to-work Alabama, in the middle of a pandemic, are able to stand up to the most powerful corporation and the wealthiest man in the world, then workers anywhere can stand up and fight.”

Appelbaum is confident the majority of workers will support unionization efforts, though cautions that this is merely the first phase in a long fight. That much has been made clear by Amazon’s alleged tactics at the center, which reportedly include disinformation on voting deadlines, signs posted throughout the warehouse, and regularly disseminated texts, photos and emails highlighting the downside of unions while promoting Amazon worker happiness.

When asked what would happen if Amazon shuttered the center following a vote to unionize, Appelbaum responds that this would be deemed unacceptable across the political spectrum and throughout the country.

“Imagine the reputational damage Amazon would suffer, on top of the pushback from members of Congress,” he says. “They will have to consider the consequences given the exposure this campaign has received. We can’t allow Amazon to be unchallenged – and no matter what, we’re not going away.”

Protesters in Seattle expressing their support for unionization at Amazon's Alabama facility earlier this month.Credit: JASON REDMOND - AFP

Siding with low-wage workers

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, says that Judaism holds a long history of commitment to workplace justice, citing Torah verses, a labor strike described in the Talmud, and a series of responsa on workers’ rights and the right to organize.

“Throughout Jewish texts, there’s a tendency to side with low-wage workers. There’s an assumption that they’re the people who are in the worse-off position and so the law has to support them,” Jacobs notes. “Judaism doesn’t prohibit getting rich. But there are lots of prohibitions on getting rich on the backs of your workers.”

She believes this reading of Judaism is relevant to American Jews’ historical role in organizing efforts, notably in the 1950s concerning teachers’ unions.

“American Jews, and particularly Jewish women, were really crucial to the beginnings of the labor movement in this country,” Jacobs says. “Many of our families have made it into the middle class because our families were in unions and they could get good jobs because of unions.”

Jacobs cites last week’s 110th anniversary of New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history, which resulted in the deaths of 146 workers – most of them young Jewish women. “This tragic event is part of our history and sparked a major labor uprising,” she relays. “We understand that when workers don’t have unions, they’re in physical danger beyond not having fair wages or working conditions.”

According to Jacobs, the situation at Amazon directly relates to American Jews today. “A large number of us are purchasing from Amazon. We have some responsibility toward ensuring that the people who are handling everything we’re buying are being treated appropriately,” she says. “We don’t want to be part of that system of oppression.”

Like Appelbaum, Jacobs sees parallels between the Passover story and the Amazon workers in Bessemer. She describes a midrash where Pharoah lured Jews into an oppressive working situation under the false pretense of temporariness and dignity.

“Amazon promises good jobs – they took out a full-page ad in The New York Times about how great their wages are – but the working conditions are terrible,” she charges. “We know from the story of our own slavery in Egypt that something can be presented as rosy but then it turns oppressive.”

Jacobs also highlights the laws Israelites received immediately following the Ten Commandments. “One of the messages we get over and over is ‘Because of what happened to you in Egypt, don’t oppress others.’ It’s not obvious that this would be the message. You can imagine a message that says: ‘Just take care of yourselves.’ That’s not what we get. The main message is to ensure no one goes through this again.”

She adds: “For those of us American Jews who are no longer in unionized sorts of jobs, we have a responsibility to ensure that the same avenues are open to workers in jobs that should be unionized now.”

People holding a pro-unionization banner outside the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this month.Credit: DUSTIN CHAMBERS/REUTERS

Social justice pride

Appelbaum, meanwhile, says his Jewish framework has provided him with an understanding of how to participate in the world. A self-described “nice Jewish boy” from Bloomfield, Connecticut, he grew up lower-middle class with a postal clerk father and insurance company clerk mother.

He attended Shabbat services at his conservative synagogue, participated in his local after-school Jewish education program, attended Camp Ramah and participated in his local United Synagogue Youth chapter. “My Jewish identity was always key for my understanding of the world around us,” says the New York resident, adding that he takes pride in Jewish figures at the forefront of various social justice struggles.

“My heart smiles every time I see a picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King, and every time I see Jewish leaders standing up for others,” he says. “That’s a key part of what makes us Jewish.”

In addition to his union role, Appelbaum is active in several U.S.-Jewish organizations, serving as Jewish Labor Committee president and sitting on the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ executive committee and the J Street advisory board. He praises the community’s overwhelming support for his organizing efforts, though the community hasn’t been directly engaged for support (financial or otherwise).

Asked what he would want to stress to Jews who don’t feel particularly invested in the Amazon union push, Appelbaum says the most fundamental way for people to support social justice “is by empowering working people through unions and gaining a collective voice to make a change in conditions they now experience. I see the values learned from our Jewish heritage as inspiring the work to support our sisters and brothers of every background, who are struggling to find a decent place for themselves in this world.”

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