Reclaiming Our History
by Eric Hall
March 16, 2021
This interview with Eric Hall, chair of Our Revolution, Birmingham and the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Birmingham chapter, was conducted and condensed by Payday and franknews.
Eric | I am the chair of Our Revolution, Birmingham. I am 38.
Payday x frank | Do you work somewhere else as well?
I'm a community organizer and activist. That's the passion, but, to be honest, that is my free work. I am also the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Birmingham chapter. As far as my full-time job, I work for Social Security Administration.
Wow. You do a lot of work.
I know, right?
It's interesting because I always say to people union organizing is fundamentally about respect. Do you think having Black Lives Matter at the forefront speaks to that?
Part of the reason why Black Lives Matter has joined this fight is because we realized there is a strong connection between social injustice and economic injustice. This Amazon facility literally sits in a poor Black city. The majority of the workers at the Amazon facility are Black.
We're fighting for these workers, especially the Black and Brown workers, that go to that facility every day, to be seen as human, to be valued, and to be respected.
That's why we're joining this fight.
How do you think the Black Lives Matter movement gives the union drive energy?
I think Black Lives Matter joining in sends a clear message to those systems of power and those who have influence, people like Jeff Bezos and other billionaires. We are saying enough is enough and that we're tired. We are saying that we want to be seen as human. We're not just laborers, we want to be seen as partners, and we're going to demand that type of respect. I tell people often that Black Lives Matter is more than an organization, it's also an affirmation to Black lives. That's why we're in this fight. I think momentum is building around the country because Black people are really tired of the social and economic injustices that exist in America. Just to be honest with you, that's how it is.
What do you think it means to young folks, many of whom have never been part of a union drive before, to see BLM getting involved?
I think it goes a long way for them to be able to see that. For the most part, they've always seen BLM fight against police terrorism. We have to make the connection that economic injustice is just as real as police violence. If a Black family cannot sustain itself, if a Black family cannot provide, if a Black family has to worry about where their next meal is going to come from, if Black families have to continue to live in poverty, this is also violence. These are issues that have to be addressed.
Poverty is by design.
It's not just happenstance that it's mostly Black and Brown people who live under the umbrella of poverty. We have poor policies in place. Those with political power have failed to invest in Black education, in Black workforce development programs, and in Black communities. That's what our conversations with a lot of these young employees are like. We just try to make that connection. BLM has invested in billboards, we've invested in radio advertisements, we've invested in TV commercials. We are literally going all in just to show that BLM stand in solidarity with Amazon workers. We understand that we know what struggle is, but we also know that when we fight together, we win together.
Angela Davis said it best when she said that freedom is a constant struggle. We are going to continue to fight for liberation and for dignity until we are seen as human and are valued.
How do you think about the education piece?
I think it's important that we educate people on the role that unions play. I often try to let them know that having a union is like having an insurance plan in your career. It is an assurance that you will be protected if something happens to you. I also tell people, you know, it's unions and their collective bargaining power that is the reason we have benefits and things like a five-day workweek, paid holidays, breaks, and time off. These are wins that the unions have brought us. We have a long way to go, and having a union would put us in a position where we can continue to challenge systems of power.
What was the ask of and what was the meeting like with the congressional delegation?
One of the main focuses of the delegation meeting was to just hear from Amazon workers on their experiences. Our Revolution, we were glad that we were extended an invitation because of our community support that we provide to RWDSU on the ground. We were glad to be engaged. Most of the delegation members that were present were endorsed by Our Revolution, with the exception of our own congressional leader, Terri Sewell.
She's more of a moderate Democrat, but from what I have seen, more progressive voices in Congress and in the House have swing-out more moderate people to become more progressive in their policy status.
When we had conversations about stopping the federal contracts, the conversation immediately was like, "Can you tell us what corporations are investigating union busters?" "Can you have us a one-page sent over to our office?" Of course, we were prepared to do that.
These big corporations are all investing in union-busting. Amazon got one of the top firms, Morgan Lewis. That is probably $10,000 hours a day, and they have probably been running this Amazon campaign for about two months. That is a lot of money. That is a lot of taxpayer dollars that is going into union-busting. That is a lot of dollars that could be used elsewhere, especially when there's a struggle for Medicare and Medicaid expansion, especially when there's a struggle for infrastructure, especially with all of the issues related to education. That is money being spent to silence people. That should not be tolerated. We need an administration that's strong, that's bold, that's courageous, and that's willing to take a stand and say enough is enough.
Obviously, as an Our Revolution guy, I am assuming you didn’t back Biden in the primary?
I did not.
What was it like for you to see Biden get involved?
It was powerful. I have a degree in political science and I understand the dynamics of politics. For him to take the stance that he took, means a lot. I think they have a lot to do with what I was referencing earlier, having a more progressive base in the ear of the moderate Democrats. Somebody had to go to him and have that conversation, right? I'm sure that it was someone who was more progressive that said that the time is now, that this is literally the third most important election in this country, that the world is watching, and that we need to take a stance.
I think he partly did that to cover for the Fight for $15 since he failed on that end. I'm glad that he took the stance to support the working families here. Now we have to hold them accountable as we fight for a livable wage. You know, $15 is a good start, but it's not necessarily a livable wage, especially when you look at the cost of living in America today. $15 is okay.
When the congressional delegation came to the Amazon facility, Jeff Bezos’ message to the congressional delegation was for them to increase the federal minimum wage and match Amazon's wage. They had a sign up that basically said, "match what I am giving." My response to that is that if you think that your employees are only worth a minimum wage, that shows what type of person that you are, especially when you've earned billions of dollars during a global pandemic.
Your people have continued to come to work and put their lives on the line while you make billions. They can barely pay rent, they can barely pay utility bills.
They were getting a 2 dollar hazard pay but that was cut back in the summer. You know, it is just a disgrace for a company that could be doing much more.
I was kind of shocked to learn that this will literally be the first union for an Amazon facility in the United States. I feel confident that this will encourage other unions to come and for other facilities to organize. There need to be some accountability measures in place, and there needs to someone who represents those who fulfill Amazon's mission day after day.
Do you think that this has brought forth a new era of political awakening in the South?
It feels that there is an awakening in the South. We are seeing the South show the rest of the world that we have something to say. We see that with Stacey Abrams. We see that with what happened in Georgia, where we're seeing that with like what's happening here in Alabama.
In my conversations with union members, they have literally said that this is the first time in a long time that grassroots organizations and activist community folks are working with politicians, working with faith-based leaders, working with union organizers to really have this strong push to have a union. This is a new era.
People in the South are tired, and now they are at a point where the South is fighting back and they are fighting hard.
We are throwing hands and we are fighting hard for what we believe in and what we see as right.
We are dealing with a whole unique set of circumstances because many Southern states have these different policies in place that say that they can fire you at will, and your employer doesn't have to give any explanation. If you have a protest, you can’t run for political office or you might be held in jail. So we are also fighting these crazy, crazy, crazy-ass laws people put in place.
Yeah. Do you feel that Amazon people are winning and moving the ball forward?
Yes I do. But, with the hiring of one of the country's largest and most expensive union-avoidance law firms, Morgan Lewis, Amazon has guilefully attracted the attention of its younger employers who aren’t as thoroughly engaged with having a union. In addition, Amazon has mandated employees attend classes centered on why they shouldn’t have a union. Preventing employees from being able to formalize their own opinions on the values of having or not having a union.
Where do you think that sense of feeling disaffected from society and potential change comes from?
Essentially you are dealing with a lot of people who may have lived in poverty for most of their life, and they probably come from a situation where they worked at Walmart were making 10 dollars an hour. Now they feel like they are making five dollars more. Their thing is, and I am going to use the language that young people use, “I am going to get my bag”. I'm not gonna let anybody interrupt me or stop me from getting my bag. That's is just the mindset of a lot of young folks. That is why the education piece is so important.
The scary thing is that I don't know if we have covered enough space. We have tried to put out that message. We have purchased the billboards. We have put commercials on the air. We put out radio ads. We can only hope that it sticks and wait and see how these votes turn out.
Right. What does the energy feel like?
We are literally fighting the world's largest corporation.
And it's a two-way street between the city and Amazon. You know, this poor city was receiving Amazon's support and taxes not just from Amazon itself, but from all 6,000 employees that work there. We have seen instances where as soon as we put campaign signs down, local municipalities pick the signs up.
This city is a struggling city and right now they need all they can get in order to sustain and survive and so I think Amazon literally takes advantage of that because they know the city is struggling and that the population is struggling.
I know from covering a lot of union campaigns it feels like pushing a boulder up the hill. Do you feel like you are reaching the top of the hill?
Yeah, but it gets heavy.
Especially dealing with a generation that really doesn't understand the history. Birmingham in general and Bessemer, in particular, are cities that were built off of laborers who understood what unions were. It is a steel city. You know, my grandfather worked in the steel plant and they had unions and they had protections and all of that. I don know what happened but it dropped off.
It's a trauma on a community when that kind of thing happens, you know? It seems like a big part of this is about relearning our history.
We have to relearn that history. It's very important. We know the history, we know the struggle, we know the wins. You can fight a little bit better when you can make that connection. If you don't know your history, then it's much harder to fight.