By Kristin Toussaint
Source: Fast Company
Bessemer, Alabama, a town of 27,000, lies 15 miles southwest of Birmingham. Once a steel town and the site of a Pullman Standard railcar factory, the town is now marketing itself as a logistics hub, attracting retailers including Amazon, Carvana, Lowe’s, and Dollar General.
NAME: Ginny Cavett COMPANY: Carvana TITLE: General manager Carvana, an online used car retailer, announced in November 2019 it would build a $40 million distribution center in Bessemer, bringing 450 new jobs to the area.
NAME: Tray Ragland COMPANY: AlaTrade Foods; Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) TITLE: Safety/debone worker; shop steward The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) sought to represent Amazon workers in Bessemer during its union drive this spring.
NAME: Tony Feagins COMPANY: The Bright Star restaurant TITLE: Chef The family-owned Bright Star restaurant has been operating in Bessemer since 1907.
NAME: Laerte Zatta COMPANY: Blox TITLE: Director of manufacturing engineering Blox, a design and construction firm that makes modular buildings, mostly for hospitals, is situated on the old Pullman railcar factory site.
NAME: Michael Pulmas COMPANY: Milo’s Tea TITLE: Corrugate Operator Milo’s Tea began selling its tea to Birmingham grocery stores in the 1980s; it moved to Bessemer, where it’s now headquartered, in 2002.
NAME: Kimberly Allen COMPANY: Carvana TITLE: Reconditioning manager A national spotlight has been on Bessemer since the beginning of the Amazon union effort, but Kim Allen, a reconditioning manager at Carvana, says that coverage has missed the people that make up the area. “This area is really diverse with culture. It’s a melting pot, honestly,” she says. “People here are super excited about the job opportunities that are coming.”
NAME: Robert Moore COMPANY: C.S. Beatty TITLE: General contractor and senior project superintendent C.S. Beatty, a Birmingham, Alabama-based construction company, is involved in a Bessemer project led by Chicago-based developer Clayco. “What you’re seeing with Carvana, with the Lowe’s distribution, with these warehouses, they’re good jobs… and they’re not leaving,” says Robert Moore, a general contractor and senior project superintendent. “It gives people an opportunity to grow and grow the business, no matter their labor abilities, no matter their craft ability, or no matter their educational ability.”
Chicago-based developer Clayco purchased 96 acres of land in Bessemer last year, and is currently building a 1.2 million square-foot facility for Lowe’s.
NAME: Melanie McNary COMPANY: Blox TITLE: Director of human resources Melanie McNary, HR director at Blox, says her company isn’t just interested in growing itself, but the entire community. “We are definitely working towards pulling in other companies that are in the city to partner with us on the vision that we have and helping Bessemer revitalize.”
NAME: Willie Bray COMPANY: Mayfield Dairy; RWDSU TITLE: Filler operator; shop steward
NAME: Brett Collins COMPANY: The Bright Star restaurant TITLE: General manager
The Bright Star claims to be the oldest family-owned restaurant in America, operating since 1907. In 2010 it was named one of “America’s Classics” by the James Beard Foundation.
NAME: Paul Winfrey COMPANY: Blox TITLE: Production employee
NAME: Carol McNair COMPANY: Wayne Farms; RWDSU TITLE: Poultry plant worker; shop steward
NAME: Kimani (KT) Sanders COMPANY: Carvana TITLE: Logistics manager “Most people here are just like everyone else,” says Kimani Sanders, logistics manager at Carvana. “Everybody wants the same thing, everybody wants to be able to take care of their family, provide a good life. I think that’s universal.”
NAME: Samuel Harris COMPANY: Carvana TITLE: Driver lead “Bessemer is on the brink of being a little Birmingham, in my eyes, because I know what it used to be like, and it ain’t used to be like it is now,” says Samuel Harris, who was born and raised in Bessemer. “With Carvana coming into the city, it’s opening a lot more opportunities for everybody when it comes to the job scene.”
NAME: Hannah Kitchens COMPANY: Milo’s Tea TITLE: Forklift operator
NAME: John Harper COMPANY: Clayco TITLE: Senior project superintendent After years of work and business opportunities dropping off, things are gradually picking back up in Bessemer, says John Harper, senior project superintendent at ClayCo. “In years to come it’s gonna get nothing but better.”
NAME: Joe Johnson COMPANY: Associated Grocers; Local 261 RWDSU TITLE: Truck driver; shop steward and president
NAME: Ann McAdams COMPANY: Milo’s Tea TITLE: Filler operator
NAME: Meghan Campbell COMPANY: Blox TITLE: Architect
A sign for the RWDSU Union drive on Powder Plant Rd., outside of the Amazon fulfillment center. A union drive brought national attention to the facility, and Bessemer in general. Though the union effort was defeated, RWDSU has filed objections, saying Amazon interfered.
NAME: Jennifer Bates COMPANY: Amazon TITLE: Blue Badge Learning Ambassador Amazon worker and union organizer Jennifer Bates says she was excited about the Amazon opportunity when she was first hired, but then issues arose. She testified before Congress about the “grueling” conditions. “Some people say, ‘Why not quit?’ I thought, ‘Why should I?’ Why should I continue to run and leave an open sore?”
“In Bessemer, there are tons of manufacturing buildings, and the thing that gets me is to have so many industrial manufacturers, the working community is still poor,” Bates says. “That part I can’t understand.”
NAME: Darryl Richardson COMPANY: Amazon TITLE: Picker
NAME: Ashley Rhodes COMPANY: The Bright Star restaurant TITLE: Server
NAME: Marlon Tanksley COMPANY: The Bright Star restaurant TITLE: Server
NAME: Jeffrey Brent COMPANY: Milo’s Tea TITLE: Filler lead operator
Before the boom of big companies coming into Bessemer, Kimani Sanders says “it was a void,” with many traveling outside the area to get to work. Now, an influx of companies is providing opportunity. “It’s an opportunity for not just Bessemer but the surrounding areas, too.”
NAME: Carl Simpson COMPANY: Blox TITLE: Station lead
NAME: Justin Larkin COMPANY: Carvana TITLE: Inventory associate “Considering the fact that Bessemer was kind of dependent on one industry, it goes to show that as time is passing by, things can change,” says Justin Larkin, an inventory associate at Carvana. “Now that you have all these businesses coming in, you see that Bessmer is not relying on just one industry. Businesses are actually moving here and see potential for what Bessmer can hold in the future.”
NAME: Mark Mattox COMPANY: Milo’s Tea TITLE: Production supervisor
NAME: LC Albritton COMPANY: Blox TITLE: Drywall finisher
Modular building manufacturer Blox operates out of the old Pullman Standard Railcar factory. Besides providing jobs, Blox has “a vision for creating community spaces that are safe and clean and inviting for people to come out,” says Melanie McNary, director of HR Admin & Benefits at Blox. Blox CFO Brian Giattina is renovating a train depot through his nonprofit into a community garden and art and music lesson space.
Michael Pulmas, corrugate operator, Milo’s Tea
NAMES: Ahinoam Israel; David Israel COMPANY: Good Health To Be Hail, wellness center and vegan café TITLE: Owner; Manager-Chef
NAME: Antonio Gutierrez COMPANY: Blox TITLE: Production line manager
NAME: Michael “Big Mike” Foster COMPANY: RWDSU TITLE: Worker organizer
NAME: Jasmine Adams COMPANY: Carvana TITLE: Operations coordinator
NAME: Tom Underhill COMPANY: C.S. Beatty Construction TITLE: Subcontractor, senior superintendent
“Even though this [union drive] didn’t pull through in Bessemer, I see that people have finally allowed their hope to cause them to stand up and [say], ‘We do deserve better,’ says Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker and union organizer. “We have opened the door and given them a pathway to make it happen where they are.”