What methods could have won?
by Ashley Rogers
For the last several months, the urgently needed union campaign to organize 5,800 workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse raised the hopes of many Amazon workers and working people across the U.S. The union drive gained national attention. Many believed there was enough momentum and support for the union that the workers would win, and the labor movement would finally gain a foothold in the second largest corporation in the U.S.
However, following a tense vote count last week, the union drive led by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was unfortunately defeated in a vote of 1,798 no votes to 738 yes votes for the union. This is a loss not only for Amazon workers, but for all working people.
Amazon, and its billionaire founder and executive Jeff Bezos, are the public face of capitalist greed and exploitation in America today. The struggle of the Bessemer workers to win a union offered a “David and Goliath” story: the vulnerable Amazon workers with no job security joining together to fight a corporate giant which is invading more and more communities to spread its massive delivery network and retail empire. The push to unionize Amazon has a racial justice element, too—85% of the workers in the Bessemer warehouse are black, and the organizers say that the unionization effort, in part, had its roots in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Solidarity protests were organized by workers around the country, including some by veterans of the BLM upsurge last year. Even Biden—corporate politician that he is—was pressured to make a brief comment about supporting the union drive in Bessemer.
Amazon’s response to workers wanting a union was a relentless anti-union campaign. The mega-corporation understood that a union breakthrough among its workforce would unleash a flood of union organizing throughout Amazon. Union organization would create power for the workers to win better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Amazon without unions means big business as usual, including the unchecked control and exploitation of workers that Amazon runs on and profits from. As the second largest employer in the U.S., which grew by over 500,000 workers last year, Amazon has billions of dollars in profits and can spend millions on anti-union propaganda, threats, and false promises to defeat union campaigns like the one in Bessemer.
As we reported on in March, Amazon took drastic steps to limit the success of the unionization effort, including offering workers who supported the union $2,000+ bonuses if they quit, in an attempt to minimize the pro-union vote. Amazon management forced workers to attend anti-union brainwashing sessions during work hours. These mandatory anti-union propaganda sessions, known as “captive audience meetings,” are part of the typical bullying and anti-union tactics used by corporations. Amazon’s anti-union attacks also featured a barrage of text messages to personal phones, as well as papering the workplace with anti-union and pro-corporate posters wherever the workers might see them, including in bathrooms. A leaked email even revealed Amazon had pressured the U.S. Postal Service to install a mailbox on company property near the warehouse, so management could both monitor and intimidate anyone who voted by mail at that location. Amazon bombarded the workers with a smear and fear campaign against the union, the organizing drive, and unions in general. Amazon’s good cop/bad cop anti-union tactics also included highly paid managers, outside anti-union consultants, and HR types spending months propagating a false narrative of management concern and caring meant to mask the reality of Amazon’s hyper-surveillance of the workforce, crippling productivity quotas and work rules, and dangerous working conditions.
In the run-up to the vote on union representation, Amazon’s anti-union campaigning reached down to the depths of telling the local city government to change traffic light timings to prevent organizers from speaking with workers driving in and out of the workplace. Amazon is notorious for firing workers attempting to organize, using surveillance technology to track workers, and hiring “intelligence analysts” to monitor and crush unionization “threats.”
Lessons for Future Struggles
Amazon expanded ferociously during the pandemic thanks to the role Amazon workers played in keeping transport and delivery of products functioning during lockdowns. In the Bessemer RWDSU union campaign, union leaders took a bold initiative in trying to organize the first union at Amazon, responding to a desperate need for workers representation. But at the same time, it’s become known that the RWDSU underestimated the number of workers in the warehouse and over the course of the union drive, despite a lot of effort, not enough inside union organization was generated in the Amazon facility itself. The union election was pushed through without building enough support among the workers themselves. Without more interaction with the RWDSU, without enough union activists rooted in the workers’ communities, and without more workers getting directly involved in the organizing; conditions developed allowing Amazon’s anti-union propaganda to gain traction.
In the end, most of the workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer neither voted for nor against the union. Not voting, not being inspired enough or involved enough in the union drive to vote in favor of the union is not just the result of Amazon’s anti-union campaign. The intense difficulty of breaking through anti-union propaganda, the fear and intimidation tactics of Amazon, and the attempts by corporations to co-opt workers into identifying more with management than with other workers are all part of the hostile environment Amazon and other corporations create to undermine union organizing. Amazon’s process of union-busting is not unique to Amazon and has occurred throughout the history of capitalism. It’s the logical result of a capitalist system in crisis attempting to crush working-class interests and desperately cling to power. Vicious anti-union campaigns by huge corporations were defeated in the past, particularly in the 1930’s, by unions energized and often led by a growing left-wing movement at the time.
Unions cannot simply accept the defeat at Bessemer, only to make the same mistakes in future union drives. Labor activists and other workers need to draw out and apply the lessons from this union campaign.
Amazon is a massive international company with enormous power and money. A single union should not be fighting against such a powerhouse alone. Why was the RWDSU going it alone against Amazon? Uniting union struggles, including organizing drives and contract campaigns, should be the reason union federations like the AFL-CIO exist. Where is a national campaign, led by the AFL-CIO to pool the resources of the labor movement and to organize a general strike in support of organizing unions at Amazon or Walmart, McDonald’s, Google, FedEx, or any other multinational corporation? We’re in a time where unions must work together, share resources, and unify our struggles or the labor movement, along with workers’ living standards will continue to decline.
In order to not only win big union drives, but also to get first union contracts—which can solidify better benefits, wages, and safe working conditions—union organizing campaigns and struggles need to be region-wide, at least, instead of targeting a single workplace in a large corporation.
In the union drive at Bessemer, Amazon threatened to shut down the warehouse if the union won the vote. Almost all corporations threaten or imply they’ll move or go out of business if the workers unionize. Many companies don’t have the capacity to follow through on such threats but some, like Amazon, can make the threat seem real. Unions can cut across these threats by organizing many worksites at a time so corporations would face major losses if they followed through with their threats, and unions would have more workers organized to fight to stop any attempted closures.
In Iowa, some union leaders didn’t wait for the vote count in the Bessemer union drive—they took lessons from the events as they were coming in day by day, and are trying different tactics. As the Bessemer vote was already underway, Teamsters Local 238 in Iowa announced in late February that they had already approached 400 to 500 current or former Amazon employees about unionization. And they’re not alone—since the Bessemer fight began, more than 1,000 Amazon workers have contacted the RWDSU about unionizing their own workplaces. But the Iowa example is different because of how the union plans to achieve representation. The leadership of the RWDSU in Alabama opted to have workers vote for union representation through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a government agency supposedly created to mediate between bosses and workers. But Teamsters Local 238 correctly recognizes that the NLRB serves not to protect workers’ rights, but to help bosses erode them. “Amazon has proven, time and time again, that they have no respect for the workers’ right to organize under the NLRB and the election process,” stated Local 238 Organizing Director Buzz Malone in the Des Moine Register. “Right now, the way we stand, we have no intention of putting Iowa’s workforce through that process.” Malone says that, instead of lobbying or legal maneuvers, their tactic will be to pressure Amazon through strike action.
The Bessemer struggle demonstrates the need to take the battle for union organizing out of the legalistic maze of the NLRB and onto the workplace floor. We cannot rely on the legal system and regressive labor laws, controlled by the capitalist class, to win serious gains for workers. NLRB-run union elections, including legal challenges, are notoriously slow and give the corporations time to launch anti-union campaigns against workers trying to join a union. The NLRB often rules in favor of big business. For many workers, especially younger workers, NLRB union elections and rulings about union issues are too slow to make an immediate improvement in their lives.
Unions need to be prepared to organize towards and use the kinds of tactics that built the labor movement in the first place. Unions don’t have to go through the NLRB to organize non-union workers. Unions and workers trying to join a union can pressure companies to recognize unions through job actions including organizing strikes, workplace occupations, and solidarity strikes. If the pressure is strong enough, unions will have much more chance of winning organizing campaigns, gaining recognition, and negotiating first contracts. Amazon and other big corporations own and control the legal system, including the NLRB. Playing by corporate rules is a dead-end for the labor movement.
Real working class struggle, winning demands not by the arguments of lawyers over labor policy, not by the backroom deals of bureaucrats in bed with management, but by the militant labor power of the organized working class, being prepared to withdraw our labor and shut down profits—that’s the way forward for workers after the Bessemer union drive.
The union drive in Bessemer shows again that the labor movement is paying a heavy price for decades of concessionary bargaining, failing to put enough resources into organizing, and dumping their members’ dues money into supporting the corporate politics of Democratic or Republican parties. These policies will never help win enough gains in wages, benefits, and working conditions to motivate many workers to take an interest in unions or to fight hard to organize.
While recent polling data shows a positive and important increase in support for unions in U.S. society, it will take clear, well-known victories and concrete gains before many workers are willing to take on the difficulties and risks of organizing unions. Rank-and-file union democracy and fighting tactics need to be built into the foundations of any union organizing campaign even before the union is voted in or gains recognition.
An upsurge in the labor movement with millions of workers joining unions and fighting for a better life won’t come from business unionism as usual. Unions rediscovering or creating militant tactics, union democracy, union education, and media, and political organizing for a mass, left workers party are all necessary for the survival and growth of the labor movement.
It would be wrong to dismiss the result in Bessemer as a complete failure. While legal challenges may change some of the votes, the current number of 738 yes votes is much larger than the last time Amazon workers tried to vote on union representation, where only 30 workers participated in the vote—and it’s a sizable number of workers for a new union local in general. If the pro-union workers at the Bessemer Amazon site consolidate their forces, discuss what worked and what didn’t, they could still continue building for a union in their workplace and be part of future struggles to organize unions throughout Amazon.
The conclusion from the events in Bessemer must be that relying on and neatly following labor laws designed to crush unionization efforts and prevent cross-union solidarity is a losing strategy. The labor movement has won many victories, despite a history of vicious anti-unionism, including violent repression against the labor movement by the capitalist ruling class. Union membership has stagnated over recent years as union bureaucracies have become comfortable treading water rather than organizing boldly in new workplaces and basing themselves on the power of their members as workers.
For Stronger and more Democratic Unions!
Union contracts have been weakened by the approach of union leaders who see themselves as mediators between the interests of the bosses and the workers or worse, “partners with management.” Many union leaders are more willing to collaborate with corporate bosses instead of organizing workplace actions to fight for workers or really improve workers’ conditions. By only offering the status quo or outright concessions in negotiations with the management, collaborationist union leaders refuse to even try to organize a fight to win the kind of pay, benefits, and working conditions that will inspire workers to organize and vote for unions in non-union workplaces. Unions are supposed to set a high standard of pay and benefits. However, many contracts have been continually weakened over time through concessionary bargaining, leading workers to lose confidence in union power. Labor bureaucrats often end up convincing workers not to walk out, or rush to accept bad contracts in order to try and appease corporations by a return to business as usual. Short-term maximization of profit is the god of corporate greed and concessions by unions always lead to corporations demanding more concessions from unions.
We saw the strength of collective action when the start of COVID-19 lockdowns pushed workers into action—in many cases, against the will of union bureaucrats—in order to fight for their health and safety. In March of 2020, as lockdowns began to go into effect, workers at the “Big Three” Detroit automakers – GM, Ford, and Fiat-Chrysler – were forced to continue working through the lockdown to maintain corporate profits. The response of the union, the UAW, was to request the automakers close their plants for only two weeks. Rank-and-file members moved faster than the union leadership, however, and workers at a Fiat-Chrysler assembly plant staged a wildcat unauthorized work stoppage in response to learning two of their co-workers had contracted COVID-19, forcing the plant to close within hours. The same day, UAW leadership announced they had failed to reach an agreement on plant shutdowns. Pittsburgh sanitation workers stopped work and blocked the entrances to their workplace, demanding better COVID-19 protections—meanwhile, the union leaders denied the work stoppage happened and claimed it was a misunderstanding. In Detroit, bus drivers declared their refusal to drive until new COVID-19 safety measures were provided, and won those measures within 24 hours. And that was only March. The incredible amounts of energy and involvement in these strikes show that when workers see a path to victory, and understand how their involvement can bring real change to their situation, it can break through so-called “apathy” and bring workers—and, dragged along with them, the timid union leadership—into struggle.
When Amazon workers in Chicago heard the news that defeat at Bessemer was likely, they walked out of work and held a protest on April 7, demanding a $2/hr wage increase and scheduling accommodations. One warehouse worker stated, “I’m done with just accepting what the company does. I know my heart is telling me to take action. I’m willing to lead and be that example.”
We don’t know what future there is for organizing the Bessemer warehouse. However, the impact this organizing effort has had on consciousness in other Amazon locations is already being felt in Iowa, in Chicago, and around the country. As workers, we must analyze and learn from the lessons of the failure of the recent union drive at Amazon in Bessemer and work to help develop the militant unionism necessary to win the demands we need.
Rebuilding a combative trade union movement and building the confidence of the working class will be a key step in preparing ourselves for the struggles to come as Biden and the broader capitalist class continue to rush a return to “normal,” pre-pandemic life, and capitalism continues to fail to meet the needs of the vast majority of society. Crucial to this process of rebuilding and improving the labor movement will be uniting our forces to create a working-class party to stand independently of the corporate two-party system and build political power that will strengthen unions and defend the interests of working people through a socialist program.
Photo Credit: Joe Piette via Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0