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Analysis Economic Justice Organizing

Amazon Appears to Defeat Bessemer Union Drive. What Went Wrong?

Read: Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign

The historic union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, AL appears to have been defeated. 

As Voices for New Democracy covered earlier this year, the union drive of 5,800 Amazon warehouse workers with the RWDSU represented the largest labor challenge to Amazon yet in the United States. The effort drove national attention, to the point that even President Biden released a video affirming the workers’ right to hold their election. The efforts heroic, and had it succeeded, it likely would have sparked union elections in other Amazon warehouses across the country. It is no surprise, then, that Amazon pulled out all the stops to defeat it. 

From forcing workers into overtly anti-union meetings, to conspiring with the Bessemer city government to change traffic light patterns to throw off union organizers outside the warehouse, to colluding with the Postal Service to illegally add a voting dropbox to the Amazon site itself, to countless other nefarious efforts — the deck was stacked against the workers from the beginning. 

But the loss cannot be blamed on entirely on Amazon’s massive opposition. If the labor movement and new union drives are to succeed, then we must reflect on our defeats soberly to make sure we do not repeat them. Fortunately, Jane McAlevey’s recent article in The Nation offers a much-needed retrospective of the campaign — where it went wrong, and what we can learn from it. 

McAlevey highlights three general reasons for the loss: Amazon’s own union-busting, weaknesses in the union’s strategy, and the local context within Bessemer. 

The union-busting is nothing novel. On top of the previously mentioned actions, Amazon effectively threatened layoffs if the union drive was successful. In a city suffering from a stagnant economy, such an outcome would be unacceptable. And given Amazon’s enormous influence within the city as a major employer, it is understandable why workers would fear going up against it. Especially considering reports that Amazon was ramping up surveillance and heightening tensions within its sites over the union drive, many employees likely developed concerns that joining the union would lead to Amazon permanently instituting these tensions and hostilities.

Messaging against such a behemoth is no easy task. But difficult opposition is no excuse for giving up. These fights can be won, and to make sure we win the next one, we must explore our mistakes. 

McAlevey offers an important summary of the weaknesses within the RWDSU campaign. For one, the union had a widely inaccurate assumption of how many workers were in the warehouse — while they assumed ~1,500, Amazon quickly countered with a demand to include all 5,800 workers in the campaign, significantly raising the number of employees they would have to win to their side to clear the 30% threshold required to start the election. 

The organizers also fumbled their messaging, particularly around the question of dues. Because Amazon is a right-to-work state, organizers explained that unionization would not necessarily mean workers have to pay dues — but dues are essential to build the power required to take on monstrous employers like Amazon, and the organizers missed an important opportunity to “ask workers why the company suddenly wants to discuss how workers spend their own money.” The organizers also treated the union as an external entity with messages like “the union is on your side,” missing an important opportunity to highlight that the workers themselves are the union.

Organizing tactics were another key issue in the trajectory of the campaign. The majority of face-to-face contact between workers and organizers was happening at the plant gate, effectively giving Amazon a home court advantage. Successful campaigns require house calls because, as McAlevey explains, “[t]he last thing nervous workers want is to be seen near the place they work, talking with union supporters.”

Finally, McAlevey highlights that the campaign simply had not built up the capacity that they needed to win the election. Rather than pursuing public structure tests — where a majority of workers publicly declare their support an action — the organizers declined to ask workers to go public with their support in a misguided attempt to protect the workforce. But what really protects the workers is the collective action of the majority. Ultimately, the organizers ended up reinforcing the atomization and fears of collective action that workers already experience at Amazon. 

Regardless of these weaknesses in the campaign strategy, the final nail in the coffin was the lack of local support. While the campaign quickly garnered national media coverage, it did so at the expense of building relationships with local groups with more direct ties to the community. 

It should be noted that this is not the end of the fight. The RWDSU has already announced that it will dispute the election and file a number of “Unfair Labor Practice” charges against Amazon — and some are still holding out hope for another election down the line. The tenacity is inspiring, and progressives should applaud efforts to try again. But if the union is going to win next time, it must be careful not to make the same mistakes.

Read: Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign

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Commentary Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Commentary: The Unionizing Workers Who Became Amazon’s Biggest Threat

Commentary on the new Vice article, The Unionizing Workers Who Became Amazon’s Biggest Threat.

“It wasn’t lost on workers that Amazon wanted to spend hours filling workers’ ears with anti-union rhetoric, but resisted calls to give workers more time to eat lunch, socialize, and use the bathroom.”

Since the beginning of our transformation to a post-industrial society, and especially throughout the pandemic, we have seen a new wave of consolidation of capital. Nothing exemplifies this quite like Amazon, the digital retail behemoth that has propelled founder Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest man.

But despite promises of innovation, career advancement, community investment, and starting wages of $15/hr, Amazon workers are reporting that Amazon workplaces are increasingly looking like the shop floors of the early Industrial Revolution. They recount how workers are surveilled constantly and hounded to keep up productivity at all costs, leading many employees to forgo bathroom breaks and sleep in their cars in the parking lots of Amazon’s “fulfillment centers.”

Amid these conditions, Vice has published a new article highlighting how workers are finally beginning to push back. Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama are mounting a major unionization effort with the RWDSU that would mark the first American union of Amazon employees — 5,800 of them.

The article is an important look at a union drive that is increasingly seen as a national referendum on unions, with major national figures and even President Biden voicing support for the vote. The Amazon drive could also be an important bellwether for the American labor movement as a whole, as it represents the changing face of the American working class (which is increasingly occupied in the service sector rather than the traditional union strongholds of manufacturing). Downwardly mobile millennials and former union manufacturing workers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are the driving force behind the unionization effort for a workforce that is 85% Black. This intergenerational and interracial solidarity could be the key to their success.

It’s also notable where this effort is taking place. Bessemer has a poverty rate of nearly 25%, but stands out compared to the rest of the South as having a relatively high unionization rate of 8%. As union manufacturing jobs have left American shores, those former union workers are turning to Amazon, bringing with them their direct understanding of the power of organized labor. And historically, Bessemer has been a hotbed of labor organizing going back to the efforts of the Communist Party in the 1930s.

Nevertheless, there are major challenges. Amazon has colluded with the local government to decrease the length of red lights to limit the amount of time organizers can speak with employees on their way to work, and employees report being forced to sit in meetings full of anti-union propaganda. Vice reports that the 18-24 year-old cohort has been especially skeptical of the unionization effort, both because the decades-long assault on organized labor has left many young workers with little understanding of the importance of having a union and also because Amazon has all but threatened to slash pay or even shut down the facility if the union drive is successful. Effectively, they have become so accustomed to low expectations that even the promise of a better workplace seems fanciful.

Whatever the results, this unionization drive represents a major strategic effort for the American labor movement, and deserves close attention.

Read more via Vice: The Unionizing Workers Who Became Amazon’s Biggest Threat