High hopes, a tough loss, and the road ahead

The Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama

A Black woman works near large yellow bins as two white men look on. One of the men is wearing a white shirt and tie.
A female warehouse worker toils while Maryland Governor Hogan and an Amazon manager look on. PHOTO: Joe Andrucyk / Maryland GovPics
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“We’re not backing down! We started this thing. We lit the fire! And the fire is not going down!” So declared Jennifer Bates, a leader in the campaign to unionize her Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, at an April rally following the loss of the vote.

Intrepid employees like Bates took on Amazon, the world’s second most valuable company, in a bid to form its first U.S. union. They launched their drive in a state with “right to work” laws that make unionizing drastically more difficult. Their fighting spirit roused an outpouring of support from people across the country.

The story of the bold Bessemer campaign, and its bitter outcome, provides both inspiration and food for thought going forward.

A fight against long odds. By now, knowledge is widespread about the inhumane work environment at Amazon warehouses, including relentless speedup that has led to employees urinating in bottles so as not to use up their limited “time off task.” (See previous Freedom Socialist articles.) In late summer 2020, Bessemer workers intent on bettering their conditions approached the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), affiliated with United Food and Commercial Workers, for organizing help.

More than 85% of the workers at the fulfillment center are Black, and 65% are female. The courage of those who stepped forward typifies the class leadership of Black workers who have persistently defied the odds and built unions in the deeply anti-labor South.

Leftists and labor activists streamed to Alabama and joined calling campaigns to turn out “yes” votes. During a national solidarity day on Feb. 20, supporters rallied in over 50 cities.

Meanwhile, Amazon spared no expense in its assault on its employees’ right to bargaining power. And why should it, given that corporate daddy Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person?

Amazon hired a costly anti-labor firm and left no dirty trick unused. It forced staff to attend “captive audience meetings” where expert union-busters harangued them with lies and intimidation. It plastered anti-union posters everywhere. It convinced the city to change the timing of traffic lights outside the plant gates so that organizers would not have time to talk to employees as they got off shift. And the list goes on.

The result of the vote for RWDSU representation was announced on April 9, a lopsided 738 in favor to 1,798 against, an outcome the union is appealing to the National Labor Relations Board on the basis of Amazon’s underhanded tactics.

The responsibility for the defeat rests first of all with Amazon and pro-corporate U.S. labor laws. But precisely because organizing Amazon will remain a forbiddingly uphill battle, it’s valuable to examine some of the Bessemer campaign missteps.

No shortcuts to success. RWDSU filed with the NLRB for an election on Nov. 20, 2020, only a couple months after first meeting with Bessemer workers in September. The union anticipated that the number of workers to be covered in a bargaining unit was 1,500. But companies are not required to provide this number to a union in advance, and Amazon managed to inflate it to 5,800. That meant RWDSU had gained the backing of a much smaller proportion of the workforce at that point than it thought.

In all likelihood, RWDSU should have slowed down after this roadblock and taken the time to muster majority support through door-to-door outreach (with Covid precautions in place) combined with job actions that would allow the workers to get to know the union, see what it could do for them, and build their confidence. An RWDSU campaign to organize poultry workers in Alabama took two years to mount, with victory coming in 2012.

Organizing in Europe also provides insight into what is needed. After Amazon workers in Germany gained a union, they struck several times. But the company just rerouted deliveries through Poland. In response, the German unionists lent their support to organizing efforts by their fellow Amazon workers in Poland. This led to the establishment of an independent union that now coordinates strikes across Europe.

The need to organize Goliath on its home ground in the United States is clear. Its business model — anti-union, super-exploitative, and crushing of body and soul — threatens to take over most of the economy. To crack this hard nut means carrying forward the energy demonstrated during the February day of action.

The best tool would be a coordinated national mobilization that fosters collaboration among labor groups and supporters with the aim of unionizing regionally or even countrywide, rather than one workplace at a time. Strong solidarity could be built by organizing the rest of the diverse Amazon workforce alongside the warehouse workers, including delivery drivers, techies and office support staff.

Irrepressible. Organizing already in motion could help bring a nationally integrated mobilization to life.

Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, for example, are pushing for an independent union. On the other hand, Amazonians United, a bottom-up organization with chapters from Sacramento to Chicago and New York, concentrates on fostering workplace solidarity with tactics like small job actions, petition campaigns, and walkouts, without driving to unionize. They have won fights for clean drinking water, paid time off, increased Covid protections, and more.

The determination of workers like these, from the Deep South to the coasts, is born from a profound need for change. The fire lit in Bessemer will surely spread.

Contact Wash. Federation of State Employees Local 304 activist Steve Hoffman at stevhoff@earthlink.net.

Also see: Standing up to dirty politics in Seattle

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