At the end of the first day of counting, votes against unionizing at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama lead the yes votes by a nearly 2-1 margin. With almost half the votes counted, that lead will be almost impossible to overcome. Vote counting resumes tomorrow morning.
From the outset, the organizing drive was a David-versus-Goliath story — and the Amazon Goliath used every legal mechanism in its arsenal, along with plenty of illegal ones that the union is contesting, to keep workers from voting for the union. Roughly 55 percent of the warehouse workers voted, with 3,215 ballots cast.
Amazon invested in an epic anti-union campaign, spending more than $10,000 a day to stop the unionization effort. Workers at the Bessemer warehouse were subjected to countless anti-union meetings, hundreds of text messages, threats, and bribes. While there were anti-union signs in the bathrooms and anti-union meetings every day, there were no mechanisms by which the union had that kind of undivided access to workers.
Left Voice is hosting a panel with an Amazon worker in Bessemer and Robin D.G. Kelly, author of Hammer and Hoe, to discuss the results of the unionization vote. Sign up, or check out the Facebook event.
These are illegal repressive measures, so the union is rightfully calling foul. The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is leading the organizing efforts at Bessemer, is absolutely right to contest these results. Amazon cheated and bullied their employees in order to win this vote, and they should not be allowed to get away with it.
Amazon’s anti-union bullying was made possible in part because U.S. labor law is firmly on the side of the employer and offers only meager protections for workers. 3,000 Amazon workers signed cards in favor of the union. And still, there is no union yet. This is because Democrats and Republicans have written and upheld labor laws that make it all but impossible to unionize, because they govern for the rich and the powerful— for the Jeff Bezos’ of the world who want nothing more than to squash every unionization effort to emerge.
Yes, this is a disappointing result. We had all hoped that, despite the cheating and the intimidation, an overwhelming number of Amazon workers would vote for the union. But all signs indicate that that just didn’t happen. The struggle to win a union at Amazon continues, however.
The Cards Are Stacked Against the Union
Amazon is the second biggest private employer in the United States, second only to Walmart. It has fought tooth and nail against unionization efforts, including hiring intelligence analysts to track “labor organizing threats” and spying on employees’ interactions in closed Facebook groups. They’ve fired “trouble makers” like Chris Smalls and countless people whose names we don’t know for speaking out about the working conditions at Amazon warehouses.
In Bessemer, not only did they overwhelm workers with anti-union texts and meetings, they installed a mailbox outside of Amazon, directly defying a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling. In fact, they bullied the Post Office with countless emails into installing the box. This mailbox, installed in the dead of night, was central to Amazon’s union busting strategy. Amazon wanted to make employees bring ballots to work so that they could pressure and monitor employees to submit “no” votes. The mailbox was removed right after the union election.
Further, Alabama is in a deep red, right to work state, which proliferates anti-union propaganda regularly. In fact, Alabama was among the first anti-union “right to work” states, becoming one in 1953.
This deep red state was an unlikely place to successfully take on the Amazon Goliath.
The list of big defeats for unions in the South are long and notorious: the Volkswagen union vote in 2014 and 2019 in Tennessee and the Nissan union vote in 2017 in Mississippi are just two examples. Over the past several decades, U.S. manufacturing has gradually migrated to the South because it was and still is less unionized, and big companies have fought tooth and nail to keep it that way.
At Bessemer, a warehouse worker told Left Voice reporters that younger Amazon workers were those more skeptical of the union. These younger workers are less likely to see Amazon as a long-term job and more likely to compare Amazon’s $15 minimum wage to the $7.25 state minimum wage. They are less likely to have been in a unionized job and are more likely to be swayed by the anti-union meetings as well. As one worker explained, “A lot of [the workers], they’re still in that very impressionable stage. They’re like 18, 19, and so forth. They don’t know anything about a union so [Amazon] can just feed them anything and they’ll just eat it up.”
Yet, the working conditions at Amazon fulfillment centers are nothing short of abhorrent. Workers are allotted only a minimal amount of “time off-task” (TOT) — a period in which they are not mechanically scanning packages. Every move is tracked, and workers who fall below a “productivity threshold” are disciplined or fired. Some workers even pee in bottles to avoid getting in trouble. There are countless reasons to fight for a union.
A Carnival Game Fixed in the Boss’ Favor
Unionization rates among private sector workers dropped dramatically after the neoliberal offensive that began in the late 70s and are now at an all-time low of just 6 percent. This is in part because of union-busting techniques like the ones used by Amazon in Bessemer. However, the low unionization rates don’t correspond to the favorability rating of unions among Americans. Over 60 percent of the US population approves of unions, but unionization rates are so low because laws are stacked against workers.
It’s clear that the vast majority of U.S. workers, when given an honest chance, would prefer to have a union. The trouble is, forming unions is made maddeningly difficult by both the state and corporations. For one, workers essentially need to ratify a union twice — the first time signing up co-workers for a union petition and then, weeks later, getting workers to certify the union. The extensive time between “going public” and actually ratifying the union gives bosses tons of time to interfere with the process and hire law firms that specialize in union busting. Retaliation, extortion, and intimidation are all de rigueur. It’s very common, in fact, for unions to have overwhelming support among workers at a shop before going public but then get beaten in the certification vote due to these union-busting techniques.
And these laws are not only the product of conservative Republican administrations — anti-union laws have been held up by Democrats and Republicans alike. Barack Obama was elected with strong union support and with the promise that he would pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). That would have made unionization significantly easier — workers would only need to ratify the union once by signing a card. But Obama, then-Vice President Joe Biden, and the Democratic majority in Congress refused to touch it once in office. The rules around unionization are a carnival game fixed in the bosses’ favor.
And now, in office, Biden has issued a measly video saying that workers have the right to unionize. The PRO Act would address some, though not all of these anti-union measures. But Biden hasn’t made it a priority to push the Act through in his first 100 days.
There is No Substitute for the Rank and File
RWDSU successfully made the unionization campaign a national phenomenon — the most nationally anticipated union vote in recent years. It received national and international solidarity and huge amounts of community support.
But the RWDSU’s campaign focused heavily on winning the support of Democratic Party politicians — Bernie Sanders, Stacey Abrams, Nina Turner, among others. It had high profile events with these important national figures, and even made hundreds of yard signs with Stacy Abrams as Rosie the Riveter. But union banners showcasing the support of politicians are no substitute for a strong grassroots campaign rooted in rank-and-file workers.
In this sense, the RWDSU leadership should have run a better unionization campaign.
During the decades of neoliberalism, the tradition of militant unionism was lost, and many union bureaucrats have led unions to become tools of the bosses to keep their workers under control. Building a more combative labor movement requires the self-organization of the rank and file. That means organizing outside the limited vision of the bureaucratic union leadership. It means building power from the shop floor, and having mass union meetings, rank-and-file assemblies, and discussions where workers get to voice their concerns and make decisions about how they fight the boss. It means organizing so that workers are talking to each other, not being talked at by bureaucrats. It means giving them the chance to voice their concerns and doubts with each other and by doing so demonstrate to each other their collective strength and power.
Unfortunately, at Amazon, there were no concrete measures to organize workers in rank-and-file assemblies to strategize and decide on the direction and future of the struggle. Left Voice was able to speak to Amazon workers through local connections. These workers said that they had little or no contact with the union beyond a few text messages and a phone call. They didn’t get to discuss or decide on next steps for the unionization effort or to discuss what a union could do for them. This kind of organizing would have been key to push back against the bosses’ lies.
This was a fatal mistake. All the great coverage, meeting with Biden, support from Democrats didn’t build real worker power to overcome Amazon’s anti-union schemes and the maze of anti-union laws that made them possible. There is no substitute for the rank and file. In other union struggles, when the rank and file has gotten involved and been a protagonist of the struggle, they have fared much better. Take the West Virginia teachers in 2018, who organized themselves through community meetings and social media to lead one of the most important strikes of the 21st century, effectively shutting down all the schools in the red state of West Virginia. They not only won many of their demands, but inspired a wave of teachers’ strikes across the country for the next two years.
Top-Down Unions Led By Bureaucrats Turn Workers Off to Unions
Some people are skeptical of unions not only because of the anti-union propaganda by Amazon, but also because they’ve been part of top-down, ineffective unions. Left Voice spoke to one worker who had bad experiences with the UPS union and had doubts about voting yes on the current Amazon union. We also spoke to a member of the community who was previously unionized who said, “Unions sound good, but in reality, they don’t really do much.”
Workers’ wariness about unions isn’t completely unfounded, although it is misguided. In the face of attacks from the bosses, union leaders have capitulated and accepted austerity and failed to fight for better working conditions on behalf of their members. Attacks on the working class have passed without much of a struggle.
The fact that unions can be top-down and refuse to organize workers to fight in their own interests isn’t a reason to give up on them — it’s a reason to fight to make them better. To do this, we must work to build militant unions run by the rank and file, independent of capitalists parties, that fight in the interest of workers and the whole community. But some workers who have had bad experiences with unions just don’t see this as a possibility.
Legal challenges to the results will likely be held up in the NLRB for weeks. For one, hundreds of ballots are being contested, primarily by Amazon.
Further, the RWDSU will likely contest the election, and they are right to do so. Amazon, after all, used illegal measures to stop the unionization effort. If the petition to contest the election is filed by the RWDSU, the NLRB would have to schedule a hearing to decide if the results should be disregarded because the company “created an atmosphere of confusion or fear of reprisals” for workers. If that happens, the NLRB could demand that a new union recognition vote take place.
If a new vote is held, The RWDSU should not make the same mistake twice. Well over 500 workers voted in favor of the union. All of the workers know the kind of bullying and intimidation they experienced. The Amazon workers need an active movement to demand that the NLRB call for a new election — one in which Amazon is not allowed to engage in all of their anti-union bullying. And with or without a union, workers can and should begin to fight for better conditions in their warehouse.
Could This Be the Start of Something?
There is increasing movement among unions and left groups around passing the PRO Act, which would make unionizing easier for workers. However, the fight for the PRO Act doesn’t begin by begging politicians to vote for it, or voting the right people into office. There is no substitute for the rank and file. We need a mass movement, led by rank-and-file workers to pass the PRO Act. But anti-union laws are so extensive that even passing the PRO Act is not enough. We need a movement to strike down every single anti-union law currently on the books and make unionizing as simple as signing a card.
Further, it seems that already, more Amazon warehouses will attempt to unionize. Amazon workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and Southern California have reached out to the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) about unionizing their own warehouses. RWDSU says they have heard from more than 1,000 Amazon workers around the country.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is pushing to unionize workers at Amazon locations in Grimes and Iowa City, Iowa. The drive’s organizers have spoken to between 400 and 500 Amazon workers in the area, which includes the location of a new 1,000-employee facility in Bondurant, Iowa that opened last December.
Perhaps Bessemer workers have already gotten an unstoppable boulder rolling — one that will force the unionization of some of Amazon’s warehouses.
Could this wave begin with a loss at Bessemer? Will the loss at Bessemer be a footnote in a larger story of an Amazon unionization victory? After all, workers in Chicago staged a walkout at an Amazon distribution center just yesterday.
Amazon workers all over the country should see this as a first attempt. One to learn lessons from and try again. Unions are valuable weapons for the working class, but they must be run and organized by and for the rank and file.