Earlier today the National Labor Relations Board announced the results of the vote on whether workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., would join a union. The vote was 738 in favor to 1,798 against. It’s bad news, but it doesn’t mean workers in future Amazon campaigns won’t or can’t win. They can. The results were not surprising, however, for reasons that have more to do with the approach used in the campaign itself than any other factor.
The stories of horrific working conditions at Amazon are well-known. Long before the campaign at Bessemer, anyone paying even scant attention would be aware that workers toil at such a grueling pace that they resort to urinating in bottles so as not to get disciplined for taking too much time to use the facilities, which the company calls “time off task.” Christian Smalls was fired a year ago for speaking publicly about people not getting personal protective equipment in his Amazon facility, in bright-blue state New York. Jennifer Bates, the Amazon employee from the Bessemer warehouse, delivered testimony to Congress that would make your stomach turn. Workers at Amazon desperately need to unionize, in Alabama, Germany—and any other place where the high-tech, futuristic employer with medieval attitudes about employees sets up a job site of any kind. With conditions so bad, what explains the defeat in Bessemer?
Three factors weigh heavily in any unionization election: the outrageously vicious behavior of employers—some of it illegal, most fully legal—including harassing and intimidating workers, and telling bold lies (which, outside of countries with openly repressive governments, is unique to the United States); the strategies and tactics used in the campaign by the organizers; and the broader social-political context in which the union election is being held.
Given Amazon’s total efficiency in delivering packages, and its new dominance in Hollywood as a key film and TV series producer and financier, it’s not difficult to imagine that its union busting operation is top of the line. There is nothing new about the ruthless nature of employer campaigns to defeat unions. If you need a refresher, read Confessions of a Union Buster, by Martin Jay Levitt, published in 1988. The book is written by a former hired hand of employers. It’s filled with swagger, as it should be, given how many campaigns Levitt helped destroy. In it, he tells the reader, “Union busting is a field populated by bullies and built on deceit. A campaign against a union is an assault on individuals and a war against the truth. As such, it is a war without honor. The only way to bust a union is to lie, distort, manipulate, threaten, and always, always attack. Each ‘union prevention’ campaign, as the wars are called, turns on a combined strategy of disinformation and personal assault.”
One perusal of Levitt’s book—which should be required for all union organizers and activists—and you get a sense of just how deeply stacked the deck is against workers trying to form unions in the United States (and, increasingly, the world, as union busting is now a hot service-industry export). His book, the Amazon campaign, and just about every union election since the Reagan era are proof enough that to stand any chance of reversing the diminishing fortunes of America’s workers, HR 842, the Protecting the Right to Organize [PRO] Act of 2021, which just passed the House, is desperately needed.
Support for unions today is at record highs, and support for big business is at historic lows. Sadly, popular support for any proposal has little if nothing to do with legislation getting approved by Congress. Given the history of failed attempts at progressive labor law change under Democrat-controlled administrations—even with majorities in both houses—passage of the PRO Act seems like a long shot. But in spite of the many obstacles thrown in the path of workers trying to form unions, lifting up the strategies and tactics that have led to the most successful outcomes is crucial. To accept the defeat of hard-to-win unionization campaigns is to accept a very bleak future. To stand a chance at winning the hardest campaigns, the best methods must be deployed from the earliest days of a campaign and followed throughout the election. Wishful thinking and inexperienced hunches have no place in a campaign against an employer as sophisticated and well-resourced as Amazon.
The Many Warning Signs in the Campaign
Inaccurate list of workers. From the get-go, the campaign in Bessemer had what many experienced organizers recognized as nearly fatal flaws. The first of these was a widely inaccurate assumption about how many employees worked in the warehouse. When the union filed the official paperwork with the NLRB to hold the election on November 20, 2020—a time when few were paying attention to anything other than the United States presidential election—the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) assumed that there were 1,500 workers at the warehouse. Not long after the RWDSU filed, Amazon responded to the NLRB that there were approximately 5,800 workers in the warehouse. Once the union took this first step in the process—the official act of filing for the unionization election—it triggered the truly byzantine legal process that governs union elections in the United States. Amazon’s lawyers argued that if the union believed only 1,500 employees were eligible to vote in the election, the union wouldn’t have what is called a sufficient “showing of interest,” which requires 30 percent of all employees’ having signed authorization cards stating that they wanted to hold a union election.
Jane McAlevey is The Nation’s strikes correspondent and the author of A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. She is a senior policy fellow at the University of California’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.
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