How to Lose a Union Drive

How to Lose a Union Drive

The failed campaign to organize Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., holds key lessons. Whether organizers learn them is another matter.


Jane McAlevey has written a thorough postmortem on the lopsided loss suffered by union supporters in Bessemer, Ala. Anyone interested in the fate of workers and organized labor in the United States should read it, print it out, and tape it to the wall next to their desktop. Her conclusion is clear: “There’s plenty of evidence of what works. Social media and shortcut digital approaches don’t work when fear and division is the central weapon. Workers can win unions—and workers can strike and win. It is hard as hell, and to do that requires a no-shortcut approach.”

McAlevey brings a lifetime of experience and study to her analysis. But, while she describes in detail the early warning signs of the debacle in Bessemer, she leaves out the fundamental touchstone that generates quality organizing and is absent from superficial attempts. That touchstone is ownership.

I’m reminded of a dinner I had with a fellow organizer in a Chicago diner more than four decades ago. As we finished our sandwiches, he asked me what I would be doing that evening. I said that I had four individual meetings lined up with potential leaders in a neighborhood. He asked me why I was doing that. He said that he had met a leader I’d found and thought that she was top-flight. What more did I need? He had found one similarly talented leader. I told him that I thought that one leader was not enough, that more leaders who believed in the issue and were willing to bring themselves and their followers to the effort would be essential. In fact, I said, I thought that’s what organizing entailed. He seemed to think I was wasting my time.

It occurred to me that night that we represented two very different views of organizing. He believed that organizing required finding an appealing issue, identifying a capable spokesperson, and then doing intensive research, analysis, fact sheets, media outreach, and such. My view was that all that was necessary, but not sufficient, that the key was the breadth and depth of leadership and the degree to which a much wider body of leaders owned the issue and were willing to invest time and energy, over an extended period of time, in its resolution.

Ownership is the touchstone for experienced organizers. And that gets expressed in many ways. McAlevey describes how the union spearheading the Bessemer effort shied away from the issue of dues, even noting that workers didn’t have to pay dues. There is no more dramatic way to convey to people that they don’t really own a congregation or association or union than to say that they don’t have to pay for it. Progressives are often skittish about this matter. They don’t want to ask poor people or working poor people for dues. They fail to recognize that people will pay for things, do pay for things, that they own and highly value—like their churches. Not to ask for dues is a disaster.

McAlevey also describes all the other dynamics that undermined local ownership—not going to people’s homes, using celebrities to make public statements, inviting Bernie Sanders in to speak, not engaging local pastors and civic leaders. Again and again, the union acted as if it owned the campaign, not the local workers and their local relatives, neighbors, fellow congregants, and friends.

In essence, the effort was a textbook case of a lack of understanding the need to keep drive and disinterest in tension. Many organizers pride themselves on their drive—working long hours, sacrificing personal lives, sleeping little, drinking much, moving from campaign to campaign. But they forget the need for disinterest—for being objective about the odds of success, for holding back their own emotions and priorities and letting local leaders express their own, for not engaging in a campaign if the local ownership isn’t broad enough or deep enough.

The way my colleagues and I have embraced this tension is to ask a critical question of ourselves before we think we are at the point of launching a new power organization or initiating a major campaign.

That question is: Can we organize? Years ago, two clergy leaders invited me to their city. They had heard about our impact in East Brooklyn and other places and hoped that they could create the same kind of powerful and independent power base in their community. They gave me the names of about 20 other clergy and community leaders, and I began to do individual meetings with them. What I heard was sobering. In this place of intense devastation and decline, one leader would express interest, but then would say, “But only if so and so is not involved.” Then I’d go to that leader, and she’d say, “This would be great, but don’t expect me to work with another set of leaders.” This pattern persisted. Individual leaders expressed interest, but there was little or no willingness to work out differences between and among themselves to create the kind of broad and representative base needed to succeed. My drive as an organizer, as I drove through those blasted blocks and past the neglected schools and parks of that city, was to dig and get to work. But my disinterest—my understanding that enough local leaders had to set aside their past disputes and figure out how to work together—prevailed. So, after six months of effort, reluctantly, I stopped.

This process of identifying a critical mass of trusted leaders willing to hash out differences for the sake of long-term impact, respected leaders who have a strong commitment to the long-term enterprise that every effort to build power requires, leaders with followings whose ownership will only deepen and grow over time, is one of the three criteria we use to decide whether to proceed. The second is the willingness of institutions to pay dues for this kind of organizing effort. And the third is commitment to training and leadership development that involves a broad base of people. No issues. No action. No program. No media attention. No hype.

This is a kind of discipline—not rushing into action and launching a public campaign—that the organizers in Bessemer failed to exercise.

Over the past nearly five decades, I’ve met hundreds of remarkable leaders who are very skeptical at the start. They are often silently asking three of their own important questions. One, is this guy authentic, genuine? Two, can he be useful to me in addressing the issues that harm my family and community and workplace? And, three, does he respect the fact that I and people like me, in this community, at this moment, need to own and drive the actions of the organization? If, over time, they answer affirmatively, then the opportunities for deep and sustained constructive change go way up. If they answer negatively, then outside organizers can throw millions of dollars, legions of activists, and endless tweets and social media posts at a community, and nothing will change. That’s what happened in Bessemer. And it will happen every time, if organizers don’t learn these lessons.

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