A consistent theme of the postmortems on the failed union drive at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., is that the organizers just weren’t ready to take on the tech behemoth. If the labor movement is going to beat a corporate giant, the argument goes, it needs to be smarter and more strategic. It must provide organizers with new and better skills and more carefully pick and choose the sites of its campaigns. To win a single-site union vote or even a broader one against a regional employer, this may be true. But organizing Amazon is taking aim at the core of the global economy. It’s the kind of campaign in which victory could spark a labor surge that brings millions of people into unions and shifts the balance of workplace power for generations. And these sorts of fights rarely happen at the time and place of our choosing.
In Bessemer, disgruntled employees reached out to a local union that had recently notched some big wins; it was what we in the labor movement call a “hot shop.” And the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union did what it could to control the terrain and timing of the campaign, but existing labor law makes that nearly impossible. Still, organizers should take on these potentially paradigm-shifting struggles wherever they emerge—even if they lose more often than they win.
Successful movements grow out of these sorts of failures. We celebrate, for example, the civil rights victories of the Birmingham campaign in 1963 but rarely discuss how the seeds of this success were planted in a failed desegregation campaign two years earlier in Albany, Ga.
As the National Labor Relations Board adjudicates the RWDSU’s accusations that Amazon illegally interfered with the vote, we can draw inspiration from the workers in Bessemer and turn their very public loss to labor’s advantage.
From The New York Times’ live vote ticker to the edge-of-your-seat coverage in the business press and mainstream media, I have never seen a union drive receive so much attention. The whole country saw how the vote pitted a mostly Black, low-wage workforce against one of the wealthiest corporations in the world. People saw how the government agencies charged with protecting workers’ right to organize were unable to prevent an all-out assault on a free and fair election. People saw Amazon draw from the standard anti-union playbook (captive-audience meetings, expensive union-busting consultants, coercion) while adding some of its own innovations: installing a mailbox on company property, surveilling workers on a second-to-second basis, and even changing the traffic light pattern outside the warehouse to make it harder to canvass workers. This campaign was a master class on the need for labor law reform, and we can use the Bessemer union drive to show the public the importance of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act currently making its way through the Senate.
While employers with the wealth and power of Amazon will always try to prevent their workers from organizing, the PRO Act would ban some of the tactics used in Bessemer. Employers, for instance, would no longer be able to change the size of the bargaining unit (the group of workers who qualify to be in the union) in the lead-up to an election. In Bessemer, Amazon insisted on a size almost four times as large as the one the workers claimed. The union had to try to organize thousands of new workers just as the anti-union campaign was heating up.
While this campaign generated opinions from all corners, it has had another significant effect: raising the profile of other organizing efforts at Amazon. We’ve seen Teamsters leaders from California to Iowa debating recognition strikes, job actions from Amazonians United in Chicago, and a renewed interest in the organizing efforts at the Twin Cities’ Awood Center, whose largely East African workers have led multiple strikes at Amazon warehouses and won significant concessions from management in recent years.
None of these efforts will succeed on their own, but in the wake of the Bessemer campaign, we can begin to see the contours of what worker power at Amazon might look like. We won’t get there through a perfectly staffed and centrally coordinated strategy. Multiple lines will need to converge at key moments. To confront corporate domination, we will need international solidarity as well as support from local communities. We need those fighting for Black lives and environmental justice to make worker rights central to their battles. We will need public officials willing to stand on the side of human rights, and we will need workers in facilities around the country to act together. There is no single tactic that will make this movement succeed, but the courageous workers in Bessemer have surely opened the door to many future efforts.
Bessemer was just one fight, and there will be many more ahead. One thing is clear: Only a fighting labor movement can grow, and so it’s up to us to build on what happened and create opportunities for even bolder activity, not to shrink from the challenge and wait for the ideal circumstances that may never come.
Working people are stuck, and the failed campaign to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., is illustrative of the problem. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union came in to help the workers who wanted a union. The RWDSU’s organizers were the experts; they were to guide the workers toward victory. They moved forward with many a traditional union’s boilerplate plan: Get 30 percent of the workers to sign union authorization cards, petition the National Labor Relations Board for a vote, and then push to win by a narrow margin. The election became a media spectacle centered on this bureaucratic maneuvering. Given the RWDSU’s tactics, it should have been no surprise when Amazon routed the union, with 1,798 workers voting against unionizing and only 738 in favor.
In organizer trainings, you often encounter the acronym “AEIOU,” for “agitate, educate, inoculate, organize, unionize.” It’s the Industrial Workers of the World strategy. But RWDSU skipped over the first four vowels and went straight to “unionize.” With this approach, as our friends at the worker organization Amazonians United said in the lead-up to the vote, the campaign in Bessemer was bound to fail. The union seemed to want quick returns on its investment. The campaign was short—just several months—and was based around an election. My organization, Target Workers Unite, uses an entirely different model that requires being rooted in workplaces for years. We think organizers should be workers, not the paid staffers of big unions. That takes time, but it’s the best way to build the power necessary to confront giant corporations like Target or Amazon.
I’ve read a few stories about how the RWDSU is a scrappy union with limited resources, but compared with us, it has a massive war chest at its disposal. It just doesn’t seem to use it for deep organizing. Its superficial campaigns only give credence to the notion that traditional unions are third parties that come in, take your money, and add bureaucracy while supplying few benefits for workers in return.
In my community in Christiansburg, Va., the United Food and Commercial Workers, the parent union of the RWDSU, represents Kroger grocery workers. But Kroger pays many of its workers here less than $10 an hour, while Target starts us at $15. How is this proof of the power of the union if people’s nonunion neighbors are receiving higher pay for doing basically the same job? If you’re a low-wage worker in my community, would you vote in favor of a union? What evidence would you have in your life that unions work?
The RWDSU launched a union vote campaign last year at a Target warehouse in Perth Amboy, N.J., but dropped it with no follow-up. It used the same practices for that flash-in-the-pan campaign as it did for the Amazon campaign. It carted in politicians for publicity but didn’t make the effort to turn employees into worker-organizers.
These labor campaigns will appear to confirm the worst clichés about unions. What’s worse, sometimes the stereotype that big unions are outsiders disconnected from the workers is accurate, and that makes it harder for others to organize.
During the last wave of wildcat strikes in the 1970s, workers learned the importance of rank-and-file independence. They revolted not just against capitalists but also against the unions that they saw as having sold them out. Too much of the left uncritically thinks “unions = good,” but we should remember the lessons of the past: Actual worker organizing is good, but sometimes unions abandon that activity and take the struggle off the shop floor. Instead, these unions focus only on bargaining contracts and lobbying politicians.
In many places and sectors, it’s normal for unions to focus on votes, contracts, and lobbying and not on actual worker power. This affects our efforts as a truly worker-centered labor organization. At Target Workers Unite, when we approach our coworkers, they project these experiences of unions on us without knowing the difference between us and a traditional union that may not bother to learn about our jobs, our working conditions, or even our communities. We believe that you can’t parachute in and expect to win workers’ trust in a matter of months. It takes years of persistent effort to win over coworkers and shift the culture in a community. The type of organizing we saw in Bessemer will push people away in the long term and rarely build enough power to scare the bosses. The other type of organizing will build solidarity within our workplaces and communities to help fight not just declining living standards but deaths of despair and other symptoms of alienation. Labor organizing needs to be about more than just winning a vote or securing a contract. It should be about transforming communities and setting the foundation for a new, egalitarian society.