For the union to succeed in the historic drive to get recognition at Amazon’s facility in Bessemer, Alabama, USA, fifty-per cent plus one would have had to vote “yes”. Out of the 3,215 workers who voted over seven weeks up to 29 March, 1,798 “no” votes and 738 “yes” votes were recorded before voided and challenged ballots were counted. If the workers had won, they would have been the largest number of workers to certify a union in the private sector in three decades.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is challenging the company for a variety of illegal intimidation tactics. Unfair labour practices charges could provide grounds to overturn the result, extending the battle over unionisation in Bessemer. It would probably be up to the RWDSU’s parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), to provide the necessary resources.
The logistics industry in general has grown immensely in recent decades. Amazon exploded under the pandemic as people were forced to rely more on their delivery services. It is the second-biggest employer in the US, with nearly one million workers to Walmart’s two million. The company added 500,000 employees to its payroll in 2020, bringing its total worldwide employment to 1.3 million workers.
A victory or stronger showing in Bessemer would have been an inspiration to Amazon workers around the country in hundreds of facilities. It would also have had tremendous significance for the organising terrain of the entire South, a region that has been the weak link of the US labour movement as well as the historic base of racial, social, and political reaction.
Amazon knew that a victory in Bessemer would trigger a wave of organising efforts at Amazon facilities across the country. Even as it is, the RWDSU campaign has galvanised workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and Southern California to launch their own campaigns at Amazon facilities.
At the same time, the defeat may temporarily set back many organising efforts occurring at Amazon.
Amazon waged a sophisticated anti-union campaign of threats, intimidation, and surveillance that convinced a majority of workers that joining a union was too great a risk.
Most workers at the Bessemer warehouse had never been in a union before and had never participated in a union drive. While an older generation of Alabama workers were unionised steel and mine workers, today only about 6% of the US private sector workforce is unionised. Many workers simply don’t know what a union is. Many who voted against the union admitted that they knew little about unions and didn’t feel they could trust them.
100% turnover makes building a union base harder. Amazon has built redundancies into its supply chain so that it can simply shut down a fulfillment centre to foil any organising attempts. If the union prevails, workers fear that the company may shut down the warehouse. Amazon has backed away from locations that brought it headaches before. Worker organisation and actions at one isolated facility can be countered by shifting logistics to run work around that facility or simply closing it altogether. However, the company has committed more than $360 million in leases and equipment for the Bessemer warehouse.
There is a lot RWDSU did right. The union has framed the fight around issues of respect and dignity, saying the battle is as much a civil rights and social justice struggle as a labour one. Bessemer, Alabama, is a predominately African-American city and the Amazon warehouse there reflects that with a largely black and female workforce. The union made links between unionising, Alabama’s civil rights history, and the Black Lives Matter movement, as Amazon workers demanded that Black Lives Matter at work too. Amazon’s workforce disproportionally comprises people of colour nationwide.
RWDSU has enjoyed a string of organising successes in Alabama. There is a considerable organic connection between its poultry processing membership in Alabama and the largely black Amazon Bessemer workforce. RWDSU organisers were mostly black workers recruited out of local poultry plants. To RWDSU’s credit, this drive ranks among the largest single organising efforts in the recent history of the American South.
It’s not surprising that across the country thousands of Amazon workers have reached out to unions about getting organised.
The Amazon election would have resulted in the largest number of workers gaining union representation in a single National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election since 1991. But the number of NLRB elections held in the US has steadily declined over the last five years, falling to a low not seen since the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935. Most unions are poorly suited to help workers organise large, powerful companies because they have cultivated a passive membership and rely too heavily on staff resources, or worse on Democratic politicians.
As Kim Moody put it: “Union democracy, or more accurately the transformation of major unions into living democratic participatory organisations and cultures, is a necessity precisely because of the corporations’ massive powers of resistance”.
Jane McAlevey’s 'Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign' should be essential reading for workers seeking to organise.
She argues RWDSU’s lead organisers failed to take into account essential organising lessons learned over the past 40 years.
Last November, when the RWDSU filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to form a union they thought the bargaining unit consisted of only 1,500 of the employees even though there were soon 5,800. Experienced organisers know that you to give workers a strong chance of winning you must have signed up nearly 75% of the workforce in order to withstand the employer’s anti-union offensive. By late December, the RWDSU had signed up only 34%.
Winning usually requires that an internal organising committee has already been acting as a union, winning campaigns in the workplace to change things and standing up for co-workers facing unfair disciplining. Then, when the union election comes, workers feel like they already know the union and are a part of it. In massive facilities with thousands of workers like Amazon, the process of building a strong organising committee and building trust in the organising committee through concerted action can sometimes take years.
Apparently, RWDSU never developed a strong organising committee that took the time to build trust through shop-floor action and organising against the boss. Instead, they rushed a union election or did what is known in union organising as “hot shopping,” where union organisers hope to take advantage of an outburst of anger in a facility over things such as poor Covid working conditions to force and win a quick union election.
Workers also need to believe that there is a credible plan to significantly improve their jobs, income and benefits before taking the risks required to win an uphill fight. Even if the RWDSU had won the union vote, better conditions were not guaranteed. In about half of union victories, workers never win a collective bargaining agreement because of their employers’ stonewalling. It’s hard to believe that winning collective bargaining rights at one lone Amazon facility would lead to a decent contract without a protracted fight.
Amazon will seize on this defeat and ramp up retaliatory attacks against pro-union workers in Bessemer and beyond. RWDSU will hopefully stick with the workers in Bessemer and create a durable organisation inside the facility. Then, building on its first effort, it could seek a second certification election (history shows those have a much better success rate).
• Traven Leyshon is a retired Teamster, member of the Advisory Committee of Vermont AFL-CIO, and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and Solidarity
• Next week: more on alternative approaches in organising.