The US labour movement has an unfortunate practice of failing to publicly draw lessons from our setbacks. Yet it’s important that labour and the left learn from the Bessemer Amazon experience. After all, we’ve seen a series of defeats in the South from Volkswagen to Nissan and now Amazon. [On 29 March a government-mandated ballot on union recognition at the Amazon Bessemer distribution centre returned a clear anti-recognition majority].
In this article we want to focus a bit on problems with the strategies and tactics used in the campaign by the organisers; and especially what we need to do differently to win.
One of the factors making organising at Amazon so difficult is the estimated 100% turnover. Injuries in Amazon warehouses are more than double the industry average, and the company has a poor record of workplace derived Covid infections. Workplace surveillance has reached oppressive levels. Many Amazon workers have to rely on food stamps to make ends meet.
With conditions so bad, what explains the defeat in Bessemer?
We need to draw out not only why Amazon won this round, but to especially consider what it would take to win at Amazon, as well as Google, Walmart and other anti-union behemoths. Amazon’s sophisticated union busting operation, some of it illegal, most of it fully legal - including harassing and intimidating workers, and telling bold lies - is well documented and discussed elsewhere. Amazon apparently spent around $25 million to defeat this union drive.
One factor which I think is underestimated by most commentators is the economic desperation and low expectations of many workers. In areas like the South with historically low levels of unionisation, especially in the private sector, with few experiences of effective collective fight back, many workers have a low level of confidence that a union would be able make things much better.
While Amazon pays below the median wage in warehousing and transportation jobs, and Amazon’s pay at its distribution centres start at just above $15 an hour for regular employees, its pay and benefits are better than those found in the industries where Amazon recruits its workers, such as fast food, hospitality, and nursing homes. Many people do flock to Amazon for those wages and benefits.
Amazon’s aggressive campaign has once again shown the need for labour law reform. The predominant conclusion that top labour officials, and much of the left, has drawn from the Amazon vote is to lobby congress to pass the Protecting the Right to organise Act (PRO Act). Labour leaders emphasize passing the PRO Act as a panacea. Thus AFL-CIO President Trumka’s view: “Amazon’s outrageous behaviour is only the latest reminder that our rights have been steadily eroded by a handful of powerful elites. We can’t allow this societal failure to deprive one more worker of the freedom to organise. This is the fight of our time, and it starts with passing the PRO Act.”
The PRO Act is an ambitious attempt at labour law reform which would make union organising easier. The PRO Act would among other things ban captive audience meetings and increase fines on employers who break the law.
However, given the history of four decades of failed attempts at progressive labour law change, including under Democratic administrations, passage of the PRO Act is a long shot. The bill will not pass without a mass mobilisation of unions and allies which would have to include protests, rallies, and workplace actions. Yet this brings us back to the reality that most unions have failed to build strong member driven unions.
And there is nothing that has prevented organising Amazon workers more than the passivity of most unions. Currently, the PRO Act only has the support of 48 out of 50 Democrats in the 50-50 divided Senate. The challenge of passing the legislation also highlights the power of Amazon, which has grown in recent years to become not only the second largest employer, but also the second largest spender on lobbying in the US
Despite the bravery of pro-union workers and hard working organisers, it appears that there were significant problems with RWDSU’s [the union's] campaign.
Were there clear demands developed by the workers put forward? Apparently not. Just dignity, etc. They might have said that with our union we would fight for $20 or so per hour, union safety and health committees, frequent breaks, longer lunch periods, less surveillance, etc.
Organisers chose not to do house calls because of the pandemic. Yet this is an essential part of a successful organising drive. Instead, most of the brief contacts with workers were happening on the road to the plant. RWDSU was also relying on “digital strategies” and phoning Bessemer Amazon workers. These are not substitute for house-calling, identifying leaders, tasking and assessing workers.
The lead organiser explained that, “the access to worker information [the list of eligible voters] doesn’t come until late January, so it didn’t leave us with a lot of time… the biggest thing that went wrong, ultimately, is that there wasn’t enough time to have committee people prepare the masses for the union-busting campaign.” To build a strong campaign with 5,800 workers, four to five months was not enough time. In a massive workplace, the process of building a strong in-plant organising committee, and building worker confidence through escalating actions against the boss takes time. In a strong campaign, the organisers would have assessed virtually every worker in one-on-one conversations and actions several times. Time, or strength, or willingness was lacking to run the kind of structure tests (collective worker actions by a majority that create confidence, demonstrate and test power) to prepare workers to overcome fear and boss intimidation.
By the eve of an election, a lead organiser should have a reasonably accurate, informed projection of how the vote will break down. That the union did not make the painful decision with its key inside supporters to postpone the election seems to have been a blunder.
As happens all too often, Amazon was able to “third party” the union. And the organisers appear to have contributed to the problem. In videos organisers regularly talk about “the union,” as if a union is something other than the workers who are trying to form one. Their slogan “The union is on your side” didn’t help. In a refreshingly self-critical interview with Labor Notes, the lead organiser acknowledged, “I heard us being third-partied by our own folks a few times and I cringed a little bit, but it’s not always going to be perfect.”
A majority of workers need to be convinced that there is a credible plan to win real gains before they would be prepared to stand up to the threats and harassment of Amazon’s intense union busting campaign. Yet, given the redundancy the company has built into its logistics system, wresting meaningful concessions from Amazon would likely require significant pressure at more than one facility.
In the event that the workers won union certification at the ballot box, Amazon would have stonewalled at the bargaining table. Winning a first contract is a major challenge, and almost half of new unions fail to gain a first agreement. Large companies like Amazon can probably only be effectively forced to bargain over wages, benefits, and safety conditions as well, when the whole company is organised into a union. And large bargaining units are harder for unions to organise than smaller ones.
Amazon has built into its supply chain redundancies so that it could plausibly threaten to shut down the Bessemer centre to foil the organising attempt. Yet US labour law typically forces workers to win elections at individual work sites of a company like Amazon, which would require hundreds of separate campaigns.
Organising Amazon’s drivers is also made more difficult due to Amazon’s practice of hiring its drivers through sub-contractors, fragmenting workers in local companies, rather than employing them directly, so Amazon is not the direct employer. When Michigan Amazon drivers voted in 2017 to join the Teamsters, the contractor that hired them shut down. The complaint lodged with the National labour Relations Board alleging unlawful retaliation was lost.
To win real gains, organisers will need to build majorities for strikes within warehouses and coordinate with logistics workers in other warehouses and trucks as well as Amazon tech workers. Fortunately, Amazon workers in Chicago, New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, Southern California, and other places are already organising their own campaigns.
In analysing union decline and the failure to organise the key logistics industry and elsewhere, it certainly is correct to point to the human rights violations embodied in US labour law, vicious union-busters, globalisation, the anti-union corporate media, politicians in service to the corporations, etc., but as Kim Moody writes, this “lets the top leadership, the union hierarchy, off the hook for its own role in the crisis of organised labour… The problem lies in the whole practice of bureaucratic business unionism”
In other countries workers have been able to organise Amazon. This March, across Italy, in the first nationwide strike in the company’s history Amazon workers held a twenty-four-hour strike. Italy isn’t the only country where Amazon workers have been on strike. Germany was first in 2013, followed by France in 2014, Italy in 2017, and Spain in 2018.
Successfully organising at Amazon will require massive resources, far more than one union. The RWDSU, even with backing from its parent, the UFCW, is not going to organise this behemoth (with 819 facilities, up from 359 two years ago. with an additional 286 facilities planned for the future) by itself, even with a better NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] and in the unlikely event that Congress passes the PRO Act to make it easier. Unions will have to learn to work together to target multiple Amazon facilities across the country at the same time.
As far as I know, there are only two or three official union organising drives at Amazon’s hundreds of facilities: in Alabama and two Teamster campaigns. Help elsewhere has come from the small, resource-strapped UE union, allied with DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] members through the Emergency Workplace Organising Committee, or from Amazon workers themselves.
The organising model proposed by experienced organisers like Jane McAlevey is necessary but insufficient to produce the kind of democratic, unions promoting worker self-activity to successfully challenge corporations’ massive powers of resistance. As Moody writes, this “cannot be done with current bureaucratic organising techniques no matter how refined. There are not enough staff organisers in all the unions together to take on even Amazon alone… it will take much more of the sort of worker self-activity and initiative we saw among industrial workers in the 1930s, or among public employees in the 1960s and 1970s, and that we have seen recently in the 2018–19 strikes of education workers, as well as the first signs of action by workers at Amazon.”
It is promising that growing networks of organisers are taking on Amazon, like the grassroots group Amazonians United which describes itself as: “A movement of workers fighting to end management’s domination in our workplaces. We organise with our coworkers to fight together for the dignified lives we all deserve.”
Amazonians United has been forming locals across the country, making contacts around the world, and building on small actions, including wildcats.
It’s also important that unions with significant resources like the Teamsters are planning for the long haul. The Teamsters union is particularly focusing on delivery drivers, many of whom work for subcontractors rather than for Amazon itself. They’re taking the time to learn how the company operates, where it’s vulnerable, and to explore ways to organise that don’t involve immediately moving to an NLRB election.
The Teamsters may be looking to union recognition strikes rather than NLRB elections. The Teamsters National Director for Amazon, Randy Korgan, says, “There are many platforms to seek recognition, there are many platforms for workers to do concerted activities… Truth be told, that [NLRB] process is where corporate America wants organising to be, and that’s how they want it to be defined. Because they clearly have more of an advantage there than they do in other spaces…”
Community support too is essential to create a supportive context for workers to take on Amazon. The Bessemer workers received strong support from worker and community coalitions like the Southern Workers Assembly, DSA, and the political support of electeds like Senator Bernie Sanders. However, the experience shows that without deep internal organising, no amount of external support can overcome the power of a corporation like Amazon.
Socialist groups like DSA should be training and supporting members who take jobs at Amazon to help organise from within, either through efforts like Amazonians United or salting for a union. Socialists should take rank and file jobs in companies like Amazon, and industries that are of strategic importance, and work to build up a militant minority of workplace leaders.
DSA member Hannah Ehrlinspiel explains the case for socialists to take on internal rank-and-file organising: “The capitalists know that logistics is far too important a battlefield to give up in the class war — do we?” The logistics industry is central, not just to retail (as with Amazon and Walmart), but also to global just-in-time manufacturing. So, it is a key arena where organised workers could potentially exercise a great deal of structural power.
• 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