The Amazon union drive in Alabama, we are told, is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity,” a battle which must be won now lest it slip through our grasp forever. That is not true at all. If the workers at that Amazon warehouse win their historic union, it will be a signal that the labor movement should unleash a broad campaign of similar organizing drives at more and more warehouses across the country. And if they lose? Same thing.
The human mind is naturally wired to make us feel that we are, at all times, the stars (or, at least, best supporting actors) of a movie called “HISTORY,” and that what is happening at this very moment is both the culmination of, and the launching point for, all that has come before or since. We tend to recoil at the idea that we are but tiny insects borne along on mighty winds that were blowing long before we were here, and that will continue long after we are gone, and that the totality of our experience may be just a momentary glimpse of the sun before we are plunged once again into darkness. To the extent that these questions are philosophical or even spiritual — who cares? But when it comes to political action, well, these sorts of perceptions can really matter.
It is always tempting to tell people that the particular fight we are in today is a make-or-break one — that if we win this battle, total victory is ours, and if we lose it, all is lost, so buckle down and focus. But it is almost never true. You may have noticed that every single presidential election of your lifetime has been declared to be “The most important presidential election of our lifetime,” a historic appellation that is inevitably superseded by the next presidential election. Electoral politics, at least, has the excuse that it is composed of an endless series of regularly scheduled recurring events, only one of which is happening at any given time. But when we discuss movements—whether social justice movements pushing a specific cause, or the labor movement, pushing for general worker uplift — we are talking not about a series of things, but an ongoing process, which will never end until humans evolve into some higher form of being with no problems. Just as sharks die if they stop swimming, movements always have to keep moving. Preferably forward.
The temptation to see any given fight as a “make or break” moment has a steep downside. For one thing, it implies that we’ll have it made if we win; for another, it implies that we’ll be broken if we lose. Neither is true. The Amazon union drive is a case in point. It’s easy to see why we would play up something like this as an existential battle: it’s important! It is the single most important union drive of the past several years at least, and unionizing Amazon is an absolutely vital goal for the entire labor movement, to prevent millions more of us from being transformed into heavily monitored warehouse workers in order to further enrich Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. Convincing everyone that this is a chance that will not come along again has a strong motivational effect. But if it were actually true, it would be awful. If this union drive succeeds, about 6,000 Amazon workers will have a union — out of a million. Changing the practices of this monster company will require organizing ten times this number, and then ten times that again. The amount of work necessary to achieve the goal we are aiming for will make Bessemer look like a light warmup. A win just means that we have a formula for unionizing a warehouse that is proven to work. A loss just means that we have a formula that doesn’t work, that should be improved before the union world moves on to the next warehouse, and then the next. Events may succeed or fail, but movements just adapt and keep moving on.
The labor movement is unfortunately susceptible to this counterproductive cycle of hyping itself up for a big campaign, and then losing and wallowing in despair, or winning and assuming that we can rest now. We can never rest! (I mean, any of us can rest when we get burned out, but there should be other people to take our place in the meantime — another great quality of strong movements is that they don’t depend on a single leader whose absence causes them to collapse.) You can discern this tendency in the union establishment’s all-or-nothing rhetoric right now about the PRO Act, a very good labor law reform bill that has zero chance of making it through the Senate as long as the filibuster exists. It is very easy to imagine unions spending the next two years maniacally focused on passing this bill to the exclusion of all else, only to melt into a puddle of regret when Republicans win the next midterms and the bill has still not been passed. Instead of falling into this trap, the labor movement needs to think like a movement: There are millions of workers to organize and thousands of unions to build every hour of every day in every state. None of them may individually make the splash of a brand-name campaign or a revolutionary bill, but collectively, they are the bulk of the substance that makes the movement stronger.
Yeah, get hype for the Amazon union. Make those calls for the PRO Act. Just remember that this is a process, not a championship game to be won. This is a thing that was going on before we got here, that we check into for a while to do our part, and that will continue long after we are all dead and gone. Because the second we stop working, the thing that the movement was built to overcome starts creeping back into our world. Even if we get our asses kicked today, be sure to come back tomorrow. Movements only die when they stop trying.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.