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Watching on Zoom late last week as an NLRB official spent hour after hour pulling paper ballots out of a cardboard box and hollering “NO” at high volume was excruciating. But it was not the most excruciating part of losing a big campaign like the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. That would be right now, when the pundits descend to offer instant critiques of everything that went wrong, like fashion critics insulting what people are wearing to a funeral. Even as a pundit myself, the process is hard to watch.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the union organizing the Amazon warehouse, lost the vote by more than a 2 – 1 margin. After the extreme publicity of the campaign over the past couple of months, such a definitive loss was crushing. More importantly, the workers in Bessemer still do not have a union, and Amazon and the rest of the anti-union world gains the talking point that those workers do not want or need a union. The reality on the ground after the loss is bad, and the narrative it produces going forward is also bad. When any union undertakes an organizing drive, it is good to win, and bad not to. Of these things there can be no doubt.
But the Amazon campaign was extraordinary in so many ways that it needs to be seen in context, to avoid drawing all the wrong conclusions. The RWDSU’s attempt to organize more than 5,000 warehouse workers in the South — going up against the most deep-pocketed company imaginable — gained attention in the first place because it seemed so crazy. Everyone in the union world knew that every aspect of the situation — the size of the unit, the high turnover of the work, the fact that the job was considered a good one by local standards, the fact that it took place in a “right to work” state, the resources that Amazon could deploy against it, the fact that it was an attempt to crack an extremely tough union-free company — made success harder. From the beginning, every union veteran I spoke to about the campaign was hopeful, but skeptical it could succeed.
That conventional wisdom turned out to be true. Reality bites. Looking back on the organizing drive and saying the union should have used different tactics obscures the fact that this campaign, with a unit of that size, in Alabama, under the awful labor law regime that we have in America, probably was not winnable, at least not in the short time frame in which it happened. But that, in turn, obscures a more important fact: It’s good that this campaign happened.
Why would the RWDSU take up such a difficult effort in the first place? Because workers at the Amazon warehouse asked them to. There are many unions in this country that would have politely told those workers to fuck off. The RWDSU, though, tried. They spent many months and many millions of dollars and got the world to turn its attention to Bessemer. If they learned lessons about organizing tactics that could have been done differently, those lessons should be applied to the next campaign. Their effort should still be applauded. There are plenty of lazy people in the union establishment who would prefer to say that they should not be expected to do hard, audacious organizing, because it is a waste of time. They are wrong.
Some have said that this campaign, which received more press than any other union drive in many decades, was too media-focused. Though I fully endorse the idea that the media is annoying, this critique fails to understand the press did not cover this campaign because the union asked it to — we covered it because it had all of the ingredients of a great story. Readers, I can tell you from experience, want to read about labor battles at identifiable companies like Amazon much more than they want to read about labor battles anywhere else. An enormous union drive in an unlikely place full of scrappy, charismatic characters fighting the richest man in the country was going to get news coverage whether the union wanted it or not. It is more accurate to think of the press as an uncontrollable outside force to be managed rather than as an element of an organizing drive that a union can summon or shut down at will. The truth is that in almost every other case, the problem is that tough union drives get too little, not too much, coverage.
Amazon warehouse workers are the single most important segment of the American work force for unions to organize, because they are what the future of work looks like. The effort to unionize Amazon will take decades. We are at the beginning. The attention created by the drive in Bessemer caused hundreds of other Amazon workers across the country to reach out to the union. With luck, it will spawn ten or fifty or a hundred more organizing committees inside other Amazon warehouses. Some of those will die out, and some will build towards a real union campaign. That’s how the work goes. One of the warehouses that continues to organize should be the warehouse in Bessemer. They are probably closer to winning than any other warehouse in America. The loss that just happened was the first round of what will be a long fight.
Leaders of the civil rights movement would often show up in a Southern town, and spend months organizing. The press would show up too. The activists and the people would march, and get beaten up, and get arrested, and the local political establishment would denounce them, and after all that, no laws would change. Did that indicate that their movement had failed? No. They were engaged in individual battles in a war for justice that lasted many years. They, the activists of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, succeeded in their part of that war. Today we have our part. The labor movement, ground down for decades, must be at the center of this part of the war, which is a class war taking place after 40 years of widening inequality. The struggle of the labor movement today is not just against the bosses on the other side — it is also against the deadening forces of inertia inside unions, which makes many prefer to not even try.
I’m sorry that the Amazon workers did not win their union. I’m glad they tried. I’m glad for every single news story that came out of it. I’m glad for every single working person at every other shitty job who saw it and wondered if they might do something similar at their own workplace. I’m glad that millions of people watched all this happen. The only thing left to do now is to keep on going.
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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.