The Message from the Amazon Union Defeat in Alabama Is Clear: Keep Organizing
The union’s loss in Bessemer shows the urgent need for both labor law reform and organizing at a mass scale.
Rand Wilson and Peter Olney
On April 9, the National Labor Relations Board announced the results of a mail ballot certification election that concluded on March 29 for workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. With 3,215 votes cast, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was defeated with at least 1,608 votes against the union, enough to crush the drive. The result was not shocking given the millions of dollars that Amazon spent and its power inside the facility to pressure workers to vote against forming a union.
No matter how you spin it, the defeat is a significant blow to the multitude of organizing efforts occurring at Amazon. The election showed the clear limitations of pursuing union certification through a broken NLRB election process. However, due to the national attention and support that the campaign received, now more Amazon workers than ever are thinking about the possibility and potential of organizing. Hopefully, the campaign in Bessemer will encourage unions and workers throughout the company to consider alternative organizing strategies.
Despite the valiant efforts of the workers, Amazon — which has more resources than nearly any company in the world — was able to blunt their momentum through its anti-union campaign. As expected, management engaged in the usual one-on-one and captive audience meetings to persuade workers to vote “no.” But management went further, using a barrage of email, texting and social media posts and even luring unhappy workers to quit with cash buyouts, messages posted in bathroom stalls, and changing the timing of traffic signals to gain advantage. The loss confirms what many of us in the labor movement already know — the balance of power is completely out of whack in this country, with big corporations twisting the rules to stay in charge and keep workers’ voices silent.
But this is hardly the last word on organizing Amazon. Management’s aggressive campaign illustrated to the whole country the need to fundamentally change the rules of the game so that workers everywhere can more easily form unions. The pressure on elected officials to enact long overdue labor law reform should increase.
The “BAmazon union” drive received more press and attention from the public than any other union election in recent memory. The focus on the campaign helped bring increased scrutiny to the reality of working conditions at Amazon — in Bessemer, across the country and around the world. Critical, in-depth reporting on the inner workings of Amazon increased as the drive gained national interest. For example, in February, The New York Times Magazine covered the community and labor organizing taking place in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, an important area to Amazon because of its proximity to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), has run several excellent exposes of Amazon’s anti-union conduct, including a March 9 story that reported: “Many of the 5,805 employees in Bessemer …receive four or five emails a day from the company to discourage unionization. …The company has pressed its anti-union case with banners at the warehouse and even fliers posted inside bathroom stalls.” Labor Notes has already published more than 20 articles about working conditions and labor organizing at Amazon, and there were dozens of reports in all major news outlets leading up to the vote count.
Public support from other labor unions, community groups and elected officials has also been impressive. On February 20, and again on March 20, dozens of actions took place nationwide in support of the Bessemer workers. The call for those actions went out from the Southern Workers Assembly, an organization founded in 2012 by veteran labor and Black Workers for Justice organizers. On March 2, the organization issued a statement summarizing its view of the importance of the organizing in Bessemer:
“The Bessemer workers launched their campaign at a time of increasing repressive government and the rise of a racist and divisive social movement that threatened to turn back the clock on basic democratic rights. Like the 1955, Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott during a similar repressive and divisive period, the Bessemer Amazon workers led by the 80-percent Black and women majority and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), stepped forward.”
Why is it so hard to form a union?
The attention to Bessemer, and the extent that Amazon has interfered in the workers’ decision, has illustrated our broken labor relations system. Free choice by workers to form a union has turned into a corporate obstacle course where workers are subjected to both one-on-one and captive audience meetings, along with constant pressure via email, texts, social media, and physical postings — even in company bathrooms.
A far simpler way for workers to gain union certification and their collective bargaining rights is through a procedure called “card check.” If a simple majority of workers sign cards authorizing a union to be their representative, then their employer would be compelled to recognize and negotiate with the union that workers chose. This provision was part of the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that, despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, died during President Obama’s first term. Unfortunately, card check isn’t part of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) now pending in Congress. Although the PRO Act passed the House with bipartisan support, unless the Senate changes the rules around the filibuster, the bill faces an uphill battle.
On February 28, President Biden gave a powerful endorsement of the union effort in Bessemer. While not mentioning Amazon by name, his support for the union drive couldn’t have been clearer. This was an unprecedented move. Labor activists have long dreamed of a contemporary president mimicking what President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reputed to have said in the 1930s: “The President wants you to join a union.” But it turns out that this history is actually a myth. Roosevelt never said such words in a fireside chat or in writing. John L. Lewis, the Mineworker leader and other CIO organizers just repeated it over and over until it became part of labor folklore. Biden’s speech was a reflection of the debt he owes to the labor movement for his narrow win in November 2020, and of the growing favorability towards unions — 48% of workers now say they would join a union if given the opportunity.
RWDSU’s effort at Bessemer was unexpected. It appears that not even its parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was aware of the drive until the NLRB made the election filing public on November 20, 2020. However, successfully organizing workers at a company like Amazon with 1.3 million employees and hundreds of fulfillment centers, sortation centers and delivery stations in the United States will require the massive resources of far more than one union. It also will necessitate the internal organizing efforts of tens of thousands of workers in networks like Amazonians United, which describes itself as: “A movement of workers fighting to end management’s domination in our workplaces. We organize with our coworkers to fight together for the dignified lives we all deserve.”
Internal organizing alone will still be insufficient. Community support is essential to create a supportive context for workers to take on their employer. Amazon workers received strong support from worker and community coalitions like the Southern Workers Assembly, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the political support of elected officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and many more. While the national support from celebrities and political leaders is welcome, it’s even more important to have the community’s civic and religious leaders and local elected officials in your corner.
Amazon’s business model is particularly challenging for organizers. With its inventory system and use of state of the art robots, a job that took 60 to 75 minutes can now be done in 15 minutes, and its warehouses can now hold 40 percent more inventory. The “random chaos” that Amazon uses to fulfill consumer orders creates built-in redundancy in its distribution network. Worker organization and actions at one isolated facility can be countered by shifting logistics to run work around that facility or simply closing it altogether. There’s nothing new about companies avoiding a problem union or an upstart workforce — UPS and other shippers have been doing it for decades. It will take many more drives like that in Bessemer — at points all along the Amazon delivery chain — to give workers the confidence and means to fight for their rights and win good wages and working conditions.
None of these caveats should detract from the significance of this drive. Bessemer takes its name from the steel production process pioneered in Birmingham, England — the home of the modern steel industry and the name of the Alabama city next door which has historically been a mining and steel production center with considerable union density. While RWDSU was guarded about the degree of internal organization, there is a considerable organic connection between its sizable poultry processing membership in Alabama (about 6,000 members) and the largely African-American Amazon Bessemer workforce. To RWDSU’s credit, the organizing drive ranks among the largest single organizing efforts in the history of the American South.
Going forward, we are likely to see more unions joining in the effort to organize Amazon. The Teamsters have already begun building rank and file awareness with its UPS membership about the threat that Amazon poses to its contract standards with the hope that members will assist a broad campaign. It’s already resulted in local unions hearing from Amazon workers interested in joining. For many years now, the Service Employee International Union has supported the Awood Center which assists immigrants organizing at Amazon in the Twin Cities region. Now, RWDSU has entered the field in Alabama and gained many organizing leads at other facilities to follow up on. Aside from unions, Athena — a network of over 50 non-profits, worker centers and labor unions — is playing a high-profile role in the policy and legislative arenas advocating for Amazon workers and the communities impacted by its business. And Amazonians United has emerged as a burgeoning network of in-plant organizers dedicated to building strong workplace committees. A confluence of all of these forces, and much more, will be required to seriously take on Amazon.
The workplace focus is key. And the newfound focus on organizing in the South will remain crucial. Saladin Muhammad, a retired UE organizer and leader of the Southern Workers Assembly, commented on this dynamic on March 11:
“There is a recognition that the South needs to be organized as a part of building a stronger labor movement throughout the US. For a long time, the confidence of the working class in the South and the effort to organize has been very weak. Attempts to unionize the Volkswagen and Nissan plants in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi, are indications of organized labor’s recognition of the importance of organizing core industries in the South. This is a recognition that has not really existed probably since Operation Dixie in the late 1940s. …I think it is drawing even more attention than the Volkswagen and the Nissan campaigns. It has the opportunity to deepen the struggle around race as a part of the working-class struggle. I think there are some real possibilities with this campaign.”
Despite losing the election, there needs to be continued focus on building solidarity with the workers in Bessemer. Management should be held accountable to the promises it made to deter support for collective bargaining and the key union leaders need to be protected from any retaliation for their efforts to support the union. RWDSU will hopefully stick with the workers in Bessemer and create a durable organization inside the facility. Then, building on its first effort, it could seek a second certification election which history shows have a much better success rate.
Solidarity on a national level was impressive. Organizations like the Working Families Party and Our Revolution that stepped up during the campaign will be needed to help connect the Amazon workers’ struggles to other movements for justice.
And groups like DSA will be crucial to supporting young cadres who take jobs at Amazon and want to help organize from within, either through Amazonians United or a specific union. The setback in Bessemer shows that without deep internal organizing and base-building, no amount of external agitation and support can overcome the power of a corporate behemoth like Amazon. Workers need to be steeled in the experience of confronting their supervisors on the warehouse floor, marching on the boss in the front office — and walking out when necessary — in order to prepare themselves to win a battle for union recognition. It is poetic that on the day before votes began to be counted in Bessemer, workers at an Amazon Chicago-area delivery station, “DIL 3” in Gage Park, staged a one day walk-out against the new “megacycle” schedules being imposed on delivery station employees.
If we are serious about organizing at Amazon, we have to redefine what “winning” means. If it’s about one election or even one contract, we are in for some serious disappointment. Instead, it must be about the uprising of tens of thousands of workers supported by unions and community groups and backed up by elected officials willing to use the levers of government to the workers’ advantage.
One concrete step towards building that movement would be better coordination and unity among the logistics and transportation unions, especially the Teamsters, the longshore unions, and the railroad craft unions. Better results can also be achieved by strengthening the cooperation between in-plant worker organizing by groups like Amazonians United, formations like the Southern Workers Assembly, and the multiple labor unions that are prepared to assist. As the political and regulatory context for Amazon evolves, the workers’ movement should also anticipate — and where possible lead — major structural reforms to Amazon’s business model.
The lopsided defeat of the Bessemer workers’ organizing effort is not the first setback for labor at Amazon, and it won’t be the last. The lessons from Amazon organizing initiatives — including the Bessemer drive and workplace actions — should be carefully analyzed and catalogued in a searchable format for future reference. As Amazon workers’ level of militancy and organization grows, our challenge is to make sure that each action strengthens the movement and builds workers’ confidence in the power of collective action. That’s what inspires workers to “ditch the fear” and expand their on-the-job support for unions.
Despite the outcome at Bessemer, the organizing campaign has already made a major contribution to public perceptions about Amazon and the urgent need for labor law reform. Amazon workers’ struggle for dignity and justice is only getting started.
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Rand Wilson is an organizer and chief of staff at SEIU Local 888 in Boston.
Peter Olney is the retired Organizing Director of the International Longshore and warehouse Union (ILWU). He has been a labor organizer for over 40 years.