The retail behemoth Amazon has successfully crushed the unionization effort in Bessemer, Alabama. After a nearly two-week delay, preliminary results reported by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Friday found employees at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer voted 1,798 to 738 against unionization. That is a margin of two to one. The results have yet to be certified and could still be challenged by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) given the illegal union-busting tactics Amazon employed.
The loss represents a major blow for the labor movement. Amazon is the nation’s second largest employer — right behind Walmart. A successful unionization vote would no doubt have inspired a ripple-effect at other Amazon locations and throughout the retail industry.
But then, this was never a fair fight. Attempting to unionize under capitalism is an inherently asymmetrical battle — one that inevitably favors the employer.
Make No Mistake: Amazon Bullied Workers to Kill the Union
Amazon engaged in a myriad of scare-tactics — both legal and transparently illegal — to dissuade workers from voting for the union. The retail giant spent more than $10,000 a day to block the unionization effort. The Bessemer warehouse forced employees to attend numerous anti-union meetings, placed anti-union signs in employee bathrooms, and sent employees an endless barrage of text-messages “urging” them (read: instructing them) to vote “No.” Amazon even pressured the USPS to install a private onsite mailbox at the Bessemer warehouse which it used to collect ballots in an effort to monitor votes. The mailbox was promptly removed immediately after the election.
And, to top it off, Amazon tacitly threatened employees with retaliation (if not, indeed, termination) if they voted to unionize. Last year, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, a warehouse worker in New York, for speaking out about unsafe and unsanitary working conditions at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amazon’s PR department then attempted to smear Smalls, who is black, as “not smart or articulate.”
(It is illegal to fire workers for attempting to organize, yet companies still do so all the time. Under “at-will” employment, workers can be fired at any time, for any reason — or for no reason at all.)
As Tatiana Cozzarelli writes in Left Voice, “Amazon cheated and bullied [its] employees in order to win this vote, and they should not be allowed to get away with it.”
In other words, voting to form a union under capitalism is about as “free,” and “fair” as voting for president. In both cases working-class people have little to no real say in the outcome.
It Should Not be This Difficult to Form a Union
Indeed, the very process of forming a union is extremely difficult — and this is completely by design. Workers essentially must vote to unionize twice. The first vote consists of finding fellow workers who are also interested in forming a union and getting them to sign a union petition. Then, in the second vote, workers actually vote to certify the union. There is often a long gap of several weeks or months between the initial petition vote and the certification vote and, as Cozzarelli notes in her piece for Left Voice, this dragged out process gives employers time to mobilize their opposition.
The extensive time between “going public” and actually ratifying the union gives bosses tons of time to interfere with the process and hire law firms that specialize in union busting. Retaliation, extortion, and intimidation are all de rigueur. It’s very common, in fact, for unions to have overwhelming support among workers at a shop before going public, but then get beaten in the certification vote due to these union-busting techniques.
Unionization rates among private-sector workers in the U.S. are currently at an historic low of six percent. (At the height of the labor movement, in 1954, nearly 35 percent of Americans belonged to a union.) Those rates have been on a steady decline since the neoliberal offensive of the Reagan and Clinton eras. Nonetheless, a majority of working-class Americans would welcome a union at their workplace, according to polls. But both corporations and the state make the very process of forming a union ridiculously burdensome and time-consuming.
Don’t Blame the Workers
The Bessemer organizers also had geography working against them. We cannot overlook the fact that Alabama is a deep-red, “right-to-work” state. In fact, U.S. manufacturing has gradually moved to the South in recent decades precisely because it remains largely non-unionized. This is not a condemnation of the Bessemer warehouse workers. Indeed, such a reactionary view only reinforces the false image of the South as a hotbed of right-wing, anti-labor sentiment wherein workers routinely “vote against their own interests.”
To be certain, capitalist propaganda is often quite effective in duping workers into voting against their own interests. But this says more about the power of the ruling class to shape (and warp) workers’ thinking, than it does about the intelligence of the workers themselves. As Marx and Engels understood, the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.
But the average working-class person does not need to be steeped in Marxism to understand that the game is rigged against him. At the end of the day, many Amazon workers may have simply seen the union drive as too risky. Under capitalism, even a horrible, degrading job is still better than no job. That is the “choice” the “free” market offers workers.
The point is, the worst mistake those of us on the left could make is to chalk up the loss in Bessemer to the “backward,” “ignorant” Southerners who simply “do not know what is best for them.” This was the sneering attitude many liberals adopted following Donald Trump’s seemingly unfathomable defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Rather than taking any sort of critical examination of Clinton’s uninspired, neoliberal campaign, liberal writers and pundits simply blamed the “uneducated,” “white working class” voters, who “delivered Trump his victory.” Never mind that it was actually wealthy and petty-bourgeois voters who actually delivered Trump to victory.
This was a toxic (and highly ineffective) talking-point then, and it remains so, today. (An excellent corrective to the popular misconception of the South as a hotbed of right-wing reaction is Robin D.G. Kelley’s 1990 book, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression.)
There is No Substitute for the Rank-and-File
So where do we go after this defeat…?
In the short-term, the RWDSU is likely to challenge the election results. And the Bessemer union drive has already inspired similar unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses in Baltimore, New Orleans, Denver, Portland, Oregon, and Southern California.
The long-term battle, however, will require more carefully thought out strategies for building working-class power. The RWDSU relied too heavily on support from members of the Democratic Party (including figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nina Turner, Sen. Bernie Sanders, etc.) rather than its own rank-and-file workers.
This is not to suggest that such support from Democrats was unwanted or unhelpful, nor that the left should dismiss such outreach from prominent Democrats as a matter of principle. But, as Cozzarelli points out, there is simply no substitute for an organized, militant working-class movement. The left cannot rely on the Democrats to do the heavy-lifting for us. Ours must be a socialism from below, as Hal Draper famously put it, rather than a form of socialism delivered from above by elites.
The Limits of Unions
It is clear workers need their own organizations to counter those of the boss (the Chamber of Commerce, the “Small” Business Association, the Human Resources Department, the capitalist state, etc.) But we must not view labor unions as a panacea.
While unions can certainly play a vital role in curbing the inequality of the capitalist workplace, most union leaders have little interest in abolishing capitalism, entirely. Indeed, many professional union organizers often make a pretty decent living — an irony which, paradoxically, causes them to identify more closely with the interests of the employers than with the working-class union members they claim to represent. This is perhaps why union leadership is often wary of workers utilizing the single greatest weapon they have against the bosses: Their ability to withhold their labor and go on strike. The union bureaucracy will typically do everything it can to avoid a strike.
Socialists’ goal is not to establish a “kinder, gentler” form of capitalism. It is the abolition of capitalism. Our aims should not merely stop at higher wages, better benefits, “affordable” healthcare plans, and other such reforms — significant as these reforms are. We ultimately believe workers should collectively and democratically run their own workplaces. We want to have final say over how our surplus-labor is utilized. We believe in a world without bosses. And we want to live in a world where work does not occupy our every waking moment in life.
Unions, at the end of the day, can only get us halfway toward that goal. It is the difference between, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, reform and revolution.
In the meantime, we must not abandon the fight to organize at Amazon. Bessemer is just the beginning — the opening salvo in what is sure to be a pitched and protracted struggle. Let us keep up the pressure. Solidarity!