The BAmazon Loss and the Road Ahead

Joe DeManuelle-Hall

April 16, 2021

The election loss is a setback, but it shouldn’t be understood as a failed test of whether or not Amazon can be organized. The history of the union movement in the U.S. is full of losses that came before big wins. Photo: Joe Piette (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

What can union activists across the country take away from the high-profile defeat in the union vote at Amazon in Alabama?

The National Labor Relations Board announced April 9 that workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, near Birmingham, had voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

The tally was 71 percent no to 29 percent yes—though it’s possible the actual split was closer to 60-40, if you consider the large number of ballots that were cast but never counted because they were challenged by the company.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN?

Hopes were high. The drive had garnered enormous favorable press coverage and even support from the White House. Nevertheless, the loss was no surprise to many in labor. Amazon is one of the world’s most powerful corporations, and organizing is notoriously difficult under U.S. labor law.

Some aspects of the campaign gave observers pause, like the shortage of workplace leaders who were willing to speak up publicly. From years of won and lost union drives, there is some accumulated wisdom about what it takes to overcome employer tactics.

At the same time, we should be wary of anyone who claims that a win is guaranteed if you just follow all the right steps. This was always going to be a tough fight.

It would help us all to know more about how it unfolded—especially since organizing at Amazon is likely to take many attempts.

Far too often there is a void of reflection in the wake of a union loss. Union staff and leaders like RWDSU’s Stuart Applebaum will cry “Monday morning quarterbacking” at observers who try to make sense of why things went wrong.

But what do they expect? Labor can’t afford to waste the opportunity to learn something new about how a particular strategy worked under particular conditions.

That requires honest reflection by those directly involved—rank and filers, officers, and union staff alike. I’m happy to see some early signs that this is happening.

LABOR LAW HOSTILE

Amazon fought the union drive as many employers do, with captive-audience meetings and direct communications on steroids. It may have broken the law by installing a mailbox on company property for mail-in ballots with an assist from the Postal Service, because this could be considered surveillance; a re-run election might still be ordered.

With the exception of the mailbox, this is all unfortunately quite routine. We haven’t heard about the company threatening, disciplining, or firing any of the organizers (yet), which is common in union drives and which Amazon notably has done elsewhere. But workers were, as they are everywhere, afraid to stick their necks out for fear of being fired or disciplined.

The Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, now making its way through Congress, would have stopped Amazon from doing some of these things. Captive-audience meetings would have been barred. Amazon would have had no say in defining the bargaining unit (the union found itself with almost four times the number of eligible voters it had planned for, just weeks before voting began).

Common violations like disciplining, threatening, and firing union supporters would see actually meaningful penalties. The law would also create an arbitration process for first contracts, dis-incentivizing employers from dragging the process out forever.

IT’S ON US

Would all of this have changed the outcome of this particular vote? It’s impossible to say. Would it have made workers less afraid to stand up and put themselves forward as leaders in the warehouse? Possibly.

Would it mean that they could win a strong, enforceable contract that could inspire other Amazon workers to organize? Perhaps—though wresting big concessions from Amazon would likely require significant pressure at more than one facility, given the redundancy built into the company’s distribution model.

The PRO Act would change the terrain, before and after an election. It would unquestionably make it easier to win elections and first contracts, and open up space to build stronger unions. Unions should fight tooth and nail for legislation like this that gives workers a meaningful right to organize.

But we will still need to build strong, democratic organizations that engage broad swaths of workers in building workplace power—unions that make workers want to join. The PRO Act won’t do that part; it’s on us.

JUST ONE BATTLE

Last week’s loss is certainly a setback. But it shouldn’t be understood as a failed test of whether or not Amazon can be organized. The history of the union movement in the U.S. is full of losses that came before—and in the midst of—big wins.

You’re Going to Lose More Often Than You Win
One hard reality about organizing: you’re going to fail a lot. You’ll lose more often than you win. This doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
You’ll start a lot of things that won’t go anywhere. In fact, if that’s not happening, it means you’re not trying enough things.
One action usually doesn’t carry the day; it takes persistence. And even a well-planned campaign, with a strong issue, good leaders, and escalating tactics, will often end in defeat.
Scratch beneath the surface of any big victory, and you’ll find it was preceded by a series of losses. You keep losing until you win.
Chin up. Learn everything you can from every loss. Find the silver linings, such as the new activists and supporters you recruited. Shore them up and build for the next time.
See each fight as a chance to practice playwright Samuel Beckett’s advice: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
—Secret #45, Secrets of a Successful Organizer

It’s true that a big, public loss can discourage workers from further organizing. It is our duty to be smart and thorough, and fight to win every time.

However, we shouldn’t get caught in the media frenzy about the overwhelming historical significance of a single election. If we let the establishment press dictate our lessons learned, the labor movement would have packed it in a long time ago.

Organizing has ripple effects that we can’t always perceive while we’re in the midst of a campaign. Those ripple effects can be positive (getting a sense of “Hey, we could do that here!”), negative (a wave of hopelessness), and everything in between. Predicting them is difficult.

This loss could prompt a wave of disappointment—though, judging from anecdotal conversations I’ve had with Amazon workers in other facilities, it doesn’t seem to be having much effect at all. Regardless, we still know that many workers want to fight for better working conditions and confront the petty—and not-so-petty—tyranny in their workplaces.

Many workers want unions. Many workers at Amazon want unions. That’s not going to disappear because the company won this time.

THE LONG VIEW

Union fights against behemoths like Amazon can take decades of building; of trying different things; of organizing, re-organizing, and re-re-organizing.

In the excellent book Rank and File—a collection of oral histories from organizers involved in the mass union drives of the 1930s and 1940s—Stella Nowicki, a packinghouse worker in Chicago, talks about how the failed organizing drives and strikes in steel and meatpacking immediately after World War I contributed to victories decades later.

Workers in new efforts brought in organizers from earlier efforts to talk about what had worked and what hadn’t. Workers who had taken part in that organizing were still around in the early ’30s, and provided a continuity of experience. And still, it was only during World War II—four decades after the failed strike of 1904, two decades after the failed 1921-22 strike, and almost a decade after Nowicki started organizing—that packinghouse workers won union recognition.

The 1970 wildcat strike at the U.S. Postal Service that led to the legalization of collective bargaining for postal workers came 65 years after the formation of the predecessor of the Postal Workers (APWU). Postal unions had existed for decades, often as lobbying and beneficial organizations, before the confluence of the civil rights movement, raised political expectations, and worsening conditions helped workers mobilize a national strike.

More recently, for thousands of workers at Smithfield’s slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, it took 16 years and three elections to win a union. Workers fought through labor law violations, racial division, intense employer intimidation, and questionable organizing decisions to ultimately win a massive union election in a state with one of the lowest union densities in the country.

What is promising is that many organizers taking on Amazon—from the grassroots group Amazonians United to international unions with sizeable war chests like the Teamsters—are hunkering down for the long haul. They’re taking the time to understand how the company operates and where it’s vulnerable, and exploring ways to organize that don’t involve moving immediately to an election.

There will likely be more failures before there are major successes—and there will likely continue to be losses even in the midst of the wins we hope to see. As Labor Notes put it in our book Secrets of a Successful Organizer, “Scratch beneath the surface of any big victory, and you’ll find it was preceded by a series of losses. You keep losing until you win.”

This was originally published by Labor Notes on April 14, 2021

Comments
  • George Feldman says:

    Firing individual activists is common, of course, but the most important employer weapon, by far, in organizing drives such as this one, is the fear of a mass firing–that is, that the company will close the facility if the union wins. The more anti-union and vicious the company’s reputation, the more this fear seems realistic. Every “union avoidance” firm knows this, and they know that unless they are incredibly stupid, it is an easy message to get across. Solutions are difficult but possible: for example, repeated quickie strikes that last a day or two, a demand to negotiate a members-only contract without any representation vote, combined with a national corporate campaign.

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