March 25, 2021
Little Rock The Amazon warehouse election that is voting by mail ballots now in Bessemer, Alabama has brought a lot of attention to the labor movement, its current standing and future prospects. President Biden stepped up front to support workers’ rights to organize and the value of union membership and on-the-job protection, especially for minority workers, in a way that no president has done so over the last more than fifty years. Dr. Jill Biden, the First Lady, and Senator Bernie Sanders, were reportedly in Alabama giving support to the organizing drive recently.
Win, lose, or draw, this is all good for the labor movement. The Amazon workers have been organized by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). There was a curious and superficial piece about the RWDSU in the papers recently that caricatured them as something of a curiosity as a small union, New York City-based and headquartered with only 100,000 members from chicken pluckers to gravediggers around the country. All that was an interesting spin and none of it was exactly wrong, but there’s much more to the story.
RWDSU is part of the AFL-CIO, but perhaps more importantly, its members are actually part of the much, much larger, more than one-million-member United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, one of the largest in the federation. They are a semi-autonomous local in UFCW which means that there are certain protections they have around organizing and governance as conditions of their merger in the 1990s. This affiliation was somewhat interesting because it united the RWDSU, which began as breakaway locals that joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations and separated from the very conservative Retail Clerks International of the AFL, which in turn created the UFCW through a merger with the progressive Meatcutters to form UFCW. Being part of the UFCW makes their initiative with Amazon a much, more interesting story.
If anything, the RWDSU is better known for its own biggest local, 1199, which began as drugstore and pharmacy workers in New York City under Leon Davis, and mushroomed to be one of the pioneers of hospital organizing with SEIU, with dramatic strikes and organizing that expanded the NLRA to cover hospital workers, and its own legacy as Martin Luther King, Jr’s “favorite” union. The child grew to dwarf the parent, so to speak, and rough edges were constantly dragging as 1199 wanted more autonomy and sought to unite all hospital workers.
An effort to merge with SEIU under John Sweeney was untracked when a letter bomb exploded in the office of then president Alvin Heaps in 1981. Sweeney claimed it had nothing to do with the merger from SEIU’s perspective, and rumor sometimes linked it to Lenore Miller, his eventual successor, but it was never solved, even as it hung over the union for some time. One of my old colleagues at SEIU, a veteran of the various 1199 and RWDSU struggles, once commented to me about being a veteran of more “sectarian struggles,” than organizing campaigns. 1199 eventually broke free in a merger vote that took the bulk of the union into SEIU with other pieces in Pennsylvania and New Mexico into AFSCME, pushing RWDSU itself into the UFCW.
All of which is to say, that RWDSU has found itself on the cutting edge of organizing, even as perhaps the mouse that roared, from the 30s to the 60s and even more recently to organizing immigrant car washers in a partnership with former New York ACORN and now New York Communities for Change. Win, lose, or draw, they are now claiming 1000 contacts from Amazon workers around the country that have been inspired by the Bessemer effort. As Amazon becomes the new Walmart, and Walmart tries to become the new Amazon, this drive could finally push the UFCW with RWDSU’s help to get serious about organizing this jurisdiction and to have some traction in trying to do so.