March 30, 2021
New Orleans Two weeks ago, speaking to a NPR reporter based in Birmingham, Alabama, I told him that it was unlikely that the union, RWDSU, would win in the Amazon election, but that even a loss might be good for the US labor movement. I suspected the union was playing a long game, rather than a short one for one plant out of Amazon’s many. A union election is not like a political election, but I didn’t want to cloud any prospects of victory until the balloting deadline ended earlier this week with the count expected in a short time, which is likely to mark not the end of the war, but the beginning of another battle.
For any organizer experienced in NLRB elections, there were forebodings of defeat throughout this campaign, and not simply because of Amazon’s aggressive anti-union campaign. From the first filing for the election, there was a dispute over the size of the unit with the company arguing over 6000 and the union claiming less. The final unit size was announced at about 5900 workers. This is usually a bad sign that the union’s card strength, meaning the number of workers that had signed authorization cards asking for the election, was pegged to a lower estimated size of the bargaining unit. They made the 30% showing of interest on the larger unit size, but they clearly had not filed heavy with 65% of the workforce that would have been the benchmark for withstanding the company campaign. Winning requires 50% plus one of those voting.
The fact that so much of the campaign seemed to focus on leafletting at the plant entrances was a retro tactic from fifty years ago, which has not aged well. It also almost invariably would signal that the in-plant committee was too weak to handle the campaign so was depending on other RWDSU members and activists on the outside to maintain visibility. You can’t win without very strong inside leadership. Few actual workers have been quoted publicly either, even as an in-plant anti-union committee has emerged in recent weeks.
All of this leaves organizing veterans wishing and hoping for a victory, but knowing in their guts that it won’t happen. The PayDay report signaled a likely defeat this week as well, which is likely a tipoff from on-the-ground organizers who are counting the likely votes.
Regardless, the union will file objections and will have a strong case. The Amazon offer of buyouts for workers to leave before voting is unique, but arguably an inducement. The Amazon effort to get city officials to shorten the stoplights duration to prevent the union’s leafleteers is also as objectionable, as it was innovative in anti-union campaigns. These publicized moves by Amazon will invariably be joined by numerous 8(a)1 violations from over anxious supervisors trying to intimidate workers before the election. If the objections are found to have merit, another election will be ordered. Whether it will be held will be a test for the union.
Win, lose, or draw, the actions of President Biden, the support of many others, and the national attention is good for the labor movement and a potentially a sign of a reawakening. The RWDSU claims it has heard from more than 1000 other Amazon workers. For the RWDSU and UFCW, its larger parent, this gives them a jurisdictional argument to discourage other unions from getting involved. More importantly, this dare-to-struggle-dare-to-win effort at Amazon shows some real spine in institutional labor, and, if we’re lucky, it may encourage workers in many fields across the country to say enough is enough as the pandemic ends, and that it’s time for a change. That would make all of this worth it!