amazon union, union workers, amazon union vote, bessemer alabama, RWDSU

What If the Union had Won in Bessemer?

Ideas and Issues

April 14, 2021

New Orleans      This is like the version of the old joke. What’s the good news? The union beat Amazon in the election. What’s the bad news? The union beat Amazon in the Bessemer election. Stated another way, what would have happened if the dog had caught the truck? In short, you think the election campaign was hard, then you can’t even imagine how difficult it would have been for the union to get a decent contract.

Look it up on Google. None of the figures are up to date, given the world-shaking expansion and growth of Amazon both here and abroad in the pandemic. Ask Google how many fulfillment centers, another name for warehouses, that Amazon has in the US, and 110 will pop up, but you know that number is light. There’s an announcement of a big center in Slidell, across Lake Ponchartrain north of New Orleans. Driving into Atlanta, the construction along I-85 makes it clear that Amazon is doubling the size of their existing warehouse. Believe me, there’s one coming near you! Nonetheless, let’s say 110 is the number. The headlines are all about the fact that Amazon now is the second largest US-based employer after Walmart with over one-million workers. How many workers does Amazon have in the US? North of 600,000 is probably an undercount.

In a better world that is not this one, RWDSU, the union in this chase, would have beaten Amazon, and they would then have the legal right for one-year to bargain a collective agreement without the company challenging whether or not they had the support of the majority of the workforce. Make no mistake. That’s all a union wins with an NLRB certification of an election victory. If the numbers had been reversed and the union had the almost 1800 votes and the company had only 800, then the company over the year allotted for bargaining – after they might have filed objections – can’t challenge the union’s majority of those voting, which is to say, refuse to bargain, but trust me on this, the fact that 4000 workers had NOT voted for the union, just as in this case they had not voted for Amazon either, would have been a constant refrain.

In the poisoned collective bargaining regime under the law now with the union at best only able to bargain for 6000 workers or 1% maybe of the US-based workforce and less than 1% of the fulfillment warehouses in the USA, what are odds that the union would have won a decent contract? I’ll answer that by saying, pretty poor.

Our local union won an election with the Hyatt Regency hotel chain for the first time in 30 years in New Orleans in 1980. It took us seven years and a trip to the Supreme Court to get a contract, and we couldn’t hold onto it. Ouch! I can remember arguing with Tom Woodruff, the great SEIU organizing director, about why they had negotiated away the ability to organize HCA hospitals in Louisiana in order to pickup a couple of their facilities in Nevada and maybe Texas and done so without telling me. His answer was unforgettable: “Wade, I did you a favor. You might have organized them and then had to spend the rest of your life trying to get a contract.” I didn’t like that answer, but that didn’t mean that Brother Woodruff didn’t make a good point with a lot of truth to it.

This is the problem with an organizing strategy that is not about really building a union, but more about hopes, dreams, and hot shops. Carrying a torch for a victory, the union and company would have known that they couldn’t strike if they thought the contract on the table sucked, or it would allow Amazon and other anti-union companies to plummet the union on that issue for a generation. To get a contract, they would have had to walk back the messaging of better wages and benefits, and instead talk about reducing turnover and the protection of a grievance and arbitration system, because the odds that Amazon would offer more than pennies in wages and bennies than it had for the rest of its 600,000 workers and 110 warehouses, is zero. It wouldn’t have happened. Full stop. If you promise more than you can deliver, it will bite your butt, and the union would be racing to settle something before the other 4000 workers – with the company’s implicit yet invisible support – would start a decertification petition.

This is not a happy story, but it is a call for a different organizing strategy that bypasses NLRB elections and even collective bargaining, and instead focuses on building a union at Amazon on the backs of real membership among the workforce and taking action on the job with wins large and small until real power and density in the company is achieved. It would take time, people, and money, but there’s abundant proof that it would work. It’s almost impossible to win this way, and I guarantee the odds would be better that way.