May 4, 2021
Though expected, the union defeat at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center was a gut punch to the labor movement not only in the United States, but globally. Amazon workers in other countries had expressed solidarity with Bessemer through direct action, including strikes in Italy and walkouts in France. Hopes were high, even as the ground defeat seemed inevitable. Winning this vote would have been a miracle, and miracles don’t happen in union organizing.
Organizers may disagree on some of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union’s (RWDSU) choices. Should they have filed for the election with a bare showing of interest in an expanding unit? Built a stronger in-plant committee? Done home visits beginning last summer? Tried to block or postpone the election as defeat seemed eminent? But there should be no disagreement that entering an election campaign during the pandemic, against the country’s second largest employer, the world’s richest man, and a company that had become essential was a huge mountain to climb. That’s not second-guessing. Those are clear, first-order issues.
It’s almost becoming passé to complain about the disadvantages that are baked into the current legal environment for a union certification election under the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Although nothing is new about that decades’ long complaint, and certainly RWDSU knew that when they signed the petition, the situation is now arguably worse than ever. The NLRB itself, designed to be bipartisan, is short several appointees and fully partisan coming out of the Trump administration.
Recent NLRB decisions and rule-making create new obstacles for unionizing. One rule would have made it harder for RWDSU to avoid an election and try — in a flight of fantasy – to win voluntary recognition. The NLRB ruled a year ago that “Unions that are voluntarily recognized are no longer immune from challenges regarding their majority support for a ‘reasonable period of time.’” Instead, when an employer agrees to voluntarily recognize a union, it must notify employees, who can then challenge this recognition by petitioning the NLRB. Another rule made it harder to block counting votes by filing an unfair labor practice. Now “elections will go forward and votes will either be counted or impounded, depending on the nature of the charge.” Nothing pretty in any of that. A new Board could rewrite these rules, but that will take years.
Bessemer, Alabama would have been a good place to take Amazon’s measure, but it would have needed a different strategy and tactics based on a deeper, longer term commitment to building organization there with a different model. The history of unionization in this area is rich and powerful. The unionized steel industry was central in the nearby Birmingham area that used to call itself the “Pittsburgh of the South.”
When I think about the paths the Amazon union drive didn’t take and the opportunities it missed, I’m struck by how similar the current dilemma in to what was happening almost one-hundred years ago. In The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, labor scholar Michael Goldfield reexamines the shortcomings of the CIO’s Operation Dixie – the massive organizing drive begun in 1945. He blames the drive’s failure on the targeting of textiles, then the largest manufacturing sector in the South. He also faults the top-down strategy of appealing to employers rather than workers, relying on the NLRB and the government mechanisms to win. He argues that instead of dividing workers around race and politics, the campaign should have embraced collectivity and able, experienced organizers rather than their affiliations.
Clearly, this is not an exact match with our current predicament, but it does resonate in some ways. Goldfield cites numerous organizing successes in the South at the time of Operation Dixie, including isolated victories in the textile industry, which were obscured by strategic and tactical ineptness, and the hopes of cajoling giant employers into agreement. Goldfield argues that had woodworkers, huge at the time, been targeted and organized more successfully, and if biracial success had been exploited more shrewdly, the South could have been organized.
As with Operation Dixie, Bessemer and Amazon are likely to dissuade Southern organizing when the story should instead offer lessons about how to succeed with different targets and tactics – ones that have led to plenty of successes. Other industries — home health and day care workers, school workers, and other service worker sectors and private-public subcontractors — have seen successful organizing drives in the past and in the South. Building unions that underscore racial justice and unity, rather than separatist appeals is also as smart – and effective – now as it was in the era Goldfield studied.
Where these arguments sting most is the reliance on the NLRB and the government. Whether going after the country’s largest employers like Walmart and Amazon, or targeting smaller ones where the field is more level, we are not going to win until we employ a worker-centered and worker-driven strategy. The NLRB’s legalese skews toward employers, and creating public pressure rather than worker heat to bring companies to the table relies too much on the media maze.
To turn union decline around, we need to pick targets where we have leverage or advantage. If we’re going to go after the big dogs, we have to be prepared to work for years, not months, and focus on a majority strategy that builds power in the workplace, not a campaign strategy that priorities an election. We need to reduce the emphasis on collective bargaining, and increase the focus on collective action and community issues to build the union as an independent and sustainable force, but intersecting with the employer.
Goldfield argues that if we want to change the situation for workers in America and in America everywhere, the key is organizing the South. I agree. But if we want to win anywhere, we have to do things differently than we have been doing. Amazon just taught us all that lesson again in Alabama, but we knew it already. We just have to decide to finally act on what we keep learning, over and over again, the hard way.