By Geoff Mirelowitz
April 15, 2021—Pro-union workers suffered a setback in their effort to organize the giant Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. They lost the vote for union representation by a margin of 738 ballots cast in favor to 1798 against. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU), which was seeking to represent them, said it plans to challenge the result and will ask federal labor officials to investigate Amazon for creating an “atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals.”
The outcome is also a setback for working people across the country, many of whom followed this battle closely—as did others around the globe—and were hopeful of a union victory. However, it is not the end of the battle to organize the second largest employer in the United States, in Bessemer or elsewhere. Nor is it a sign that other labor struggles today are inevitably headed to defeat.
At an April 11 rally in the RWDSU parking lot in Birmingham, Alabama, about 20 miles from the Bessemer warehouse, Amazon workers Jennifer Bates and Darryl Richardson shared publicly their initial reactions. “I was upset,” Richardson said, after hearing the election results the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had announced two days earlier. “I was disappointed. I was sad. I was mad at the same time.” He described how he and Bates sat talking in his truck during a break from work. “I wanted to give up,” he added. “I ain’t gonna tell no lie.” But then he walked back into the warehouse, he said, and, “I see that employees still get treated bad. I thought about it and I said, ‘We can’t give up. I got to stay strong.’ I’m gonna stay here and fight. We can’t go moping around. I’m ready to fight. Let’s go one more round.”
In a front-page article in its April 9 edition, the New York Times presented a different view. It asserted the vote “squash[ed] the most significant organizing drive in the internet giant’s history… dealing a crushing blow to labor.”
The organizing drive in Bessemer, however, was not “squashed.” It suffered a setback. In any working-class struggle it is necessary to recognize such a development when one occurs. But a “crushing defeat” presupposes a far greater level of struggle and working-class mobilization, smashed by a force much more daunting than a lost election.
The state of the rank-and-file leadership inside the warehouse must be the starting point in assessing the lessons of this fight. That is not easy to gauge fully and accurately from afar. Much of what has been written about the outcome of the vote in the big-business media, as well as other publications, starts elsewhere and points in the wrong direction.
A useful place to begin is with the vote totals themselves. The final tally was not close. That must be faced even while recognizing the enormous resources Amazon put into pressuring workers into either voting “no” or not voting at all. But the lopsided outcome is not the only noteworthy fact.
Pro-union workers at Amazon can start with a realistic assessment of what the 738 “yes” votes represent. If a broader rank-and-file leadership can be forged over the next weeks and months among those who voted for the union, steps forward can be taken to counter this setback.
Resistance the only answer to bold employer
A March 26 article in World-Outlook.com pointed to what Amazon workers everywhere are up against: “In 2019, Amazon beat back an effort by the GMB Union to organize one of the company’s warehouses in England. ‘We know Amazon will leave no stone unturned to beat you,’ Mick Rix, a national officer of the GMB Union, told the Washington Post recently. ‘It was a harsh lesson to learn.’”
That is not going to change. Workers fighting for union representation and better conditions have had to face even harsher lessons throughout the history of the U.S. labor movement. In auto, steel, coal mining and other industries workers have dealt with hired thugs, cops, the National Guard and at times the U.S. Army, as well as all kinds of dirty tricks such as those Amazon used in Bessemer. There is only one answer to all these obstacles: increasing the unity of rank-and-file workers in action to defend ourselves from employer attacks, while seeking to maximize union power to do so.
The fight for union recognition is often the first step. More than once such a struggle has not been won in the first battle. Although this can best be judged accurately from within, it is possible that the decision to bring the union organizing effort in Bessemer to a vote was premature. It is possible the work by rank-and-file workers to build relations and develop mutual trust on the job and outside the warehouse—for example, in house meetings and other face-to face discussions away from the prying eyes of managers and supervisors—needed more time and effort.
A successful union organizing campaign cannot be waged on behalf of a group of workers, no matter how well intentioned the outside help may be. The help from union staff or others not employed in the given workplace has to be an auxiliary contribution, not the other way around. It is only the rank-and-file that can lead a campaign to build unity, solidarity, and a fighting spirit among their coworkers and over time develop a set of convincing reasons why workers need to organize themselves into a union.
It is up to rank-and-file workers in Bessemer to judge the record of what was done before the recent vote and draw the necessary conclusions for what to do next.
“I had to get back up. Why? Because I saw the faces of my coworkers,” said Jennifer Bates at the April 11 union rally, expressing her determination to push forward. “We’re not running away with our tails behind us.” Bates referred to Amazon’s “scare tactics done to people who didn’t have any idea about what a union could do for them.”
Here it is important to note that the Bessemer warehouse opened for the first time in April 2020. As Gary Mansbach, a World-Outlook reader in Alabama, said, “Everyone working there has been there less than one year.”
One result is that rank-and-file workers are just beginning to know and trust one another. That process takes time, often more than a year. The high turnover rate of employees in the warehouse is a related factor. “Young people who thought they were going to lose their jobs because the company said, ‘We’re going to shut down,’” if the union won, said Bates referring to such challenges.“Young people coming to me who said they didn’t know what to do, that they were confused now, because in the meeting ‘they told me we were going to lose our benefits.’”
In a rush to declare the fight dead, others have turned their eyes elsewhere. Some point to the ways U.S. labor law is stacked against working people and our unions. That has been true for decades, going back well before the Wagner Labor Relations Act of 1935, which, among its “accomplishments,” established the NLRB. To this day, top union officials point to this law as a victory. The officialdom is pressing to update the law. That campaign is a continuation of the mistaken and ineffective course the labor bureaucracy has followed for decades.
An article in the April 9 issue of The Nation was titled, “Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign.” Apparently the headline was considered insufficiently discouraging, so the editors added this sub-head: “The warning signs of defeat were everywhere.”
“There is nothing new about the ruthless nature of employer campaigns to defeat unions,” wrote Jane McAlevey, who then referred to the book, Confessions of a Union Buster, by Martin Jay Levitt, published in 1988. We note here that the record of such “ruthless campaigns” goes back far longer than the period covered by Levitt’s confessions.
“His book, the Amazon campaign, and just about every union election since the Reagan era are proof enough that to stand any chance of reversing the diminishing fortunes of America’s workers, HR 842, the Protecting the Right to Organize [PRO] Act of 2021, which just passed the House, is desperately needed,” McAlevey said.
That view was echoed by RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum who told the New York Times, “Our system is broken. Amazon took full advantage of that.” He repeated the same argument while speaking at the April 11 union rally.
Both Appelbaum and McAlevey are misleading working people by pointing to passage of this legislation as the necessary next step for workers to have a chance to win union organizing or other labor battles.
The truth about U.S. labor laws
Farrell Dobbs, a revolutionary socialist and central leader of the historic Teamster struggles of the 1930s, expressed a very different view of the Wagner Act and similar labor legislation. Dobbs was himself a rank-and-file worker with no prior union experience when he became a central leader of the 1934 Minneapolis strikes. He took the lessons of that experience into the over-the-road truck driver organizing campaign that transformed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from a small craft association into a large and powerful industrial union. Dobbs later wrote a four-volume history of that fight, available from Pathfinder Press.
“In 1935 President Roosevelt had signed into law the Wagner Labor Relations Act, which required employers to bargain with trade unions representing a majority of their employees,” explained Dobbs in Teamster Politics. “This directive was not as altruistic as it might appear on the surface [emphasis added by W-O]. Primarily it was designed to help assure that the insurgent masses of hitherto unorganized workers would come under the domination of AFL (and later CIO) officials with a class collaborationist outlook,” said Dobbs, using the initials for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
“As a further means of curbing rank-and-file militancy,” Dobbs continued, “the law also established a National Labor Relations Board. Its key purpose was to mediate industrial conflicts, and that function was generally carried out in tricky ways that proved costly to the workers. In addition, a category termed ‘unfair labor practices’ was introduced. Ostensibly charges of that nature were to be directed only at the bosses, but it didn’t take long in practice for such charges to be leveled against organized labor as well.”
Dobbs then proceeded to the main point, one as relevant today as when he wrote it some 45 years ago: “This piece of legerdemain was hailed by trade-union bureaucrats throughout the country as ‘Labor’s Magna Carta.’ Like the authors of the Wagner Act, they hoped it would enable them to steer workers away from self-reliant action and toward dependence on the capitalist government.”
The Wagner Act and NLRB are only one part of the bureaucratic setup that has been in place now for over 85 years. A new rise of labor struggles will have to break through this setup, including rank-and-file workers taking back control of the trade unions. That’s a big job that can only be accomplished in the course of a widespread working-class radicalization like that of the 1930s when workers and our allies scored decisive victories through actions such as the Teamster struggles and other giant labor battles that established unions in many mass production industries.
Does that mean that no advances can be made short of such a broad radicalization? Was a defeat in Bessemer inevitable? No. If that were true it would make little difference what lessons rank-and-file workers can learn today, nor what can be done to act on them, in the Bessemer Amazon warehouse or elsewhere.
McAlevey was not wrong when she wrote: “Three factors weigh heavily in any unionization election: the outrageously vicious behavior of employers—some of it illegal, most fully legal—including harassing and intimidating workers, and telling bold lies… the strategies and tactics used in the campaign by the organizers; and the broader social-political context in which the union election is being held.”
Who are the key organizers?
However, that begs the question of who the key organizers are. Our answer is the rank-and-file workers inside the workplace seeking union representation.
The earlier World-Outlook.com article highlighted a key factor in the broader context: “The long-term consequences of decades of an unrelenting employer offensive—aimed at breaking or weakening the trade unions, and aided by the course of the top labor officials, tying the unions to the political parties and interests of big business—have been substantial,” we said.
The history lessons drawn so accurately by Farrell Dobbs point precisely to the obstacle of any course other than relying on the power of rank-and-file workers organizing one another to fight in an uncompromising way for what we need, whether union representation or any other demands. That misleadership is at the heart of the perspective of the top union officialdom and has undermined labor battles for decades.
Dobbs wrote an “Afterword” to the Teamster history, analyzing subsequent developments that continue to exert a strong influence today: “One of the major factors preventing effective struggle against economic and social deterioration [of working-class conditions of life and work] has been accelerated degeneration of the labor officialdom since World War II,” he said.
“These officials,” he continued, “have gone a long way toward converting the trade unions into auxiliary instruments of repression acting in collusion with the capitalist state authorities. Among the consequences has been the clamping of collective bargaining into an iron vise. One jaw consists of restrictions imposed upon organized labor by the bosses’ government. The other takes the form of bureaucratic controls within the unions themselves.”
These are the facts facing union militants today. They present a challenging situation for any worker seeking to harness and use union power. Some of those challenges are apparent in the wake of the setback in Bessemer.
Pro-union sentiment not enough
Despite the growth in pro-union sentiment across the United States, noted in more than one article commenting on the Bessemer results, such general sentiment is not the only factor in winning solid support for a union organizing drive in a given workplace. The weakness of organized labor and its inability to win much in the way of meaningful concessions from the employers—in fact quite the opposite in industry after industry over half a century—also determines how workers see the unions today and how they may vote.
It is widely agreed that working conditions at Amazon are grueling as a result of speed-up and the use of automation to benefit the employer at the expense of workers’ health and safety. However, working conditions in other factories and warehouses are often similarly exhausting, debilitating, and dangerous. The minimum wage in Alabama is at the federal level of $7.25 an hour. Amazon’s wages in Bessemer—while miserly in relation to its staggering profits—are double that or more. And as Bessemer worker Lavonette Stokes told the New York Times, “Amazon is the only job I know where they pay your health insurance from Day 1.”
The decision to support the union does not begin and end with wages and benefits. Workers also consider the possible consequences of their decision against the chances of victory. If widespread confidence in the union drive has not been won, the danger of anti-union retaliation by Amazon—including the possibility of losing one’s job—can also weigh heavily. In Bessemer the threat was not only that individuals supporting the union could be fired. As Jennifer Bates explained, Amazon management spread rumors that the Bessemer warehouse would be shut down and the work moved elsewhere, if the union won.
Such threats do not mean a union organizing drive cannot be won today. But only a broad rank-and-file leadership inside a workplace, known and respected by other workers, can lead the necessary discussion on these issues and judge the progress being made in overcoming such obstacles.
McAlevey pointed to an instructive example in her Nation article. In the early stages of the union drive, the RWDSU leadership believed 1,500 workers were employed in the Bessemer warehouse. The union filed cards expressing support for the union based on the necessary NLRB threshold of 30% of that workforce. It then learned from Amazon’s lawyers that 5,800 workers are employed there.
“In a sign that might have seemed encouraging to the union organizers,” McAlevey continued, “they were able, between late November and mid-December, to gather enough additional workers’ signatures to meet the minimum 30 percent threshold to hold an election, even of the much larger number of workers Amazon said were eligible.”
These facts are telling. A union leadership organizing a fight must be thoroughly familiar with the terrain of battle. Such a mistake could have served as further evidence that the demand to hold a quick election may have been premature. Even the additional signatures that were quickly gathered were apparently not a sufficient basis—still only 30%, and thus well short of a majority—to judge the degree and depth of pro-union sentiment on the job, as the vote confirmed.
A similar lesson can be drawn from the response by RWDSU officials to one of the lies Amazon spread. The employer claimed that workers would be forced to pay union dues if the union won the vote. Because Alabama is a “right-to-work” state, no worker can be compelled to pay dues even in a workplace represented by a union. But a union organizing drive can hardly be won if the primary response to Amazon’s propaganda is, “Don’t worry you won’t have to pay dues if you don’t want to.”
This is a clear example of “business unionism.” A consequence of the labor officialdom’s degeneration Dobbs draws out is that a union often appears to be an organization that may be “for” us, but not “of” us. The idea of union representation is not convincing or effective if presented as urging workers to hire a skilled attorney and staff. Yet that is often how top union officials make our unions appear. Any worker who has ever tried to wade through a labor contract knows that most are written in “legal language” difficult for many of us to grasp. The difficulty is intentional. It is a product of precisely the “vise” Dobbs referred to.
The fight for union representation can be successful if it is a fight for the hearts and minds of the workers who will make up the union. The top officialdom of today’s unions has long ago given up waging such a fight. The harsh truth is that even those officials who may genuinely want to win a battle like the one in Bessemer are simply not competent to do so. All analogies have limits, but they can often shed light on the situation at hand. A boxer cannot stay in shape unless he or she regularly gets into the ring to hone and maintain their fighting skills. The sharp decline in labor struggles over the past half century has taken a toll on the fighting capacity of the organized labor movement. Rank-and-file initiative and leadership is key to reversing this trend.
Clues for transforming labor’s potential class power
In the face of these challenges a way forward can be found. Farrell Dobbs offered a concise explanation that remains of immediate relevance to rank-and-file workers who want to fight today. “My purpose,” Dobbs wrote in his “Afterword,” concerning his intention in writing the Teamster history, “was to help find clues to ways and means of transforming labor’s potential class power into a dynamically active force in the continuing struggle against the capitalist exploiters.
“Proposals for immediate action,” he continued, “should center on problems involving the workers’ urgent material needs and the defense of their democratic rights. It is also important that the fight around those issues be attuned to the existing levels of consciousness in the union membership.” In a union-organizing drive that means the existing levels of consciousness of the workers who must be won to the union.
“Then,” Dobbs said, “as significant forces are set into motion through that approach, several things take place. Rank-and-file militancy rises. Increasingly sharp clashes with the bosses result, during which the workers begin to shed class-collaborationist illusions and acquire class-struggle concepts. Lessons thus learned during industrial conflicts can prepare the union ranks for an advance toward action on a political plane. In short a foundation is laid from which to initiate transformation of the trade unions themselves into instruments capable of developing far-reaching revolutionary perspectives.”
Such an approach can only blossom fully as part of the development of a broad working-class radicalization in response to the ups and downs of a capitalist crisis breaking the backs of working people. That crisis is here today. The corresponding radicalization has not yet arrived. Its pace and development cannot be predicted. But the initial steps Dobbs outlined—proposals for immediate action such as organizing a union in Bessemer, or any number of other locations that cannot be predicted in advance—can be taken today by savvy rank-and-file workers who learn more about who our friends and enemies are and develop confidence in one another, over time, as we work together to meet the challenges we face.
Geoff Mirelowitz, a retired railroad switchman, was a long-time member of the United Transportation Union (now SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers).
 “The Fight to Organize Amazon: Workers in Alabama Set Example for All Labor” (https://world-outlook.com/2021/03/26/the-fight-to-organize-amazon-workers-in-alabama-set-example-for-all-labor/)
 “The Teamster Series (4 volumes)” (https://www.pathfinderpress.com/collections/trade-unions-past-present-and-future/products/teamster-series)
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions