At the press conference held by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) the day the result was announced in the Amazon union election in Bessemer, Alabama, one of the warehouse workers said, “I have to go to work tomorrow.”
What he meant was that it doesn’t make sense to discuss whether this is the end of the fight. The same workers in Bessemer who were building a union are still doing so. The vote breakdown was 1798 against unionizing and 738 in favor. Of the roughly 500 challenged ballots, RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum says over 400 were challenged by Amazon, meaning it’s more accurate to say that over 1,000 workers voted to unionize. Those workers got a front-row view of the explosive power of capital, and now they clock into work with that knowledge.
Union fights don’t end when the cameras go away. The Bessemer organizing committee rallied on Sunday and is continuing to fight. RWDSU has filed objections to Amazon’s actions during the election and believes a rerun election is likely. It is hard to win a rerun after workers have been exposed to the boss’s scare tactics, though not impossible. One worker at a different Amazon warehouse who contacted me last week didn’t even mention Bessemer — he wanted to discuss a completely different matter pertaining to his own workplace. As Darryl Richardson, the Amazon worker who started the union drive — and had previously been part of an organizing drive at a Mercedes seat supplier in Tuscaloosa — said, “the fight isn’t over, 1 more round.”
For the labor movement, Bessemer offers a few lessons. For one, the campaign underlines the urgent need to change the laws on the books. Amazon had months of constant access to workers, which it used to create anxiety and frustration and fear and confusion among workers and then tie that to unionizing, convincing them that collectively improving their working conditions wasn’t worth all the grief. One management-side attorney told the Huffington Post that Amazon likely spent millions of dollars on its anti-union campaign.
That this is standard practice is why millions of people who want to join a union do not do so. Were the PRO Act in effect, the outcome in Bessemer would have been very different: the workers would already be negotiating their first contract. The laws must change if workers’ fortunes are ever to improve. This, argues Appelbaum, is the biggest lesson of the Bessemer campaign. The events that followed from the workers there deciding to organize should serve as an example of how power in the United States is radically consolidated in the hands of property owners, and how employers will do everything they can to stop workers from winning a better life.
There is also the matter of the media. The campaign in Bessemer got more attention than any union drive in recent memory; the New York Times even had a live tally of the vote. The reasons are obvious: Amazon is one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, so when workers, especially workers in the South, take the company on, it’s big news. The intense media coverage no doubt contributed to the excitement of the campaign. But no amount of coverage can substitute for strong worker organization on the shop floor. Any suggestion that this loss means organized labor should focus less on building worker power in Amazon warehouses and more on putting public pressure on the company is conceding just as the fight is getting started.
“I believe in organizing and in reaching a majority in the workplace, as demonstrated in elections. I believe that if you want to build a movement, you need to engage workers, not corporations,” says Appelbaum. As he points out, RWDSU was organizing an Amazon warehouse in New York City when the company sought to locate its HQ2 site there. Despite the public and political pressure on the company, he says “it didn’t make a difference” in getting Amazon to recognize the union.
The questions we face are ones that have dogged workers since the earliest years of modern trade unionism. How do you organize shops with high turnover? What do you do when a company dilutes workers’ leverage by building in redundancies at a well-organized shop? What about when they close that shop? How do you convince a coworker whose every movement is being monitored to fight back? How do you get them to come to a meeting when all they want to do after a shift is sleep?
Amazon, in its quest to perfect the annihilation of space by time, runs an extraordinarily dehumanizing workplace. Its highly surveilled warehouses have rates of serious injury that are nearly double the industry average. Its last-mile delivery operation squeezes other, unionized drivers by pushing its own workforce to the limit. Amazon Flex and Amazon Delivery Service Partners drivers are denied employee status and do not even have time to use the bathroom. The company’s Mechanical Turk program is a dystopian nightmare. Even Amazon’s white-collar workplace practices are startling: Amazon Air pilots, who transport the company’s air cargo, are overworked and underpaid. At the company’s Seattle headquarters, white-collar workers are known to cry at their desks, and have filed complaints about lacking sufficient time to use the bathroom there, too.
But atrocious working conditions and totalitarian control within the workplace are hardly unprecedented. Steel mills and auto plants were often intolerable, dangerous jobs until they were organized. Workers failed to organize shop after shop, until they didn’t. There are important differences among these industries: as Rich Yeselson points out, while 1930s General Motors had a comparable number of workers spread across a similar number of facilities as Amazon does today, 25 percent of those workers were in the Flint plant, which meant workers could gain incredible leverage by organizing one facility. Amazon, excluding the fifty thousand, largely white-collar, workers at its headquarters, lacks a similarly strategic site. But while this is a challenge, there is nothing inherent in the work itself, nor any trick in the company’s playbook, that workers haven’t seen before.
Amazon is swallowing the world at a pace that is almost impossible to comprehend, and the organization of its workers grows more pressing by the day. Unionizing it will be an uphill battle, but the labor movement in the United States has never had favorable odds. You learn from the setbacks, and then, you keep moving.