By Indigo Olivier
The entire country has just seen the lengths corporations will go to prevent workers from unionizing. ‘More than anything, this defeat stressed the importance of passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) which would ban captive audience meetings, severely limit corporate interference, invalidate right-to-work legislation and strengthen collective bargaining as a whole.’
Nearly a week after Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, cast their ballots to determine whether or not to form a union, a final tally shows workers lost their campaign by a more than two-to-one margin. The results are being contested by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which claims Amazon coerced and intimidated workers with their belligerent anti-union campaign. Even if the results are thrown out and another election is held, the outcome is likely to remain unchanged.
During the agonizing week-long vote count, all you could do was wait and hope. Little snippets of information trickled in, followed by more waiting. The loss, while not surprising, is a disappointment to not only the workers and supporters who threw so much into this campaign but to the labor movement as a whole.
Postmortems abound about the warning signs of defeat, the tactical errors made by organizers, the urgent need for labor law reform, and the demoralizing effect this outcome might have on other workers. In any case, the final takeaway should always be: don’t mourn. Organize.
While there is much to learn from the strategy deployed in Bessemer, the defeat is not so much an indictment of the specifics of this one union drive as it is of the balance of power between labor and capital as a whole.
Amazon started off with the upper hand and used every tool it could to not only defeat Bessemer workers but to send a clear message to others who might try to organize at other fulfillment centers: you don’t stand a chance.
For weeks, Amazon sent a barrage of anti-union messaging to its employees, posted “vote no” flyers in bathroom stalls, texted workers on a regular basis, waged a social media campaign linking back to the “Do It Without Dues” website, changed traffic lights outside the facility, held “captive audience” meetings with workers to dissuade them from voting “yes,” and spent nearly $10,000 a day on union-busting consulting firms.
The company followed a familiar anti-union playbook; in fact, they went even further, pressuring USPS officials to install a private ballot box on company property all while denying the reality of their workers peeing in bottles and defecating in bags to meet merciless delivery quotas – a reality that was quickly confirmed by reporters.
With all eyes on Amazon, the entire country has just seen the lengths corporations will go to prevent workers from organizing.
While the legality of some of these tactics is being challenged by the RWDSU, the reality is that most of them are commonplace and, in the eyes of America’s lopsided and mostly toothless labor laws, fair game. Even if Amazon is found to have violated workers’ rights in Bessemer, it is unlikely that the company will face any serious consequences.
More than anything, this defeat stressed the immediate importance of passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (Pro Act) which would ban captive audience meetings, severely limit corporate interference, invalidate right-to-work legislation and strengthen collective bargaining as a whole.
The Pro Act, which would represent the most significant federal labor legislation in decades, passed the House in early May and is all but certain to be voted down in the evenly split Senate.
President Biden has spoken strongly in favor of the legislation, but its passage is unlikely without eliminating the filibuster – an action for which Biden has withheld full commitment.
The Pro Act would allow labor to move from the defensive to the offensive which is crucial when workers – especially at giant corporations like Amazon – already have the deck stacked against them.
A battle has been lost but an advance was made in the war to shift the focus of power from politicians to workers
Biden has so far proven to be both the most pro-labor president in modern history and not nearly where we need him to be to deliver the goods. He sent a message of support to workers organizing in Alabama and around the country but stopped short of calling Amazon out by name. He’s encouraged Congress to pass the Pro Act without forging a viable path to follow through. Simply put, he lacks the courage to do what is needed to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen”.
Unions and other pro-labor groups have taken it upon themselves to move things forward. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has shifted the national organizing infrastructure used for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to make hundreds of thousands of calls convincing people of the urgent necessity of the Pro Act.
While the Bessemer vote is devastating, the public attention and enthusiasm that was shown to the organizers there is exactly what is needed to make any significant strides in the labor movement, especially if the Senate is going to stall for as long as it can with Green Eggs and Ham.
Bessemer was the most high-profile union election in recent memory and it started a national conversation about organized labor and poor working conditions. This election saturated social media (when was the last time you saw a viral TikTok about the importance of union dues?) and has even prompted talk of organizing other Amazon facilities.
A battle has been lost but an advance was made in the slow ideological war to shift the public focus of power from politicians to workers. Amazon may have been successful in temporarily exorcising any attempt to organize from within, but the specter still haunts them.
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