Last Friday the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that the effort to organize Amazon’s large distribution center in Bessemer, Alabama had failed, with 738 workers voting for a union and 1,798 against. There were another roughly 500 votes challenged by Amazon lawyers, but not enough to alter the outcome.
Amazon succeeded because it deployed a two-pronged strategy. The wages paid at its distribution centers start at just above $15 an hour for regular employees. While this is lower than many other warehouses in the area, even non-union ones, it is well above the average rate found in the industries where Amazon recruits its workers, such as fast food, hospitality, and nursing homes. Many did flock to Amazon for those wages. Indeed, Amazon made a ham-handed effort to embarrass its pro-union and Democratic opponents, urging Congress to adopt the $15 dollar minimum wage to catch up with the company. As spokeswoman Heather Knox asserted, “We believe we already offer everything the unions are requesting and that we highly value direct communication with our employees.” The company also enrolls workers in a health insurance plan and even has a pension scheme, but because the arduous working conditions generate turnover at close to 100 percent every year, few employees can take advantage of these “fringe benefits.”
These carrots were paired with an intense and coercive but utterly standardized anti-union campaign masterminded by Amazon’s law firm: Morgan Lewis. That giant—the fourth largest law firm in the United States—has spent decades perfecting the tactics it used to scare workers away from the union. Chief among these were captive audience meetings, where Amazon managers told workers that unionism would mean dues taken out of their paycheck, conflict and acrimony, and potential loss of various benefits. This is standard anti-union propaganda, unchanged for decades, but effective if you encounter it for the first time. For some workers these captive audience meetings had a “Hawthorne Effect.” The meetings were on-the-clock, so they served as a paid break from the company’s hyper-Taylorized work regime. As industrial psychologist Elton Mayo discovered at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in the 1920s, virtually any out of the ordinary attention that management pays to workers generates more productivity and more favorable attitudes toward the company.
Morgan Lewis and Amazon wanted to hold the NLRB election at the warehouse. Exceptional instances aside, where, for example, worker committees practically control a workplace after a strike or occupation, holding a vote on company property allows for close observation by management, generating a pro-corporate atmosphere. In this case, with the pandemic raging, the NLRB ruled that the ballot would be conducted by mail over nearly two months. This proved a signal victory for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the small but scrappy organization running the Amazon campaign. Morgan Lewis considered this development so important that Amazon used its influence as the largest U.S. Postal Service customer to get a new mailbox installed right on company property, with banners and posters urging employees to cast their votes there.
The Union’s Strategy
The RWDSU, which has long represented some Birmingham-area poultry, nursing home, and food processing plants, began organizing at the Bessemer distribution center just a few months after the giant facility opened in early 2020. This surprised many outside observers because, as most union organizers will tell you, without cooperation from management, no organizing campaign in a new facility has a chance of success: the workers don’t know each other, production and employment is often not up to speed, and management is still working out the bugs, altering and adjusting work practices. But the Bessemer Amazon facility was a “hot shop” with at least a handful of determined unionists, virtually all African-American, who had learned the value of the labor movement in other unionized Alabama workplaces. Big unions like the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers have learned to avoid hot shop organizing because, in the unlikely event that you win, the newly organized workers are likely to remain vulnerable to corporate retaliation, especially if their workplace stands at the wrong end of the corporate supply chain. Amazon could have easily shuttered the Bessemer facility, just as Walmart abandoned a Canadian store that went union in 2004.
But there is an old sixties slogan, “Dare to struggle, dare to win!” So the RWDSU decided to chance it. The veteran unionist and writer, Jane McAlevey, argues that there can be no excuse for a poorly executed organizing campaign: it’s a “death march” for the minority of workers committed to the union. Her indictment, just published in a widely cited Nation essay, argues that the RWDSU made a fatal mistake when the union estimated that there were only 1,500 workers in the Bessemer warehouse when it started collecting signatures on the cards that the NLRB requires to show enough interest to hold a union certification election. The real head count at Amazon was over 5,800, which made the union’s task far more difficult.
McAlevey also asserts that the enormous publicity given to the campaign, and the celebrities and politicians who visited Bessemer, blinded the union to the door knocking and community canvasing needed to actually contact workers. Handing out leaflets near the Amazon parking lot and waging a social media campaign is no substitute. “If the rules for unionization in the United States came close to being fair, they would have won. But the rules aren’t fair,” writes McAlevey. “What workers trying to form unions against immoral employers do deserve is the kind of effort that stands a chance of winning . . . It is hard as hell, and to do that requires a no-shortcuts approach.”
In contrast to McAlevey, John Logan, a San Francisco State professor of labor studies who is the nation’s foremost authority on the tactics deployed by anti-union law firms, calls the RWDSU’s campaign “thorough, professional, and well-executed.” While the pandemic did forestall union door knocking, the campaign generated much community activism reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter protests. There were yard signs and a lot of radio talk. When the union began collecting cards in the fall, Amazon went on an unprecedented hiring spree to boost its payroll, and offered incentives to persuade longer-tenure workers to quit. At this point RWDSU had to decide: abandon the campaign, challenge Amazon’s anti-union strategy at the NLRB, or try to create enough momentum to carry the day. Since the Morgan Lewis playbook calls for “delay, delay, delay,” the union thought the wiser strategy was to accept Amazon’s inflated count of eligible workers and proceed apace.
A Silver Lining
Of course, a defeat is a defeat, but there is a very bright silver lining. While the Bessemer loss demonstrates that even African-American workers are not inherently pro-union, the enormous interest and support shown by mainstream Democrats, from the president on down, indicates that what used to be known as “the labor question” is now back on the social and political agenda. From a public relations standpoint, Amazon encountered a perfect storm: the company has made billions during the pandemic, and yet the corporation’s overweening power has generated calls for more regulation or actual breakup. Meanwhile, media coverage of the organizing drive was overwhelmingly favorable and extensive, thus preparing the way for President Biden to offer a late February endorsement of trade unionism and a denunciation of anti-union tactics far bolder than that of any previous sitting president, including Franklin Roosevelt. One can be sure that his two-minute video will be shown by unionists in every organizing campaign for the next four years. And public outrage at Amazon’s brazen anti-unionism materially lowered the odds against Senate passage of the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which has already been passed by the House. That will be a very steep hill to climb, but from the point of view of public sentiment, enactment seems far more likely than other pro-labor laws put forward during the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations.
So how can Amazon and other recalcitrant giants be unionized? McAlevey’s call for hard work and dedication is a recipe for continued trench warfare. But to generate the strategic breakthrough that built the mass production unions in the 1930s and the public employee organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, liberals and unionists must deploy a pincer attack that squeezes Amazon both from the grassroots and from Washington’s corridors of power. The organization of A&P and other large grocery retailers in 1930s came not just as a result of working-class insurgency in stores and warehouses. The unions achieved success because the anti-chain store movement of that day commanded the support of numerous legislative and political leaders on both the federal and state levels. A&P executives came to see the mass unionization of their employees as a lesser evil, and as a political shield against anti-trust efforts to break up the newly emergent chains. Today we see a similar dynamic, where taming and fissuring Amazon and other Silicon Valley companies has become a subject of serious legislative discussion and regulatory statecraft.
We have not heard the last of organizing efforts at Amazon.
Nelson Lichtenstein is Research Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is writing a history of economic policymaking in the administration of Bill Clinton.