Bravery, Not Blowout

John Logan

Amazon driver and her packages. Elvert Barnes CC BY-SA 2.0 cropped from original

RWDSU campaign at Amazon deserves better than uninformed criticism

ON FRIDAY, APRIL 9 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) had lost its organizing campaign at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, one of the most closely watched union drives in decades, by a vote of 1798 to 738.

The NLRB received 3215 ballots, and prior to the public count conducted by zoom, Amazon’s lawyers had challenged most of the almost 600 disputed ballots (which are put aside to be counted in case they might determine the outcome).

The proverbial ink was barely dry on the result when organizing gurus published critiques, no doubt written weeks ago, full of heated rhetoric and organizing pearls of wisdom but light on facts — and lighter on an informed understanding of how the campaign had unfolded.

One article published in The Nation, “Blowout at Bessemer,” provides one such example. Some critics had never visited Bessemer, and never spoke to RWDSU organizers to learn about the empirical reality. When you know why the union lost, why it was always going to lose, and what it needed to do to win, why complicate your argument with the actual facts of the campaign?

I would much sooner focus on the campaign’s remarkable accomplishments – which I address briefly towards the end – but it’s important to address wrongheaded criticism in some detail.

Was Bessemer a “blowout”? There’s no question that union organizers had hoped the resulted would be much closer, but it almost certainly was closer: of the almost 600 objections, the overwhelming majority came from Amazon’s lawyers, and they objected to ballots that the union believes were mostly from its supporters.

That’s not nearly enough to change the outcome of the vote, but more than enough to push the union’s vote tally to well over 1000 votes from workers who for two months had endured one of the most relentless and vicious anti-union campaigns in recent decades. Not such a blowout.

Second, there’s good reason to believe that the NLRB will uphold at least some of the union’s ULP charges, and might order a rerun election if it finds that Amazon’s unlawful anti-union conduct – such as its onsite mailbox, which the NLRB said it could not install – may have altered the result of the election.

Thus, Amazon may have won only because it cheated and could face another election. Again, not such a “blowout.”

Assessing Reality

Was the RWDSU campaign at fault? Of course no campaign is above criticism, and one can certainly question the choice to go the NLRB election route against a corporation as powerful as Amazon. But criticism should be based on a grasp of the empirical reality. Ironically, even after defeat the RWDSU campaign has received more favorable, more accurate, and fairer coverage in the mainstream press than it has from some left publications.

As one would have anticipated, some critics have attacked the RWDSU campaign being “top-down” and not worker- or committee-driven. The Bessemer campaign was anything but top-down: indeed, it was almost certainly not a fight the union leadership would have chosen, but one that Bessemer workers and local RWDSU organizers were determined to go ahead with.

One critic suggested that the “warning signs of defeat” were everywhere. In truth, it would be more comforting to believe that the RWDSU campaign had failed due to these obvious and basic errors, as this would suggest that even without enactment of the PRO Act (pending in Congress), with more thoughtful and thorough preparation and a better executed campaign, the next time the union could succeed.

But the answer is not so simple because these criticisms are factually inaccurate. So, what, exactly, have the RWDSU’s critics gotten so completely wrong?

The RWDSU wasn’t blindsided by the size of the bargaining unit. The union had initially filed for a bargaining unit of 1500, but union organizers knew that there were at least 2300 workers in the facility. Over the next several weeks, Amazon launched what its lawyer Harry Johnson called at the NLRB hearing the greatest hiring spree in the shortest time-period in history.

The RWDSU did not anticipate that final numbers would reach almost 6000 workers, but neither did anyone else. The union was collecting 50-100 authorization cards per day throughout December, so it was faced with a choice: either go ahead with the election in the much larger unit – even though Amazon’s lawyers doubted the union had sufficient cards to do so – or pull the petition, which it believed would send a terrible message to the Bessemer workers and the labor community.

The RWDSU decided to go ahead, even though it knew that Amazon’s packing of the bargaining unit meant that it has not had the opportunity to engage with most of the new workers. In addition, the RWDSU had to contend with enormously high turnover rates, which doesn’t impact campaigns in the public or healthcare sectors in the same way.

Thus, while the RWDSU was surprised by the unprecedented scale and speed of Amazon’s December hiring spree, it never believed the Bessemer warehouse had only1500 employees, as Blowout states, and it understood approximate numbers at Bessemer all along.

Discussions Over Dues

Second, there’s the union response to the DoItWithoutDues.com anti-union website — which was launched on December 31st, not in February as stated in “Blowout.” RWDSU organizers never once tried to argue that workers wouldn’t have to pay dues if the union won.

The union’s campaign materials and organizer conversations stressed that workers would need to pay dues to build power at Bessemer to bargain effectively with Amazon. However, publicly the union did point out, and correctly so, the important point that Amazon’s entire website was based on a lie – that in Alabama, a Right-to-Work state since 1953, employees could be forced to pay union dues against their will. But this factual correction was not part of the organizing strategy, which stated repeatedly that the workers were the union, and they must be prepared to pay dues to have influence at the workplace.

Organizing through car windows: Third, “Blowout” wrongly suggests that the union had engaged with workers primarily through car windows as they sat at the stop sign before entering or leaving the facility. Given the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the union engaged with workers in every way possible, not just at the controversial traffic stop, which Amazon management pressured city officials to alter in order to reduce the amount of time workers waited there.

Amazon had warned that union organizers would likely visit workers at home, even at the risk of spreading COVID-19, so the union decided not to conduct home visits as it would normally do. But it held hundreds of small group and one-on-one meetings with workers at the local hotel or the RWDSU office. Absent the pandemic, organizers would have held larger meetings — which would have helped build solidarity — but workers were uncomfortable with big meetings for safety reasons, so they limited meetings to a maximum of 10 workers.

In addition the RWDSU operated an extensive phone-banking system, with over 100 RWDSU organizers and trained volunteers, which made over 50,000 calls with a high completion rate, thereby enabling the union to set up meetings. Reaching workers at the stop sign was convenient way to collect authorization cards from workers who had expressed their desire to sign, and the union kept organizers there to ensure a visible presence outside the facility.

Overwhelmingly, these were worker organizers from local poultry plants — which union critics often champion – and not RWDSU staffers, as stated in “Blowout.” Moreover, stop-light conversations were not the union’s principal method of engaging with Bessemer workers.

Celebrity Endorsements

Fourth, critics have suggested that the campaign was supposedly more interested in lining up celebrity endorsements than engaging with local community leaders and clergy. These criticisms seem especially misplaced.

During the campaign RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum worked behind the scenes to secure “celebrity endorsements,” such as President Biden’s remarkable video calling out Amazon’s anti-union tactics, and he helped bring leading Black politicians and others to Bessemer.

But these high-level endorsements had nothing to do with what happened with the ground campaign. RWDSU organizers and community allies were not involved, and the endorsemement effort did not impact their day-to-day actions.

Fifth, “Blowout” alleges that the campaign failed to engage sufficiently with community organizations and did so too late. In actuality, the union engaged with outside multiple organizations.

The RWDSU had maintained a media blackout during the first few months of organizing, which served the campaign well. After the campaign became public, the union engaged extensively with community organizations, especially the Birmingham Black Lives Matter movement, with BLM also providing a central theme of the campaign.

Indeed, several commentators who spent time in Bessemer commended the RWDSU campaign for its inclusivity when compared with similar union campaigns, which have often displayed a suspicion of outsiders. Thus RWDSU opened its doors to community and political organizations — Birmingham BLM, Birmingham DSA, Socialist Alternative, Our Revolution, and rank-and-file union members from local unions — in a way reminiscent of “Occupy Wall Street.”

Moreover, union allies conducting “community canvassing” knocked on the door of every household in Bessemer, along with many thousands of doors in the neighboring cities Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. By late March, one could not travel for more than a block in Bessemer without seeing a yard sign expressing support for the Amazon union.

RWDSU organizers engaged extensively with local clergy, who provided significant support. One can always find a community organization that might feel slighted – and maybe with good reason – but the campaign, as a whole, engaged extensively with outside allies in the area.

What Was Gained?

Would we have been better off if the election had never happened? Would we’d beeen better off without Biden’s remarkable video calling out Amazon’s anti-union practices, the most pro-union statement in presidential history, which certainly would not have happened were it not for the RWDSU campaign? If we hadn’t had the wall-to-wall and overwhelming positive media coverage of a union story that went on for months, and involved not just the usual suspects – New York Times, Bezos-owned Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Huffington Post, Vice, Vox, Business Insider, but also Teen Vogue and Elle, as well as just about every major overseas media outlet on the planet?

Their exhaustive coverage of Amazon’s vicious anti-union campaign in real time achieved two things: First, it exposed a much larger, more diverse and younger audience to the brutal reality of no-holds-barred anti-union campaigns. This might not have been news to seasoned observers – though some of Amazon’s anti-union tactics were new to everyone — but they are new to 95% of the U.S. public, who have never seen them covered in such detail.

Second, for the first time in generations, it has created the opportunity for a meaningful national debate on the need for stronger labor rights. Would we have been better off if we hadn’t had a major union organizing drive that placed the BLM message at the center of its campaign, and produced several charismatic and inspirational grassroots Black leaders?

And finally, would we have been better off without the largest organizing drive ever at Amazon, one in which several thousand workers signed union cards, and over 1000 workers voted for the RWDSU, even after enduring a months-long, multi-million dollar vicious and potentially unlawful anti-union campaign conducted by one of the most powerful corporations on the planet?

“Blowout” suggests that warning signs of defeat were everywhere from the beginning, but its criticisms are based on scant knowledge of the campaign. For sure, one major sign of potential union defeat was apparent from the get-go: workers had decided to take on one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, which has used anti-union algorithms, Pinkerton detectives, former intelligence spies, unparalleled surveillance by unregulated technologies, and ruthless and unlawful anti-union practices. Amazon’s reputation for “crushing” all previous union organizing efforts has been well deserved.

The RWDSU campaign at Bessemer will serve as a catalyst for future worker activism both at Amazon and in Alabama – the campaign won more union votes than every organizing campaign in Alabama in 2020 put together — but that activism will take many forms.

Amazon wants this struggle to be defined as Amazon vs. the union in the context of the NLRB process because it knows it can dominate that process most of the time. But the real struggle is Amazon vs. its workers fighting for better conditions. So long as Amazon’s business model depends on extreme forms of exploitation, workers will continue to organize against it.

The RWDSU campaign at Bessemer wasn’t a blowout. Friday’s result may not even be the final word on the election. Moreover, the unprecedented media coverage, and President Biden’s video, has gotten the country’s attention and provided unions with an opportunity to push for a debate on labor rights that hasn’t existed for generations. The brave pro-union workers and worker organizers at Bessemer deserve better than uninformed criticism.

May-June 2021, ATC 212

3 replies on “Bravery, Not Blowout”

Great write up! I had followed the campaign in the news media, but it’s great to get a more comprehensive account.

This article is exactly what’s wrong with the labour movement. Defending egos and putting as much positive spin as possible on a huge defeat will not help workers. At least Jane McAlevey’s ‘Blowout in Bessemer’ article attempts to shed some light on mistakes re: the things we can control and potentially do better. We need more not less of Jane’s kind of analysis to increase our chances of winning. Maybe the union strategists and organisers involved could openly share what they would have done differently so we can all learn.

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