by Alex Gallo-Brown
Last week, votes from the largest union election in recent American history — both in terms of the number of eligible workers and the media hype surrounding the campaign — were counted, and the results weren’t pretty if you’re a fan of workplace democracy, economic justice, or collective action. Only about 55% of the 5,800 eligible workers at the Amazon distribution center in Bessemer, Alabama, cast votes in an election that dragged on over the course of seven weeks. Of the 3,215 workers who did vote, only 738 chose to certify the union; 1,798 elected not to. Hundreds of additional ballots weren’t even counted, since they belonged to workers whose eligibility was contested and whose votes would not have changed the outcome, anyway.
It was a devastating outcome for organized labor, according to the national press, after weeks and months of optimism that the pro-union workers might succeed. For many who were on the outside, stories of insufficient bathroom breaks, erratic scheduling, low wages (relative to other warehouses in the area), and general job insecurity made the case for the union a slam dunk. That about 85% of the workers at Bessemer are Black and a majority women in an area of the country with a long history of civil rights struggle only added to the excitement. The workers would win in Bessemer and create a spark throughout the country, galvanizing low-wage workers everywhere to rise up and demand liberation from the conditions that have oppressed them. After decades of decline, labor unions in the U.S. would finally be reborn.
That’s not what happened. Among many other factors, Amazon’s fierce union-busting campaign, which cost the company upwards of $10,000 per day, appears to have disaffected enough workers from the thought of unionization to send the effort down in flames. The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Workers Union (RWDSU) declared that they will file legal challenges against the company for improper behavior during the campaign — companies are not allowed to surveil, threaten, or intimidate their workforce into not forming a union — but the outcome looks bleak. The story of the brave workers of Bessemer sparking a nationwide worker revolt has, at least temporarily, been put on hold.
This was always something of a flawed narrative, anyway, in my view. Contrary to what one might assume, given the dismal percentage of workers in the United States who have union representation, people in this country do, generally, like labor unions. Recent polls have shown that about two thirds of Americans feel favorably towards unions despite only about 10% of the workforce being unionized. Black workers, in particular, are the most likely of any racial group to belong to a union; they are also likeliest to view the decline of organized labor as negative. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the two candidates who garnered the most Black support during the 2020 presidential election, explicitly identified themselves as pro-union: Biden made a short video expressing support for the Amazon workers while Sanders visited Bessemer personally, joining a host of other popular political and cultural celebrities that made the pilgrimage, including actor Danny Glover, rapper Killer Mike, and U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman.
So why, then, did the mostly Black Bessemer workers vote against the union when they had the chance?
The answer to that question is complex, and I am able to provide no special insight into the dynamics on the ground. But part of the reason is that the rules are not fair. While Amazon almost certainly broke the law during the campaign (allegations include pressuring the United States Postal Service to install a mailbox outside the facility after the National Labor Review Board told them not to and firing pro-union workers), many of the tactics it engaged in were perfectly legal. Holding mandatory “labor classes” where workers were fed anti-union disinformation and propaganda. Check. Posting anti-union flyers and signs everywhere from the shop floor to bathroom stalls. Check. Incessantly calling, texting, and emailing employees when they were off work. Check. This is all more or less standard union-busting behavior as it has been practiced by American corporations for the past three decades or more.
Clearly, the rules need to change. And a new bill in Congress called Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would do just that. The PRO Act would outlaw those propaganda classes that Amazon is so fond of, establish more severe penalties for employers who break the law, ban so-called “right to work” laws, and make it easier for workers to form unions through a process called “card check.” There’s no doubt in my mind that the PRO Act would substantially improve American society for the better.
But there’s another reason why I thought the narrative surrounding Bessemer was slightly wrong, and that’s for the simple reason that forming a union is an intensely particular experience. It’s a deeply personal struggle undertaken by a specific group of workers in a specific workplace during a specific time. While some might approach the question of unionization ideologically (for or against), most workers, in my experience, simply want to know if the union will make things better for themselves and their families. They want to know if their situation will be improved. By and large, workers do not hate their employers. Indeed, they spend most of their waking hours at work, and many of them seek to feel positively about a workplace into which they invest so much of their energy and time. (Those feelings are both encouraged and exploited by employers, as Sarah Jaffe persuasively demonstrates in her recent book Work Won’t Love You Back, as a hedge against worker revolt.) The ethos of solidarity among workers, collective action against the boss, and greater workplace democracy is somewhat foreign to a generation of workers who have had little experience of labor unions and who for decades have labored at the mercy of employers, who are more or less free to do what they wish.
The spirit of solidarity is not intrinsic or latent inside the human body. Instead, it has to be learned, fostered, nurtured, and strengthened by particular human beings engaged in collective struggle over time. If the Bessemer workers had won, would workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Kent, Washington, have automatically begun organizing for change? Not necessarily. And, conversely, does the Bessemer workers not winning their election mean that the long struggle for change inside their facility has ended? No. It could be that it’s only getting started.
That would, of course, be easier on all counts if the PRO Act were to pass. And while it recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives, it will probably stall in the Senate, where more conservative Democrats oppose abolishing the filibuster. That leaves us to organize under the existing rules. Passed in 1935 as a compromise between racist white southerners and slightly less racist white northeasterners, the National Labor Relations Act, though more progressive than the labor laws that preceded it, was never designed to promote militant action. Even still, workers organized, militated, made demands, and won impressive victories. They created collectives out of individual workers and tasted the fruit that such actions can produce. They did this whether they enjoyed the right to or not, under duress and often against fierce odds.
The work continues. As one of the Bessemer worker leaders, Daryl Richardson, wrote recently on Twitter, “It’s not over.” And how could it be? As long as there is worker exploitation, the labor movement will carry on. In Bessemer and elsewhere, workers will regroup, unions will reflect on their actions, and the process will restart again, sooner rather than later. “If you fight, you won’t always win,” a famous trade unionist once said. “But if you don’t fight, you will always lose.”
Alex Gallo-Brown is the author of Variations of Labor (Chin Music, 2019) and is a labor organizer in Ssouth Seattle.
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