Lessons of Amazon union vote: One step forward, two steps back

Republished from Socialist Resurgence’s website

A year of uneven but continuous mobilizations throw light on the social situation in which the workers at the BHM1 warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., moved to organize their shop. Roughly six months after publicly filing for a union election, initial vote counts suggest a total of 1798 against 738 for the union. The poor showing is a reflection of a number of elements, including illegal tactics by the company, a staff-focused organizing model, and the class-collaborationist policy of union tops, discussed in the next section.
All the same, capitalism’s crises in the heart of U.S. imperialism are molding a growing resistance to the status quo. The whole country is sitting on a powder keg of class contradictions. All that is necessary to start a social explosion are decisive victories for working and oppressed people to show that striking out on our own, using the fundamental methods of class struggle, is possible.

The fight continues

While this particular organizing drive did not succeed in bringing a Retail, Wholesale and, Department Store Union (RWDSU) local to the warehouse in Bessemer, the lessons of the effort are essential to understand for this next period. How do workers organize in the face of extraordinary difficulties? On the level of basic trade unionism, this drive shows three interrelated conditions that need to be addressed as working-class militants continue to fight for representation and organization on the shop floor.
The first is the huge amount of money, resources, and political capital that big businesses are willing and able to throw into union busting campaigns. Amazon surveilled workers, forced them into endless anti-union meetings, and leveraged the local government to aid its efforts. Rank-and-file organizers need to go into union drives and shop floor campaigns with an understanding in their bones of the lengths companies will go to smash them. That means “inoculating” co-workers against common tricks of the bosses from the very beginning and always reinforcing their comprehension of the fact that the immense pressure, rumors, and atmosphere of lies that can exist at work during a campaign is all part of the bosses’ strategy to divide the shop.
Second is the need to live up to the adage that workers must organize themselves. A union contract is important, but without an active rank and file willing to struggle for better conditions, it is just so many words on a piece of paper. The Bessemer drive was a perfect example of how not to adhere to this basic concept. Instead of maintaining a high level of activity by workers from the shop, the union bureaucracy substituted its own intervention.
A successful organizing campaign means that workers from the shop keep themselves accountable; carry out regular, public facing tasks; and continuously recommit to each other. Concretely, that means finding openings to bring collective delegations to the bosses over issues; wearing union buttons; going on house visits away from the prying eyes of management; and regular committee meetings to help take the temperature of the shop, talk through the bosses’ anti-union campaigns, identify co-workers who may be buckling under the bosses’ pressure, and a myriad of other, continuous, collective, and uncompromising means of actually functioning as a union.
RWDSU has had success organizing poultry workers around Alabama and the South. Since 2011 the Mid-South membership, which includes Alabama, increased from 4700 to around 9000 members. This initial loss at BHM1 shows the need for a deep understanding of the quantitative and qualitative measures of the shop. That means not only how many workers are in the shop and their personal relationships with each other, but also how the company might attempt to change the bargaining unit (workers covered by the union contract). In Bessemer, Amazon was able to expand the bargaining unit to around five times RWDSU’s initial estimate after the union had already filed for an election. They were able to include supervisors, engineers, and other workers that had not been part of the initial organizing. This was a trick of the bosses, but it should have been foreseen and prepared for by the local and the workers in the shop. Last is that capitalist politicians may speak in support of a union, but the only thing that can actually win it is the force of an organized working class. The two-faced support from members of both major parties, including the president of the United States and prominent Republicans, did nothing for the campaign. Labor has maintained a strategy based on cultivating relationships with these betrayers of the working class in the hopes of “getting a seat at the table” or turning the tide in their advantage. Bessemer should put a nail in this perspective’s coffin.

Labor ripe for transformation

The organizing drive at Bessemer is the latest outcropping of a growing class  consciousness that is often out of sight. At the same time, major explosions—including the 2014 BLM upsurge and People’s Climate March, 2016-2017 NoDAPL occupation and national solidarity campaigns, 2017 womens’ march, 2018 teachers’ strike wave, grassroot successes against government deportations, and 2020 uprising sparked by George Floyd’s murder—serve as dramatic examples of the growing reaction against capitalism’s spiraling crises. On the whole, organized labor has abstained from all of these mass movements. Even the teachers’ strikes dragged the union tops in only through the dynamic push of rank-and-file members who were unwilling to back down from the fight.
In order to really win victories in this period, workers need to position themselves and their organizations as the leaders in all of the fights against capitalist oppression. This means developing a program and strategy capable of coordinating not only national organizing campaigns but also giving a vision for reorganizing society to meet basic needs and fight oppression.
The importance of Bessemer in this equation is not limited to the effort undertaken at one shop. Instead, the drive reflects a growing urgency among a layer of rank-and-file workers to build class-struggle organizations. Those that are actively reaching out to union locals; carrying out molecular sick-outs, slow-downs, and even wildcats; and generally coming to the conclusion that unions are necessary make up an objective vanguard of the class. All eyes are on these unnamed thousands clocking in and out everyday bursting with energy for struggle.
It is up to the unions—that is to say, the 14.3 million organized workers in this country—to connect these seemingly disparate elements. The AFL-CIO has an opportunity to become a nationwide organizing space against all of the mechanisms of exploitation and oppression rooted in capitalist society. In a more direct sense, the recent election loss at BHM1 underscores the immediate necessity to take worker-to-worker organizing seriously, coordinate beyond a single shop, and ditch the politician-based strategies.

Look to the past for labor’s future

Such a rapid shift in magnitude of the class struggle is not at all unheard of in the United States. The 1920s were largely a period of reaction. At the beginning of the decade, deportations of radical workers were so numerous that the newly formed Communist Party had to function as an underground organization. While the political situation opened up some, the labor movement was arguably more backwards than it has ever been since. Craft unions organized by the generally conservative American Federation of Labor was the dominant model. Due to the ongoing “open shop” movement by the bosses; the narrow scope of union locals, focused mainly on the upper crust of workers; class collaborationist policies; and racism, misogyny, and anti-immigrant sentiment that were rife throughout the AFL, unionization rates dropped every year from 1923 to 1933. The Great Depression gave birth to a truly desperate situation for millions of working people living in the United States.
The story of labor militancy in the 1930s in the U.S. is the story of the rise of the Congress for Industrial Organizing (CIO). Just like today, workers were suffering under the boot of exploitation, oppression, and impending inter-imperialist war. What set in motion the greatest upsurge of independent working-class militancy this country has ever seen? The most crucial factor in setting that course of events were three “strikes that paved the way.” Led by revolutionaries and class-conscious radicals, the 1933-34 strikes on the San Francisco docks, the Minneapolis coal yards, and the Toledo auto plants are moments of struggle that today’s militants need to internalize. Those heroic episodes saw workers directly confronting the state, organizing on an industrial rather than craft basis, and building the movement through struggle, not diplomacy. Those victories, won through defensive bloodshed, were the push that showed what a class struggle strategy really means.
Once rank-and-file workers and unemployed people saw what was possible, fights sprang up all over the country. The entire terrain of the labor movement shifted almost over night. Mass strikes, complete with workers’ defense guards and innovative tactics like the “flying picket,” became a norm. So too did recruitment of unemployed people to the workers’ movement. Committees of the unemployed fought for workers power, while employed workers fought for improvements to the social welfare system as well as more control over production. The latter condition would lower the rate of exploitation and allow more unemployed people to work.
Once the floodgates were open, the old racist bureaucrats lost their unilateral control over union membership. Black workers fought for organization, both in majority Black industries and mixed race sectors. In fact, the ongoing efforts of self-organization among Black working people were one of the most well-known labor struggles preceding the CIO movement. This included the fight to organize an independent union of Pullman Rail porters and maids, virtually all Black men and women, which had been ongoing since 1925. In 1934, the union was finally officially recognized.
In his book “Hammer and Hoe,” historian Robin Kelley shows how in the steel sector, “Black workers were the union’s strongest adherents during the formative years. Indeed, Birmingham blacks tended to view [Steel Workers Organizing Committee] SWOC’s [a CIO union] campaign as a crusade for racial justice: as early as January 1937, the NAACP organized several rallies in support of SWOC, and a handful of Birmingham’s most prominent black clergymen offered church space for union meetings. … As Rob Hall put it, for blacks the CIO drive ‘was like a second coming of Christ.’ … Once in the union, many black steel workers refused to accept a passive role in SWOC affairs, taking every opportunity to assert themselves. … On Christmas Eve 1936, black steel workers at Birmingham’s American Casting Company, led by Communists Joe Howard and C. Dave Smith, organized Alabama’s first sit-down strike in history. The strike ended a few days later, after company officials agreed to a substantial settlement that included a 20 percent wage increase and time and a half for overtime.”

Militancy, organization, and the strike

The main takeaway for organizers of the Bessemer drive, as well as the most successful mass movements in the recent period, is the necessity to maintain a high level of organization and militancy in future labor efforts. The priority of building real rank and file militant and democratically run organizing drives has been shelved in favor of corporate campaigns, boycotts, and legislative efforts that appeal to the moral judgement of the capitalists and politicians. A recent New York Times article (April 9, 2021) quotes professors and labor bureaucrats who support a strategy in which “the idea is to combine workplace actions like walkouts (the ground war) with pressure on company executives through public relations campaigns that highlight labor conditions and enlist the support of public figures (the air war).”
The article quotes sociologist Ruth Milkman as saying: “There are almost never any elections… [and i]t’s all about putting pressure on decision makers at the top.” This is a losing strategy. More to the point, ceding formal unionization of the rank-and-file in favor of “putting pressure on decision makers” moves the fight from where workers have power, in the shops, to the bosses’ home turf.
Instead, creative, bold, and disciplined cultures of struggle need to be developed. First and foremost, trade unions should be turned into a mobilizing force that can give a strategic vision to all of the social movements. In this way, through implementing a class-struggle method, the existing 14.3 million organized workers will  begin  the monumental task of organizing the other 90% of non-union workers, unemployed people, and fighters for social justice.
The strike is slowly reemerging in public consciousness. The “Red for Ed” teachers’ movement taught a new generation of workers that a strike is only “illegal” if you lose. Today’s vanguard is learning that the “normal” ways of organizing are insufficient. The last 10 years have seen many cases of nationwide movements springing from inspirational examples of explosive militancy on a more local level. With the combined experiences of workers’ responses to the pandemic, the racial justice movements, and pressure of ongoing climate catastrophe, the working class in this country is poised to take its next “Giant Step.” All it needs is some concrete illustrations of what to do.

Democrats, the PRO Act, and how to win reforms

The Democratic Party has been talking up its “pro-labor” credentials in this recent period. The capitalist class has all the means of information and analysis at its disposal. They understand the immediate danger that an independent workers’ movement would pose on their ability to accumulate capital through the exploitation of workers. Coming out in favor of the workers at BH1M was a win-win for the Democrats. On the one hand, they had good assurances that the campaign would not be a success, due to the poor strategy of the union bureaucracy and lack of militant leadership. On the other, they got a huge amount of press in the vein of calling Joe Biden the most “pro-labor” president ever. To put icing on the cake, Jeff Bezos has voiced support for Biden’s infrastructure plan and “raising” the corporate tax rate.
In order to maintain the traditional abusive relationship between union bureaucrats, bourgeois politicians, and rank-and-file workers, the Democrats are putting forward their “left” flank in both personality and posture. This tactical positioning is a time-tested means of renewing time, energy, and, most importantly, trust for the ruling-class political game. Unfortunately, a large number of individuals and organizations who consider themseves socialists are falling into the trap, calling for “critical support” to Democratic candidates and even entering the Democratic Party.
The PRO Act is one product of this moment that could definitely and positively affect the class struggle. The bill’s provisions would undo some of the most draconian parts of Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor legislation. They include legalizing the secondary boycott/strike; getting rid of captive audience meetings, at least on paper; reclassifying “contract” workers currently ineligible for unionization; and having a more streamlined union election process. At the same time, if there is no mass movement of working people really threatening the status quo, it will not pass. The Democrats’ typical excuse is that they do not have a decisive enough majority in the Senate, but the reality is that the willingness of politicians from both parties to pass pro-worker legislation is fundamentally based on the balance of forces in struggle.
The AFL-CIO has an opportunity to organize a series of conferences to develop concrete plans of action on these two fronts: One, how to organize the mass of non-union workers quickly and decisively. Two, developing a program and strategy to fight for the rights of working people. These could be open to all working people and would create spaces for broad ranging discussions about the possibilities of national organizing for class struggle on shop floors all over the country. If unions like IUPAT, UNITE HERE, SEIU, the Teamsters, etc. developed a class-struggle perspective with the same enthusiasm and resources they currently put in to lobbying and supporting politicians, reforms would be ripped out of the hands of the ruling class. As it stands, workers are paying top dollar to beg for scraps.

Some political conclusions on the Amazon organizing drive

The objective crises of capitalism are generating periodic struggle. While the organizing drive at BHM1 has not won representation, the attempt to formally organize an entire Amazon warehouse is unprecedented in the U.S. There is now proof that even after a multi-million-dollar anti-union campaign, hundreds of workers still voted for unionization. These strongly pro-union sections of the workplace exist in every shop. The task for this period is transforming these forces from passive supporters to active builders of a class-struggle left wing within the labor movement. That will necessitate militants, socialists, and revolutionaries having a clear strategy for “going” to the masses, actively integrating into organizing campaigns, and leading struggles as rank-and-file organizers.
With this perspective, the next Amazon drive has the potential to not only be a success, but also be part of a general step forward by the entire labor movement. The lessons of Bessemer must recognize the danger of limiting organizing activities to single shops, and the weaknesses of individual campaigns. In order to maintain the broader vision of what is to be done, the workers’ movement, and especially its leadership, need to extend their scope and organizations to the national and even international levels.
Illustration by General Strike Graphics

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