Behind Union Defeat at Amazon Bessemer

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By Jeff Mackler and Mark Ostapiak

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
But the union makes us strong

(From the trade union anthem “Solidarity Forever”)

Would it be that the inspiration of the Retail Wholesale, Department Store Union (RWDSU) flowed through the blood of the defeated 5,800 workers, the great majority Black, at Amazon’s giant packaging plant in Bessemer, Alabama. “Solidarity forever” was terribly absent. The early-April National Labor Relations Board-conducted vote tally gave the RWDSU 29 percent to Amazon’s 71 percent.

Whether or not there was a single defiant mass rally or even a mass meeting organized by the RWDSU at Bessemer during the campaign is unknown. Inside the plant? Or in the parking lot or in the community? 

Union Defiance Absent

Was there the slightest evidence of union defiance of the near slave labor speed-up conditions at Bessemer, including high-tech surveillance devices that marked and monitored the location of every worker every second in accord with Amazon’s punitive “time on task” accounting? The lash of the slave master’s whip was replaced with the invisible handcuffs of his descendant’s technology, enforced to the point where some intimidated workers felt compelled to urinate in bottles to avoid being fired or punished for “time off task.” One can only wonder whether this degrading horror too was video-recorded. 

Was the union’s drive ever based on the simple idea of a pledge that the RWDSU would not tolerate a single worker who signed a union recognition card being fired or victimized? Some 2,000 Bessemer workers eventually signed cards to trigger the April union recognition election but RWDSU officials largely kept this information under wraps to “protect the workforce” from being fired, they stated.

Did the RWDSU ever organize toward building rank-and-file power? To date, we have not learned that any of these elementary class struggle fightback tools were deployed.   

The final tally was 1,798 votes in favor of multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Corporation that recorded 2020 profits of $21.3 billion. Bezos himself is worth $179 billion, the richest person in the U.S. Amazon is valued at $1.43 trillion.

Fearing that a union victory at Bessemer could trigger a cascade of victories at Amazon’s 110 warehouses across the country, Amazon, the world’s third largest corporation, came to Bessemer prepared to fight. The RWDSU didn’t. Just 738 votes were recorded in favor of the RWDSU. Some 500 votes were challenged during the counting process – mostly by Amazon – and were kept out of the official tally. Time will tell how many of these 500 were fired during the election campaign. But even if all went to the RWDSU, the result would be unchanged. Close to half the workers didn’t vote. 

The union is filing a host of unfair labor practice appeals to the NLRB detailing the myriad “illegal” horrors committed by Amazon’s hired top-notch union-busting outfit. The likelihood of success is near zero, not because Amazon didn’t pull off every dirty, intimidating, threatening, corrupt move in the book, but because no serious gain for working people has ever been won via the largess of the capitalist establishment, whether it be its legislative bodies, labor boards, courts or posturing politicians. The old maxim holds today more than ever, “You can’t win in the courts what you can’t win on the picket line!” 

The Class Struggle Road

Indeed, the past great gains for working people were won when they defied all the above and took the class struggle road, marking the early U.S. labor movement among the most dynamic and powerful on earth. The RWDSU’s rejection of this road, not its failure to implement the long list of labor organizing manual collective bargaining election tactics, was central to its stinging defeat.

Had it done otherwise the outcome could have been different. Had it gone to the thousands of Bessemer workers with the message that their courage and collaboration – along with the solidarity of their friends, families and communities – was critical, a different outcome was more than possible. This solidarity, combined with all the forces that a fighting labor movement could muster, in Bessemer, in nearby areas, if not nationally, could have beaten the behemoth Amazon. An RWDSU strategic turn to mass action, in time at the plant gate itself should Amazon move to victimize or fire union activists, was essential. Replacing business as usual unionism with a confrontation of wills, with tens of thousands of workers and their allies on one side and a handful of Amazon’s cop scab-herding squads on the other – at Amazon plant gates and Whole Food supermarkets everywhere – was on the order of the day. Instead, a single relatively isolated union chose a single target of perhaps the nation’s most powerful corporations to open a terribly inadequate hands-behind-the back recognition fight.

History of U.S. Labor Movement

The long history of labor’s historic successes was recorded when workers en masse, led by militant, often socialist and communist organizers, took on the bosses at the point of production and sacrificed life and limb to prevail. Labor’s greatest gains were never registered when they won a government-certified collective bargaining election but instead when they closed down, if not occupied, their struck plants, defied court injunctions, company-armed Citizen’s Councils, scab-herding cops and the National Guard. These actions inspired workers around the country to do the same and to mobilize to defend striking workers in their own communities. Union power was based on the collective actions of workers, who democratically and in mass meetings determined the union’s strategy and tactics. Union solidarity emerged when the rank-and-file chose its own leaders based on their record of fighting the boss and their capacity to inspire others, inside and outside the union ranks, to join them in doing so.  

To those who respond to this time-honored organizing perspective with the refrain that labor is too weak today to do what it did in decades past we remind them that the biblical David vs. Goliath alternative, wherein David’s stone and slingshot slayed his stronger opponent, is both a fairy tale and inapplicable. There is no serious alternative to the mobilization of labor’s collective power against the power of the bosses and their state apparatus. 

A glimpse of this power was momentarily visible with the anti-racist millions who mobilized to insist, against the full mobilization of the police and National Guard, that Black Lives Matter. Sadly, lacking a decisive independent leadership, most were temporarily detoured into the dead-end Democratic Party, only to return once again to the streets when it became clear that the election had changed nothing and that raw police murder remained the rule regardless of which capitalist party held the presidency.  

Hopefully, the “red state” teachers, whose “illegal” statewide strikes in 2018-19 exacted major gains for educators and public employees, only to be momentarily coopted into the Democrats electoral apparatus, will have learned the critical lesson of working class independence.

Labor’s Historic Low Point

Today’s top-down business unionism has relegated the U.S. labor movement to its lowest point in the modern era – in the last 100-plus years. Labor’s parasitic officials, with salaries sometimes matching top corporate executives, are today on their knees begging Democrats to pass the latest version of “labor law reform,” this time called Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed the U.S. House in March. The Richard Trumka-led AFL-CIO misleaders are lobbying their claimed Democratic Party “friends of labor” for Senate passage. “Americans want to organize unions,” said President Trumka, who pulls down an annual salary of $272,260, not counting another $20,000 in “expenses.” Trumka added, “It should never be this hard to organize.” Labor’s legislation-oriented mis-leaders have been pressing for “labor law reform” to increase union membership since the Jimmy Carter administration and before – with zero success. 

Since when has corporate America and its twin parties ever voluntarily made it “easy” for its wage slaves to organize to win gains for working people? The pathetic legislation that does exist on the books today to legitimize labor organizing and collective bargaining, leaving aside the myriad reactionary laws that undermine it, was a product of the class struggle fights that had already forced the corporate elite to recognize and bend to labor’s power. The bosses never “gave” labor anything that labor had not already won in combat.

Trumka and his kind, including the AFSCME leadership that tragically recruits “cop unions” into its ranks, are a far cry from the even the worst layer of bureaucrats, who in decades past ran roughshod over organized labor’s federations. Barely 11 percent of U.S. workers are union members today, less than half the figure more than three decades ago, with even this figure declining.

Recruiting cops in labor’s ranks, the modern day heirs of the slavocracy’s patrols that hunted down escaped slaves… and today murder Blacks with impunity while herding scabs through union picket lines. Shame! 

Corporations Always Unite Against Labor

An April 14, 2021 New York Times editorial partially favorable to the defeated Bessemer workers, entitled “A Big Loss For the Little Guy,” explained how the corporate elite combined to obliterate even a modest pro labor law passed by the California state legislature. The editorial observed, “Faced with the prospect of having to treat their workers as employees as a result of a California law, Uber pooled more than $200 million last year with Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates and Instacart to successfully push a ballot initiative known as Prop 22, which overturned the state law and ensured that drivers would be classified as contract workers, ineligible for full health benefits, an unemployment lifeline or the prospect of advancement.”

California’s ruling class pitched in a puny $200 million to redefine workers as “independent contractors” and thus extract additional millions and billions of dollars from their labor.

Labor’s Misleadership

Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU’s president, pulls down an annual salary of $337,014 plus another $14,441 in union “business expenses.” The annual before-taxes salary of a Bessemer worker, assuming they work a fulltime 40-hour week for 52 weeks, is $30,000, just slightly over the government-designated formal poverty level for a family of four in Alabama. 

Said Appelbaum, “Working people deserve better than the way Amazon has conducted itself during our campaign which has proven that the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is to join together in a union. Amazon’s behavior during the election cannot be ignored and our union will seek remedy to each and every improper action Amazon took. We won’t rest until workers’ voices are heard fairly under the law.” 

“Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one” bureaucrat like an Appelbaum or a Trumka? The latter sat on a Donald Trump-appointed “labor-management” board, tasked with advancing the interests of U.S. manufacturers. Trumka’s thesis that “What’s good for General Motors is good for workers,” purports to link labor’s well-being to the profits of the boss class when in fact, they are diametrically opposed. 

The once-militant UAW membership has been reduced by three-fourths or more over the decades, with countless union jobs offshored to Mexico or replaced by robots and automated factories. Once touted UAW pension and health care benefits are gone or significantly gutted; automatic wage escalator contract clauses designed to keep up with inflation have been eliminated, while top wage scales have been obliterated by multi-tier, low-wage contracts. Today’s starting UAW wages stand at levels less than 75 percent of what they were 50 years ago! 

Trump, and now Joseph Biden, claim to advocate bringing back U.S. jobs that were offshored to China or Mexico or Vietnam, where U.S. corporations extract super profits at the expense of super-exploited non-union workers abroad. Capitalism’s global “race-to-the-bottom” scenario will never be challenged by labor’s ever-deepening “partnership” with the bosses.  

Black Workers and Black Lives Matter

Trumka’s AFL-CIO reported a poll indicating that public support for a union at Amazon stood at 77 percent, yet the vote in favor of a union at Amazon was 29 percent. How can we account for this difference? Is it a matter of indifference on the part of Amazon’s predominantly Black workforce? 

An instant answer to this question thundered across the country last summer when some 20 million people took to the streets in 2,000 U.S. cites in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests against the police murder of George Floyd and countless other innocent, unarmed Blacks murdered by racist killer cops. Those unprecedented-in-scope, Black-led mobilizations for the first time ever gave proof that in the minds of the vast majority, a deeply imbedded or systemic racism prevailed in the U.S. In a matter of days and weeks the institutional nature of this racism was marked by the tearing down of the statues, portraits and even names of longstanding college, university and public buildings honoring America’s former racist slaveholder and Confederate secessionist leaders. Led in great part by a new generation of radicalizing Black youth, the protests were joined by similar millions of white working class youth. What drove this movement forward was explicitly its mass anti-racist and working class character coupled with its defiance of police clubs, tear gas, concussion bombs, mass arrests, curfews as well as a spirit of solidarity and angry passion that overcame the threats to life itself in the context of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. 

Tragically, this fighting spirit was almost absent during the RWDSU’s formalistic, behind-the-scenes, hands-off effort to unionize Amazon workers. The union relied more on solidarity statements from movie stars, elected officials, social media technology and hype than it did on enlisting the ranks to determine their fate and win their union. The timid bureaucrats even refrained from the traditional one-on-one “home visit” door-to-door organizing, citing COVID-19 concerns at a time when 20 million anti-racist youth, Black and white, threw caution to the winds to make their solidarity open and visible.

Union Dues in “Right-to-Work” States

RWDSU tried to counter Amazon propaganda that warned workers that a union victory would entail mandatory dues payments. The union’s response was to deny the charge stating that mandatory dues or “dues check off” was banned under Alabama’s “right-to-work” laws. Again, the union bureaucracy proved incapable of explaining that paying union dues was inseparable from maintaining a powerful union ready 24/7 to defend and advance workers’ power against a labor-hating corporate empire. 

Prior to WWII, dues check-off did not exist in either union contracts or state or federal law. It was only enacted when the bureaucracy brokered a deal to have employers collect union dues and send them to the union in return for the union agreeing to a “no strike pledge” in the name of ensuring uninterrupted war production. This wartime agreement saw the boss class’s largely monopolized war profiteering industries rake in unprecedented billions while workers’ Depression-era wages were frozen. Indeed, the bureaucracy’s move to extend the no-strike pledge to the post-war period led in 1946 to the greatest strike wave in the nation’s history, bypassing large sections of the class-collaborationist union tops.   

Prior to WWII, union dues were regularly collected by democratically-elected shop stewards and workplace union committees that had won the confidence of the ranks, who were more than willing to support the strong unions that they themselves had created. The basis of union power largely rested in a solidarity born in common struggle against exploiting corporations and in regular, democratic well-attended union meetings where major decisions were directly in the hands of the ranks. 

Today’s unions are almost entirely lacking in the most elemental democratic forms. Where union meetings exist at all they are often in far away locations due to the unions being merged again and again over sprawling, sometimes statewide jurisdictions. Attendance most often consists of handfuls of  “elected” bureaucrats who the ranks have never known and who become eligible to run for office, according to revised union constitutions, only after they have served lengthy years in the union’s hierarchy. A miniscule percentage of members ever attend. 

“They Have Taken Untold Millions…”

Solidarity Forever’s verses remind us of times long past when the “grasping hand of the ruling rich” more blatantly stole of wealth that working people created.      

“They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
“But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn
“We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
“That the union makes us strong”

and further…

“In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold
“Greater than the might of atoms, magnified a thousand fold
“We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong”

Today, “breaking the haughty power” of the bosses is non-existent in the language of the union tops, who define their traitorous policy in terms of unconditional support to the boss’s chosen party, the Democrats. The anti-labor and racist record of Joseph Biden’s decades of service to capital is obliterated overnight, while some in labor proclaim that Biden is “the best president labor has ever had.” 

Today’s labor fakers play third or fourth fiddle to the Democrats, if they are allowed even a single non-prime-time televised convention minute to hail the Democrats’ chosen candidate.

Ousting the Labor Bureaucracy

The present labor bureaucracy notwithstanding, working people today have the potential power to bring capital to its knees, to close down the country from one coast to another, to champion every struggle of working people and the oppressed and exploited, immigrants, women, and LGBTQI people. That power rests in its capacity to organize a massive fight to democratize, rebuild and qualitatively expand the present unions and to establish a new fighting leadership that wins its spurs in the course of these struggles. 

Labor’s future simultaneously rests in its will to build its own political party, a fighting, independent Labor Party that takes labor’s battles at the point of production and in the streets into the political arena with the objective a establishing a government of working people that aims to construct a socialist society.

Amazon’s victory at Bessemer is far from irreversible. Over time, serious union fighters will absorb the lessons and return to the struggle at the head of mass forces that will ensure success.

[Jeff Mackler is a staff writer for Socialist Action newspaper. He can be reached at socialistaction@lmi.net, socialistaction.org.  Mark Ostapiak is a member of SEIU 2121 and a leader/member of the union caucus, SEIU Drop the Cops.]  

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