Another huge union election in the South. Another loss. Dammit.

On Friday, April 9th, the National Labor Relations Board announced that the workers seeking to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) came up short, 738-1,798, with hundreds of ballots uncounted because of challenges. 

It’s not over. RWDSU has already announced an intent to appeal the result to the National Labor Relations Board, given the scope and magnitude of Amazon’s egregious union busting, and there is reason to hope the Labor Board may choose to toss this result and order a new election. But those steps will take time, and there’s no guarantee of success.

The villain here is Amazon, without doubt. It is the employer, not the workers or the union, that deserves our vitriol. Amazon went all out to stifle its employees’ voice at work. Labor journalist Kim Kelly has been on the ground for the bulk of the campaign, and her reporting has highlighted the ways Amazon put more effort into thwarting the union than it ever would into improving working conditions. The company spent money like water. It saturated the facility floor, bathroom stalls, and workers’ cell phones with anti-union messages. Managers directed contract employees — not eligible to be part of the union —  to wear anti-union buttons. Most petty of all, Amazon changed the timing of the traffic lights out of the parking lot, making it harder for organizers to talk to exiting workers waiting at the red. 

Taking advantage of a National Labor Relations Act whose power has been eroding for decades thanks to the active efforts of corporate America, Amazon poured it on. There are credible allegations of numerous violations of labor law — most egregiously, working with the United States Postal Service to install a dropbox on company property — and much of what Amazon did would have been illegal if the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act were already law

Even if the anti-union messages didn’t always land — maybe even looked silly to outsiders — the line attributed to Stalin resonates: quantity has a quality all its own. An employee who fully believed in the union at Bessemer, and never once fell for a management trick... exposed to such a barrage, even that employee got the message that Amazon was never going to work with a union, that if the union won, the intimidation, fearmongering, and union busting would only get more intense. That might have been enough to get that employee to vote against it, or just not bother to vote. As Josh Eidelson notes in his recap: “Some companies simply shut down operations that unionize. Several Bessemer workers said this prospect weighed on them during the election.”

Union density is low in America not because workers don’t want unions (close to half would join if given the opportunity), but because employers will use the entire power of their companies to prevent workers from having a voice.

I don’t have any special insights to add about the pathetic state of American labor law or the evils of corporate America. Many others have made those points, and will make them again in better and greater detail than I will here. I want to talk about this election loss and the labor movement, about the essential unknowability of what happened in Bessemer and what it means to be part of a movement where a decision in one place — a decision over which 99.9% of organizers have no influence — affects every one of us, in its impact on workers and organizing happening right now, in its power to shape the contours of what seems possible and what does not. Bessemer is the latest, highly-visible example of one of the American labor movement’s prime weaknesses: the lack of systems or mechanisms that allow information, strategy decisions, and lessons learned to be shared across the movement.   


We’re Never Going to Know What Happened

There’s a part of me that wants to lay into the RWDSU and accuse them of running a terrible campaign. Noted labor writer Jane McAlevey has already laid out a strong argument that RWDSU was wrong not to pull its petition when the size of the bargaining unit ballooned from 1,500 to 5,800 workers, and that the union made multiple tactical blunders from there. But the truth is, none of us who weren’t there really knows what happened on the ground in Bessemer. RWDSU may have done, or tried to do, a lot of the things it’s been accused of not doing. It may have had very good reasons for following the course it did, reasons that, were we to hear about them, would make sense to us. The problem is: we’ll never know.

As has been the case with essentially every major organizing defeat in the history of American labor, the story of what happened will never be told. RWDSU will issue press releases and hold news conferences, but their message will be about the evils of Amazon rather than the union’s internal analysis of what they did and didn’t do. Presumably the national leadership of RWDSU will get a briefing, and maybe the AFL-CIO Organizing Council, but the real, meaty details of what went down will remain secrets. We’ll never know what strategic decisions were made, by whom, when, or to what effect. We’ll never know anything about what numbers the union had — how many yes votes, how many no, how big the organizing committee was, what percentage of workers this committee covered, what targets they set, and whether they met them. We’ll never get a clear sense of the resources dedicated to the campaign — how many staff, how many dollars. We’ll never hear about the decisions they made about the legal strategy, about the decision to go forward with an election despite a much-enlarged bargaining unit. And so on. 

RWDSU is not an outlier; this is always how it goes when unions lose high-profile campaigns. Unions move on, people move on. There’s so much useful information that has been lost.

There are great labor journalists out there; some of them will publish pieces that will get at parts of the story, but anything particularly revealing will almost surely be anonymous or off the record, and anything that makes RWDSU look bad will be denied vociferously by the union. Soon enough, the next big Labor Thing will be happening, and those journalists will turn their focus elsewhere, because there are great labor journalists, but there are nowhere near enough of them.

To be sure, some people will end up getting a post-COVID beer with an RWDSU organizer, who will tell some tales, many of them almost true. And when two thousand labor activists from around the country gather at the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago next year, there will be stories, but that’s what they will be. Stories.

Again, let me stress that I’m not blaming RWDSU here. They will behave exactly as the rest of the labor movement has. And they will have what has always been an ironclad reason: you don’t want to share secrets with the boss. There’s simply no way for any more than a handful of people outside RWDSU to find out what happened without that information invariably making its way to public spaces and, thence, to the employer.

Here’s my first objection to that: the boss already knows what happened. Right now, the union-busting law firm Morgan Lewis is writing up a detailed analysis of the campaign. They’ve had people on the ground every day of this thing, and have tons of information they will share with prospective clients as a way to boast of their powers. That analysis will have all kinds of information the labor movement could benefit from seeing.

And that’s my second, bigger objection: other people, other organizers, other unions, could use this information. 

We, as a movement, have long had serious conversations about how, when, and where we organize. The Bessemer drive was, all seem to agree, an example of what we call “hot shop” organizing — starting a union campaign because there’s a sense the workplace is ready to be organized. Go in fast while things are hot, take the risk, build on momentum, and ride it to victory. This mode of target selection is often contrasted with strategic organizing, where targets are chosen as part of a much larger plan, and where the campaign only moves forward if/when long-established benchmarks are met and structure tests are passed. While it’s not a pure dichotomy, there are partisans on both sides. 

A careful analysis of what went into the Bessemer strategy would be a positive contribution to this discussion, which too often takes place in the abstract. It could potentially provide very useful guidance to other organizing efforts. Lessons to learn. Ideas to adopt or discard. But in today’s labor movement, unions do not as a rule devote any significant amount of time and resources to sharing lessons with other unions or across the wider movement. I don’t think that posture is sustainable, and I want to do something about it.


What do we owe each other?

RWDSU currently represents just a little over 60,000 members. Around 14.3 million people are union members, so RWDSU represents about 0.4 percent of the institutional labor movement. This election, though, is going to affect far more than the 0.4 percent RWDSU represents. We already know that the Teamsters and other unions are gearing up organizing efforts at other Amazon facilities. Those efforts will not be made easier by this loss. Workers will be disheartened and may lose hope. It’s only natural.

It’s not just at Amazon, either. Workers all over the country who want to join and form unions are going to see this result and be impacted by it. Now, for all I know, some will become even more determined to fight and win. And it’s possible this highly-visible example of union busting will galvanize support for the PRO Act — so it’s not like the impact will only be negative. But there will be an impact. 

The impact will be epic in scale and reverberate across the country for months or maybe even years. Unions considering their own campaigns in the South, or against other large, antiunion companies, will inevitably rethink their plans. None of them had any input into the decision to run the Bessemer campaign, but I suspect they would have had an opinion if they’d been asked.

What obligations does a single union have to the whole labor movement when it embarks on a campaign that will affect us all?

Let me give you another example, smaller in scale. More than a decade ago I worked for a large teachers’ union. In this particular state, all the teacher unions — around 350 of them — negotiated their contracts on the same two-year cycle. Naturally there was great interest in the first contracts to be settled because they would set the tone for the other 349. This was just at the beginning of the Great Recession. Budgets were crumbling and everyone knew it was going to be a rough round of bargaining.

Imagine, then, the consternation when the first big suburban union settled its contract — for no salary increases. There was swearing in the hallways of the office, gnashing of teeth, and cursing the name of that local union. They’ve screwed everyone over!, we all said. That union, at minimum, should have waited a few more months, after more settlements were announced, to come in with their results. 

But what could we do? They were a local, and, as Jimmy Hoffa says in David Mamet’s memorable film: “The f---ing local is a ship upon the sea.”

Twas ever thus. 

This is not a good way to do things.

The top priority of any union is and should be the workers on the scene. That goes without saying. But  it seems to me that unions that make decisions they know will have an impact far outside their own ranks owe something to the rest of the movement. 

This is a question of ethics, and there is no agreed-upon code of ethics in the labor movement. I think we need one, even if it’s not written down in any official way.  

There are at least two separate issues to tackle. The first is information sharing, including debriefs of campaigns and details of what went down. What should be shared, when, and to whom? Finding the answers to these questions will require tackling three hurdles: the historic lack of trust between different unions, the need to maintain at least some degree of confidentiality, and the reality that information-sharing requires dedicated time and resources unions likely don’t have. These are all problems with solutions, even if they will not be easy.

The second issue is participation in decision-making across the labor movement, and it is much more thorny. Even here, though, there is surely some room for productive experiments. At the local level, area labor councils often serve to help coordinate organizing efforts and plan campaigns against particular sectors. Where are the most successful experiments? What makes them work? What elements of it can be scaled up?

We need a shared understanding of what our responsibility to each other is in this movement. It will take conversation and debate, some of which will involve people across the movement, and some of which will likely take place in smaller rooms of union leaders. But wherever it happens, we need to move in a direction of greater coordination and collaboration, and we will have to work carefully and thoughtfully to find the way forward.

I hope that the leaders of the labor movement, and those in a position to influence those leaders, take this need seriously, and use this sad day as an opportunity to reflect on how we do what we do, and how we can do it better in the future.


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