A failed attempt to unionise Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama is a lesson in the need for a bold and effective strategy by the US labour leaders. Even a goliath like Amazon is no match for the power of the working class when effectively organised. The battle goes on!
The international spotlight put on the small town of Bessemer, Alabama, is a reminder that the class struggle is alive and well in the citadel of world capitalism. From Italy to Myanmar, millions have watched as the world’s third-largest company faced off against its workers at the Bessemer warehouse, which employs nearly 6,000 workers. The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) took up the unionization drive, whose organizing efforts were focused on one of Amazon’s 110 fulfillment centers in the US.
The campaign to unionize this giant of American big business—owned by the richest man on the planet—had become a symbol of hope for millions of low-wage workers worldwide. Polls showed that an overwhelming 77 percent of the US population supported the unionization drive at Bessemer. This is consistent with recent surveys that show the highest support for the labor movement in over half a century, especially among workers under 34 years old, 71 percent of whom favor organizing unions. Interest in being part of a union is a concrete question, especially in the midst of a major crisis. On average, union workers receive 18 percent more in wages and 94 percent more in benefits, on top of improved job security and working conditions.
The IMT wholeheartedly supported these workers’ struggle to form a union, and we will continue to support their fight. Given this mood in society and the Bessemer campaign’s prominence in the headlines, the effort’s defeat inevitably comes as a disappointment for millions. However, serious fighters have no reason to be downcast or to draw pessimistic conclusions from this setback. Our task is to study the facts, examine the reasons for the loss, and regroup for the future. The lessons from this and other struggles show the way forward to eventual victory.
At the Philly rally against Amazon's union busting & racism! Our comrades showed their support with the historic union drive of Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama. Solidarity! pic.twitter.com/5JYNQQyvXa— Socialist Revolution (@usimt) March 23, 2021
The working class has enormous potential power, and once it moves in a determined way, it cannot be stopped. However, this power must be mobilized correctly. Taking on a company like Amazon will require real resources from the broader labor movement, not just lip service or abstract solidarity. These resources must then be guided by a winning strategy, carefully gleaned from both the positive and negative lessons of American labor history.
The union leadership’s strategy
The National Labor Relations Board has reported the official results from the representation election. The counted tally was 738 for the union, 1,798 against. Out of 5,876 potential votes, it appears that 3,041 were cast, with 505 ballots challenged, mainly by Amazon. Another 76 ballots were “voided.” The fact that about 45 percent of the workers abstained shows they were at least open to the idea of forming a union but were under enormous pressure by the company and lacked confidence in the strategy of the RWDSU leadership.
While Amazon mobilized its full resources and employed every trick in the book to defeat its workers, the union leadership tried to organize the workplace while abiding by laws explicitly designed to help the bosses win. Rather than put forward a fighting program of material demands—i.e., in terms of the kinds of wages, benefits, and working conditions a union could bring—the union leadership put its case forward as a kind of “stages” campaign. They presented the vote for union recognition as the merely first stage, and only later would they raise specific demands—instead of understanding that all of this is interrelated. To approach unionization in this way misses the entire logic of the class struggle. After all, the point of combining workers into a union is to collectively fight the employer to win better wages, benefits, and conditions for all.
In a telling comment after the preliminary results were released, the national president of the RWDSU, Stuart Applebaum, declared that “our system is broken. Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign.” (our emphasis).
This exposes the mistaken method behind the union leadership’s strategy. In referring to the NLRB elections, Applebaum speaks of “our system” when what he is really talking about is the system of labor control legislated by the capitalists’ government and enforced by their state. He then calls on the capitalist state, in the form of the labor board, to fix the problem itself.
Needless to say, any strategy for winning union recognition and a solid contract from the employer requires the united power of the broader working class—not help from the capitalist state that represents the ruling class as a whole.
NLRB representation elections
In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act, which set up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to cut across the growing discontent and threat of labor militancy, claiming that this would safeguard the right of workers to join unions. In reality, the working class built the unions through sacrifice, militant struggle, and a wave of factory occupations known as “sit-down strikes.” The CIO industrial unions were built by revolutionary class struggle—not by simply signing union membership cards and waiting for an NLRB election.
FDR’s objective was to channel the labor movement away from class-struggle tactics toward a reliance on the “impartial” federal labor board to “safeguard” workers’ rights. But let us be crystal clear: there is only one force in society that can safeguard these rights—the organized might of the working class itself. Placing our faith or fomenting illusions in the NLRB or other federal or state labor laws and regulations is not only naive but negligent.
To be sure, many unions have been organized through NLRB representation elections. However, winning recognition is only the beginning of the struggle. How the union is organized in the first place has a significant impact on what kind of contract the workers can win.
When workers recognize and feel their collective power in the face of the company’s threats and retaliation, this gives them a real reason to fight together for union recognition. Especially in times such as these, the average worker will not risk their livelihood for the vague promise of a future contract. But if they have a clear understanding of what they’re fighting for and a strategy for winning, workers will step up to the fight.
In Bessemer, RWDSU organizers originally got 2,000 employees to sign union cards. They then filed for an election with the NLRB, which then determined the scope of the “bargaining unit.” Amazon then sprang into action with its sophisticated anti-union campaign.
Undoubtedly, some of those original 2,000 workers were made to feel real pressure and left the company or backed off from the union campaign. Among the almost 500 votes that Amazon successfully disqualified, we can assume relatively safely that a large proportion came from the original core of union supporters and others who were seen as fighters. We know Amazon used all kinds of tricks, including having the US Postal Service place a mailbox in front of the facility under company surveillance to intimidate the workers. In this way, management could watch who was voting and make clear that they would have the identity of the employees to blame in the case of a union victory.
Any successful campaign to take on and defeat a monstrous corporation like Amazon must be based on a clear view of reality, not the constrained conservatism of the labor leaders, most of whom are liberal Democrats at best. We must have a sober view of the capitalists’ state and laws, and we must study and understand our class enemy.
A modern Goliath
Amazon is a Fortune 500 company and controls nearly 40 percent of the online retail business. It is one of the largest retailers in the US, with a valuation of more than $1.4 trillion, and employs 1.3 million workers worldwide. Over one million of those employees are in the US, up from 750,000 before the pandemic. For comparison, Walmart employs 2.2 million around the world, with 1.5 million in the US.
Jeff Bezos set up Amazon in 1994, initially as an internet bookstore, before expanding into virtually every conceivable household commodity from groceries to appliances. The company recently acquired the Whole Foods grocery chain and has its own music and video streaming services. Of course, there is only so much one person can do, so just like all capitalists, Bezos’s vast wealth comes from his employees’ hard work. He hires people so he can make profits from their labor power. The harder he gets them to work, and the less he pays them, the higher the profits!
Bezos currently makes $2,537 per second—more than the average Amazon worker earns in an entire month. With the pandemic raging and people unable or unwilling to shop in person as much as they used to do before COVID, profits have been up for Bezos. Forbes reported that Amazon’s annual revenue in 2020 was $386 billion, up 38 percent from 2019, while its net profits increased 84 percent.
Amazon and $15 per hour
Under pressure from various union organizing drives and a public campaign by Bernie Sanders, Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2018. The company has pointed to this ever since as an example of what great humanitarians they are. The New York Times quoted Amazon VP Drew Hardner saying: “If there’s a progressive company in this country, it’s Amazon. Find me another large company paying two times the minimum wage, providing great health benefits from day one, 95 percent education reimbursement, safe working environment, and so on.”
But just how “generous” is Amazon? Full-time workers earning $15 an hour bring home an annual income of $31,000—less than half of the median income for a US household. And as we have pointed out elsewhere, if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity gains, as it did from 1938 to 1968, it would now be $24.
The average annual income in Alabama is $53,786, and the median hourly wage around Birmingham is almost $18.50 per hour. The New York Times reported that the RWDSU has unionized warehouse workers in Alabama, near the Amazon facility, who make $18 to $21 per hour. Another comparison would be with the United Parcel Service (UPS). The kinds of work done at these two companies are similar, but UPS is organized by the Teamsters in the US and Canada. The benefits and working conditions are better at UPS, and the wages are 30 percent higher—due to the union.
It should also be noted that Amazon has made a science out of increasing the exploitation of its workers and squeezing every possible drop of surplus value out of them. Many full-time workers work 10-hour shifts plus mandatory overtime. Within those 10 hours, workers get only two 30-minute breaks for the entire shift while doing what is often grueling physical labor. When you do get a break at some of their extensive facilities, you have to walk so far to get to the cafeteria for something to eat that by the time you get there, it’s time to go back to work.
Amazon fights workers here and abroad
Amazon fought tooth and nail against the union drive in Bessemer, but this is nothing new. Amazon defeated a past attempt by the CWA to organize its customer service representatives, whose managers would “motivate” the workers through mandatory overtime with “inspiring” emails such as “YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.” When the organizing drive gained momentum, Amazon simply closed the call center down, blaming the economic downturn.
Amazon also resorted to all manner of trickery to defeat the International Association of Machinists (IAM) when they tried to organize facilities technicians in Virginia. And when former Amazon worker Chris Smalls made an effort to draw attention to the lack of workplace safety when the pandemic started, the company responded by terminating his employment. In addition to subjecting its workforce to a constant barrage of anti-union propaganda, Amazon bosses are quick to employ the most compelling source of pressure at their disposal: the power to separate a worker from their livelihood.
Given the international scope of companies like Amazon, the struggle against it must also transcend borders. Workers in Europe have been organizing and have even taken strike action, as in the case of Italian workers who launched a one-day nationwide strike against Amazon on Monday, 22 March, which UPS’s Italian employees joined. Although participation in the strike was not 100 percent, the action was effective at stopping some Amazon deliveries that day, which showed the power of the workers to interfere with the company’s operations. The Italian Marxists of the IMT were among the participants in this action. IMT comrades also helped organize solidarity among UPS workers. The workers made clear to the UPS bosses that they would refuse any increase in the volume of packages carried on 22 March—UPS workers would not be used to break the Amazon strike!
At one facility in Italy, striking Amazon workers sent a message of solidarity to their brothers and sisters in Alabama, wishing them success in their organizing campaign. Workers in Myanmar, part of a revolutionary general strike against the ongoing military coup there, also sent greetings to the Alabama workers in struggle.
Myanmar workers from the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions standing in solidarity with Amazon workers, while risking their lives marching against the military coup.— Andrew Tillett-Saks (@AndrewTSaks) March 25, 2021
This is solidarity.@RWDSU @BAmazonUnion @GrimKim #BAmazonUnion pic.twitter.com/Uc6avZ5ilq
A strategy to defeat Amazon
Amazon is a huge and powerful corporation, but they do not stand alone. Other capitalist giants like Walmart may compete with Amazon in the marketplace, but they all stand together against the working class. They want a workforce that is not organized or united, one they can exploit at will. However, faced with this reactionary front of the bosses, the working class represents a far more powerful force. When armed with a fighting strategy based on a class-struggle outlook, the collective resources at the disposal of the labor movement are more than capable of defeating Amazon. A winning strategy must include the following elements.
The real essence of a union is the workers united together—not an “outside entity” as portrayed in the company propaganda. All too often, the union leaders and organizers play into this conception by presenting the union as an agent that can come in and advocate for workers rather than a fighting organization made up of the workers themselves. When a group of workers forms an organizing committee to launch a union drive in their workplace, they should always start from the premise that they are trying to unite with their fellow workers to fight the boss. Signing on with the RWDSU, Teamsters, or any other union indicates that workers want to be connected with other workers in the industry, state, country, or even across borders—in addition to achieving formal union recognition in their workplace. But “the union” should not be conceived of as outside representation, as though the workers were hiring attorneys. Forming a union means building their own organization.
The struggle for union recognition must be directly linked to the struggle for actual demands, which should not be treated as an abstraction. Deciding which demands should be raised or which job actions should be taken should be democratically decided by the unionizing workers. All leaders should be elected, and their decisions and proposals subject to the approval of the workers they represent.
When workers go through the experience of fighting to form a union, this has an accelerating effect on the development of class consciousness. These struggles can be life-changing experiences that show in practice that to improve our wages, benefits, and working conditions, we need collective action and organization. We are not merely a bunch of individuals. We are part of a class that has its own interests. The company’s profits come from the exploitation of our labor, and this fight over the surplus-value we produce is the central conflict between the boss and the workforce.
In the case of Amazon, this can be seen concretely when compared to similar companies that are unionized. As mentioned above, UPS workers perform broadly similar tasks as many Amazon workers, for 30 percent higher salaries and a pension. Amazon workers can win this too, but it will require a struggle.
Furthermore, the fight to organize workers at Amazon cannot be done in a piecemeal fashion. If the RWDSU had won this representation election, over a million other Amazon workers would remain without a union. All struggles have to start somewhere, of course, and Amazon knew that any concessions made to these workers would provide an impulse to unionization campaigns at other locations throughout the country. If the Bessemer union vote had succeeded, the Alabama workers could have proceeded to fight for contractual concessions through job actions and strikes, but being such a small portion of the national Amazon workforce would have seriously limited their bargaining power.
A winning strategy requires that the union workers increase their leverage, which can only come through numbers. By focusing on one facility, Amazon was able to bring the pressure of its full resources to bear on a small portion of its workforce. To paraphrase Che Guevara, what is needed is two, three, many Bessemers! The company would have far more trouble snuffing out multiple concurrent drives than it had with one in isolation. Again, this would require resources, not only from the relatively small RWDSU but from the entire labor movement. Massive support must be mobilized through a national and international campaign, not only among Amazon employees but also by reaching out to and linking up with all corners of the labor movement, along with winning support from non-union workers in related industries and the working class as a whole.
Building a real union requires organizing a significant portion of the workforce, but it does not need to start with a majority—it can be built over time. A union drive should begin with a core of workers forming an organizing campaign. Members of this committee could explain to their coworkers that anyone who joins the union will have the right to be recognized as a union member even if they are in a minority of the overall workforce or even a single employee at a particular workplace.
To be sure, such a union would not win bargaining rights and its demands unless and until it won over a significant amount of support. But as momentum develops—especially if they begin to win victories—more Amazon workers across the country would sign up as they see the benefit of joining such a union, eventually winning over a majority.
For an all-out offensive to organize Amazon and other non-union companies!
Although the battle at Bessemer has gone down in defeat, the class war is far from over! The fight to organize companies like Amazon and Walmart will remain a focal point until these victories are won. Such victories would be part of the turning of the tide for the labor movement. We must, therefore, approach this challenge not only from the standpoint of the workers at the Bessemer plant or even Amazon’s workforce as a whole. Instead, we must approach it from the perspective of the entire working class as a whole.
Given Amazon’s massive share of the retail market, UPS and USPS workers must play an essential role in this fight alongside its delivery and warehouse workers. Workers in the broader logistics, warehousing, and distribution sector are responsible for delivering a large share of Amazon’s packages, and many of them are already unionized. Linking up in solidarity with Amazon workers will also increase their leverage against management at companies like UPS and USPS, who constantly point to “the competition” as an excuse to cut costs and increase attacks on their own unionized workforce. We can hear it now from the mouths of the bosses: “How can UPS pay these higher wages when Amazon delivery workers get only $15 per hour?” The same applies to all workers in all industries. When the country’s largest private employers pay far less than a real living wage, all other employers can apply downward pressure on their workers.
The key to victory also includes solidarity in action—no matter what is “allowed” by the capitalist state. A defeat for one is a defeat for all—but the same applies to victories. The fight to organize 1.3 million Amazon employees must be part of a coordinated offensive by the collective forces of the AFL-CIO. It is frankly shameful that the federation’s leadership offered little beyond words and Tweets of solidarity and did not put its vast membership and money where its mouth is.
In These Times has reported that the Teamsters union has plans to organize Amazon workers. RWDSU and the Teamsters should not engage in a ridiculous “turf war.” They need to pool their resources and work together—the stakes are too high! The International Marxist Tendency calls on the AFL-CIO to set up a special organizing committee for Amazon workers. RWDSU, the Teamsters, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the American Postal Workers Union, and all related unions should have representatives on this committee. If the AFL-CIO refuses to act, we call on all these unions’ leaders to form such a committee on their own.
The union leaders must go on the offensive now. The labor movement must commit to working together and investing real resources: full and part-time union organizers, a major advertising campaign to explain the benefits of workers organizing a union, and organizing mass protests and demonstrations to show big business the potential power of labor. Yes, this will cost millions of dollars. But what are our union dues for, if not to defend what we have won so far and expand our forces? The best way to increase the power of those currently unionized is to unionize millions of more workers!
From the US, Canada, and Mexico, to Britain, Italy, Pakistan, and beyond, IMT union members are working patiently to change the current labor leadership towards a class-struggle perspective or to build an alternative leadership that can take their place. We link this with the need for a socialist revolution, a workers’ government, and the nationalization of companies like Amazon under workers’ democratic control. The labor movement can and will be changed and reinvigorated with the socialist ideas that brought it great victories in the past!