By David Sole
The eyes of millions of workers and all the big bankers and bosses were fixed on Bessemer, Alabama over the past several months. Around 6,000 Amazon warehouse workers had been organizing to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and become the first Amazon facility in the United States to have a union. On April 9 the results of the counting of the mail-in ballot were announced. The workers had voted two to one against joining the union.
With a workforce of well over half a million Amazon poses a great challenge to the labor movement. For decades unions have been losing ground across the United States. A victory at Bessemer might have signaled a turning point for the improvement of wages and working conditions across the board.
Bosses on the other hand, not just at Amazon, were fearful that their ruthless exploitation of low wage workers might come to an end if the Bessemer workers were successful and the idea of a union caught fire.
There are many articles from pro-union observers trying to explain “what went wrong at Amazon.” This type of analysis may be helpful to future organizing drives that are sure to break out in any number of workplaces. But most of them are missing the fundamental point – union drives under current capitalist labor law massively favor the bosses. Voter suppression is in the news now in relation to the attempt to keep millions of people from casting ballots in local, state and national elections. But suppression of workers in the workplace has been perfected over many decades to favor the interests of the exploiting capitalist class.
For many decades advocating a union was a criminal conspiracy. As early as 1876 railroad workers faced bayonets, bullets of federal troops and court injunctions when they went on strike. Ten years later the nationwide strike for the 8 hour day saw workers gunned down at the McCormick Reaper Factory in Chicago. Leaders of that movement were railroaded to the gallows for speaking at a protest rally at Haymarket Square.
U.S. labor history is written in the blood of workers, sometimes victorious, often defeated, in their fight for a union. In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, three great labor battles erupted and workers defeated the bosses. The San Francisco longshore workers won victory with a general strike. Toledo Auto-Lite workers fought the national guard with support from masses of unemployed supporters. And the Teamsters in Minneapolis beat back repeated attacks to win. Finally in 1937 the great Flint sit-down strike defeated powerful General Motors, the national guard and the fascist Black Hand vigilantes to gain union recognition.
Unionization spread like wild-fire in many different industries and workshops. The bosses never forgot or forgave the working class for handing them these defeats that cut into their profits for decades.
But the capitalists couldn’t just use their old iron fist tactics. To keep from having battles that they couldn’t win and that might turn into revolutionary struggles beyond the workplace, a system was set up to defeat the militant energy of the working class by tying them up in long, drawn out, regulated union elections under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
The NLRA became law in 1935. It recognized the right of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining in the private sector. Collective action such as strikes was legalized and it banned many “unfair labor practices” by employers. A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was set up to regulate, investigate and enforce the act.
The entire process, supposedly to help workers and the unions, really favored the bosses. The remedy for violations of the law by a boss was for the workers to file charges with the NLRB. Then an investigation would take place. If substantiated by the investigation the case would go before a labor judge. In fact the entire process could take months and years. Even then a decision might be taken on appeal to the regular courts, causing much longer delays.
The NLRB also was given the authority to carry out elections at workplaces that met certain requirements. Previously workers had gone on strike to fight for and win union recognition as was the case in the pivotal years of 1934 and 1937. Now the process was drawn out.
The bosses waited only 12 years to pass new legislation to weaken the unions. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act was made law with the support of both Republicans and Democrats. It targeted unions with a host of unfair labor practices and prohibitions.
Of course the biggest weapon of an employer was inside the workplace itself. Workers were captive audiences to anti-union propaganda during union organizing drives. An entire industry arose of companies specializing in defeating union campaigns. One of the biggest weapons to keep out the union (or beat back gains made in places that had a union) was to threaten the workers that their workplace would be shut down and all of them lose their jobs if they voted union.
In the case of these Amazon workers the balloting process took about 6 weeks. The RWDSU had faced all the obstacles but lost the election. The union has announced that it is bringing charges against Amazon for many unfair labor practices which will take years to be processed. Justice delayed, however, is justice denied.
An article from Slate magazine describes billionaire Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’s “police state” at Bessemer:
When workers started organizing in Bessemer, the company immediately hired anti-union consultants, to the tune of over $10,000 a day, to create a climate of fear and intimidation. The company papered the warehouse, including bathroom stalls, with anti-union propaganda and sent workers daily text messages pushing them to vote “No.” Workers’ every move is tracked through workstation cameras and mobile apps. As Rep. (and former labor organizer) Andy Levin explained, Amazon’s goal isn’t to persuade people to vote “No.” It’s to “create so much pressure, anxiety, and fear” that workers “feel they have no choice but to vote NO, like someone crying uncle when they have been threatened relentlessly for days, weeks, and months.” But unless the barrage of anti-union messaging contains clear threats of retaliation, it’s probably legal—even if any worker knows that the implied message is that being pro-union could cost them their jobs. Meanwhile, employers can legally bar pro-union workers from talking about the union and building support at their place of work.
None of the gains for the working class in the United States came from the courts or halls of Congress alone. They all originated and were driven forward by mass, militant action. Unions, Civil Rights, women’s and LGBTQ+ rights didn’t wait for capitalist class to have a change of heart. These and other progressive measures came first and foremost from movements in the streets and workplaces. That is where the strength of our class resides.
The conviction of killer cop Derek Chauvin was the result of months of revolutionary protest and rebellion across this country. That is where the millions of low paid, over-exploited and unorganized workers need to look for inspiration. Young workers and workers from the oppressed communities can, and will, lead the way to a new wave of unionization and progress.