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The Long Struggle Against Giving Up

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Watching on Zoom late last week as an NLRB official spent hour after hour pulling paper ballots out of a cardboard box and hollering ?“NO” at high volume was excruciating. But it was not the most excruciating part of losing a big campaign like the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. That would be right now, when the pundits descend to offer instant critiques of everything that went wrong, like fashion critics insulting what people are wearing to a funeral. Even as a pundit myself, the process is hard to watch. 

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the union organizing the Amazon warehouse, lost the vote by more than a 2?–?1 margin. After the extreme publicity of the campaign over the past couple of months, such a definitive loss was crushing. More importantly, the workers in Bessemer still do not have a union, and Amazon and the rest of the anti-union world gains the talking point that those workers do not want or need a union. The reality on the ground after the loss is bad, and the narrative it produces going forward is also bad. When any union undertakes an organizing drive, it is good to win, and bad not to. Of these things there can be no doubt. 

But the Amazon campaign was extraordinary in so many ways that it needs to be seen in context, to avoid drawing all the wrong conclusions. The RWDSU’s attempt to organize more than 5,000 warehouse workers in the South?—?going up against the most deep-pocketed company imaginable?—?gained attention in the first place because it seemed so crazy. Everyone in the union world knew that every aspect of the situation?—?the size of the unit, the high turnover of the work, the fact that the job was considered a good one by local standards, the fact that it took place in a ?“right to work” state, the resources that Amazon could deploy against it, the fact that it was an attempt to crack an extremely tough union-free company?—?made success harder. From the beginning, every union veteran I spoke to about the campaign was hopeful, but skeptical it could succeed. 

That conventional wisdom turned out to be true. Reality bites. Looking back on the organizing drive and saying the union should have used different tactics obscures the fact that this campaign, with a unit of that size, in Alabama, under the awful labor law régime that we have in America, probably was not winnable, at least not in the short time frame in which it happened. But that, in turn, obscures a more important fact: It’s good that this campaign happened. 

Why would the RWDSU take up such a difficult effort in the first place? Because workers at the Amazon warehouse asked them to. There are many unions in this country that would have politely told those workers to fuck off. The RWDSU, though, tried. They spent many months and many millions of dollars and got the world to turn its attention to Bessemer. If they learned lessons about organizing tactics that could have been done differently, those lessons should be applied to the next campaign. Their effort should still be applauded. There are plenty of lazy people in the union establishment who would prefer to say that they should not be expected to do hard, audacious organizing, because it is a waste of time. They are wrong. 

Some have said that this campaign, which received more press than any other union drive in many decades, was too media-focused. Though I fully endorse the idea that the media is annoying, this critique fails to understand the press did not cover this campaign because the union asked it to?—?we covered it because it had all of the ingredients of a great story. Readers, I can tell you from experience, want to read about labor battles at identifiable companies like Amazon much more than they want to read about labor battles anywhere else. An enormous union drive in an unlikely place full of scrappy, charismatic characters fighting the richest man in the country was going to get news coverage whether the union wanted it or not. It is more accurate to think of the press as an uncontrollable outside force to be managed rather than as an element of an organizing drive that a union can summon or shut down at will. The truth is that in almost every other case, the problem is that tough union drives get too little, not too much, coverage. 

Amazon warehouse workers are the single most important segment of the American work force for unions to organize, because they are what the future of work looks like. The effort to unionize Amazon will take decades. We are at the beginning. The attention created by the drive in Bessemer caused hundreds of other Amazon workers across the country to reach out to the union. With luck, it will spawn ten or fifty or a hundred more organizing committees inside other Amazon warehouses. Some of those will die out, and some will build towards a real union campaign. That’s how the work goes. One of the warehouses that continues to organize should be the warehouse in Bessemer. They are probably closer to winning than any other warehouse in America. The loss that just happened was the first round of what will be a long fight. 

Leaders of the civil rights movement would often show up in a Southern town, and spend months organizing. The press would show up too. The activists and the people would march, and get beaten up, and get arrested, and the local political establishment would denounce them, and after all that, no laws would change. Did that indicate that their movement had failed? No. They were engaged in individual battles in a war for justice that lasted many years. They, the activists of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, succeeded in their part of that war. Today we have our part. The labor movement, ground down for decades, must be at the center of this part of the war, which is a class war taking place after 40 years of widening inequality. The struggle of the labor movement today is not just against the bosses on the other side?—?it is also against the deadening forces of inertia inside unions, which makes many prefer to not even try. 

I’m sorry that the Amazon workers did not win their union. I’m glad they tried. I’m glad for every single news story that came out of it. I’m glad for every single working person at every other shitty job who saw it and wondered if they might do something similar at their own workplace. I’m glad that millions of people watched all this happen. The only thing left to do now is to keep on going. 

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 12, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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The Message from the Amazon Union Defeat in Alabama Is Clear: Keep Organizing

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On April 9, the National Labor Relations Board announced the results of a mail ballot certification election that concluded on March 29 for workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. With 3,215 votes cast, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was defeated with at least 1,608 votes against the union, enough to crush the drive. The result was not shocking given the millions of dollars that Amazon spent and its power inside the facility to pressure workers to vote against forming a union. 

No matter how you spin it, the defeat is a significant blow to the multitude of organizing efforts occurring at Amazon. The election showed the clear limitations of pursuing union certification through a broken NLRB election process. However, due to the national attention and support that the campaign received, now more Amazon workers than ever are thinking about the possibility and potential of organizing. Hopefully, the campaign in Bessemer will encourage unions and workers throughout the company to consider alternative organizing strategies. 

Despite the valiant efforts of the workers, Amazon?—?which has more resources than nearly any company in the world?—?was able to blunt their momentum through its anti-union campaign. As expected, management engaged in the usual one-on-one and captive audience meetings to persuade workers to vote ?“no.” But management went further, using a barrage of email, texting and social media posts and even luring unhappy workers to quit with cash buyouts, messages posted in bathroom stalls, and changing the timing of traffic signals to gain advantage. The loss confirms what many of us in the labor movement already know?—?the balance of power is completely out of whack in this country, with big corporations twisting the rules to stay in charge and keep workers’ voices silent.

But this is hardly the last word on organizing Amazon. Management’s aggressive campaign illustrated to the whole country the need to fundamentally change the rules of the game so that workers everywhere can more easily form unions. The pressure on elected officials to enact long overdue labor law reform should increase.

The ?“BAmazon union” drive received more press and attention from the public than any other union election in recent memory. The focus on the campaign helped bring increased scrutiny to the reality of working conditions at Amazon?—?in Bessemer, across the country and around the world. Critical, in-depth reporting on the inner workings of Amazon increased as the drive gained national interest. For example, in February, The New York Times Magazine covered the community and labor organizing taking place in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, an important area to Amazon because of its proximity to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), has run several excellent exposes of Amazon’s anti-union conduct, including a March 9 storythat reported: ?“Many of the 5,805 employees in Bessemer …receive four or five emails a day from the company to discourage unionization. …The company has pressed its anti-union case with banners at the warehouse and even fliers posted inside bathroom stalls.” Labor Notes has already published more than 20 articles about working conditions and labor organizing at Amazon, and there were dozens of reports in all major news outlets leading up to the vote count.

Public support from other labor unions, community groups and elected officials has also been impressive. On February 20, and again on March 20, dozens of actions took place nationwide in support of the Bessemer workers. The call for those actions went out from the Southern Workers Assembly, an organization founded in 2012 by veteran labor and Black Workers for Justice organizers. On March 2, the organization issued a statement summarizing its view of the importance of the organizing in Bessemer:

“The Bessemer workers launched their campaign at a time of increasing repressive government and the rise of a racist and divisive social movement that threatened to turn back the clock on basic democratic rights. Like the 1955, Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott during a similar repressive and divisive period, the Bessemer Amazon workers led by the 80-percent Black and women majority and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), stepped forward.”

Why is it so hard to form a union? 

The attention to Bessemer, and the extent that Amazon has interfered in the workers’ decision, has illustrated our broken labor relations system. Free choice by workers to form a union has turned into a corporate obstacle course where workers are subjected to both one-on-one and captive audience meetings, along with constant pressure via email, texts, social media, and physical postings?—?even in company bathrooms. 

A far simpler way for workers to gain union certification and their collective bargaining rights is through a procedure called ?“card check.” If a simple majority of workers sign cards authorizing a union to be their representative, then their employer would be compelled to recognize and negotiate with the union that workers chose. This provision was part of the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that, despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, died during President Obama’s first term. Unfortunately, card check isn’t part of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) now pending in Congress. Although the PRO Act passed the House with bipartisan support, unless the Senate changes the rules around the filibuster, the bill faces an uphill battle.

On February 28, President Biden gave a powerful endorsement of the union effort in Bessemer. While not mentioning Amazon by name, his support for the union drive couldn’t have been clearer. This was an unprecedented move. Labor activists have long dreamed of a contemporary president mimicking what President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reputed to have said in the 1930s: ?“The President wants you to join a union.” But it turns out that this history is actually a myth. Roosevelt never said such words in a fireside chat or in writing. John L. Lewis, the Mineworker leader and other CIO organizers just repeated it over and over until it became part of labor folklore. Biden’s speech was a reflection of the debt he owes to the labor movement for his narrow win in November 2020, and of the growing favorability towards unions?—?48% of workers now say they would join a union if given the opportunity. 

RWDSU’s effort at Bessemer was unexpected. It appears that not even its parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was aware of the drive until the NLRB made the election filing public on November 20, 2020. However, successfully organizing workers at a company like Amazon with 1.3million employees and hundreds of fulfillment centers, sortation centers and delivery stations in the United States will require the massive resources of far more than one union. It also will necessitate the internal organizing efforts of tens of thousands of workers in networks like Amazonians United, which describes itself as: ?“A movement of workers fighting to end management’s domination in our workplaces. We organize with our coworkers to fight together for the dignified lives we all deserve.”

Internal organizing alone will still be insufficient. Community support is essential to create a supportive context for workers to take on their employer. Amazon workers received strong support from worker and community coalitions like the Southern Workers Assembly, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the political support of elected officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and many more. While the national support from celebrities and political leaders is welcome, it’s even more important to have the community’s civic and religious leaders and local elected officials in your corner.

Amazon’s business model is particularly challenging for organizers. With its inventory system and use of state of the art robots, a job that took 60 to 75 minutes can now be done in 15 minutes, and its warehouses can now hold 40 percent more inventory. The ?“random chaos” that Amazon uses to fulfill consumer orders creates built-in redundancy in its distribution network. Worker organization and actions at one isolated facility can be countered by shifting logistics to run work around that facility or simply closing it altogether. There’s nothing new about companies avoiding a problem union or an upstart workforce?—?UPS and other shippers have been doing it for decades. It will take many more drives like that in Bessemer?—?at points all along the Amazon delivery chain?—?to give workers the confidence and means to fight for their rights and win good wages and working conditions. 

None of these caveats should detract from the significance of this drive. Bessemer takes its name from the steel production process pioneered in Birmingham, England?—?the home of the modern steel industry and the name of the Alabama city next door which has historically been a mining and steel production center with considerable union density. While RWDSU was guarded about the degree of internal organization, there is a considerable organic connection between its sizable poultry processing membership in Alabama (about 6,000 members) and the largely African-American Amazon Bessemer workforce. To RWDSU’s credit, the organizing drive ranks among the largest single organizing efforts in the history of the American South.

Going forward, we are likely to see more unions joining in the effort to organize Amazon. The Teamsters have already begun building rank and file awareness with its UPS membership about the threat that Amazon poses to its contract standards with the hope that members will assist a broad campaign. It’s already resulted in local unions hearing from Amazon workers interested in joining. For many years now, the Service Employee International Union has supported the Awood Center which assists immigrants organizing at Amazon in the Twin Cities region. Now, RWDSU has entered the field in Alabama and gained many organizing leads at other facilities to follow up on. Aside from unions, Athena?—?a network of over 50 non-profits, worker centers and labor unions?—?is playing a high-profile role in the policy and legislative arenas advocating for Amazon workers and the communities impacted by its business. And Amazonians United has emerged as a burgeoning network of in-plant organizers dedicated to building strong workplace committees. A confluence of all of these forces, and much more, will be required to seriously take on Amazon.

The workplace focus is key. And the newfound focus on organizing in the South will remain crucial. Saladin Muhammad, a retired UE organizer and leader of the Southern Workers Assembly, commented on this dynamic on March 11: 

“There is a recognition that the South needs to be organized as a part of building a stronger labor movement throughout the US. For a long time, the confidence of the working class in the South and the effort to organize has been very weak. Attempts to unionize the Volkswagen and Nissan plants in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi, are indications of organized labor’s recognition of the importance of organizing core industries in the South. This is a recognition that has not really existed probably since Operation Dixie in the late 1940s. …I think it is drawing even more attention than the Volkswagen and the Nissan campaigns. It has the opportunity to deepen the struggle around race as a part of the working-class struggle. I think there are some real possibilities with this campaign.” 

Despite losing the election, there needs to be continued focus on building solidarity with the workers in Bessemer. Management should be held accountable to the promises it made to deter support for collective bargaining and the key union leaders need to be protected from any retaliation for their efforts to support the union. RWDSU will hopefully stick with the workers in Bessemer and create a durable organization inside the facility. Then, building on its first effort, it could seek a second certification election which history shows have a much better success rate. 

Solidarity on a national level was impressive. Organizations like the Working Families Party and Our Revolution that stepped up during the campaign will be needed to help connect the Amazon workers’ struggles to other movements for justice. 

And groups like DSA will be crucial to supporting young cadres who take jobs at Amazon and want to help organize from within, either through Amazonians United or a specific union. The setback in Bessemer shows that without deep internal organizing and base-building, no amount of external agitation and support can overcome the power of a corporate behemoth like Amazon. Workers need to be steeled in the experience of confronting their supervisors on the warehouse floor, marching on the boss in the front office?—?and walking out when necessary?—?in order to prepare themselves to win a battle for union recognition. It is poetic that on the day before votes began to be counted in Bessemer, workers at an Amazon Chicago-area delivery station, ?“DIL 3” in Gage Park, staged a one day walk-out against the new ?“megacycle” schedules being imposed on delivery station employees.

If we are serious about organizing at Amazon, we have to redefine what ?“winning” means. If it’s about one election or even one contract, we are in for some serious disappointment. Instead, it must be about the uprising of tens of thousands of workers supported by unions and community groups and backed up by elected officials willing to use the levers of government to the workers’ advantage. 

One concrete step towards building that movement would be better coordination and unity among the logistics and transportation unions, especially the Teamsters, the longshore unions, and the railroad craft unions. Better results can also be achieved by strengthening the cooperation between in-plant worker organizing by groups like Amazonians United, formations like the Southern Workers Assembly, and the multiple labor unions that are prepared to assist. As the political and regulatory context for Amazon evolves, the workers’ movement should also anticipate?—?and where possible lead?—?major structural reforms to Amazon’s business model. 

The lopsided defeat of the Bessemer workers’ organizing effort is not the first setback for labor at Amazon, and it won’t be the last. The lessons from Amazon organizing initiatives?—?including the Bessemer drive and workplace actions?—?should be carefully analyzed and catalogued in a searchable format for future reference. As Amazon workers’ level of militancy and organization grows, our challenge is to make sure that each action strengthens the movement and builds workers’ confidence in the power of collective action. That’s what inspires workers to ?“ditch the fear” and expand their on-the-job support for unions.

Despite the outcome at Bessemer, the organizing campaign has already made a major contribution to public perceptions about Amazon and the urgent need for labor law reform. Amazon workers’ struggle for dignity and justice is only getting started. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike. 

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 


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Amazon defeats Alabama union effort after dirty, but predictable, campaign

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The union organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, appears headed for defeat after the first day of counting ballots. There were 3,215 votes, with the count standing at 1,100 against unionizing to 463 in favor. Voting ended March 29, but before the counting began, hundreds of ballots were challenged, most by the company. If those could be decisive, they will be revisited.

But on the day counting began, we learned more about how far Amazon went to stack the deck in its favor. The National Labor Relations Board had refused Amazon’s request to have a ballot drop box in the facility, citing coronavirus social distancing precautions. But documents obtained by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Amazon defied that by going to the U.S. Postal Service and asking for a mailbox to be installed on Amazon property—which it was, unmarked, the day before voting started.

One critique of the campaign and the decision to press forward to an election after Amazon successfully expanded the bargaining unit involved in the vote from around 1500 workers to all 5800 in the warehouse: 

“We have not heard anything back on the install of this collection box,” a Postal Service account manager emailed Postal Service workers in Alabama on Jan. 14. “Amazon is reaching out again to me today about the status as they wanted to move quickly on this.” 

Those emails directly contradict a Postal Service spokesman’s claim that the mailbox was “suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point.”

”Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.” 

When the mailbox was installed, journalist Kim Kelly and More Perfect Union showed exactly why it functioned to intimidate workers:

Assuming the vote counting continues as it has begun, this will become the basis for a challenge by the union. It was, of course, only one of a string of intimidation strategies and efforts to rig the vote in Amazon’s favor—most of which were allowed under current U.S. labor law. So much of what’s happened in Bessemer is a case study in why we need the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, but also in why big business is so determined to keep U.S. labor law weak and tilted in favor of management.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Alabama Amazon organizing drive is a case study in why it’s so important to pass the PRO Act

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The recent organizing drive by workers at an Alabama Amazon warehouse has drawn an unusual amount of attention to a union representation election, and for good reason—Amazon is a massive employer that has successfully beaten back multiple organizing efforts in the United States. Even the possibility of a union win, in Alabama of all places, is worthy of the headlines. But it also draws attention to just how much the deck is stacked against workers and unions in this country. Amazon management has carried out an aggressive anti-union campaign, texting workers multiple times a day, posting anti-union messages in bathroom stalls, and more.

What could make it easier for workers to build power in the United States? In March, the House passed the PRO Act—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—which would provide a much-needed update to labor law after decades of erosion of collective bargaining and rising economic inequality.

Much of the discussion of the PRO Act, both on social media and here at Daily Kos, has centered on one provision of the bill applying to freelancers and independent contractors. I’ll get to that. But it’s one provision, so let’s refocus for a bit on parts of the bill that would affect far, far more workers.

The PRO Act protects worker-activists from being fired during organizing campaigns—something that’s technically illegal now, but employers do it all the time anyway, facing few penalties. The PRO Act creates penalties with real teeth. 

Under the current system, workers regularly face captive audience meetings in which they’re barraged with anti-union messaging and speaking out can put a target on them. The PRO Act would ban such meetings and allow union organizers to contact workers at their work email accounts (unless there was a strong business reason against it). The bill would also force companies to disclose what anti-union consultants they’ve hired. Delay is a common tactic to intimidate workers (often by firing outspokenly pro-union workers); the PRO Act would streamline the process and give workers more of a say in what their bargaining unit would look like.

These provisions would have made a significant difference in the Amazon organizing drive, as Brandon Magner writes at Jacobin. Amazon wouldn’t have been able to hold the many captive audience meetings it did hold. It wouldn’t have been able to force a vote by virtually all the workers in the building in one bargaining unit rather than accepting the significantly smaller bargaining unit the workers wanted. The election would have been held with much less delay and with the option of electronic voting. 

Once workers do vote to join a union, employers frequently continue using delay as a tactic. They drag their feet on bargaining a contract, they refuse to negotiate in good faith, they lock out workers or unilaterally impose their own proposals. The PRO Act would prevent those things, including with a mediation and arbitration process for first contract negotiations and a ban on “offensive lockouts” in which an employer declares that bargaining is at an impasse and locks out workers to put pressure on them.

And the PRO Act repeals state “right to work” laws, which weaken unions by allowing workers to freeload on their union coworkers, refusing to pay even a fee to cover the costs of their representation, which the union must nonetheless provide even for nonmembers.

But about that provision that’s drawing controversy from unexpected places:

Markos recently wrote about—and invited a guest writer to expand on—concerns that the inclusion of the so-called ABC test in the PRO Act would hurt freelancers. ABC is a test used to determine whether someone is an employee or a legitimate independent contractor. In the PRO Act, it would be used for assessing whether people had the right to organize as workers at a company; Markos, however, points to concerns that if the ABC test is made federal law for one purpose involving freelancers, it will be a slippery slope to its use for other purposes.

Opposition to this provision of the PRO Act is very sincerely coming from some freelancers concerned for their ability to make a living, following the failure of California’s AB5 to carve out an adequate exemption for their work when that law—since repealed by Proposition 22—used the ABC test to determine employment status much more broadly. But the opposition is also coming, Alex Press reports, from organizations like the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others who are less concerned for the rights and livelihood of freelance writers than they are with opposing any bill that might give unions or worker organizing efforts any additional leverage.

The Authors Guild, which supports collective bargaining rights for freelancers, earlier echoed the concerns expressed by Markos and Kim Kavin, writing that it “does not agree that it is the right test to determine whether creative freelancers have the right to collectively bargain” and was drafting alternative language for amendments to the act. However, the Authors Guild is now supporting the PRO Act, planning a webinar on the bill that will “address misinformation fanned online about how the PRO Act would ‘nationalize’ California’s AB5 law and make freelance writers employees—which in reality is not the case.”

The AFL-CIO and Economic Policy Institute (EPI) argue those concerns are misplaced. The EPI spells out what the PRO Act does and doesn’t do with regard to freelancers and independent contractors: “The PRO Act would provide workers with the right to join unions and band together no matter where they live if they are deemed employees because the legislation would be federally regulated and enforced.” However, “The Act would not impact rules or laws in states that determine whether workers are employees or independent contractors for the purposes of determining a workers’ state income tax status or whether they’re entitled to workers’ compensation benefits or unemployment benefits.” That’s what’s in this act, and while some opponents of the ABC test have argued that putting it into federal law in this context would create a slippery slope to laws replicating AB5, the reality is that there are few slippery slopes to new labor laws in the U.S.

The National Writers Union and its Freelance Solidarity Project agree, supporting the PRO Act in part because “Under current labor law, freelancers can form unions like ours, but our attempts to organize are not protected—and employers are even able to file legal charges against us for some of the very same activity protected for our W-2 colleagues. This means we are forced to walk a very narrow line, and in some cases avoid certain types of organizing and advocacy entirely. The PRO Act would change this, and make it easier for us to exercise our civil rights to come together for our common good.”

Again, though, wherever you come down on this specific provision in the bill, it’s a small part of a larger law to strengthen workers’ right to organize, a right that exists in law already but in practice is constantly compromised and under attack. It would benefit workers in Amazon warehouses, and in hospitals and nursing homes and meatpacking plants. 

The political reality, of course, is that while the PRO Act has passed the House, it is not going to get through a Senate in which the filibuster is intact. Filibuster reform or abolition is the prerequisite to getting almost anything done for workers, from raising the minimum wage to passing this bill. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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For union battling Amazon, victory could bring a stalemate

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For the union trying to organize nearly 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, a successful election in the coming weeks could only be the beginning of the struggle to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the company.

Workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer, a Birmingham suburb, have been voting since late February on whether to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — an election that has drawn nationwide attention because it could result in Amazon’s first unionized facility in the U.S. The National Labor Relations Board will begin tallying the votes on Tuesday.

But initial collective bargaining agreements usually take years to hammer out at the negotiating table. More than half of workplaces that form unions are unable to reach an initial contract within a year, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, and 37 percent of newly formed private-sector unions still have no contract after two years.

“It’s so difficult to hold an employer accountable,” said Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at EPI. And even if the union engages in “this protracted legal battle, you know the penalty that the employer is facing is quite frankly minimal.”

The outcome of the election is being so closely watched because the stakes go far beyond this warehouse. If the campaign in Republican stronghold Alabama is successful, it could spark more organizing efforts at Amazon and other large retailers across the U.S. If it fails, it could galvanize Democrats’ fight to push through one of the broadest expansions of collective bargaining rights in nearly a century. At the same time, it could embolden many companies to take an even harder line against organized labor.

That’s why the Amazon organizing effort has taken on such broad significance politically. Even before the votes in Bessemer are counted, President Joe Biden, other Democrats and their labor allies are using the election to push for their union-friendly overhaul of federal labor law.

If Amazon were to drag its feet on an initial contract, the union could call on the NLRB to order management to bargain with the workers. However, that legal process can span months, even years, especially if the company were to appeal any enforcement moves from the labor board.

Amazon can legally refuse to bargain with the union if it challenges an issue related to the election. The company already sought to delay the union vote and require that ballots be cast in person rather than by mail. The NLRB approved a seven-week mail-in ballot election, instead of an in-person election that typically takes place over a few days, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Heather Knox, a spokesperson for Amazon, said in response: “RWDSU membership has been declining for the last two decades, but that is not justification for its president, Stuart Appelbaum, to misrepresent the facts. Our employees know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encouraged all of our employees to vote and hope they did so.”

The company declined to say how it would respond if the workers voted to unionize.

Union leaders said they are prepared for Amazon to dig in for a fight and are already using their effort in Alabama to promote the legislation in Congress, known as the PRO Act, that would make it easier for unions to organize.

“I wouldn’t put it past Amazon to try to come up with any excuse that it could find to overturn an election where workers win,” said Appelbaum, the union president. “There has never been a greater argument for labor law reform and the PRO Act than this election.”

Whether the e-commerce giant could go as far as to shutter the facility in response to a successful union election is murky.

“The law is clear about one thing, and that is that a business can completely, completely, 100 percent go out of business, even just to avoid a union,” said Andrew MacDonald, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia. “But there’s a less clear line, more of a gray area, where the company, partially, says shut down a plant or shut down one facility while others remain open.”

Amazon could also face trouble if it were to transfer some operations from Alabama to a non-unionized fulfillment center elsewhere.

MacDonald pointed to a 2011 labor dispute with Boeing Co., which decided to transfer a second production line for its 787 Dreamliner from a unionized facility in Washington to a non-union shop in South Carolina. The acting general counsel of the NLRB issued a complaint against the company, alleging the move violated federal labor law.

In that case, “the union in Washington and the labor board saw that as being motivated to avoid the union, not just making a business decision of where to make the plane,” MacDonald said.

The union later withdrew its complaint against Boeing after striking a new deal with the company governing other production in Washington.

If a company and a union are unable to reach an initial collective bargaining agreement after a successful organizing effort, provisions in the PRO Act would require them to go to mediation and arbitration.

“The law permits an employer to bargain essentially in bad faith,” said McNicholas. “The remedies are so weak that you can essentially drag your feet through the bargaining and frustrate the workforce such that they’re not getting any contract in the first year.”

Opponents of the PRO Act, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the legislation tilts too far in favor of unions and would harm the economy by costing jobs.

The unusual public attention on the Bessemer union drive has put both political and consumer pressure on Amazon that could keep the company in line, union and worker advocates say.

“Unlike most collective bargaining, this attempt to achieve a first contract is going to be the focus of a lot of public attention,” said Appelbaum. “I think that Amazon is going to be held accountable under the glare of the public spotlight. And that’s going to restrict what it is going to be able to do to prevent workers from getting a contract.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Colectivo Could Soon Become the Largest Unionized Coffee Chain in the U.S.

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On March 8, Lauretta Archibald marked her three-year anniversary as a baker for Colectivo Coffee Roasters, an upscale Midwestern coffee chain based in Milwaukee and Chicago.

In her years at Colectivo, Archibald had been responsible for making artisan bread in bulk, sometimes baking 1,000 loaves a night. It was arduous work, and Archibald says that she did not always have the support?—?or even materials?—?that she needed: the bakery was understaffed for stretches of time, there weren’t enough cooling racks and one of the ovens leaked the smell of gas through the kitchen.

When workers at the coffee chain first announced their plan to unionize with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Archibald?—?who eventually became a strong supporter of the union?—?wasn’t sure how she felt about the idea. ?“I didn’t know enough about unions to really say one or the other.” Still, she says, ?“I knew that something had to change.”

Workers say that last-minute scheduling, chronically broken equipment, and rapid expansion of the company brand spurred the union drive?—?while issues around Colectivo’s handling of Covid-19 popularized the campaign. 

Now, Colectivo’s staff of about 375 workers faces an election that will decide the fate of a union drive nearly a year in the making, with ballots due on March 30 and counted in the first week of April. If the campaign is successful, the workers will make history: the industry is almost entirely unorganized, and Colectivo would become the largest unionized coffee chain in the country. But as bakers, warehouse workers and baristas mobilize support for the union, the company has responded with open hostility, hiring the Labor Relations Institute (LRI)?—?a well-known union buster?—?during the campaign. 

“There are paid staff meetings where they’re asking us, individually, to vote no,” says Caroline Fortin, a shift lead at a location in Chicago. ?“So they’re very explicit.”

In These Times has also obtained copies of anti-union emails, ?“vote no” stickers and anti-union flyers drafted by Colectivo. 

Management communications have invoked the anti-labor trope that unionization invites a harmful ?“third party” into the fold, and charge that the IBEW should not be representing the coffee workers. (In fact, most historic trade unions now represent a wide range of professions; many members of the United Auto Workers, for example, work in the nonprofit sector.) 

One email from management goes so far as to highlight the high rate of attrition from the company for pro-union workers. ?“Of the 18 original organizing committee members, 10 remain employed today,” reads the email. The email goes on to list union organizers by job title and work location, with red slashes through those who no longer work at Colectivo. 

Indeed, workers say that the anti-union campaign has gone beyond propaganda and disinformation.

When the union drive went public in August 2020, Zoe Muellner, a café worker, attached her signature to a letter notifying Colectivo of the plan to organize. She says that after the letter was released, upper management?—?with whom she interacted regularly as a barista trainer?—?stopped answering her emails and cut social ties. 

A career barista, Muellner had worked in the coffee industry for six years?—?and Colectivo, for two?—?when the company cut her position as a trainer in October 2020.

“I asked if that meant I was done with the company in general, or if I could essentially take a demotion as a café coworker until they needed me back on in my position. And they said there were no positions available for me … but go ahead and file for unemployment, kid.” 

Muellner and the union say the layoff amounts to retaliation. 

Also in October 2020, Robert Penner?—?a specialized machine operator in the Milwaukee warehouse?—?was abruptly let go. Penner had taken part in ?“union talk” since 2019, and like Muellner, had come out in public support of the campaign in early fall of 2020. 

Penner says that the company requested that he come back on board following a voluntary pandemic-related furlough in the summer?—?but before his first shift back, he was told that Colectivo no longer needed him. Since his departure, the company has resorted to filling Penner’s position with baristas. 

“They were pulling in café workers who weren’t trained to work in the warehouse,” says Kait Dessoffy, a shift lead at a Chicago café. 

Archibald says that she had a similar experience after speaking up at an anti-union meeting held by an LRI representative.

“Me and another coworker specifically, we challenged everything he said,” Archibald says. ?“After that night, that guy knew we were for the union.”

In the weeks following the anti-union meeting, she noticed changes at work. Archibald was required to quickly train her coworkers in braiding Challah bread?—?a job that was formerly one of her specialties. At the time, Archibald thought it was ?“weird” that managers had requested to inspect her coworkers’ practice loaves. ?“Normally, when we did practice stuff, it was really just practice,” she says. In retrospect, she believes management was getting things in line for her departure. 

About six weeks ago, Archibald was abruptly moved off of her usual duties and instead instructed to prepare English muffins, a job for which she says she was never properly trained. She adds that management rapidly increased the number of biscuits she was required to bake?—?400 one night, then 500, then 900. 

“It felt like they were setting me up, you know, hoping I fail,” she explains. 

Finally, on March 16, Archibald reports that she was fired for taking a smoke break. She left Colectivo just a week after her three-year anniversary with the company.

LRI, whose website brags that the firm ?“literally wrote the book in countering union organizing campaigns,” has been identified by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) as one of the largest union-busting firms in the United States. The company made a popular debut in the Oscar-winning 2019 documentary ?“American Factory,” which follows a union-busting campaign by a Fuyao Glass Company factory in Ohio. 

According to company disclosures to the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), Colectivo pays LRI $375 an hour for services retained. 

Even absent the involvement of a ?“labor consulting firm” like LRI, employer retaliation is endemic in union campaigns. In 41.5% of union elections in the United States, employers receive Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges— and surveys of labor organizations suggest that the number of instances of employer aggression during union campaigns is much higher. 

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which was passed by the House of Representatives on March 9, attempts to curb this kind of union busting by banning ?“captive audience” meetings and instating stricter penalties for retaliatory firings.

In total, Colectivo has received six ULP allegations alleging retaliation and coercion during the ongoing union drive.

Still, union-busting tactics are not always straightforward, and can be difficult to prove. One Colectivo barista says that she has faced a subtler form of retaliation for her involvement with the campaign.

“I’ve always been, like, an over apologizer-type of person,” says Hillary Laskonis, a barista at Colectivo, explaining why her leadership in the campaign came as a surprise to some. ?“I think the owners take the whole thing personally.” 

Laskonis says that managers have pulled her aside for multiple tense and vaguely disciplinary meetings. Recently, she says managers warned her that they had received multiple complaints about her attitude and performance. This took Laskonis, a Colectivo barista of three years, by surprise. 

“[The meeting] was framed all around my mental health, and ?‘what can we do to help you succeed, because you’re clearly struggling,’ and all this.” Coupled with the accusation that a coworker had been complaining about her, Laskonis says that the managers’ apparent concern for her mental wellbeing led her to question herself. 

“It wasn’t until I talked to the other [union] members on a group chat,” says Laskonis, ?“that I was able to realize that, like, I was so majorly gaslit at a corporate level.”

Colectivo management did not respond to multiple requests for comment about allegations of misconduct by workers, but instead said in a statement, ?“We and our and leadership team recognize the complexity of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and turned to professionals who specialize in the law to ensure the company and its co-workers are fully informed.”

Workers, meanwhile, say that solidarity among staff has remained strong during the campaign, allowing them to continue to organize despite the ongoing anti-union rhetoric and activity.

“I think perhaps what management doesn’t realize about these [anti-union] meetings, or maybe about their staff, is that we’re really smart?—?we’re together. We are more than capable of forming our own opinions about our working conditions,” says Dessoffy.

“We work in service,” they add, ?“We know when someone is gaslighting us.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article listed the number of Colectivo employees as 500, based on figures from October, 2020. That number has been updated to reflect the current workforce. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a 2020?–?2021 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow with In These Times.


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The Teamsters Hint at a Combative National Project to Organize Amazon

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As the drive to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama draws international attention to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) that is leading the effort, other unions are planning their own strategies to organize parts of Amazon’s sprawling operations as well. The Teamsters, who see Amazon as a direct threat to their historic work organizing the trucking industry, are engaged in a concerted project targeting Amazon?—?and though they’re tight-lipped about the details, they appear committed to a long-term, nationwide effort that could make them one of the company’s most formidable union foes. 

The 1.4 million-member Teamsters are more than ten times bigger than the RWDSU. They see Amazon’s vast pool of non-union delivery employees as an existential threat to not only their own members, but to the ability of the trucking industry to provide living wage jobs. Randy Korgan, a goateed organizing veteran whose current title is Teamsters National Director for Amazon, frames the standoff with Jeff Bezos’ company as just the latest incarnation of a struggle that the union has been waging for more than a century. 

“We fought to regulate the industry because of the working conditions that were happening in the [19]20s, 30s, and 40s. We obviously find some similarities today,” Korgan says. Despite the popular view of the ?“roaring 20s” as a grand era, ?“history clearly shows that working people suffered greatly. And here we come back into the roaring 20s again. Is this a repeat of history? We’ve got to ask ourselves that.” 

Korgan is particularly angered by Amazon’s ongoing effort to portray itself as a good corporate citizen because it pays a $15 per hour minimum wage to its employees?—?a wage lower than what Korgan himself made as a union warehouse worker more than 30 years ago. Amazon itself is the primary driver of a process that is changing warehouse jobs that once paid a living wage into low-income, tenuous, temporary work. 

“At every level of the organization you see this high turnover rate, and then you see them introducing this rate of $15, $16 an hour and trying to claim that they need to be patted on the back,” says Korgan. ?“Aren’t they talking out of both sides of their mouth? Because what is the average wage of someone that works in a warehouse in this country, and is Amazon exploiting and capitalizing on that wage being reduced?”

Currently, the only Teamsters members with a direct connection to the company are workers at Atlas and ABX Air, two firms that do business with Amazon. But the union is eyeing a much larger pool of Amazon employees, particularly delivery drivers, many of whom work for subcontractors rather than for Amazon itself. Though this process serves to insulate Amazon, the Teamsters have in the past organized tens of thousands of workers at subcontractors throughout the trucking industry. Warehouses are also in the Teamsters traditional wheelhouse, and it was reported last month that the union has spent several months organizing hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers in Iowa, though the outcome of that campaign remains uncertain. 

The Teamsters have been chewing over the threat posed by Amazon for years. Various Teamster websites are rife with posts like ?“TEAMSTERS MUST TAKE NOTE OF THE DANGER ON THE HORIZON” and ?“TAKING ON AMAZON,” all of which note the direct threat the company poses to the stability of the entire transportation industry. But as the Alabama warehouse union campaign has drawn a tidal wave of press, the Teamsters are now loath to divulge too much of their strategy. Korgan is leading the union’s ?“Amazon Project,” and says he is engaged with workers across the country, and is ?“absolutely” working with other unions, as well. But he declines to discuss the project’s funding, timeline, or specific targets. He does, however, hint that the Teamsters may pursue a more radical and confrontational strategy when it comes time to seek union recognition from the famously intransigent company. 

The classic pathway of seeking an NLRB election to certify a union?—?the process that is currently underway for the Amazon workers in Alabama?—?has the benefits of being clearly defined by law, but it also enables companies to spend months bombarding workers with anti-union propaganda, and to throw money at legal challenges. Korgan implies that the Teamsters may seek other pathways to try to force voluntary recognition of unions. (In fact, a Teamsters organizer in Iowa said that the union would prefer to use strikes to pressure the company to recognize its union.) 

“There are many platforms to seek recognition, there are many platforms for workers to do concerted activities,” Korgan says. ?“Truth be told, that [NLRB] process is where corporate America wants organizing to be, and that’s how they want it to be defined. Because they clearly have more of an advantage there than they do in other spaces.”

The recognition that Amazon has become so powerful that allowing it to remain non-union is not a viable option seems to have finally become conventional wisdom within organized labor. It is safe to assume that the Teamsters are only one of several major unions planning ways to organize their own slice of the company. The union campaign in Alabama, where the votes will be counted at the end of this month, will likely be only the first step down a long and contentious road that will last for years. 

“No matter what happens in Bessemer,” Korgan says, ?“it doesn’t change the trajectory of anything that’s going on.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Tate’s Bake Shop threatens workers with deportation, this week in the war on workers

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Workers attempting to unionize at Tate’s Bake Shop are getting hit with an all-too-common, and totally vile, union-busting message: They say they’re being threatened with deportation

Yes, Tate’s—now owned by Mondelez International—hired an anti-union consultant, who apparently looked at the company’s many undocumented workers and went for the threat that would scare them the most. It’s an illegal threat—undocumented workers are explicitly allowed to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act—but a potent one.

“They began threatening people based on their immigration status, telling them that if their documents are not in order and they attempted to join the labor union they would get deported,” said Cosmo Lubrano, president of the Eastern States Joint Board of the International Union of Allied, Novelty and Production Workers.

”People are scared to talk,” a Tate’s sanitation worker told Gothamist. “They’re scared to express themselves.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on March 13, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Union organizing Amazon workers emphatically disavows social media calls for boycott

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Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are still voting on whether to join a union, in a mail vote that ends March 29. The company’s ongoing harassment campaign aimed at defeating the organizing effort has many workers looking forward to that date, when the barrage will end—much as Republican negative campaigning is aimed at turning people against politics and good governance.

This week, the workers and organizers have had to contend with another problem: a viral “boycott Amazon” campaign claiming to be in support of the workers. Many, many people shared the call to boycott the company for the week of March 7 to 13 in good faith—but it didn’t come from and wasn’t supported by the union or the workers, and it was not helpful.

After President Biden’s message of support for workers to vote free from interference, an anti-union worker at a media event organized by Amazon told reporters, “I don’t need someone from the outside coming in and saying this or that.” Workers on the fence about unionizing may also fear that a boycott will cost them their jobs, and that fear may make them more open to management messages that a union will hurt the company and its ability to create jobs. “One of Amazon’s talking points is that a union will hurt the business/lose jobs,” labor journalist Kim Kelly tweeted. “A boycott hands the boss ammunition.”

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union has disavowed the boycott call, saying the union had nothing to do with it—“The union has not called for nor endorses a boycott at Amazon”—and indeed, if you looked at both the RWDSU’s social media and that of the Bessemer Amazon union prior to the issue going viral, neither had said a word about a boycott. Having outsiders intervene in an organizing effort not by being responsive to the workers and the union can be directly harmful to the workers’ cause. So where did this come from?

The call to boycott originated with the “Leftist Unification Party,” which still has less than 100 followers on Twitter, having emerged on social media within the last few months. Slate’s Aaron Mak talked to the group’s “administrative director” and “head strategist”—lofty titles for what they told him was a six-person volunteer group. Administrative director Angie told him “This is my first time with any sort of leadership position—zero experience” after activist experience consisting mostly of canvassing and protesting.

Angie and head strategist Cassidy told Mak they intentionally hadn’t checked in with the union or workers about whether their boycott effort would be welcome because to do so would be an illegal secondary boycott. That’s not what a secondary boycott is. Strikewave’s C.M. Lewis explained, “A prohibited secondary boycott would be coercing a businesses to pull their merchandise from the Amazon marketplace, not telling consumers to not buy directly from the retailer.” When Mak challenged Angie and Cassidy on that, they stuck to their story about not consulting the union because it would be illegal to do so. On Twitter, they’ve also proudly proclaimed their lack of concern for the union’s preferences on this.

So maybe the six members of the Leftist Unification Party are just idiots who don’t know what they’re doing and got belligerent when people who do know something about organizing challenged them. (Sample tweet.) Or maybe the many questions people asked about exactly why and how a boycott call coming from a group that just appeared out of nowhere went viral at a time very convenient to Amazon are worth asking.

Unfortunately, there’s another part of the puzzle: The LUP’s boycott call was picked up and amplified, largely unattributed, by UComm, which made remarkable use of passive voice: “To support Amazon workers and let the company know that we do not approve of their union-busting tactics, a one-week boycott of the company has been planned. From Sunday, March 7th to Saturday, March 13th, everyone is being asked to not use Amazon or Amazon Prime and do not stream videos using the Amazon Prime video service.”

Planned by whom? Everyone is being asked by whom? That was never specified, just dropped in the middle of a piece reporting on the union effort. The inspiration, though, was the Leftist Unification Party. UComm is not a mysterious group like the Leftist Unification Party. It’s a communications consulting firm that works for unions and really should have known better, but, with more than 24,000 Twitter followers and more than 7,000 Facebook followers, it dramatically amplified the boycott push.

As one labor organizer tweeted, “the boycott call is, in the very best case, coming from amiable clowns and more likely coming from clout-chasers.” It took advantage of the good intentions of many people, though—and we need to take it as an opportunity for education. 

First off, when you’re dealing with an active union organizing effort, always take your cues from the workers and their union. The point of organizing is building worker power, and coming in from the outside saying you know better is detrimental to that even when it doesn’t also feed into the boss’s talking points.

Related, do your homework. The first thing I did when I saw people sharing the boycott call was look at the RWDSU and BAmazonUnion Twitter feeds. They said nothing about a boycott, ergo I knew there was no real boycott effort. 

What do I mean by “real”? The term “boycott” gets thrown around a lot, and it’s gotten cheapened as a result. Real boycotts, boycotts that are going to be effective, take work. It’s true that social media, with the potential for virality, has somewhat changed the equation—sometimes a brand will see a mass of negative attention and change course on something, like apologizing for an offensive ad or pulling back from a new practice. But a company as big as Amazon is not going to change its entire business model because of a social media boycott call. Boycotts take organization, planning, and clarity. They usually take institutional support, whether from unions or churches or major advocacy groups. They take follow-through—what do you do if the boycott succeeds? How do you make sure the win holds up, and, equally, how do you let your supporters know it’s time to stop boycotting?

There are lots of reasons to boycott—from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Nestle infant formula boycott—and a range of groups can organize them. But organizing is a key principle here. Educating people about why they should boycott and what success would look like. Viral hashtags are great, but if the goal is substantial change in the real world, they have to be backed up by something.

This week’s social media Amazon “boycott” is an unfortunate but excellent case study in the principles of listening to workers and not mistaking social media for real life. If the Amazon union effort fails, the company’s constant harassment of workers is obviously the first and by far the most important factor. But if it fails by a razor-thin margin … we’ll always have to wonder if this helped tip the balance.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on March 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Danny Glover Sees Centuries of Struggle in the Amazon Union Drive

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This interview originally appeared on The Real News Network.

One of the most historic union votes of our era is underway right now: 5,800workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, are currently voting on whether or not to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. If the union vote is successful, workers at the Bessemer facility will become the first unionized Amazon workforce in the United States. After the National Labor Relations Board dismissed Amazon’s motions to delay the union vote, ballots were sent to workers in early February, and the vote counting will begin on March 29.

On Feb. 22, 2021, world-renowned actor, activist, and Real News Network board member Danny Glover came to Bessemer to show support for Amazon workers and their struggle to form a union. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez drove 14 hours from Baltimore to Bessemer to sit down with Glover and talk about why this vote is so significant and how Amazon workers in Bessemer, the vast majority of whom are Black, are part of a long tradition of labor struggle in the South.

The Real News Network will bring you more in-depth coverage of the historic union vote in Bessemer throughout the month of March. Keep checking TRNN for updates and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube and podcastchannels for upcoming installments!

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Maximillian Alvarez, TRNN Editor-in-Chief: Welcome, everyone, to this special production of The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the Editor-in-Chief here at The Real News, and it’s great to have you all with us.

At this very moment, one of the most historic union drives of our era is taking place in Bessemer, Alabama. Bessemer is a Southwestern suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, with a population of just under 27,000, the majority of whom are Black or African-American. Bessemer is also home to a massive Amazon fulfillment center, which opened last March, making the e?commerce giant the largest employer in Bessemer. After experiencing firsthand the breakneck workloads and top-down surveillance that Amazon’s fulfillment centers have become known for, as well as a reported lack of transparency and accountability from management, a group of workers at the Bessemer facility began the long, arduous process of organizing, with the hope of joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

Amazon has pulled out all the stops to discourage workers in Bessemer from voting to join the union, even bringing in outside consultants who are being paid $3,200 per day, per consultant to guide the company’s union busting efforts. Workers have reported receiving regular anti-union texts and emailsfrom Amazon, on top of being subjected to anti-union messages in company bathrooms and ?“information sessions.” On top of that, Amazon also filed a set of motions with the National Labor Relations Board in an attempt to delay the union vote, including a motion that would have prevented workers from being able to mail in their ballots while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. After the NLRB eventually struck down those motions, ballots were sent out to Amazon workers. The vote counting officially began on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, and will continue through March 29.

There have been a number of attempts to unionize Amazon workers in the United States, but so far, none of them have achieved that ultimate goal. But workers and organizers on the ground have high hopes that this drive in Bessemer will be different, and that it will spark more successful union drives at Amazon facilities around the country. And make no mistake, workers unionizing at Amazon affects all of us. With so many fearing the hazards of trips to brick-and-mortar stores over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon to Amazon’s e?commerce model. While millions lost their jobs, homes, and healthcare, Jeff Bezos, the founder and current CEO of Amazon, reportedly increased his wealth by nearly $70 billion in 2020 alone. Amazon has become an international behemoth, and it has more power and influence over our lives than most entities. And yet, the general population has virtually no say over what Amazon does and how it does it. If Amazon workers were unionized, that could change.

On Feb. 22, 2021, world-renowned actor, activist, and Real News Network board member Danny Glover came down to Bessemer to show support for the roughly 5,800 fulfillment center workers who are currently voting on whether or not to unionize. I got in my car and drove 14 hours from Baltimore down to Bessemer to chat with Danny about why this union vote is so significant, and it’s my honor to share that interview with you now. And please, stay tuned for more of our extended coverage of the historic union drive in Bessemer through the month of March, including interviews with Amazon workers and union organizers on the ground. Coming to you right here on The Real News Network, let’s go… 

So, Danny, first of all, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with me. I know how busy you are, and I know you devote a great deal of your time traveling across the globe to lend your powerful voice to freedom struggles around the world. So, in that vein, I wanted to start by asking: What brought you down here to Alabama? What was it about the workers’ struggle here that compelled you to come to Bessemer and show your support?

Danny Glover: Well, I think the first thing to say is that I was asked to come down. And I think it’s a very important moment, certainly, for workers?—?this challenge right here, with a company that [aside from Walmart] employs more people than any other company in the country, located here in the South, which is always considered to be a place where unions never fared well. And yet, we know there’s a history, particularly here in Alabama, around the miners and smelter workers’ in the ?’30s and their struggle for unionization?—?and, really, during the whole period of Jim Crow, particularly with the organizing of Black workers. Right here in Alabama, you had the cotton [mill workers’] strike in the ?’30s. So, there’s a history of resistance here to the oppressive conditions that people work under. And the South, of course, has its own history, one that carried the weight of the moral issue around slavery.

So, to be here at this particular moment is important. And part of my own history is in the South: My mother’s from the South, rural Georgia, and she found her way outside; she was able to go to college. She didn’t have to pick cotton in September, because she was going to school in September. And then, I come out of a union family, through the U.S. Postal Service?—?my parents came to the Postal Service in 1948. So, there are a lot of reasons why I would be here and, certainly, I’m here in the service of justice, workers’ justice. It seems to be one of my life’s purposes, outside of doing the work that I do on the stage and in front of a screen.

MA: I definitely want to ask more about that union connection to your family, but I wanted to follow up on something first. So, you touched on this a little already, but how do you see the struggle for workers’ rights and labor justice?—?how does that connect to the larger struggle for liberation and dignity?

DG: Well, I think that organized labor in the era of industrialization?—?since the industrial revolution (over the last 200 years or so)?—?has fought for the most fundamental rights, human rights, all over this country and within the world itself. And that fight brings a kind of class consciousness, as well, which is an understanding that one of the elements that is essential to capital (or money) and the ways it expands itself is: How do you control labor? How do you undermine labor? How do you de-radicalize labor? And when you’re fighting for the basic means of paying rent or putting food on the table, those are real things.

We’re talking about a country where the majority of the population lives in the urban areas and often crowded areas (and it’s like that around the world, too). Whether through forced migrations and enclosure laws, or through voluntary migrations to find work and everything else, this process of industrialization drove people to the city and drove them right into the places where they had to sell their labor in order to survive. And I think that is what we are dealing with?—?it’s the same now. No matter how much technology we have, no matter how much we dismiss the whole idea of unions, the point is that human beings sell their bodies, sell themselves for a price, in order to survive. They don’t grow their own food, they have to purchase their food. So, all these intricate relationships are surrounded by systems that are often unjust, and you have to place some sort of context or place some sort of structure around it to make sure that the benefits of what they produce are shared in some way. I’m babbling right now, to some extent, but you see how this sets the picture for this particular moment… 

And so, from the robber barons of the 19th century (the latter part of the 19thcentury) to now, their objective was always the same thing: How do we control labor? How do we now exploit labor? Not just control, exploit it, because their objective is exploitation. How does that added value that they bring go to them so less of it goes to the working force, the people who create the value? Because they (the workers) create the value.

And that’s why we’re here right now?—?it’s that simple. We have the [second] largest employer in this country?—?certainly the largest employer in this area now?—?and there are 5,800 workers here who have an opportunity to say, ?“We want some sort of safeguards for ourselves. We want to be in a position where we set out a certain standard, which we believe is important for us to be able to negotiate around our wages, benefits, and working conditions.” Right now, this large company, Amazon, controls all of that. They control the working conditions the workers work under, the wages that they’re paid, and whatever benefits that they may accrue without any say from the workers themselves. And the best structure for them to have a say in their lives is unionization. That was the case 200 years ago, and it remains the same now, as well.

MA: You mentioned how you have your own roots in the South, and how your family was a union family… So, let’s talk about the significance of this union vote happening here in the deep South, in Bessemer. Because I think that, to some people who aren’t in the South, to some people who are watching what’s happening here from the outside, it seems like this union drive came out of nowhere, right? Because they’re not familiar with the labor history here. And I mean, let’s be honest, we don’t really get a good labor history education in most parts of the country. So, could you talk about how this union vote connects to a longer tradition and history of labor struggle in the South?

DG: Well, it certainly has that tradition. I mean, you talk about Alabama… Alabama had major deposits of iron ore. During the Civil War, I believe that the center for where the armaments that the South made was in Selma, Alabama. So, they had the material. And that’s in the latter part of the wonderful book ?“Hammer and Hoe,” which Robin D.G. Kelley wrote about the labor history in the South, the struggle of formerly enslaved Africans here post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction, and during the period of Jim Crow. The purpose was always to find various ways to diminish their capacity. And so, there is a rich history of labor struggle around here. As I told workers here, ?“You’re part of a continuum; you’re part of an ongoing struggle that began long before you. And, certainly, that struggle has led you to where you are today in your own efforts to build solidarity and in your own demands to build better working conditions for workers.”

Now, economically, since 85% of the Amazon workers in Bessemer are Black, unionization elevates your standard of living and diminishes the wealth gap. We can talk about the wealth gap in different contexts, but the point is that unionization has been a platform to raise people from low wages to the middle-class. And that is what we’re talking about here. We know the dynamics of poverty within Alabama and how they affect those who are the most underserved, and we know that all the other kinds of disparities that we have in our society (healthcare disparity, etc.)?—?those are a part of this region, too. Unionization is a way of mobilizing, not just under the rubric of controlling what happens in the workplace, but it’s a way of organizing the community, as well; it elevates the community’s sense of self-purpose in all facets. 

So, when we’re talking about unionization, we’re talking about other aspects, as well. Unionization creates citizens, it provides a platform for citizens to take action. And that is the case here, no matter if… You know, we can talk about whether the Mayor or the City Council of Bessemer are Black and everything else. They function on another level… But unions function in ways that strengthen the community itself.

MA: And speaking of that, how has it been when you’ve talked to the workers themselves in Bessemer and the union organizers here at the RWDSU? What have you been hearing from them when you talk to them about this union vote and about their working conditions at Amazon?

DG: When I spoke to workers (and we spoke with groups of workers yesterday), I mean… it’s unbelievable, some of the hardships that they have, the difficult ways in which they have to maneuver around. There’s surveillance on these workers in Amazon unlike any other kind of systems of surveillance on workers. They’re probably the most watched workers?—?every single detail of their work is being watched. And, in some ways, the demands placed on them to get their workload out… it’s basically unattainable. The periods that they have for breaks, for finding a restroom, the accommodations there, the availability of restrooms?—?all those different things are a concern. And here’s the thing: They have no control at all. Here’s a modern country where workers have no control and no say in what happens in the workplace, and it’s all left to the discretion of the managers themselves. This system has used technology in ways that we haven’t seen before (in creating Amazon’s wealth and business model, and in creating the working conditions around that model, as well). 

I mean, some of the stories have been quite saddening. And these people come here to work. They apply for jobs to work, and they give what they have to work. But some of the conditions that they work under, whether it’s inadequate breaks, or a feeling that you’re being watched, or being treated often in inappropriate ways… Amazon controls that. They control your paycheck and they control so many different things that workers have no say in.

MA: For folks out there who are listening to this, it’s important to convey that this isn’t just another union drive, right? And that’s not to say that any union drive, no matter how small, isn’t important. But as you said, Danny, Amazon is… I mean, it’s an international behemoth. And with the COVID-19pandemic, the power of Amazon has only increased, the influence of Amazon has only gotten stronger. And we are all just basically following where it leads right now. And I think that we should all be thinking long and hard about where it’s leading us to. So, I guess, in that vein, could you talk a bit more about where Amazon as a company is going and why it’s so important for workers to have more of a say in that direction?

DG: First of all, Amazon is a global company, and certainly, it deals with unions in other places. There are places in Europe where they have a relationship with unions. So, the question is always: Why not here, in its home base? Why are they so resistant to having a union in Amazon’s home base? Why are they using every device available to them to dis-encourage workers from joining the union, or voting to have a union? So, it’s significant from the vantage point that it sets the tone, I think, for all workers. 

When we talk about winning battles… the battles that workers win aren’t permanent?—?because they’re always struggling under different dynamics, new dynamics arise outside the workplace, within the workplace. When you have the unions, you’re empowering the worker. And that’s the most important thing that I think we have to say: We’re empowering workers. We’re empowering the community itself. Amazon… where are they going to go? They came to Bessemer, a place where, certainly, work has declined. Because of technology and automation, work has become unavailable. Good-paying jobs have become unavailable here for many reasons. Some of the work that would have happened here may have been outsourced to another country. But in advanced countries, like in Europe, where there are strong unions, Amazon deals with those unions. They have to deal with these unions in ways that they may feel uncomfortable with, but at the same time it gives workers power. And as I said before, it also gives the community power.

MA: And, Danny, what strikes me as a real, I don’t know, bizarre phenomenon in the mind of the American worker… is that, so often, we don’t feel like it is our right to have a say in our working conditions. Right? We feel like we’re asking too much, even though we spend most of our lives at work. Why do you think that is?

DG: Well, I think that there’s something about… I remember watching something long ago, which said (and this was in the developed world): The moment that people begin to structure their lives around their own independence and self-sufficiency, then they become dangerous, to some extent. Because they’re empowering themselves. 

What happens is that power, those people who dictate our lives, shape our lives, shape what we think all the time… what they do, what that power does, is they only provide what they think you need, not what you actually need. A better way to say that is that power diminishes those expectations to the point where… I missed my thought. [Laughs]… But the point is: Sometimes you gotta catch yourself in those moments where you can think philosophically about what is really happening here. And what power does is essentially attempts to give us what they want to give us, not what we need.

MA: So, zooming out, and thinking about everyone who’s listening to this right now, everyone who has their eyes on Bessemer, but especially all the folks who are just now learning about the struggle here… How would you convey to people that this is something that they should care about? How can we learn to see struggles like the one happening in Bessemer as part of our common struggle for a better world? And how would you encourage people to get involved in that struggle like you have?

DG: Philosophically, there are a lot of reasons why I think we should get involved in making a better world. We can talk about it from the side of redistributing resources. Amazon has fared very well. I think its value has doubled or tripled during the pandemic?—?I’m not sure what the numbers are. But apart from that… I don’t know how to tell people, really. Because we all end up selling our labor some way, and most people are, unfortunately, in a position where they themselves need and would want more control over what happens in their workplace, or what happens in terms of their… [Pause] I don’t know what to say.

One of the things, Max, is that I come down here out of passion for the work itself. What I’ve always felt from the beginning is that, for everything I do, if I’m there, it’s because I care. I’m not there for any other reason. If I’m asked to come here, it’s because I care about the issue itself, and the issue is important to me. And I think it takes that from all of us?—?to say that this is important to us. This struggle has significance for all of us who work, for all of us who feel discriminated against, for all of those who feel powerless at points in time. (And we already feel powerless because of COVID-19 and all the restrictions and hardships it has imposed on our lives.)

So, I just think that this… after the 20th century fights for labor, fighting for rights, fighting for equality (whether it’s with women, whether it’s with minorities, etc)?—?at any point in time, the struggle for access and the struggle for a world that works for all of us is what we need to talk about. And unionization and the struggle here in Bessemer is important because it has the possibility of not only changing the lives of these workers here, but also of providing the courage to foster other battles and other struggles.

MA: Thank you all so much for listening to this special production of The Real News Network. We’ve got lots more coverage of the historic union vote at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama coming your way. So, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook, visit our website, subscribe to our YouTube and podcast channels, and check out all the great content that we produce on a weekly basis. And lastly, if you really want to support the work that we’re doing, then please consider making a monthly donation at the?re?al?news?.com/?s?u?pport. That’s the?re?al?news?.com/?s?u?pport.

The Real News Network is a nonprofit, viewer-supported center for digital media, dedicated to telling the stories that matter and lifting up the voices and struggles that so often go ignored by mainstream media. We make media for the people, not corporate advertisers, and so we cannot do this work without you. So, thank you so much for your support, and thank you for listening. This is Maximillian Alvarez from The Real News Network, sending love and solidarity from Baltimore.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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