In the most closely watched unionization drive in years, fewer than half of the nearly 6,000 workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, voted 1,798 to 738 against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The mainstream media, dominated by the big capitalists themselves, is already describing this loss as a “decisive victory” for Amazon and a “crushing blow” for workers and labor organizing. But despite the loss, we must keep it in proper perspective.
In a fight like this, organized within the “labor relations” rules of the government of the capitalists, the bosses have many advantages. They have millions, sometimes billions of dollars to throw around to influence public opinion and keep local, state, and national politicians in their corner. They have laws on their side, overwhelmingly stacked against workers, including the so-called “right-to-work” anti-union laws in Alabama and most other states. Under the federal government’s rules, the bosses even have a say in which workers can be allowed to be in a union, that is, in a workers’ self-defense organization! Shouldn’t that be up to the workers themselves?
The capitalists have high-priced union-busting law firms and public relations firms as well as full-time staff to undermine workers’ organizing. They use mandatory one-on-one and “captive audience” meetings to mislead and often outright intimidate workers, and, in Bessemer, actually got the town government to change the timing of a traffic signal to interfere with union activists handing flyers to workers leaving the job.
Amazon spent a lot to keep the union out, showing its fear of what organized workers can do. That workers stood together at all against Amazon’s intimidation is a positive sign.
And history – including U.S. history – shows that workers can organize themselves to defeat the bosses’ power. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, workers across the country went on wave after wave of illegal strikes. They broke the law to defend themselves and their families against unemployment, low wages, and horrendous working conditions. They went on general strikes that organized across different industries. They organized the unemployed together with those currently working. They occupied factories and held sit-down strikes. They fought police, national guard troops, and the bosses’ privately organized thugs in order to win. And they won a lot.
Black people did the same in the 1950s and 1960s with illegal marches, sit-ins, and Freedom Rides, as well as creative new organizations, to win civil rights. and public workers did the same in the 1960s and 1970s in a wave of illegal strikes that won them union rights and significant gains. And more recently, in 2018, education workers in West Virginia broke the rules, organized their communities, and conducted a statewide strike in defiance of their union leaders and state law – and won!
The challenge now is for workers in Alabama and elsewhere to learn the lessons of this defeat at Amazon in order to have a better understanding of what needs to be done to organize for our future. We still have a lot of work to do. And the only way to do it is to continue to organize.