Groundhog Day: Postmortem in Bessemer

The defeat of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in Bessemer, Alabama at the hands of Amazon is both dispiriting and wholly predictable. Predictable in that it is just another in a seemingly endless string of high profile organizing drives that have suffered defeat in final votes that were not particularly close. The United Auto Workers (UAW) have suffered two defeats in trying to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The last vote took place in June 2019. The UAW also lost the vote at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi in August 2017. More than 60 percent of workers voted against the union. At the Boeing plant in South Carolina in February 2017,

74 percent of workers voted against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Polls show that about half of nonunion workers in the country say they would join a union if they could and union have broad public support in the country. Yet the unionization rate for the private sector hovers at around six percent. The most obvious factor for this disparity is of course that labor laws highly favor employers, as does the overall political climate where these votes are occurring. After a union files for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), it is perfectly legal for employers to force workers to attend mandatory meetings where management harangues them with reasons they should not unionize, and certainly management is not above making threats or telling outright lies.

In the case of the Bessemer vote, Amazon was also able to set the terms of the vote. The union originally filed for a 1500 worker bargaining unit. Amazon won the argument for a 5,800 unit, forcing organizers to divert energy into getting more workers to sign union cards rather than solidifying the original 1500 bargaining unit. Amazon also managed to get the timing of the traffic light changed to give pro-union workers less time to canvass workers in their cars, outfitted temp workers, who are ineligible to join the union, with ‘vote no’ clothing to wear on the floor, plastered the warehouse bathroom with anti-union flyers, and illegally installed a mailbox on the premises.

In the lead up to the vote at the Nissan plant in Canton, the NLRB filed complaints that the company violated the law during the mandatory anti-union sessions by warning workers that they would lose wages and benefits if they supported the union. Other charges by the NLRB included having security perform unnecessary stops on union members, threatening to close the plant, and a supervisor telling works that he would ensure increased wages to workers who spoke against the union. Penalties for such violations are nonexistent.

As for the political climate, before the first vote in Chattanooga in 2014, the then Tennessee governor Bill Haslam warned that auto part suppliers would not locate in the area if the plant became unionized. Lawmakers threatened to kill a tax incentive tied to expanding the plant. Grover Norquist underwrote a new group called Center for Worker Freedom that put up 13 billboards in the area warning that Chattanooga would become the next Detroit. Before the second vote current governor Bill Lee visited the plant to address the workers, proclaiming ‘…that when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you’re working for me, that is the environment that works best.’ As governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley publically stated ‘We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water.’ Then adding ‘You’ve heard me say many times I wear heels. It’s not a fashion statement. It’s because we’re kicking them every day, and we’ll continue to kick them.’  Then Mississippi governor Phil Bryant: ‘If you want to take away your job, if you want to end manufacturing as we know it in Mississippi, just start expanding unions.’

At moments like this, it is always tempting to just quote Marx and call it a day. In this case The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force…The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, the dominant material relations grasped as ideas; hence the relations which make one class the ruling one, therefore the ideas of dominance.

All these failed efforts took place south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which is where much manufacturing in the U.S. happens, and that is no coincidence. Cheap land, low wages, and no unions has long been the standard fare in the South.

Yet the thing is, in a capitalist economy the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited- being unemployed. Or being exploited more. Corporations have a coherent interest of profit and growth inherent in their structure. Workers inevitably possess multiple interests both personal and professional. The power of corporations lies in their very existence; worker power has the burden to create new, separate organizations. Back in the early 1920s, when the Meat Trust used black strikebreakers against the Amalgamated Meat Cutters’ strike, it was in the aftermath of the gruesome 1919 race riot in Chicago and the local black institutions were generally anti-union. However, many African Americans saw even the Union Stockyards as an improvement not to be jeopardized over their recent experience as farm workers in the Deep South.

Mississippi has been the poorest state in the union for generations. Alabama is not far behind. South Carolina ranks in the top ten poorest and Tennessee is within range. The consistent run of Republican governors of these states are surely dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries, yet they do seem to grasp this economic context. For the past decade, progressives have pushed the ‘Fight for $15’ minimum wage. Though understandable in an economy where the largest private employers are Amazon, Wal-Mart, Kroger, Yum!Brands (the company that owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC), and Home Depot, it does not change the fact that minimum wage jobs are still minimum wage jobs. If such is the limit of progressive vision, then what are workers to think when Amazon actually pays a $15 minimum wage? A much broader fight against the very foundations of the low wage economy, with an emphasis on worker power and workplace democracy, is necessary. If the Amazon economy is a marvel of logistics and efficiency, it also provides many choke points that are vulnerable to organizing efforts. Reforms that enable workers to organize across large companies rather than a warehouse at a time would help exploit these points.

There will always be other union fights. If American history proves anything it is that workers’ victories don’t come easy. It is always a titanic struggle. The successful organizing of the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina in 2008, the largest pork processing plant in the world, took three tries over 16 years. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act that has passed in the House would curb some of worst union busting tactics deployed by companies including banning the mandatory anti-union meetings, collect dues from workers in ‘right to work’ states, and fining companies for NLRB violations. Needless to say, the PRO Act stands little chance in the Senate as long as the filibuster exists in its current form.

As many Republicans continue their theatrical rants against ‘woke’ corporations, while at the same time continuing to make sure corporate tax rates are as low as possible, it would be nice if more liberals pointed out how hollow Amazon’s public support of Black Lives Matter is since at the same time it fought tooth to nail to squash its largely black workforce in Alabama.  Such would actually be wokeness of a meaningful kind.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).