Our latest edition is out in print and online this month. Subscribe today and start reading.

Jane McAlevey on the Union Defeat at Amazon

Jane McAlevey

Labor strategist Jane McAlevey offers her take on why Amazon workers were defeated in their recent Bessemer, Alabama union drive.

An RWDSU union rep holds a sign outside the Amazon fulfillment warehouse at the center of a unionization drive on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. (Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)

Interview by
Doug Henwood

Why did the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) lose its fight against Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama? Jane McAlevey analyzed the loss in a widely read piece for the Nation. Sadly, everything she says is true.

Doug Henwood interviewed McAlevey for his Jacobin Radio show Behind the News. You can listen to the conversation here. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


DH

Let’s straighten some things out for civilians who might not understand the arcana of labor law: card check vs. NLRB elections. What are the alternatives? What are the advantages, disadvantages? Are there any other routes available, or is that it?

JM

Let me explain the recognition process. If you want to be certified legally as a union, you have to get certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). There are several options for how workers can form unions and win certification by the board. The one that’s most common is petitioning for election. That’s what we just saw in Alabama.

The other options are that you either demand recognition by having all the workers walk out and go on strike. That’s called a “strike for recognition” — the workers walk out and say to the employer, “We’re not walking back in until you certify our union, because a majority of us have signed cards. Certify the election, sign that you recognize a majority, and we’ll go to the National [Labor] Relations Board and get certified.” That’s super rare these days.

There’s a sort of middle option, what’s typically called a “card-check and neutrality” campaign. That’s more common for people who are trying to avoid the election process — because the election process opens you up to these incredibly vicious anti-union campaigns by bosses like the one we just saw in Alabama. Card-check means that you’re getting the majority of workers to sign a union card and then working simultaneously in what’s called a comprehensive campaign — an “air war” paired with your organizing on the ground, the “ground war.” You have to get a majority of the workers on board, but along the way, you’re trying to pummel the corporation into acquiescing to a card-check campaign and/or to a neutrality agreement (an agreement signed by the boss that they will not interfere) for an election.

The other option is the election process. The rules say that as long as 30 percent of the workers have signed an authorization calling for a union election, you can then go to the NLRB and ask for an election. You must show what’s called a showing of interest — that’s 30 percent of workers or more. This is what happened in Alabama.

When I was trained to be an organizer, I was trained to file for an election with 75 percent of workers. Never thirty, not forty — no less than 75 percent, because you understand the employer’s going to fight you and shave off at least 20 percent, if not 25 percent, of the vote. If you can’t start with that high number, knowing what the loss is when the union-busting campaign starts, you don’t have a path to victory. In Alabama: the union filed with apparently 34 percent of workers signing authorization cards.

DH

One of the confusions was: 30 percent of what? Amazon went on a hiring spree, and apparently, the union was not aware of just how many people worked at this facility. How many workers, and what did — or didn’t — the union know?

JM

What I understand and was told by the union spokesperson, whom I interviewed, is that they went public with the campaign on October 20. They achieved at least a showing of interest — so, they were very confident they had 30 percent or more. The union had to file a petition to hold the election; in that petition, you fill in information: “We’re filing on 1,500 workers in the following bargaining unit. We have 30 percent or greater of a showing of interest.” You file that form, and that triggers the process.

So the NLRB — from what I’m told from the spokesperson — went to Amazon and said, “Hey! There’s a petition calling for an election. Let’s start talking [about an] election.” That would be in mid-November. Very quickly, Amazon had Morgan Lewis — one of the infamous union-busting law firms — on the case. Morgan Lewis responded to the petition by saying, “This is crazy, because the petition says 1,500 workers, but there are actually 5,800 workers at this warehouse.” That’s mid-November.

The union and the company had a hearing to determine which number would be used. When I spoke to the union spokesperson, I asked, “What percent of cards did you have when you went into the hearing on December 20?” That hearing was to determine the total number of workers the union had to figure out, could they get the higher number? And if you read interviews with organizers in the campaign, they talk about how hard it was to collect a whole bunch more union authorization cards, fast. But they did it.

When December 20 came, the union spokesperson told me they had 2,000 cards. Two thousand is 34 percent of 5,800 workers. There was no path to victory at that point. You don’t go up after you file; you go down.

What senior organizers who have won hard campaigns do in a moment like that is call a big meeting of the worker committee and have a hard conversation: “Based on our having 34 percent of authorization cards, there is no path to victory.” Even if we had 50 percent, I’d be having a conversation with the worker committee saying, “We need to withdraw the petition.” You have to be honest with workers in hard campaigns. So either the union wasn’t honest with the workers about what was going to happen in the campaign, or they actually didn’t know. But they went forward on a strategy that was a path to defeat.

DH

Once the fight got going, Amazon created a website that calculated how much workers would have to pay the union in dues, asking workers, “Why waste all that money?” Even some union people were saying, “Hey, it’s a right-to-work state, you wouldn’t have to pay dues if you don’t want to.” What’s wrong with that approach?

JM

The national union president, in, like, fifteen interviews, repeated that message all over the country: “We keep telling the workers, of course Amazon’s lying, because you don’t even have to pay dues in a right-to-work state.” That was another indication that the campaign didn’t have a path to victory. Because it’s a cardinal mistake.

If you’re running a hard campaign, you’ve inoculated the workers: “Here’s the ten things the employer’s gonna do to you. Here’s the ten things they’re gonna say. Here’s the order they’re gonna say them in.” That’s how predictable an A-level boss fight is. We know the order that they’re gonna say them.

DH

There’s a textbook for this.

JM

Yes! There’s a textbook. When I was taught to be an organizer, you’re taught, in a hard boss fight, there are several phases to the boss campaign. In each phase, the boss takes a series of steps. It starts with, “Oh my god! We had no idea you were upset. We’re your best friends. We’re gonna hold some meetings and fix things. You want a fan turned on? Awesome, let’s turn a fan on. Let’s get some AC going!” The first phase is, “We didn’t have any idea that you guys were upset, we’re one big family, so let’s just work this all out.”

Second phase, once people don’t move on that message, is to move to sow doubt. They start to raise a million questions about the union and what it does with its money.

Then they move to flat-out terror and intimidation. In the end, they usually fire someone. No one was fired in Bessemer, probably because of the national attention focused on it — plus, the boss probably knew at that point they didn’t need to fire anyone. Because the campaign was not gonna be a winner.

A dues discussion is very important. First, you have to do the inoculation. You must say, “In phase two, when doubt starts, they’re gonna start to run a rap about dues.” They’re gonna put flyers up in the bathrooms that say, ‘This is how much you’re gonna spend on dues.’ They’re gonna start writing you emails. They’re gonna run captive-audience meetings with you that say, ‘Do you know what the union does with its dues?’” This is totally predictable.

So we do what’s called inoculation. From the first conversation with every worker, you inoculate about the phases of the boss campaign and what’s coming. So that when the boss brings up dues, the workers go, “Oh, yeah, the union said they were gonna say that to us. We knew that was coming.”

So, you’ve inoculated. Then, if it continues to come up, and the boss has a million flyers running about dues that say all sorts of crazy stuff, then you move to a new part of the conversation. I say to workers, “Why do you think the employer is suddenly concerned about how you spend your money? Why do you think, all of a sudden, Amazon’s managers are so concerned about the $500 you’re gonna pay?”

And then you move into a very important discussion, which never, ever involves saying, “you won’t have to pay dues to the union.” You say, “The truth is, you wanna build the kind of powerful workers’ organization inside this facility that you’re gonna need to go up against them in the first contract campaign? You’re damn right you’re gonna have to pay dues. It takes real resources to go after a really important employer.”

Dues are essential, because you’ve transparently explained to them what it takes to form the kind of union that can win the kind of changes that the workers want. And that starts with paying dues.

DH

The union seemed to be running a PR campaign, complete with celebrity endorsements. Is that helpful?

JM

Not to the workers in the campaign. Generally, it’s a huge distraction. If you’re an organizer and there’s a ton of media attention coming, you’re hugely distracted by requests to talk to a worker. What does a worker in Alabama think about a bunch of Hollywood-liberal-types and Democrats saying they should have a union?

What is important is to get very serious local endorsements for the campaign.

DH

Like clergy and community group leaders?

JM

Exactly.

DH

Did they do that?

JM

They had the Democratic Socialists of America.

DH

I love DSA, but, uh —

JM

I do, too. But in Alabama — 

DH

— They’re not gonna cut much ice.

JM

One of the flyers I looked at said, “Please come to our community meeting supporting the campaign.” A couple of socialist organizations were on it. Great, but you’re in Alabama trying to win a campaign. The local community that you need are ministers. There was a big issue made about the faith of the workers — there’s a lot of faith, they start the meeting with prayers. That’s great. So, if faith is important in the campaign, you need local faith leaders in the community.

You need to talk to the workers and say, “Oh, whose church [do] you and your family attend?” You have to be charting and systematizing: “Oh, which church do you go to?” Then you’re also, with your research team, doing a power structure analysis parallel to this to figure out which institutions in the community have power. Then you’re gonna get the workers themselves to go to their minister and say, “We’re in this campaign. It’s getting kind of scary in there. It’d be really great if you could write a letter to me and all of us saying you stand with the workers and so does God.”

DH

Now, you see some pundits drawing the conclusion that even though it was a loss, it was a victory in the long term. What do you say to that?

JM

There’s at least one person I really respect who thinks that, so that made me think twice about it. Most people who are saying that — I think it’s just spin. People constantly spin defeat as a victory. To me, a victory is a victory. So the person who said that to me said, “It’s good that it got a lot of attention, because there’s a lot of phone calls coming in [to the union] from Amazon workers.” But there were already a lot of workers in Amazon having conversations. That’s what the Emergency Workers Organizing Committee do; that’s what Amazonians United do. There have long been groups of Amazon workers out there trying to figure out how to form unions before this news story broke.

DH

You’ve mentioned the Smithfield pork processing plant workers took, what, three attempts, fifteen [or] sixteen years?

JM

Yeah, which was crazy. The narrative that developed on Smithfield, which is similar to now, is that it’s impossible to win a union election. It’s just impossible to win a big campaign in the South; it’s gonna take you sixteen years and however many millions of dollars on legal fees and stuff. What I took away from the campaign, and what I argued in my dissertation, was of course labor law is broken. There are no functioning labor laws in this country. But what I took away was that they probably could’ve won the first campaign if they had deployed good organizing skills. And they didn’t; they ran a totally shot operation, and they got beat, badly enough in the first election. And then the union did the same thing that the RWDSU is gonna do here: they filed objections to the election and had a lot of what’s called “unfair labor practice” charges.

I said in the end of my Nation article, [what] I believe will happen is the union will file objections to the election, and they will get a rerun of the election at some point. It’s gonna take a while, because you’re dealing with an effective union-buster who’s gonna slow the whole process down, stall, contest . . .

DH

There must be pretty high turnover in the workforce too. Is that going to make a new election that much more complicated?

JM

It can play both ways. I mean, Smithfield had 100 percent turnover every year too. Amazon did the same thing that Smithfield did in the first and second campaigns. But the first one is what mattered. They didn’t just go in to defeat the union — they went in to do a beatdown, to make those workers feel so much pain for daring to call for a union election that they should never try it again. Then, when the rerun election came, it was a total disaster because the living memory of people was, “We can’t beat the employer. It’s gonna be a terror campaign.”

The third election, the union obtained what’s called an “Election Procedures Agreement” that constrained the employer, so the employer couldn’t campaign against the workers. When they got that and built majorities among the workers, they were able to win the election.

But that’s what it took: they had to do serious and planned organizing. A couple of the workers who had been fired in the second campaign finally won justice out of the legal process, and a bunch of them returned to their jobs. What usually happens when workers are fired in a campaign is they’re so terrorized, it’s devastating.

In Smithfield, the boss offered workers deals, a ton of money. But a few of the workers said, “No, we don’t want your money. We want our old positions back.” Because a court order said, “You have to offer their jobs back, and if you don’t offer the jobs back, you have to pay all the lost wages.”

I mean, I’ve been involved with campaigns where we got workers $180,000, $250,000 settlements, because they were nurses who made a lot of money when they were fired in the campaign. The key is they refused the money and pledged to keep organizing.

At Smithfield, some of the fired workers said, “We’re going back in.” They ran the campaign all over again. And the rest is history. It’s an amazing story, really. And they changed strategies. They hired a really brilliant campaign team: Gene Bruskin became the leader of the campaign, and he understood you had to run a serious operation inside the plant — workers had to be willing to stand up and fight the employer and show that they were gonna stand up to the employer every day, on the floors, on the shifts, every shift. And you have to run a campaign to neuter the employer’s blows, which they did.

They ran a hard, aggressive campaign. They had local ministers in support of the workers. A boycott was organized by local ministers that targeted the stores that carried the biggest number of Smithfield products.

They did this amazing action where Paula Deen was going on Oprah Winfrey, and Paula Deen was the Smithfield sponsor/ambassador/product-placer for all of her cooking shows. The union got to Oprah and said, “You need to call Paula Deen out on this.” And it cost them thousands and thousands of hams, which the employer calculated — and then turned around and filed a RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] suit against the union.

So, I’m just saying, in the first round of Smithfield, from my analysis, if they had run a good campaign, they probably would’ve won. Second round, they lost.