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Under Capitalism, the Deck Is Always Stacked Against Unionizing at Companies Like Amazon

The failed Amazon union drive in Alabama is a stark reminder of a basic fact of life under capitalism: it’s always easier for bosses to destroy a fledgling unionization effort than it is for workers to get together and fight for their own interests.

People hold "Vote Union Yes!" signs during a protest at Kelly Ingram Park on March 27, 2021 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Patrick T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images)

A union vote appears simple and straightforward: workers either support a union or they don’t. To the extent that some of those workers are unsure about where they stand, swaying them is a matter of which side organizes better, the employer or the union. From this view, union elections seem fair.

But the defeat of the RWDSU’s union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, underscores how much this misses. In reality, workers and employers face very different challenges when it comes to organizing for their interests, and to do so they face what Claus Offe and Helmut Wiesenthal called two different logics of collective action.

Whether it be a union vote, a strike, or another form of working-class self-organizing, workers’ capacity to fight back hinges on their ability to maintain solidarity with each other. For employers, no such solidarity is required. Solidarity is incredibly hard to achieve and maintain for workers; not so for bosses.

This is the case for several reasons. First, businesses get stronger by growing. They can merge and take up greater shares of the market through accumulation, growing ever larger. This additive aspect of firm size gives them more and more access to financial resources, the key source of their power. Importantly, no matter how much firms grow, companies behave as a single unit, in this case Amazon.

Workers, on the other hand, don’t inherently grow stronger simply by adding more workers to a given workplace or industry. The barriers to their coming together to fight the boss remain as difficult to overcome no matter their shifts in size, because workers primarily interact with their bosses as individuals, with far less individual power than their boss’s.

The way workers organize is through a union or other kind of worker association. Workers are first organized by a firm, their employer, which brings those workers together based on its own interests and goals. Unions face the difficult task of reorganizing them as workers with interests separate from the management of that firm.

Simply put, business power doesn’t require a new and separate organization, whereas worker power does.

Second, a firm’s calculation of its interest is straightforwardly defined: profit. Firms that don’t prioritize profits don’t survive long in competitive markets. Conversely, a worker’s whole life is attached to their employment situation, so they have a wide range of interests tied to that role. Because the full complexity of a human life can’t be separated from the labor power they sell to their boss at work, the priorities of one worker at any given time can diverge widely from the priorities of another.

Under these conditions, it is simpler and easier for capitalists to articulate and pursue their interests than it is for workers. As an organization, Amazon could counter the union in a monological, top-down way, with a single, easy-to-identify goal: defeating the union. Managers can simply communicate this to workers.

The union, on the other hand, had to help create a shared sense of worker interest antagonistic to the firm in order to convince workers of the need for a union in the first place.

Even with significant worker discontent about management, this is much more difficult, since it involves communication and interaction between organizers and workers to develop a shared perspective. There is no guarantee that this communication and organizing will work; often it doesn’t, because workers want different things and aren’t always convinced that union representation is the best way to get what they want (especially after the person controlling their ability to pay the bills, their boss, has made a strong and constant case that a union would actually hurt the workers’ ability to get what they want).

Third, worker power and willingness to act collectively fundamentally depends on workers building solidarity together. Workers need to engage in organizing practices that might come with sanctions (disfavor among managers at a minimum, losing their jobs at most). Workers also need to believe that they would be better off with a collective organization which their management opposes. But solidarities are hard to create.

Fourth, the transformation of workers’ interests in such a way that they feel significant solidarity with each other and antagonism to their employer depends on the creation of a mutual, collective identity. This is difficult, since workers are organized by the firm as separate units of labor. And Amazon’s workplace design in particular, is constantly working to undermine this by reducing worker interaction and keeping worker’s atomized and highly focused on their tasks.

All this poses an incredible challenge. It’s tempting to point to leadership failures or tactical missteps as the sole source of organizing failures. But at the end of the day, worker organizing is just incredibly difficult under capitalism, even with the most tactically adept organizing committee.

Though Karl Marx pointed to the concentration of and interdependence between workers in the early factory as a key ingredient of class struggle, another crucial factor is the creation of a sense of community, which involves a sense of solidarity. That solidarity does not magically appear for workers. It must be cultivated over time and is the result of reciprocal support during difficult situations. It requires leadership and organization, which can persist after setbacks.

The Amazon vote is a setback in the larger movement to rebuild working-class power, community, and solidarity. But it’s not the end of that fight.