GETTING ORGANIZED: The Lessons of the Lost Union Drive at Amazon

ALABAMA SONG: Workers start at $15 an hour for physically grueling labor. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

By Rob Callahan

Unions can’t be trusted. Management can. Fear an uncertain future.

Amazon.com may have revolutionized the way the world satisfies its consumer wants. But when it comes to employees looking to exercise more clout in their workplace, Amazon is just pushing the same product as every other company.

Shows produced or distributed by Amazon Studios often employ Guild members working under union contracts. For its operations in the entertainment industry, Amazon recognizes that collective bargaining agreements are simply part of the cost of doing business. But make no mistake: with respect to the company’s core business of Internet retail, Amazon has made clear how adamantly it opposes its employees enjoying a voice on the job.

The behind-the-scenes workers whose labor makes possible Amazon’s wondrous logistics don’t ordinarily garner a lot of attention. Although it is the second-largest private employer in the U.S., most of Amazon’s employees work far from the public eye. In the early months of this year, though, eyes turned to a huge warehouse in a small town outside of Birmingham, Ala. The news media closely followed the fight there, which was widely reported as, in the words of one journalist, “the most consequential labor battle in decades.”

The company’s tactics came right out of the union-busting playbook.

Amazon’s BHM 1, an 850,000 square-foot facility—a “fulfillment center ” in the industry ’s jargon—employs roughly 6,000 blue-collar employees. The workforce, overwhelmingly African-American, earns starting wages f $15 an hour for physically grueling work. It’s labor that’s not just physically but also psychologically taxing. Employees are subjected to constant surveillance by software monitoring their movements in minute detail. An Amazon warehouse perhaps represents the apotheosis of the principle of “scientific management” pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor almost a century and a half ago; an app monitors each worker’s “time off task,” and employees face discipline or termination if the algorithm deems them insufficiently productive. It was not lost on the essential workers laboring under this literally inhuman driver of efficiency that the pandemic’s boost to e-commerce reportedly tripled Amazon’s profits, while simultaneously placing warehouse workers at heightened risk. (Amazon discontinued COVID-19 hazard pay in June of 2020.)

Explicitly rooting their campaign in the Black Lives Matter movement, in the broader history of struggle for racial justice, and in their faith traditions, workers dared to insist that they be afforded dignity and a voice on the job, rather than being relegated to the status of robots. “We hope that with a union we will finally have a level playing field,” Jennifer Bates, a BHM1 employee and union activist, testified in a Senate committee hearing. “We hope that they will start to hear us, and see us, and treat us like human beings.”

Amazon indeed heard and saw its workers pushing to unionize, and it treated them as a threat to be squashed.

There wasn’t much that was especially novel or innovative about Amazon’s campaign to defeat its workers’ push for a union. For the most part, the company’s strategies and tactics came straight out of the usual shopworn union-busting playbook, although it pursued those strategies with the relentless efficiency for which Amazon is rightly known. And it worked. The union reportedly had gathered signed authorization cards from a majority of the employees in question a few months previously, but when the National Labor Relations Board tallied mail-in ballots in early April, the union drive went down to defeat by a ratio of more than two to one. (Part of the reason for the lopsided vote was management’s challenge to the legitimacy of several hundred ballots that therefore went uncounted, but, even if each challenged ballot had been for unionization, they would have been insufficient to close the gap.)

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In the aftermath of that heart-breaking loss, much—arguably too much—has been written about just how the election at BHM1 went wrong. Usefully, from the perspective of public policy, the media attention to employers’ bullying tactics, both legal and illegal, has underscored the urgency of passing the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, legislation that would overhaul federal labor law and make it appreciably more difficult for employers to interfere in their employees’ democratic decision to organize. Under existing law, there are no substantive penalties for employers who engage in coercion or deceit to deny workers a free and fair union election. Amazon has been charged with having committed 23 distinct violations of the National Labor Relations Act in the onduct of its anti-union campaign, but, even if the company is eventually found guilty on some or all of these charges, in the best-case plausible scenario, the Labor Board would simply order the vote to be run again. Among other critical updates to the National Labor Relations Act, the PRO Act would institute real penalties for employers that violate employees’ rights.
The defeat has also precipitated unprecedented public discussion of the tradecraft of union organizing; in a rash of postmortems published after the vote count, commentators opined in the pages of mainstream national outlets about nuts-and-bolts topics usually only addressed in shop talk among organizers—the recruitment and development of internal leadership, one-on-one assessments, structure tests, house visits, and the like. I wasn’t involved in the campaign in Alabama; like much of the labor movement, I only watched it from a distance. So (unlike a few other armchair quarterbacks) I don’t feel it’s my place to hold forth on questions of how the union’s organizing efforts might have gone differently.

I do, though, want to reflect on Amazon’s anti-union campaign and the themes raised therein, because, as I’ve mentioned, they’re fully consistent with bosses’ union-busting campaigns more generally. If the PRO Act becomes law, companies will have somewhat less latitude to run such campaigns in order to pressure workers not to organize. But passage of the PRO Act is by no means assured. President Biden has announced it as a priority, but at the time of this writing, even three members of the Senate Democratic Caucus have so far declined to pledge support for the bill, meaning the legislation doesn’t yet have majority support in the upper chamber, let alone the supermajority needed to withstand a filibuster. Even if the PRO Act is ultimately enacted, we can’t rely upon any law to prevent employers from peddling anti-union talking points in an effort to derail their employees’ exercise of power in the workplace.

When the public first got a glimpse of Amazon’s anti-union propaganda in mid-January, much snickering ensued. The company may have hoped to get its newly-coined hashtag #DoItWithoutDues trending, but probably hadn’t intended for it to be hijacked by outside observers jeering at the ham-handed website the company had set up to push a No vote. Never mind the goofy gif of a cartoon corgi bopping its head along to the beat as a platter spins on a turntable. The messaging itself managed to be both silly and condescending.

Management sounds the alarm about dues because they fear unions.

“DUES MEAN DON’Ts.”
Don’t buy that dinner, don’t buy those school supplies, don’t buy those gifts because you won’t have that almost $500 you paid in dues. WHY NOT save the money and get the books, gifts & things you want? DO IT without dues!

One prominent labor journalist opined on social media, “I don’t see how this stuff does anything but insult your employees.” And, yes, the message was patronizing.

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But anti-union campaigns almost invariably focus on the topic of dues. Indeed, Amazon’s messaging was a near carbon-copy of a bit of anti-union propaganda from Delta Airlines that had gone viral a couple of years previously; Delta’s poster told workers “A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun. Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.” Of course, neither Amazon nor Delta nor any other union-busting employer actually cares how their employees spend their money; management only sounds the alarm about dues because they realize that unionization will increase the company’s labor costs in the form of better pay and benefits. Better for the workers to think about consuming baubles than about taking actual action to improve the quality of their jobs.

The condescension, though, doesn’t necessarily render the message ineffective. Especially for workers struggling to get by, the prospect of yet another expense to pay can indeed be daunting. And employers also evoke anxieties about dues in ways that are more sophisticated than talking about the toys people might spend their money on instead. One time-honored tactic deployed in almost every anti-union campaign, Amazon’s included, is to publicize the salaries paid to union organizers or officials. (For the record, pay to union staff is legally a matter of public record, and I’m happy to earn a good living working for our Guild.) It’s reasonable for a low-wage worker to wonder why she should be supporting the lifestyle of the union’s best-paid employees. And the company always prefers that workers fixate on what a so-called “union boss” earns than on the closely guarded secret of the salaries for the company’s actual bosses.

Moreover, by focusing on dues and framing union membership as a service that a worker buys, in the same way that she might spend money on anything else, the employer attempts to define the union as a company hawking its wares, rather than as a democratic organization that workers form to wield power in the workplace. Anti-union campaigns’ drumbeat on the topic of dues is integral to the bosses’ characterization of the union as just another business trying to sell you something you don’t need.
In fact, the talking points of anti-union campaigns tend to cluster around three generic themes: (1) Be suspicious of the union, (2) trust management, and (3) worry about uncertainty. Talk of union dues, of the salaries of union officials, and of the union as a business are all part of stirring suspicion of the union as an institution. It’s critical for management to get workers thinking of the union as an outside third-party that’s not to be trusted, rather than a democratic group that includes them. (This characterization of the union as an external business also manifests itself in bosses referring to organizers as “union salespeople.”)

It’s almost equally important that management make efforts to win workers’ trust. That’s why anti-union campaigns generally combine fearmongering with a charm offensive. Jennifer Bates, the BHM1 union activist who testified before a Senate committee, spoke to The New Yorker about what such schmoozing looks like from the shop floor: “Since the union surfaced, Amazon has tried to do what we’ve been crying out for. They’re sending human resources on the floor on break, so you’ll have time to go talk to them. ‘Is there anything you need? Can we help you?’ They’re being so nice—it’s like they brought out the candy jar.” It’s perhaps a heavy lift for an employer like Amazon—notorious for managing its employees through continuous, impersonal, automated data collection—but management wants workers to believe that the company is a family, and that bosses have employees’ best interests at heart.

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Management’s characterization of the union and its characterization of itself, though, are ultimately both secondary to its characterization of the future. Their primary goal isn’t to win hearts and minds, but to sow doubt. Most bosses will be careful to avoid explicit threats, but they’ll be sure to allude to the possibility of scary scenarios: Strikes, layoffs, lockouts, the possibility that a union contract could lower instead of lift terms of employment.

Amazon repeatedly played on this theme of uncertainty. One of its messages to employees was “With union negotiations, you could end up with more, the same…. or less than what you make today.” It’s true, of course, that nobody can definitively predict the outcome of contract negotiations before they start. But the only way workers would wind up with less than they started with is if management stubbornly insisted on reducing terms. Furthermore, in the absence of a union, management is already able to reduce terms at any time, unilaterally, without resistance. In effect management is cautioning workers, “You’ve got a pretty good job here … Be a shame if something happened to it.”

Bosses use the same old tactics because they work.

From a distance, it’s easy to look at all these messages and dismiss them as unconvincing. But workers in an organizing campaign don’t have the luxury of such distance. They’re being constantly bombarded, not just through websites, but through texts, compulsory anti-union meetings during their shifts, omnipresent signage in the workplace, even posters in restroom stalls. Moreover, management’s goal isn’t actually to convince anyone; to the contrary, they simply need to cast enough doubt that some previously pro-union workers decide that it’s better to accept the status quo than to take a chance on trying to make change. The thing about anti-union campaigns is that none of the points the boss makes needs to be particularly persuasive. The mere fact of the campaign–its advertisement that this company will expend a great deal of effort and money to block its employees’ path to a union contract–is a kind of implicit threat itself.

Again, I’ve been referring to the particulars of Amazon’s union-busting campaign because of its recency and the fact that it was unusually well-documented. But no element of this is unique to Amazon. These themes are sounded by almost every employer that resists unionization, including employers in our industry, including employers that the Editors Guild has organized through union elections. Bosses do it because it works.

But the good news is that it doesn’t work always. Just as a vaccination can train the body’s immune system to ward off a pathogen it might encounter later, introducing these anti-union arguments to organizing workers before they hear them from management dramatically mitigates the harm they can do. In the argot of union organizing, in fact, we refer to prepping workers for a boss campaign as “inoculation.” The bogeymen that the boss will trot out—whether via a website, in the course of captive audience meetings, or in one-on-one interviews with supervisors—are a lot less scary when a worker has already heard all the bosses’ talking points from a trusted coworker or union organizer and knows just what to expect.

The core of pro-union workers at BHM1 reportedly remain undaunted. Their union is pressing charges over the company’s nearly two dozen alleged violations of the law. Perhaps, at some point in the future, they’ll get a chance to vote again. If and when they do, the veterans of this last round will know what’s coming.

 

About Rob Callahan 44 Articles
Rob Callahan is the Motion Picture Editors Guild’s National Organizer. He can be reached at RCallahan@editorsguild.com. Learn more about organizing with the Guild at www.editorsguild.com/Organize.

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