What is happening here that workers in the Amazon distribution center in Bessemer Alabama voted down the union by almost 2-1? It’s not that unions in general are unpopular. On the contrary, a 2020 Gallup Poll revealed that 65% of Americans approve of unions. That is up from only 50% ten years earlier.
So why do workers keep voting down union representation, as they did in 2017 at a Nissan plant in Mississippi and at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee in 2019? Why does this keep happening?
The apologists for the union leadership blame the union busting tactics of the employers. And union busting they do, including intimidating, harassing and sometimes even firing pro-union advocates and organizing anti-union mandatory meetings. The Nation magazine has one such article. It gives clear examples of these tactics. It also suggests a few tactical tweaks for the union, but basically it simply blames the employer’s union busting tactics. That is like blaming the wolf for eating the sheep. That is what a wolf is born to do. If the sheepherder allows the wolf to continue doing this, then it’s the sheep herder who is to blame.
Elk, for example quotes one worker, Ashley Beringer, who commented: “I guess I’m more so against it [the union] because I don’t know much about [unions], I’ve never had to deal with unions until now.” All the explanations in the world cannot do the trick. What would be needed is for workers like Beringer to see and feel the union in action, and not just to see it from the outside, but to actively participate in it. In other words, to organize work place actions. For this, a radically different approach to union organizing would have been necessary.
Cozzarelli goes even further. She explains that the organizing drive to an extent revolved around keeping the support of such politicians as Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez and even Biden himself. She comments: “Unfortunately, at Amazon, there were no concrete measures to organize workers in rank-and-file assemblies to strategize and decide on the direction and future of the struggle. Left Voice was able to speak to Amazon workers through local connections. These workers said that they had little or no contact with the union beyond a few text messages and a phone call. They didn’t get to discuss or decide on next steps for the unionization effort or to discuss what a union could do for them. This kind of organizing would have been key to push back against the bosses’ lies.”
Such comments lead to an even deeper issue: The absolute determination of the union leadership to maintain the “teamwork” with the employers. Yes, we may have some scraps from time to time, but that’s just like arguments within a family; at the end of the day we are all family. That is the leadership’s attitude. As Bob King, then-president of the UAW, said to the Chamber of Commerce in 2011: “We need to join together…. When we join together we can go down a path to true economic growth and prosperity…”
Not only that, but due to present leadership policies politically the unions have been nearly totally missing in action politically. Where, for example, where they in all the thousands of protests against the murder of George Floyd? Where were they in Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed in 2014, or in all the protests in between?
In other words, the horrific working conditions at places like Amazon and the continual wage cutting has led to an increased general recognition that unions are positive and necessary. But the role of the union leadership has been to suppress any tendency of workers themselves to organize and struggle against their own boss on their own particular job. The general mood in the working class tends to overcome the particular situation in any one work place.
What is needed is for activists and socialists inside the unions to organize independent opposition caucuses. Such caucuses would have to emphasize a twin approach: One would be for the union to break from this pro-employer “team” approach. The other would be for the unions to play a key role in the social protest movement, such as the protests against the police brutalizing and killing people at will.
Right now, most union members tend to feel pretty alienated from their own unions, so building such caucuses might be slow going. However, a wider protest movement that draws in millions of workers, including union members, is bound to break out. Once that happens, it will affect the mood inside the unions. Then the experience and hard work that such union activists and socialists inside the unions will pay off.