Lesson after Amazon union defeat: Keep fighting

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The union defeat at a giant Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, was a big blow to the labor movement. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a surprise given the company’s relentless and hyperbolic multi-million-dollar campaign against the union. It wasn’t a fair fight.

From its earliest days, Amazon has been determined to crush any union drives. Five years ago, the firm was compelled by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to post a “notice to employees” at a Chester, Virginia, warehouse declaring that they wouldn’t engage in 22 forms of threatening and intimidating behavior. 

“We will not threaten you with the loss of your job” if you are a union supporter, Amazon wrote. “We will not interrogate you” about the union or “engage in surveillance of you” while you participate in union activities. “We will not threaten you with unspecified reprisals” because you are a union supporter. We will not threaten to “get” union supporters.

The list was posted after the Machinists union accused the company of doing these things during a two-year campaign to unionize 30 facilities technicians at the warehouse.

The powers of the NLRB are quite weak. They could not impose monetary penalties. In addition, this was a secret settlement, which was only recently uncovered by the New York Times.  

In addition, Amazon is hard to organize due to the massive turnover of employees. A study by the National Employment Law Project concluded that Amazon’s business model is “one in which the company views its workers as disposable and designs its operations to foster high turnover. Workers who can’t keep up with extreme productivity goals are fired or encouraged to quit. Many workers have to leave their jobs because of injuries. Amazon’s inhumane work pace and repetitive work tasks require a level of physical exertion and strain that takes a high toll on workers’ physical health over time, which is why the company needs to constantly replenish its workforce with fresh bodies.”

Amazon’s employees suffer injuries at rates much higher than the national average for the warehouse industry. “According to Amazon’s own records, the risk of work injuries at fulfillment centers is alarmingly, unacceptably high,” David Michaels, former head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, now a professor at George Washington University’s public health school, told the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The anti-union tactics Amazon used in Chester surfaced in Bessemer against the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Amazon brought in highly paid “consultants.” Union busting is a huge and lucrative industry. In 1988, Martin Jay Levitt described his former career in “preventive labor relations” as a form of psychological warfare in his book Confessions of a Union Buster

In it, he wrote, “Union busting is a field populated by bullies and built on deceit. A campaign against a union is an assault on individuals and a war against the truth. As such, it is a war without honor. The only way to bust a union is to lie, distort, manipulate, threaten, and always, always attack. Each ‘union prevention’ campaign, as the wars are called, turns on a combined strategy of disinformation and personal assault.”

At the Bessemer warehouse, Amazon held mandatory “captive audience” meetings where managers lied and told scary stories about the union. The company sent text messages several times a day urging workers to vote no. Anti-union flyers were everywhere, even on bathroom stalls. Vulnerable temp workers were told to wear “vote no” swag.

During the voting, President Joe Biden released a video posted to Twitter and YouTube, which was the most pro-union message made by a president in our time. He didn’t mention Amazon but did refer to “workers in Alabama.” 

He said: “Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment.” He also said: “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.” 

The House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would outlaw many of the anti-union tactics Amazon used and institute serious penalties against companies and corporate executives who violate workers’ rights. Biden supports it. But it won’t pass the Senate unless the filibuster is abolished and a few “moderate” Senate Democrats are convinced to vote for it.

It’s tough but we can win, even against Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world.  

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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