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What’s to Be Learned from the Bessemer Amazon Unionization Campaign

by Joshua Bowen

[originally posted spring 2021]


“The emancipation of the working-men must be accomplished by the working-men themselves.”

-Attributed to British and French Trade Unionists in Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread

At the heart of socialism is the belief that workers are capable of not only recognizing their own interests, but also of organizing for the purpose of their attainment — a principle that, without which, the movement is nothing but a husk of old names, long books, and effete debate. Unfortunately, in the United States, such a belief has been hard to sustain, even long before the neoliberal artifice of homo economicus was raised. Indeed, despite any claims to the contrary from Democrat and Republican politicians alike, America has had a uniquely unfriendly relationship with organized labor ever since its inception — a history that has unsurprisingly manifested itself in the ever-worsening relationship between the corporate behemoth known as Amazon and its employees.

As Amazon has grown to increasingly dominate the American economy, the company has become more and more notorious for the abysmal working conditions in their warehouses and fulfillment centers. Although some of the most widely circulated details about their corporate culture involve their impositions on workers’ basic bodily functions (namely, how many warehouse workers and delivery drivers have been forced to urinate in bottles,) the issues go beyond a mere lack of time to use the bathroom. It is completely unexaggerated to say that the degree of control Amazon imposes over every move of its workers, as well as its disregard for their welfare are totalitarian.

Even before Amazon became the juggernaut it is today, the company was known for expecting superhuman outputs out of its human employees. Between managers writing emails with headlines like “YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD”, and the deployment of surveillance technology that tracked employee movements for maximum efficiency, Amazon has created an extremely physically and emotionally taxing work environment; a state of affairs that is reflected in news stories such as the Allentown, PA newspaper The Morning Call’s reporting on paramedics sent to a local fulfillment center to rush off those who had collapsed in the summer heat to the hospital.

Of course, it’s only natural that employees working under these sorts of conditions would eventually endeavor to ameliorate them through collective bargaining — which is exactly what group of Amazon employees at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, recently attempted to achieve. Although their campaign sadly failed, with only 16% of employees voting to form the union, this campaign nonetheless signifies a major strike back against both Amazon’s hostile internal conditions and the broader disregard for organized labor in American culture as a whole.

Indeed, in order to understand exactly why this push for unionization failed, it is not so much as important to know the specific tactics used by Amazon to crush the Bessemer employees’ efforts (while plentiful and undoubtedly effective), so as much as the general lack of seriousness about labor politics at the federal level. Although Joe Biden and his team are exchanging high fives for supporting pro-labor policies such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) act (which, while certainly a positive development, seems doomed to die under Republican filibuster), he is hardly the second coming of FDR that many of his liberal mouthpieces have tried to make him out to be. It’s certainly no novel invention of the Democratic party to give its more radical wing the obligatory lip service while failing to get any meaningfully progressive legislation passed — just look at the Obama administration. As the 2020 primary showed, big-wig Democrats know that the vast majority of progressives can be guilted into voting for whichever candidate the establishment decides on, no matter whether they embody progressive values or not. That the party not only passed on, but also arguably actively sabotaged Sanders — one of the only politicians who can legitimately claim to support labor — tells you how much they actually care about helping workers. Ultimately, Biden can throw around trillions all day long, but unless he’s actually able to bring about legislation to empower workers, all the progressive comparisons are as meaningless as one of his infamous stories about his childhood friend Corn-Pop.

With all this opposition to collective bargaining at both a corporate and federal level, it can sometimes seem remarkable that anyone is still fighting for labor rights at all. However, amidst this pessimistic landscape, it is important to remember that the Bessemer employees’ efforts still fared far better than their predecessors at a Chester location, and Vox has reported murmurs of incipient organizing attempts at Amazon locations in New York, Iowa, and Chicago. While the decision not to unionize is certainly a defeat, and a heart-rending one at that, Amazon’s growing defensiveness about their working conditions online, combined with the national attention paid to this relatively small group of organizers, might be a promising sign for the future of labor politics in America. Ultimately, whether or not the momentum of this movement will survive is hard to say, since national memory has a turnover of less than a week. However, no matter its enduring impact, the fact that the Bessemer campaign happened at all was undoubtedly an inspiring shift towards progress—one that other workers and organizers will hopefully be able to successfully replicate in the future.

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