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THE news that the US union RWDSU (Retail Wholesale Department Store Union) has lost the ballot for recognition in Bessemer is an immediate and crushing defeat but also raises a longer-term question — is US-style “community organising” finished?
The loss of this vote among 6,000 workers in Bessemer, Alabama, is hot on the heels of the similar outcome at VW in the same state.
What is even more remarkable is that this is in the plant where an estimated 80 per cent of the workers are black African-American.
This was a seen as a hopeful demographic, in the era of BLM it was a clear opportunity for progressive politics to break through.
Consequently everything the US movement had was thrown into this dispute.
Paid organisers, a huge “war chest” backed up by the mighty UFCW (Union Food Commercial Workers) and by UNI Global Union, video messages from Joe Biden, from Bernie Sanders and from the Hollywood left, everything that could be asked for really in terms of resources.
It is also true that Amazon poured massive resources into this campaign and used every union-busting trick in the book, from victimisation to intimidation, compulsory meetings with anti-union sessions, propaganda and outright dirty tricks campaigns to undermine the rights of workers to organise.
This wall of total opposition is always the default position of Amazon so there were no surprises there.
Finally, there are claims that the union organising on the ground was in effect not up to standard, from mistakes on mapping workers, to establishing themselves as nothing more than a gate protest movement, to their alleged lack of contacts within the actual workforce and even the failure to plan around the high turnover of staff — a common feature at Amazon — meaning workers were coming and going throughout the campaign.
This may be evidenced on the ground but in reality this campaign failed because it was the wrong strategy in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
US trade union density is currently 7 per cent in the private sector, in a system wholly based on the dues-paying numbers. This is a near terminal level.
Yet since 1990 various unions have promoted and practised these community organising techniques, to win power back and increase membership density.
There is no doubt that this has been fiercely opposed by employers. But 31 years later it is beginning to seem that this is not the answer.
There have been some inspiring victories from the Justice for Janitors campaign to the recent Chicago Teachers success — but that graph has consistently gone down across the US.
Yet in other parts of the world there are signs of real union revival — including within Amazon.
In Germany trade union density in Amazon is an impressive 40 per cent, in France, Spain and Italy the trade unions are dominant on works councils and regularly organise strikes against the company. They are without exception not using the community organising circus.
The RWDSA is a national union with only 66,000 members but exists within the two million-strong UFCW.
They led the union drive in Alabama under the leadership of Stuart Appelbaum, who is essentially a politician from the Democratic Party closely aligned with Hillary Clinton and always from the centrist core of the party.
The Bessemer plant in Alabama is mostly African-American, is in a poor area and its community has unionisation in other employers in the area.
The push at first seemed to come from local activists who felt that the chances were high and the union should fight for it.
But having a strategy also means picking your fights — when you want them and where you want them.
This intervention does not seem to be part of a national strategy or plan. Given the Amazon scale of union-busting, given that Alabama is Alabama and only recently workers at VW rejected a union despite the company being far less hostile than Amazon, why pick a fight here?
Winning a union battle in employers like these takes years of organising on site.
There does not appear to have been any assessment of this core aspect or if there was, then it was overturned by a decision to go for a ballot as if it was, to use the term, a “hot shop.”
In 2018 RWSDA joined in a battle to stop Amazon building its national headquarters in New York State.
A coalition of community groups and politicians campaigned to stop Amazon building with huge tax concessions an HQ that would employ 50,000 workers.
New York State has some of the most pro-union laws in the country, resulting in 90 per cent union density in some sectors.
It was a brave decision to oppose Amazon, partly driven by a need to protect current union jobs in retail (where the union has members) and it was successful.
Amazon took its 50,000 jobs to Virginia. At the heart of the calculation there was the fundamental assumption by RWSDA that it could not organise those workers into a union.
If Amazon was to establish its HQ in Liverpool or Manchester every trade union and socialist activist in the area would be licking their lips!
In this campaign the US unions chose not to have that fight.
They squandered whatever bargaining leverage they might have had at the time that the building was proposed and Amazon drew the right conclusions.
The RWSDA did not want to fight over union recognition.
To win against Amazon requires a number of steps. Part of that must be a switch from community organising to industrial organising, based on socialist principles.
Workers are not passive groups to be offered “styles” of organising. This liberal posturing has to stop.
Currently one of the world’s largest and most hostile organisations is subject to challenges across the world.
Its biggest challengers are unions in Europe, its biggest challenge is striking workers.
This is where we start. Yet more time and energy will be spent talking and writing about this failed campaign of 6,000 workers than has ever been spent on analysing and explaining the success of tens of thousands of German strikers, Italian strikers, French strikers, Spanish strikers.
This is what Amazon prefer — unions agonising over a failure in Alabama which was on balance always likely, instead of fanning the flames in Europe.
The workers who are employed by Amazon and the ones who use it deserve better. If peeing in bottles is ever going to be stopped we need a long-term strategy based on union activity. This vote was not that.
Nigel Flanagan is a union organiser in north-west England and was formerly employed as a senior organiser by the Uni global union federation.
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