On Union-Busting, Job Quality, and the Perils of U.S. Labour Law

The recent union election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama has proven to be one of those all-too-rare events that gets the broader public to tune into labour issues. In the aftermath of the defeat, there have been countless analyses and accounts of what happened, along with prognostications about what this portends for the future of labour unions in the U.S.

There are far too many great pieces to point out, but one I found particularly enlightening was reporter Luis Feliz Leon’s interview in Labor Notes with Joshua Brewer, the lead organizer for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), who headed up the Bessemer campaign.

In the aftermath of stinging defeats like the one at Amazon, it is common for union staffers and rank and file leaders to keep to themselves and react defensively to any criticism. By contrast, Brewer remains proud of the work he and the workers did, but is refreshingly open to what was often severe, biting criticism, and candid in discussing the tradeoffs and challenges the campaign faced. It’s too early to know for sure what’s next, but it sounds like the organizing will continue, which is a hopeful sign. Any possible future success will depend on learning from the mistakes made this time around.

For my part, I have used the occasion of the Amazon union election to write a few pieces for broader audiences on the challenges currently facing U.S. workers and their unions.

First, as the election count was getting underway on April 2, I published a piece in Jacobin entitled “Amazon Workers Shouldn’t Have To Work This Hard to Win a Union.” In it, I discuss how the Bessemer election has become national news, but argue that it shouldn’t be. Not because the election wasn’t important—it was—but because the basic act of workers exercising their federally guaranteed rights should not be so hard as to be newsworthy. Simply put, workers shouldn’t have to be heroes to exercise their basic rights.

Second, the morning after the election results were announced on April 9, I published a piece in the Globe and Mail entitled “Failed Efforts to Unionize Amazon Show Just How Broken U.S. Labour Law Is.” Here, I discuss the factors that made the election so important, and how U.S. labour laws gave Amazon huge advantages that they exploited in the election.

Third, later on the evening of April 10, I published another piece in Jacobin entitled “Amazon Can Only Claim That Their Jobs Are Decent Because American Work Has Gotten So Miserable.” In it, I address a key point that Amazon raised in the course of the unionization campaign: the fact that it was already a “progressive employer” that offered workers “good jobs,” with the idea that this made unions superfluous. While it’s possible to point out the many ways that this falls short of the truth (Amazon pays below-market wages for similar jobs, and tends to drive down wages when it enters labour markets), there is a grain of truth to the claim. After all, the company has had no trouble hiring hundreds of thousands of workers in the past year, and presumably at least some of the workers who voted against unionizing did so because they believed that their jobs were already good enough. But I argue that Amazon jobs only look good because other comparable jobs have gotten so bad—a direct consequence of the all-out assault that employers have waged on workers and their unions over the past several decades.

Fourth, on April 23, I published an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled “It’s All Too Easy For Employers To Interfere In Union Elections.” Here I take a broader view at the fundamentally undemocratic nature of union representation elections. As they currently exist, they have far less to do with allowing workers to exercise their federal rights, and more to do with giving employers opportunities to threaten, intimidate, and retaliate against workers who try to unionize. As I conclude, “Joining a union is a federal right, one that employers have no business infringing upon. As with any relationship between parties with competing interests, the way to handle those differences is to negotiate over them. So if employers have a problem with unions, the place to deal with it is at the bargaining table.”

While I certainly appreciate that the Amazon election has generated broader interest in the plight of workers and unions, I could use fewer of these types of occasions that are good for my research, but bad for the world.

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