A Devastating Defeat: How Bernie Sanders Screwed Up The Drive to Unionize Amazon Workers

Nicole Tian - 2020-01-21 23-46-19 - BernieSanders_VeniceBeachRally12.21.19_NicoleTianDSC_0800.JPG

The fat lady has sung. The vote to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama has failed, ending the most promising unionization effort the world’s richest company has ever faced. The vote was lopsided, too. The ‘No’ votes outnumbered ‘Yes’ votes by more than 2:1. At the time of this writing, the New York Times unofficial tally of the vote stood at 738 Yes votes to 1,798 Noes.

This is a devastating, humiliating, and demoralizing defeat for the union movement. After years of negative coverage in the press about Amazon’s treatment of its line workers trending on social media, after public Twitter spats between the company’s PR arm and prominent politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, after a visit to the warehouse by Bernie Sanders himself to rally support for unionization, the union vote didn’t just fail, but it wasn’t even close.

From this debasing defeat, there are some lessons to learn. While there will be much prognosticating, editorializing, and analyzing by groups and individuals from different points of view in the coming days, and the union may even challenge the results, one thing is clear: the American labor movement will not get out of the rut it’s in if it sticks its head in the sand and simply pretends that Amazon was just insurmountably bad.

Sure, Amazon ran a blunt and coordinated campaign against unionization, but the labor movement - and the Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) that was attempting to unionize Amazon workers in Bessemer, AL - must turn an introspective eye on itself as well. Here, I will offer just one of the things they need to be looking inward for: the consequential mistake of nationalizing the campaign and bringing in national figures who are despised in the region.

It should not have taken a degree in mad statistical analysis to understand that Bernie Sanders is not popular in Alabama. The Democratic primary in 2020 exposed that Sanders had utterly failed to make any inroads among Democratic voters in the South, a group, like workers at the Amazon warehouse at issue, dominated by Black southerners. After mocking those voters as being irrelevant for living in “the deep South” in 2016, Sanders’s vote share actually dropped in the south in 2020. In Alabama in particular, Sanders’ share of votes in the Democratic primary dropped to 16.5% in 2020 from the already embarrassing 19.2% in 2016.

Yet Sanders stuck his nose into the union fight early on, and the organizers welcomed Sanders to Alabama in the last days of voting to campaign in the hopes that he could deliver a final push that would get them over the top.

Now that the results are in, that strategy was at best incompetent and ineffective, and at worst, it backfired.

When he went there, Sanders did not focus on the lives of the workers he was there to encourage to vote to unionize. He did not spend time talking about the working conditions at that plant, the cost of raising families in Bessemer, or stories of workers at that plant who needed a voice. Instead, he talked about how the success of the unionization drive would really stick it to Jeff Bezos. For him, it never was about the workers there. It was always about his personal vendetta against billionaires, couched as the national “struggle against the greed of the corporate class.”

That should be the first lesson. Drives to unionize - and organizing in general - is not about sending a message to boogeyman enemies or sticking it to people you don’t like. It’s about improving the lives of people who need help. Making it look like an organizing drive is really about sending rich people a message undermines the core principle that it’s about helping working people live a more dignified life and share in the bounties their employers earn from their hard work. At the end of the day, people don't care if Jeff Bezos is worth a small country. They care if they can raise a small family.

Everything that trends on social media doesn’t always resonate with the lives of real people, and twitter wars don’t always imitate real life. Tying the campaign to themes that trend on Twitter but the campaign isn’t truly about hurt the unionization effort. People who work at the warehouse say they were unconvinced that the union could improve their working conditions, and that they were put off by the attempts to connect the union drive to national issues.
" “Amazon is the only job I know where they pay your health insurance from Day 1,” Ms. Stokes, 52, said. She added that she had been turned off by how organizers tried to cast the union drive as an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement because most of the workers are Black.

“This was not an African-American issue,’’ said Ms. Stokes, who is Black. “I feel you can work there comfortably without being harassed.” "
So no, it will not be enough to complain about Amazon running a campaign against unionizing. It will not be enough to blame mandatory meetings, or about signs in bathroom stalls. Not because those things don’t give employers an unfair advantage; they do. Not because those things do not need to be remedied by law; they do. But because focusing the attention of the labor and progressive movements on the ‘woe is me’ attitude after this massive defeat will not help win the next union battle.

What will help win the next union battle is a complete restructuring of union strategy. Worry less about trending on Twitter and more about connecting with the lives of the actual workers you are trying to organize. Learn about their lives, and let their issues - not your ‘message’ - lead. Be objective. Don’t embellish. Resist the temptation to nationalize the campaign for the sake of coverage. Avoid the temptation to blow up anecdotal stories - especially if those stories are not from the plant you’re organizing - into trends. Focus on selling to the worker what’s in it for them and how you can help their families and communities, not resentment against some big bad corporate bossman.

And, for the love of God, be skeptical of national politicians who are deeply unpopular in the region wanting to come in and “help.”

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