On April 9, the United States National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced the results of the recent union organizing drive at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Much to the dismay of the North American labour movement and the left in general, the union lost the vote 1,798 to 738.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s (RWDSU) effort to unionize the approximately 5,800 warehouse workers at Amazon’s Bessemer facilities had received unprecedented media attention for a union campaign. Hopes ran high, perhaps too high.

There’s no denying that this is a devastating loss. Many people in labour and on the left had invested the campaign with undue optimism and promise, hoping that a victory in Alabama might be parlayed into future union breakthroughs at hard-to-organize employers throughout North America. Stacking so much on a single organizing drive rarely bodes well for the general health of the labour movement.

In the weeks to come we’re likely to see a spate of election post-mortems, retracing the intricacies and missteps of the campaign. Some may even suggest that there is victory in defeat — that the lessons learned and the bonds built during the union drive will strengthen future organizing.

There is some truth to this. But the conclusion that we need to squarely address is that it is extremely difficult to win private sector union campaigns, especially in a Deep South state like Alabama where right-to-work is literally enshrined in the state Constitution.

As I see it, there are two broad takeaways here. The first concerns the legal barriers unions face and the reforms needed to give future organizing campaigns a better chance at success; the second concerns the necessity of building supermajority union support among workers.

The Necessity of Labour Law Reform

The RWDSU will almost certainly file unfair labour practices suits against Amazon at the NLRB over the following weeks. In the best case scenario, the labour board will fine Amazon for its more egregious and provocative actions during the organizing drive. The union could even be entitled to a second vote if sufficient evidence is found that Amazon interfered with the electoral process.

There’s no doubt that Amazon pulled out all the stops to defeat the union. In this it was helped along by the entirely employer-biased system of labour law in the U.S. But while Amazon might have overstepped in some respects, most of its actions over the past several months were perfectly legal under the National Labor Relations Act (thanks in part to the business-friendly amendments introduced throughout the years).

The company held mandatory captive audience meetings to intimidate workers from voting to unionize, berated workers with a deluge of propaganda such as hanging anti-union pamphlets in bathroom stalls and even changed the timing of traffic lights to limit union organizers’ contact with workers outside the warehouse.

All of this is par for the course in any union organizing campaign. The difference is that in the U.S. employers have a lot more legal leeway and plenty of time to engage in this behaviour. As labour law professor David Doorey points out in Jacobin, if the Amazon union election had been held in Ontario, workers would have voted a week or so after applying to certify through the labour board. In Alabama, Amazon had more than four months to harass and intimidate workers out of joining a union.

This is why so much has been made of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, new labour law reform legislation which has passed the House and Representatives in the U.S., but almost certainly will not pass in the Senate while the filibuster remains intact. The PRO Act would render much of what Amazon just did in Alabama illegal, making US federal labour law look more like the rules in Ontario and other Canadian provinces.

Yet, one can’t help but notice that Amazon remains union-free in Canada as well. Mass COVID-19 outbreaks at its facilities in Brampton, Ont., may have generated media attention, but so far no unions have managed to organize at the tech behemoth in Canada either.

This points to the long-term need to deeply reform the laws governing access to unionization and collective bargaining in both countries. Private sector union density is the doldrums in the U.S. and to a lesser extent in Canada, and it’s difficult to imagine turning this around without reducing the legal hurdles to unionizing.

At a company like Amazon, this is all the more evident. Even if unionization is eventually successful at its warehouses, the various layers of subcontracting Amazon uses in its delivery system will make it next to impossible to organize drivers without labour law changes.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect this as a gift from enlightened elites. After all, then-U.S. President Barack Obama abandoned the mildly progressive Employee Free Choice Act in his first term when he had the Congressional votes to pass it, and the federal NDP offered very little in terms of new labour reforms for federal-regulated workers in the last Canadian election.

We need deep organizing on both sides of the border to win the types of legal reforms necessary to make lasting breakthroughs at vehemently anti-union corporations like Amazon.

Media Attention, Bad or Good, Is No Substitute For Deep Organizing

Throughout the campaign, Amazon battled negative media attention owing in part to the lengths it went to dissuade its workers from choosing collective bargaining. Some commentators even speculated weeks ago that Amazon was feeling the pressure and fearing the success of the union campaign.

The most damaging news item with which Amazon had to contend involved not its warehouse workers but its delivery drivers. The salacious, if macabre, controversy over pee-bottles and “she-wees” seemed to put the company in the hot seat like no other indiscretion.

After Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan called out the company on Twitter for posturing as a “‘progressive workplace’” while “union-busting” and making “workers urinate in water bottles,” Amazon began a bizarre string of combative denials. “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” it shot back at Pocan.

As Ken Klippenstein at The Intercept later revealed, internal Amazon documents and emails showed the company was well aware of the problem and in fact took disciplinary action against drivers urinating in public or leaving their ‘waste’ behind in delivery vehicles.

Motherboard then went on to create a collage of photos of pee-jugs, bottles and bags submitted by Amazon drivers outraged at the company’s public denial of a practice known to be widespread. This news cycle revealed further what many already knew: Amazon’s drive for profit puts inordinate physical stress on its delivery and warehouse workers.

However, we should never overestimate the impact of negative media attention or the influence of online discourse in general. Clever clapbacks on Twitter were no answer to the significant obstacles faced by workers and the RWDSU on the ground in Alabama. As Jane McAlevey argues in The Nation, the signs of defeat were there to see long before the votes were counted.

To take just one example, the union largely capitulated on the ‘dues’ question when it (inevitably) came up during the campaign. When Amazon launched its since removed “doitwithoutdues” website and engaged in the familiar tactic of scaring workers about the cost of union dues, the RWDSU spokespeople responded by pointing out that workers couldn’t be forced to pay dues in right-to-work Alabama.

RWDSU seemed reluctant to engage in the work of convincing workers of the importance of union dues, by for example pointing out that unionized workers gain far more in collective power and wage increases than they pay in dues.

Moreover, related to how much public attention was focused on the Bessemer campaign, there seemed to be a reliance on endorsements and public displays of support from politicians, celebrities and faith leaders from outside the region. Combined with a lack of home visits to workers because of the pandemic, the union was unable to build the kind of publicly visible supermajority of workers necessary for a victorious union drive.

Like others on the left and in the labour movement, my fingers were crossed for RWDSU and the workers in Alabama. Their victory would have been inspiring and a much-needed bit of good news at an otherwise pretty bleak time. But we can’t look away from what this failed effort reveals about the impediments of labour law (in the U.S. as well as Canada) and the need to engage in the long-term project of deep organizing among workers and fighting for institutional changes that would allow greater numbers of workers to actually form and join unions.

Ultimately, a committed labour movement is the only way to tackle the horrendous conditions experienced by workers in the warehousing and logistics sector, at Amazon and beyond. The “sweatshops on wheels” that Michael Belzer wrote about more than 20 years ago have only gotten worse. With Amazon’s ability to set industry standards, workers across warehousing and transportation face inhuman workloads and time pressures.

Until workers have greater collective and institutional strength, Amazon and other logistics firms will continue to put profit above as else.