If you’re on any kind of labor-related news or social media sites these days, you know that the RWDSU has a union election happening at an Amazon worksite in Bessemer, Alabama, covering about 5,800 workers. This is an historic election, not just for its size, but because it is led by Black women workers in the South.
Over the weekend, calls for a boycott of Amazon began to surface, and quickly spread across labor Twitter and Facebook, leading the union to put out a statement on Sunday saying that they did not call for, nor endorse, a boycott.
I understand completely why the union did this, and I don’t think a hastily-organized boycott is ever a good idea–but I think it’s also a missed opportunity to ask their supporters around the US to stand with workers in Bessemer, against the enormous pressure that is being put on them to vote “no” by their boss, who is one of the richest (and therefore most powerful) people on earth.
A disclaimer: as far as I know, I don’t know anyone personally working on the organizing campaign in Alabama, and I am not throwing shade on anyone in the RWDSU. This campaign is extremely exciting and I have every hope that they will win.
But historically, many unions have asked for very limited support from other unions, or from members of the general public in organizing drives, and I wonder if it’s time for us to start reimagining what a corporate campaign could look like, in the 21st century.
We just went through a year where people around the country spent their evenings and weekends texting total strangers to get them to vote–for president, for US senate, in state legislative races and Congressional ones. In the age of COVID, Americans have learned to have persuasive conversations with each other without being in person. If we had an organized support team in the labor movement, could we relieve the pressure from some organizers locally? Imagine a team of volunteers that Hustled every Alabama Democratic voter from the November election to come to the Black Lives Matter/BAmazon car caravan they’re having this weekend? Or generated phone calls from community members to the local government officials, in response to the news that they’d changed the stoplight timing to prevent the union from contacting workers?
To me, the speed at which the boycott call spread across the internet demonstrates that people understand the historic importance of this election–and want to do anything they can to help the union win, to fight the power of America’s #1 corporate behemoth. We are in a moment where inequality is more exposed than ever before to the general public. We need a way to get them in this fight with us. We don’t seem to have any trouble asking union supporters to support labor-endorsed candidates or legislation–see the calls to support the PRO Act that are currently spreading across those same labor social media sites.
Most unions are wary of enlisting the help of outsiders in organizing drives not least due to their very real fear of being accused of being outsiders. That’s completely understandable. But if we want to build a movement that is for the whole working class, we have to figure out ways for the whole working class to participate–even if they can’t be in Bessemer right now. If we are successful in passing the PRO Act, we could be having campaigns as large as the BAmazon drive occur faster than we can handle them with existing union staff, right now–who is thinking about how to decentralize and disaggregate some of the organizing work supporting this?
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this–if you haven’t yet joined the new HTU Slack instance, please jump in!