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Jane McAlevey: Union Wizard

Published by marco on

The podcast Behind the News, 4/15/21 by Doug Henwood (Apple Podcasts) includes two interviews. The first half is an interview with Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht about Sanders’s legacy (which was OK), but the interview with Jane McAlevey about “why the union lost to Amazon in Bessemer” was absolutely top-notch.

McAlevey discusses in no uncertain terms how obvious it was that the union was going to lose the vote against Amazon in Bessemer:

  • They didn’t have the votes; they either knew it or they were even more incompetent than they already appeared
  • They had only 34% before the campaign started. “Membership doesn’t go up after that; it always goes down”
  • They didn’t know how to run a campaign
  • They didn’t prepare their potential members for the game plan that Amazon inevitably ran (employers almost always use the same tactics when they’re fighting a unionization drive)
  • The organizers pulled in endorsements from Hollywood, rather than local clergy, which had the opposite effect
  • Instead of telling potential members, “Why do you think Amazon is suddenly so interested in how you spend your money?”, they played up that Alabama is a “right to work” state and that members wouldn’t even necessarily have to pay dues.

That last one was ridiculous. The union deliberately torpedoed their own dues using the arguments of their enemy.

McAlevey summed up by saying that she “knew it was going to fail since the initial vote count was too long in December”. Nothing that ensued—their missteps on focusing on digital rather than physical engagement, their focus on union staff and celebrities rather than workers and community—convinced her that the organizers were going miraculously turn it around.

From the interview, I dug up the article she’d mentioned, in which she summed up the election, Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign by Jane McAlevey (The Nation), making many of the same points she made in the podcast,

“Three factors weigh heavily in any unionization election: the outrageously vicious behavior of employers—some of it illegal, most fully legal—including harassing and intimidating workers, and telling bold lies (which, outside of countries with openly repressive governments, is unique to the United States); the strategies and tactics used in the campaign by the organizers; and the broader social-political context in which the union election is being held.”
“The organizers can then help the worker understand that paying dues is essential to build the power required to take on monstrous employers like Amazon.”
“The last thing nervous workers want is to be seen near the place they work, talking with union supporters. Successful campaigns require house calls—unannounced physical visits to workers’ homes so the conversation can be had away from the company’s watchful eye.”
“A majority public structure test is when a majority of workers who are eligible to vote in an upcoming union election, or who are voting to strike, sign a petition or take photos and produce a public poster, flyer, or website that displays their signature or faces, with a message stating their intent to vote yes. When asked why that wasn’t done in Bessemer, the union’s communications director told me it had to “protect the workforce” from being fired, so it didn’t want to do anything in public. Game over.”
“When fear is running hard inside a facility—which it certainly was in the Amazon election—the only way to overcome it is by asking each pro-union worker to step out and declare themselves pro-union publicly. What “protects the workers” is when a majority of them take this action together, all at once. You are teaching collective power in the conversations and actions.”
“When there are more outside supporters and staff being quoted and featured in a campaign than there are workers from the facility, that’s a clear sign that defeat is looming.”
“The media, especially the genre of media called the labor media, should have never overhyped this campaign—or the Volkswagen campaign, or the Nissan campaign. In all three cases, the impending defeat was evident everywhere. When media folks prioritize clicks and followers over reality, it doesn’t help workers, and probably hurts them.

If you’re interested in more of Jane McAlevey’s writing, she’s published an excerpt from her book No Shortcuts called Smithfield Foods:
A Huge Success You’ve Hardly Heard About
. This documents a hard-fought and ultimately wildly successful campaign to unionize a food-processing plant in North Carolina, a state that had 3% union participation in its labor force at the time. They got a tremendous package for their workers—and did nearly everything differently from the union in Bessemer.