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The Amazon Union Defeat

A story of repression, off-duty cops, and a working class that stands alone


by Keith Prushankin

Protest of Amazon workers in Minnesota, 1998. Photo: Fibonacci Blue on flickr. Licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The vote for unionization in the Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center has been defeated by 1,798 to 738 votes. This number may look like a humiliating rejection of unionization by a loyal workforce, as Amazon is now claiming. But the story is, as you would expect, much deeper.

Intimidation and Repression


“Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees.” Said Stuart Appelbaum, leader of the ‘Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’ that led the drive for unionization. Though union votes are normally conducted on sight, union representatives have obtained emails between Amazon and the US Postal Service. In these Amazon requested that a mailbox be set up on its facility “for the convenience of [its] employees.” In an atmosphere in which every moment of an employee’s shift is under dystopian levels of surveillance, such a move can only be explained as a means of pressuring an already precarious workforce. Alabama is subject to the infamous “employment at will” laws. These are common in US states, and allow employers to fire employees at any time, for any reason. Amazon employees faced a variety of other intimidating pressure to vote ‘no,’ including signs in the toilets. These ominously, if not hypocritically, asked “where will your dues go?”

Even more disturbingly, the city and police department of Bessemer, Alabama colluded with Amazon to sway the vote. Madeleine Freeman and Luigi Morris of ‘Left Voice’ report that Amazon has hired off-duty police officers to prevent journalists from accessing the facility, and to intimidate workers. To quote their report: “Amazon even petitioned the city to shorten stop-light times at its entrance so that workers leaving their shifts could not talk to staffers standing at the entrance or be exposed to pro-union signage.” This behavior illustrates a phenomenon that is increasingly common in this globalized world of capitalism: mega-corporations use their astronomical financial resources to manipulate the machinery of the state for the insulation and expansion of their own power.

Amazon’s hysterical and ham-fisted attempts to repress its workers is a sign of the company’s fear and ultimate weakness in the face of organized labor. When the corporation goes scurrying to the police for help repressing a unionization drive, that is not a sign of despair, it is a sign that we are on the right track. Now is the time for all Amazon workers to push harder, to demand the right to unionize and to uncompromisingly and without any equivocation, fight for their rights as dignified human beings.

The Power of Unity

The repressive tactics of Amazon are only partially to blame for the failure of the Bessemer unionization vote. The responsibility for the failure also rests with the political culture in the United States, and the institutionalization it uses to supress the working people. The ‘every person is a billionaire in waiting’ culture, is built around the neo-liberal cult of the individual and demonization of the collective. This by design fosters fear and mistrust of worker’s movements, collective action, and of course unionization. Europe in general has a much higher percentage of unionized employees than the United States (66 percent in some countries versus 6 percent of US private sector workers). Why is this? The short answer is that the measures against left movements in the early days of the Cold War, effectively destroyed organized anti-capitalist, pro-worker political movements. Those measures ranged from arrest and surveillance to the rhetorical demonization and delegitimization. They drove the hitherto pro-working class Democratic Party to become the center-right corporate party that it is today. Amid an atmosphere in which submission to and attempted emulation of corporate moguls is the only accepted model, it is unsurprising that unionization efforts like Bessemer failed. We can only exercise our power if we believe that it is possible, and if we believe doing so is our right.

Therefore, it is only through coordinated action by a political party that the working class will ever be truly free of exploitation by the Bezos-ites of the world. A worker’s party in government will fight corporate power grabs and institute legal reforms that can keep working people safe - while guaranteeing their dignity in the face of abuses and manipulation of their legitimate rights under the democratic system. A new generation of US workers must overcome the fear and suspicion imbued in the previous generation of words like “socialist” and “worker’s party,” and stand in solidarity with one another. We have been effectively lulled to sleep by corporations and their media propagandists. It is high time we woke up and fought for our interests under the banner of a worker’s party.


Solidarity with the workers of Bessemer.

Solidarity with Amazon workers of the world.

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