labor Inside the Alabama Amazon Union Drive: An Interview with the Lead Organizer
Labor Notes: Let’s begin with the workers. Tell me about some of the great interactions with workers and how that informed the decision to launch this campaign.
Joshua Brewer: The initial starting point is that there were workers who said that a large amount of their co-workers needed help, and that they were hurting and confused with Covid season, late last summer. That’s where a lot of our campaigns begin, is workers reaching out to the union. They were prepared to put in the work, and then they definitely didn’t let us down. They worked very hard.
What were some of the barriers to having more of those interactions?
Early on, and continuing throughout the campaign, we had in-person meetings almost daily, and sometimes multiple times a day, with a dozen or so workers and [poultry worker/organizer] Michael “Big Mike” Foster and myself in the union hall. The barrier was with just larger groups, throughout the pandemic. You can’t have 200 people in the union hall, like I have for a contract fight or for a traditional organizing campaign. With a campaign being run in the pandemic, it was about how often can we have meetings. There was a lot of micro-meeting, a lot of smaller-group meeting, trying to get those things done in a way that was safe and also attractive.
I’ve read some things that said that there wasn’t a lot of in-person meetings [on the campaign]. That’s actually incorrect. There was a ton of in-person meetings, there just wasn’t a lot of large in-person meetings, which certainly hurts any campaign, because so much of that excitement and that movement energy comes from that.
One follow-up question, on the point of movement energy. One of the things that, as you’re building up your capacity in a campaign, workers [do is] start doing job actions. I heard from individual workers [about] them taking actions during the captive-audience meetings, challenging the union-busters [individually] as they were presenting. But I’m curious what the thinking was around workplace struggles, as the campaign was heating up.
The campaign moved very fast, and in a pandemic, we had to evaluate everything on the fly.
I think there’s two types of campaigns. There’s a campaign where a union says, we think this is important for the sector to focus on, or for our union, and we’re going to launch a campaign at that worksite.
And then there’s campaigns where workers come to the union and say, “Hey, we need help. Our co-workers want to have a union campaign.” And those two campaigns are structured differently from the very beginning—it’s a different ask.
With this campaign, when they reached out and we launched, it did move very fast, and there was the ability to collect a ton of signatures pretty quickly. And with Amazon’s flooding the unit like they did, a lot of employees were hired in December—thousands of employees that were hired while we were already three to four months into this campaign, because Amazon wanted to expand the unit.
So, for us, there was a lot of work just getting this base knowledge, understanding the workers and getting them involved and getting them into the union hall and getting them into committees. There was not really the time, unfortunately, for some of that deeper organizing that we will continue to do now that we have a base of 1,100 workers. Now we’ll really get into a lot of those trainings. People will say, should you have pulled it and waited to file it? No, all those things were on the table, but when you have thousands of employees saying we want a union, this is their campaign.
You know, a lot of people also have a misunderstanding that this was a top-down campaign. You can ask the workers if you’d like to know who was running the campaign, right? And it was [Amazon workers] Darryl Richardson, Jennifer Bates, and the committee that made the decisions on a lot of things.
But workplace actions is something we’ll definitely look at, especially as we get these leaders that do stay around, that can begin to build these larger committees.
In one of our earlier conversations you told me, I’m going to paraphrase, if workers wanted a union, organizers will stand by them and get them a union. So I think you’ve partly answered the question but I’d ask you again, why did the union go ahead with an election, especially when you knew that Amazon flooded the bargaining unit? From my conversations with the [RWDSU Mid-South Council] president, Randy [Hadley], he said that you folks were prepared when Amazon basically showed up at the NLRB hearing and said, “This is not the correct unit size.” At that point, you already had more than 1,500 cards signed, right?
Correct. We knew it was expanding like crazy. Amazon was so guarded, in all of their releases and public filings, that the only thing you could find, publicly, was 1,500 workers. We also had to dig around just to find out who we serve the local petition to. They’re so closed off to the community in which they operate, that people didn’t know this information. They didn’t really know how to get a hold of them.
So we did know that it was well over 1,500 workers at that point—we had over that amount of cards. When they filed and they returned back with the 5,800, we still had over 50 percent. We were looking at a mail-ballot election, and the committee was telling us it was hot: “Workers want to vote, they want to push, they don’t want to wait.”
We give them guidance and certainly there’s times where we even tell them, “Listen, we think you’re wrong here,” but at the end of the day it’s a worker-led campaign.
And we were confident that we had a real shot to win. We knew the union-busting was going to be severe, but we wanted to do our absolute best to make sure that we had one-on-one, long-form conversations with every worker in the facility. That was the goal, to replicate house calls as best we could.
And I know that there’s things written about Biden and how they door-knocked on that campaign, but I would just say that we’re not a very large staff of hundreds of people, like a presidential campaign, or thousands of people. We also had to keep in mind the risk of having an infection inside of our organizing team, and if we had to quarantine everyone for multiple weeks, how devastating that would be. We had to keep our team healthy. We had to be smart about how we went around in October, November, and December, especially with Covid roaring in Bessemer. I’ll stand by the decision to keep the organizers out of packed cars together, driving around and knocking on people’s homes. Obviously outside of Covid, we would have loved to be able to do traditional door-knocking.
Our thing is, we took the fight on for the workers, and we fought it the best we could. Everybody involved inspired the country with their work, because people knew it was David versus Goliath. Amazon absolutely suppressed a solid 400 of our votes, but they’re frivolous challenges. They challenged everything from late March and beyond, simply because they knew that the union had incredible momentum in late March. Our committee says that the warehouse is disappointed, that a lot of people wish they could vote again. And ultimately they might get that chance.
And I’ll tell you, man. They showed up at the rally [on April 11, shortly after the loss] and they were fired up. We had some of the best participation that we’ve ever had. I think that tells you something. Like I told [workers] at the rally, we’ve got a small army of over 1,000 people that voted union yes on a mail-ballot election. We know there’s significant support to organize in that facility. It’s a large group, and I’m really proud of the work that happened to get that amount of people to take on the richest, most powerful man in the world. And I think drawing a 60/40 split—if you gave us our votes it’s closer to 60/40—I think it represented that there’s real promise here, that despite all the odds being stacked against these workers, they were able to put a fight on.
And we’re not going to give up on them. We’re 15 minutes down the road. I told them to act like they’ve got a union, operate like they want, and we’ll start planning their summer event, having families out, and start organizing, continuing to push the message, because ultimately we think they’ll get a union in Bessemer.
What would you say you learned from this campaign?
Man, we’re two days after. There’s going to be a lot of time to reflect and learn. This was a huge undertaking. We gave it our best shot. There’s going to be a ton of time to look at things that we could have done differently, and that’s another reason why I would argue that you take on this fight, because without that you don’t know the playbook and you don’t know exactly what Amazon plans to do. We have certainly far more clarity into how Amazon plans to stop unionizing attempts and organizing attempts.
The beauty of being a local union and being here in Bessemer is that we’re not leaving. We’re going to be able to hold Amazon to account for the things that they’ve done and continue to do. From here, having those workers be a part of this local union and fight will be hugely important.
But, you know, every article that’s been written very well could have a true point to it, and I look forward to reading them. I look forward to having real breakdown conversations with the organizers on our team, and then organizers that we trust and people that are actively in this fight that are also trying to organize mass amounts of people in one direction, and really look at what we learned here, and try to move forward with it. But we also saw a lot of things that worked really well, that we look forward to carrying into our next campaign.
What were some of those things that you think worked really well that that you want to carry forward?
I think the overall communication points, the ability to have communication on cell phones, through social media, through video, through Zoom meetings, a lot of the ways that we were able to overcome the challenge of Covid is also similar to having to overcome the challenges of the terrain that we fight in. And the way that we don’t generally have a lot of access to workers, and how do you begin to strike up these conversations, especially en masse. We tried everything—we tried peer-to-peer texting, we did social, we did all kinds of Zoom meetings. And even in-person satellite meetings, like one after the other every other hour—we learned how that could work, especially when you’re dealing with shift changes.
And we learned a lot of good lessons about how to organize shops with high turnover. This is a challenging thing; there’s a reason why Amazon has not been pushed to the brink yet. It’s because of the turnover. A lot of people don’t put enough credence to that. It’s very different than a lot of industries when you’re talking about 100 percent turnover.
You’ll always have some leaders that you can certainly form into committees and leaders inside of a facility. But having longer conversations consistently with the entire workforce is a very challenging task, simply because you’re going to lose a large portion of the workforce every week with the difficulty of work, and the amount of people that quit every week. All of those things bring lessons for us, and things that worked; the mail-out [unclear if reference is to a mailing the union sent out or the mail-ballot process] seems very successful, just a lot of different ways that we were able to engage workers. We think that you mix that in with the more traditional organizing strategies.
In a post-Covid world, which it looks like we’re prayerfully headed into, we feel confident about what the future holds. We won the campaign in Russellville [In 2012, RWDSU won a union election in Russellville, Alabama, to represent 1,200 workers at Pilgrim’s Pride, the U.S. poultry division of Brazilian beef and poultry giant JBS, the largest chicken producer in the U.S.], which was about 1,500 workers. This is 1,100 or 1,000 workers that voted union yes in all. We don’t feel like we were that far off. We think the numbers are a little inflated because of Amazon’s challenges, and so we’re very positive in our camp—about the work that was done, the lessons that we learned—and very inspired. We’re feeling good down here.
I want to return to a point that you made. Some people will say that this loss will make organizing at Amazon more difficult. Amazon was able to refine its anti-union effort; they can now point to the loss in Alabama and say workers voted against the union, and use that elsewhere. What do you say to them?
I think even after running probably the most expensive, extensive, and sophisticated anti-union campaign ever run, that over 1,000 workers still said, despite that, we’re going to put it on the line—despite the fact that you threaten my job, despite the fact that you made it feel like we’ll have to go on strike to get any kind of gains, and despite the fact that you ridiculed me for two months straight for this being my personal decision, I’m still going to stand up to the person that signs my check on Friday—I think that tells [you] something, especially in the hardest of climates.
To me, when you look at the overall results—and, again, we read the results as about 1,900 to 1,100, when you factor in the challenges. About 100 of them were ours; we felt like there was some management-level workers that voted, so you give them their 100 [or] 150 and give us our 300 that they took. I think it ends up 1,900 to 1,100 or so. When we look at that, if we flipped 450 voters, brother, we beat Amazon. So we don’t feel like this was a thrashing.
When you look at mail-in voting numbers, it was a very large turnout. We’re very proud of the fact that over 1,000 workers voted yes. That’s a small army. I would say that if you are discouraged from the union campaign that pushed the largest entity in the world to the brink and got pretty damn close and really put up a hell of a fight, then I think you’re looking at the wrong things. Us on the ground, we’re incredibly inspired to move forward, and incredibly inspired to fight.
I would just tell people to make sure that they talk to organizers on the ground. I think reaching out to the people that were in the campaign to ask their opinions and assessments of the campaign is probably important before you write up a debrief of that campaign, especially when you’re very far away from that campaign. I appreciate the work you did, that a lot of the labor writers did, coming down just to be a part of it. [Luis Feliz Leon visited Bessemer twice during the campaign. -Eds]
I think a lot of people were a little surprised by the results. And I think a lot of that was because when you came, when people came down in March, they saw a new campaign that had had a little bit of time to get its feet underneath it and get its legs underneath it and was really beginning to explode with committees, and workers taking very bold stands.
We just didn’t get there fast enough—and we fought like hell to get it there fast enough. But at the end of the day there was too much early vote, too much pressure from Amazon and coercion to get those ballots out before that their workers could figure out any better or any differently. Ultimately that’s what cost the campaign.
I think workers felt like Amazon made them feel small. They couldn’t “outsider” our union. They couldn’t say that this is outside agitation, this big international from wherever—they couldn’t do that, because we were in Birmingham. So what Amazon did instead was try to make us look very small, like we were incapable of moving them, and all of their workers’ efforts were going to be in vain.
And so as counter to that, we began reaching out to larger groups and larger solidarity networks so that we could show these workers that, you know what? Amazon was big, Amazon has a ton of money and a ton of power over their life, but you know what else is big? NFL Players Association, and the movie writers, and your local church, and Black Lives Matter and the social justice movement, and all of these things that support your right to organize. And that for workers was instrumental, because they realize, “Man, we’re not alone in this fight. We’ve got the country with us. We’ve got the government with us. We’ve got people that will fight alongside of us.” And so, no, it was not weak or empty endorsements by celebrities—excuse me, it was a fucking movement, all right? And it was real.
And the L.A. Fed [Los Angeles County Federation of Labor] protest outside Morgan Lewis’s offices [union and community members rallied on March 22 at the L.A. headquarters of the union-busting firm that Amazon was using in Bessemer], that’s part of the movement. And that was real. And when workers saw that, workers got inspired. It wasn’t a national celebrity endorsement campaign, it was everybody from the local teachers association to the local coal miners to the local churches to local Black Lives Matter, all the way up to left organizations, politically, locally, nationally, and then it was Democrats, Young Democrats, it was freaking Republicans that tried to get their hat in there, to get their piece of it. It was a national recognition that we need to do better.
It ultimately happened a little after a lot of the early votes turned in, and that’s unfortunate. We’ll look at how we could have made it happen faster next time, and we’ll look at ways that we could have done some deeper organizing next time, and we’ll look at should we have held onto the petition. But none of that takes away from the work, and none of that takes away from over 1,000 brave bodies that took on this guy. So we don’t feel any regret about running the campaign.
One of these days, I’m going to get my voice back and I’m going to get some rest. And we’re going to get ready for the next one. Maybe that’s Bessemer, maybe it’s Georgia, or Tennessee, or Northeast, who knows, right? We’ll take an assessment of all that and we’ll keep moving.
We didn’t start organizing at Amazon. We’ve been organizing and winning, long before here, and we’re going to continue to fight. And I’ll tell you, brother, if you’d have been at that rally, man. It was powerful. The workers came up out from the union hall into the parking lot chanting, “When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” There was dozens and dozens and dozens of committee people that floated out of that union hall, and they were hyped. And so I would just say, like, Bezos had better not get too cocky, because them folks are pretty fired up.
You ask our committee if we should have taken this fight up. Ask the people that just came up the stairs Sunday night saying they’re not done, they’re ready to fight. That’s who we deal with. We’ve got to deal with those souls, we’ve got to deal with the tears on the shoulder when we lost the campaign. We’ve got to deal with the lives that are impacted, and the people that now have to wonder what’s next, but also are saying “No, we want to fight.” And we also know that we can win this thing. We’ll be accountable to those 1,000-plus people.
Are you afraid of any of the more visible worker leaders in the campaign being retaliated against? What’s the plan to keep organizing with them, moving forward?
I would just say that any retaliation from Amazon will be met with the same amount of intense publicity and fight that the campaign took on, and that’s just how we do our business.
We have a nucleus of likely 1,500 or so people at a minimum, that want a union. And we need to get them to the union hall. We need to get them vaccinated, and we need to get them meeting and rallying and pushing. And so that Amazon understands that you come after one, you’re coming after 1,500 or so people, and we’ve got to mobilize those 1,500 workers. We’ve got to get them talking to other workers, and it’s like church: bring a friend. If everybody brings a friend we smoke ’em. We don’t feel like we’re that far off. We feel like we got a heck of a start, and we’re proud of it, and we’re proud of the workers that are willing to continue that fight. I’ll tell you, we haven’t lost a single committee person that I’m aware of, not one. I haven’t spoken to one person that said I’m ready to walk away.
Can you tell me a little bit about the organizing committee? How you’re going to build on what you’ve already built?
By organizing, by continuing to build, continuing to train. Ultimately there’s no better training than going through it, so workers who just went through the union busting are experts on union busting at this point, right?
You’ve got to get them together, you’ve got to get ’em mobilized—whether that includes workplace actions, or just simply meeting this spring and having an outdoor event, if Covid is still pushing us out of meeting spaces. We’re going to get the organizing team together and we’re going to figure out what’s the best opportunities are to move forward. What’s the court case looking like, what does the timeframe look like. And decide, are we getting ready for a second vote, or are we getting ready for a season of deeper organizing with the committee, really training?
Workers are still there. And so, you know, [we’re going to do] the organizing that we always do, which is a mix of just getting everybody together to eat pizza, getting everybody together to watch a ballgame, getting everybody together to take on a protest, getting everybody together to take training. Or simply mapping and getting ready for the second round.
I’m curious what the inoculation plan was. Amazon definitely was spooked by this campaign, but to a large extent it also followed the usual union-busting playbook.
The committee was well trained on what to expect. But how do you train up 1,500 workers, with this massive turnover, 100 workers a week? Think about the challenges that that poses, when Amazon is able to manipulate the hiring numbers to such extremes that they can bring in 3,000 workers in a month but they can also fire 1,000 workers a month. In a Covid world you don’t have workers going to people’s houses, you don’t have committee people going to work parties with their friends after work. You don’t have workers hanging out in break rooms, places that you can normally have these larger discussions. The way we attempted to do it was to inoculate digitally, in addition to doing it in our committee, and micro-meetings where we had 10 to 15 workers every hour coming in to meet with committee people and be inoculated about the boss’s tricks and how they’re going to say things, how they try to third-party the union, and how they’re going to make you feel like everything’s on the line.
The problem was the scale of it. How do you get people to engage in these trainings, when they’re coming and going so fast? And the access to worker information [the list of eligible voters] doesn’t come until late January, so it didn’t leave us with a lot of time. After much debrief we may come to some agreement that we could have held [the petition] for two to four weeks, or six weeks or something—because we feel like the workers did finally get that true understanding of what they were doing and what the company was lying to them about, but it came a little too late.
I think what it’s going to take is a whole lot of 1,100-worker campaigns, a whole lot of pushing Amazon to spend these resources and expose themselves for who they are, and pushing them to crack the public consciousness of what it means like to be a warehouse worker or a factory worker in today’s economy, because a lot of people forget. You ask politicians—they no longer are with these people, so they struggle to understand them. To get the stories out is very important.
We intentionally kept media away, because we knew what would happen when media got involved—and it’s no fault to the media—we knew it would be a very explosive campaign. We didn’t pick it; it picked us, and we were okay with that. But we thought, very early on, and we definitely still believe that it was the right decision, to keep the media out for as long as possible. It’s funny, there’s a critique that we used media. But then there was a critique that we waited, that we didn’t start earlier. And I’m not really sure how we could have done both. We either exploded it into the national scene, or we didn’t, but there was no in the middle. Once we took the top off, it did exactly as we expected: it exploded, and we didn’t control that. I’m trying to have a meeting with my committee, and I walk out and there’s dozens of foreign press from all over the world in my hallway waiting for the comments. None of us asked for that.
I can attest to that, Josh, I can attest to that. (laughs)
Exactly. Whether intended or unintended, that was just one of those parts of having a campaign with Amazon. And I think if you talk to the workers that voted yes, I’ve never found a worker that didn’t feel incredibly empowered by the whole country coming behind them. And I’ll tell you, seeing the responses from workers getting Danny Glover down there to support them. You’ll never convince me that those weren’t great decisions, and that we’re not super grateful for those people showing solidarity.
The socialist organizations canvassing in the park to get the ball games and football games, the local organizations, the ice cream trucks putting our signs on their stuff, the local churches getting involved, the work of Black Lives Matter Birmingham, as well as Greater Birmingham Ministries, SWEET Alabama, Democratic Socialists of America, all of these groups that took on this fight with us—I think it all mattered. It all pushed the needle, as they say. At the end of the day I wish we could have cranked it up a little faster, and that means got the President a little faster, got to the whole package a little faster. But it’s not easy. We did the best we could. My voice being gone—it’s been gone for months, you know that, you can hear it. I don’t know what else we can do. But we know there’s definitely things that we’ll do differently next time, and that’s part of every single campaign I’ve ever been a part of.
What would you say was the relationship between your region and the international throughout the campaign, and how did it evolve?
It was great. You’ve got a council [the Mid-South Council of RWDSU] that’s approached and begins a campaign. And that’s October, and it’s like, “Oh my god, this is not just a lot of angry employees—this is a very real campaign now, this isn’t a gather cards and get information later campaign. There’s thousands of people that want to organize a union in this moment.” From that point on, as soon as we identified that, the International jumped in, our organizers at the union jumped in. And then, as that continued to grow, we reached out to the AFL-CIO and we reached out to the United Food and Commercial Workers [RWDSU’s parent union], and everybody began pitching in. The solidarity was great, the local help was great. It all builds to something.
I just think when you’re talking about a campaign of 5,800 workers, four to five months was not quite enough time. We just needed a little more time. I really do think there’s [a] deeper debrief to be had, where we’ll pull a lot of lessons out of this. I think this campaign is winnable if voting starts March 1. I really believe that, with all my heart, and I believe it actually was winnable up until it wasn’t. If there wasn’t as huge early turnout in early February, before we can really get the messaging out, once we had contact information, then we could win.
Unfortunately, as soon as the ballots started coming in, we saw a very, very, very, very large percentage of early ballots, all within two days, which we know what those were [a reference to the mailbox that Amazon installed outside the warehouse]. And whether the Board deems that illegal enough to re-run an election—we believe they will, but we’ll see. There were nearly 1,000 ballots turned in in the first week of voting, and we knew we lost that vote pretty heavily. But we also knew, as did Amazon, that we smoked them in March, and that’s why Amazon challenged 500 ballots that were all March ballots—because they knew.
When you see “Blowout in Bessemer,” [the title of a critical article by Jane McAlevey in The Nation] when you look at what we saw through our charts and our organizing blocks that we have half, if not more than that, of the warehouse in this moment supporting the union, and that with challenges, this was about a 60/40 vote, and we have a very strong committee—you know, naturally there is going to be a little bit of offense to an article that was written without calling us and without any intimate knowledge of the campaign. I think that that’s understandably frustrating, and I think it’s been documented that [RWDSU President] Stuart [Appelbaum] was frustrated—and I understand that, as organizers, we spend a little less time in that realm, listening to academics. I’ll read it again, because there’s certain things she’s correct on, and I also understand she mentioned that union-busting is disgusting and that workers all over the country would organize if it wasn’t for these slimy labor laws. But she also made a lot of assumptions—and I felt like if those assumptions were going to be made, having taken the time to speak to anyone on the ground, or even workers, is important.
But we appreciate everyone that talks about it, because I firmly believe you’ve got to crack the social consciousness of America. You’ve got to get these conversations into the fabric of the discussion. And I think that we’ve done a lot to do that. I think we’ve taught 5,800 workers at Amazon Bessemer what a union is. We taught them about union-busting, you know that much. They know that their employer forever doesn’t want them to organize, so they also understand there must be something to it.
I think the biggest thing that went wrong, ultimately, is that there wasn’t enough time to have committee people prepare the masses for the union-busting campaign. I think Amazon making workers feel like all of their pay and benefits would be given up and started fresh if they went union, and the potential of plant closure, as in most campaigns—that’s what swung it. Workers have got bad working conditions and they want more money, but they also don’t want to lose the job. That’s why we’re supposed to have laws that make it where they don’t have to feel like that’s the decision they’re making, but we all know that Amazon’s goal is to make them feel like that’s the decision they’re making. That’s always going to be tough to overcome.
I am not prepared to worry too much about legislation, because my job now is to organize workers on the ground. We’d love to have legislation that would help us, but we’re not concerned about that right now. Our concern is how do we get these 1,500 workers or so, how do we make that 4,000. That’s the goal. We’ve doubled a group many times before, and we’ve just got to start down the journey of doing that.
In our previous conversations you’ve mentioned labor history. As a student of labor history I have to ask you, who will form the equivalent of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in the 1930s for Amazon in 2021, and did Bessemer move us closer to or further from that?
I think we moved us much closer. If you can, watch the speech that Jennifer Bates gave at that rally that Sunday. If you listen to what she said in that speech, and how powerful that woman was in speaking—I would do it all over again, just to set a leader on fire like Jennifer Bates. The only way this campaign is a negative thing is if the left and labor make it a negative thing. Any time that you can move and inspire thousands of people to action, and they can feel the energy of a rally, and understand why is Black Lives Matter involved in a labor campaign; getting the president to give organizers a video that will likely be used tens of thousands of times in all sorts of organizing campaigns; to begin conversations about how we move large masses of people in a way that’s a little different than before—all that stuff matters.
If you talk to the workers on the ground, there’s nobody that’s defeated. There’s people that are upset. But there’s people that also go, “Holy crap, despite all of that we still got over 1,000 people to fight with us!” Let’s go. Let’s get these 1,000 people to move—because I’m not sure that there’s any organizations throughout the country that have 1,000 Amazon employees at any location, ready to mobilize and fight the boss.
And so if you ask me, do we run it again? Hell yeah, we run it again, for a million reasons. That’s coming from the workers, the organizers, and from our union. We would do this over and over again. We will certainly look at it and grow and adapt, just like we grew and adapted when we finally beat Pilgrim’s [Pride] after our union took a couple shots, and there were other unions that had tried to organize it before. Most every great labor struggle, especially a large bargaining unit, took a few shots. They took deeper organizing, a little longer time. And that’s what we’re going to do here.
On that point, are there any other warehouses, especially in the mid-South region, that you are organizing? When I was down there, people were coming up to organizers and telling them they were interested in organizing. Are you going to follow up on any of those inquiries?
Of course. Does a bear shit in the woods? We’re organizers.
Give me some details, though!
Prayerfully, the daily union election Twitter will be tweeting about something in a few months. In seriousness, you’re correct. There are massive amounts of organizing opportunities, and I think every union is experiencing that. I think that’s where the question “Do you run this campaign?” is ridiculous—because it has already spawned so much interest in organizing that we’ve got to form a group to just download it all, print it all off, and get them appointed to organizers on the ground. We’re looking at them geographically—we’ve got campaigns and people reached out all over the world.
All of that is absolutely on the table. We’ve got to organize to win. Our council went from 5,000 members six years ago to 10,000 members today. We’re going to organize like crazy. There’s plenty of bigger warehouses in these areas that have reached out. Most of the time we’ll go where we’re called.
I’m getting to the last of my questions for you. I guess this is the moment to get to the postmortem.
JOSHUA: Hold on one second, I’m sorry. [Speaking to someone else:] Yes, ma’am?
WOMAN: It would not take my card so I went in (inaudible) and there’s no gas.
JOSHUA: Oh! Well thank you, I appreciate it. [Back to the phone:] Oh that’s that southern hospitality. I’m parked at a gas pump and this lady just came up to my window and said, he has no gas. But I didn’t really need gas, I’m just parked, I didn’t want to be driving. (Laughs) What was the question again?
There have been a couple of postmortem pieces, not just Jane McAlevey’s piece. I want to give you an opportunity to respond. What did you agree with, what do you disagree with, with any of the postmortem pieces—and sorry for using the word?
I think that alone is a slightly offensive term. But I would say some of her points had some merit. We were using worker-organizers [union members who are not professional union staff –Eds.], so when you talk about using verbiage that third-parties the union, there was a little bit of that. But I also don’t want that to get in the head of these worker-organizers that are fighting their head off to inspire and get workers moving. Those are conversations and training that’ll happen as we go, right? A lot of this was new for a lot of people. I heard us being third-partied by our own folks a few times and I cringed a little bit, but it’s not always going to be perfect. So that’s one point that stands out to me that I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with.
But I think anyone, whether it’s the left or academic or just regular media reporting on this campaign, or any future campaign—if you’re going to write a detailed account of what went wrong or right, it’s very important to, at a minimum, reach out to the people on the ground of the campaign that you’re writing about from very far away. At least use workers’ attitudes and opinions, or organizers’ attitudes and opinions. Do not cherry-pick quotes from other people’s articles to make a take on a campaign that you’re not very involved with. That would be my overall response to it.
Now there’s other people that were involved, and then did come down, that do also have takes. I have a lot more respect for their work. I don’t mind what you write. That’s your opinion, it’s a free country and freedom of the press, I respect it. I’m not going to Donald Trump it, you know what I mean? I’m not going to get all mad and obsessed. If people write negative things about my campaign, people have the right to do that.
I just think, when you say things like “union said,” talk to the union. But I also absolutely appreciate all opinions and all debriefs on the campaign, even if I don’t agree with them. Because maybe they’ll raise something that I didn’t see. This is my fifth year organizing—I’m far from a woolly old vet. I’m definitely humble enough to realize we lost. So of course I’m excited to see what we could have done better, and to see what you’ve got when you get your head out of it, get some rest, let your emotions calm down and get your voice back. I look forward to doing that. But that’s hard to do in the morning after the campaign. I was just incredibly inspired by Sunday.
Tell me a little bit more about what’s next for the campaign.
We continue. We organize. We’ve got a team that’s going to be down following some leads today, and they’re already there, while we head off to court for a little bit with the Amazon campaign. We’ve got a team that’s going to continue every day to talk with the committee and focus on the future with this Bessemer campaign and keeping workers engaged. We’ve got workers that support us continuing to call and set up meetings.
Like I said, and I’ll continue to say it, if enough workers want to have a union, we’ll get it. We’ve done that on the second and third try before. I’m going to take a week off and then get back at it.
You want to share a little bit about the Russellville contract campaign?
Sure. We continue to push a lot of these factories and warehouses to wages that far exceed Amazon’s $15 an hour. I’m proud to say that a company in which we organized and won an election of 1,500 workers some years back, their wages, increased from around $9 an hour to be well over, $15 or $16 an hour. We’re proud of those people in Russellville that took them in and have taken this fight on for the last six, seven years, and organized a hell of a strong union. We’re bargaining this week and we’ll get them a good contract and get them to where, in a rural town, a smaller manufacturing facility or production facility than Amazon, obviously, will be providing higher wages with better benefits.
We believe in what we do. I’ve got a lot of calls from my shop stewards and people that I represent, to say, “Sorry about the vote man, but we’ll get it next time,” because they understand. That’s the spirit around here.
Since 1979, Labor Notes has been the voice of union activists who want to put the movement back in the labor movement.