Why are unions so important and so hard to organize?

The defeat of the Bessemer Alabama Amazon organizing drive caught many progressives off guard. After all, there had been a ton of national hype by politicians including President Biden and by faith leaders such as William Barber. Polls show that 2/3 of Americans support unions. Bessemer has a storied history of Black-led labor organizing in the steel plants. Given the recent progressive upsurge by Black communities in the South, success against one of the most notoriously anti-labor companies in the country seemed assured.

But the Amazon drive failed. And failed spectacularly. Only 55% of eligible workers voted in the certification election, and of those who did, 70% opposed unionization.

Progressives need to come to terms with what happened at Bessemer for a simple reason: there can be no progressive future—for a society that values and supports everyone’s well-being–that does not eventually rest on the power of workers organized in labor unions.  As Marx explained over 170 years ago, the most widespread experience of oppression in capitalist societies is the exploitation of workers. The all-too common experience of struggling to make ends meet while working two or three dangerous jobs in a country where the top 1 percent gets 90 percent of the wealth cuts across race, gender, national and sexual differences, and provides a potentially powerful path for people to come together for social justice in the broadest way. The power of workers over capital is the surest way for people to compel the redistribution of wealth that is prerequisite for building a just society.

So, what happened at Bessemer? My colleague Jane McAlevey wrote an unflinching post-mortem in the April Nation. (LINK). She acknowledges that anti-union labor laws have tilted the field in favor of companies, and that Amazon abused even these favorable legal prerogatives during the union drive. But McAlevey argues that unions cannot wait for better legal conditions, or for companies to behave differently. Instead, she underscores the importance of long-term, intensive and face-to-face discussions to convince workers to get organized in hostile conditions, work that can only be done by workers known and respected in their workplace. And in Bessemer, she argues, the union did not do these things.

McAlevey’s perspective is not just a critique of what went wrong. She provides a positive vision of labor organizing, one that is based on empowering the workers themselves to organize their own workplaces with a clear-eyed understanding of the difficult challenges they face. Most importantly, McAlevey’s vision for organizing is rooted in the understanding that such a transformation of workers’ self-understanding and relationships to one another is a slow and arduous process, one that requires lots of personal conversations and repeated tests of workers’ capacity to fight.

McAlevey has provided a road map for community-building that goes beyond the labor movement. In her books and articles in the Nation magazine, she has shown us the same approach to organizing that was used by SNCC organizers in the 1960s and is used today by community-based organizations like Make the Road New York and Pennsylvania. These methods are rooted in a deep confidence in the people who are suffering oppression—be it in the workplace, or at the hands of police or la migra or white supremacist thugs or landlords or schools– a recognition that they and only they can be the agents of their own liberation. The job of the union organizer or political activist is mainly to identify community leaders and to support them to undertake the hard and long work of organizing.

McAlevey’s work provides a concrete and practical guide to this approach to community building. Aside from her on-gong organizing work and reporting on labor for the Nation, she has also written three books. You can view them here.

This understanding of organizing is essential for everyone who seeks to build the beloved community. Many progressives today are college-educated people who are either from privileged backgrounds or have left their communities to go to college and get a decent job. McAlevey’s work is a reminder that the actual agents of social justice are the people who live in oppressed communities.  As much as her work points to their roles as leaders of any meaningful labor or community organizing efforts, she also reminds privileged progressives to be humble, and to recognize the limits on what they can offer (as well as their real contributions) in the historic moment we now are living. Most importantly, McAlevey’s work is brutally honest about the difficult conditions we face but is also powerfully optimistic about oppessed peoples’ potential to create change.

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