The Trumpification of the Labor Movement | Opinion

Riddle: When is a labor union a lot like Donald Trump? Answer: When it loses an election.

Last November, Trump refused to accept the fact that he got trounced in a fair election, so he put forth the lie that the election was stolen from him by various nefarious entities (Dominion Voting Systems, the Deep State, Georgia's Republican Secretary of State... the list went on).

Last week, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union got trounced in an election at an Amazon warehouse facility in Bessemer, Alabama, which labor activists were hoping to unionize and Amazon wanted to keep union-free. There were 1,798 votes against unionizing, and just 738 for it. That's less than 30 percent.

Now, like Trump, the union is claiming that Amazon stole the election via various nefarious tactics. At the RWDSU website, the union's president Stuart Applebaum has this to say about the election: "Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees. We won't let Amazon's lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote."

Among the "illegal activities" Amazon is accused of are requiring employees to attend various lectures and "bombarding" them with signs and text messages. It's hardly the stuff of a vile criminal enterprise.

Like Trump, the union tends to infantilize those it seeks to represent, telling its members, in essence, we won the election but victory was stolen from us by the enemy. The overwhelming majority of the employees in Bessemer got the election result they wanted, but because it wasn't the result the union wanted, RWDSU is seeking to have the election overturned—which should give you an idea of just how much the union cares about the wants and desires of the average Amazon employee.

In fact, having been trounced, union activists now want to move away from elections altogether. After the loss at Bessemer, Jesse Case, a spokesperson for a Teamsters local in Iowa, told the New York Times, "We're focused on building a new type of labor movement where we don't rely on the election process to raise standards." The Times also quoted Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the City University of New York, who noted that in many recent unionization efforts, "There are almost never any elections. It's all about putting pressure on decision makers at the top."

Bessamer
Vote signage hangs outside the Amazon.com, Inc. fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama on March 26, 2021. - Senator Bernie Sanders joined the drive March 26, 2021, to unionize Amazon workers in Alabama. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

When Trump and his supporters insisted that the November election had been stolen from them, leftwing pundits sneered at their inability to accept the truth, dragging out the old canard that reality has a distinct leftwing bias. But the reality in Bessemer has a decidedly non-leftwing bias.

The election results there tell us that working-class people are not always eager to embrace labor unions.

The minimum wage in Alabama is $7.25 an hour. Amazon pays a minimum wage of more than twice that. I don't have a hard time understanding why an entry-level employee who is earning more than twice the legal minimum might be reluctant to insert a labor union between himself and his employer.

American workers, including Amazonians, have plenty of serious needs and concerns. It would be nice if they all had a fair-minded union to represent them. But I don't think it's going to happen if unions continue to behave the way that the RWDSU has behaved during the Bessemer effort.

Here are a few steps that I think unions ought to take if they want to be embraced by Amazonians (and others):

1) Quit making the workers out to be pathetic losers. Most of the Amazonians I know are tired of seeing themselves depicted in the progressive press as slaves on Jeff Bezos' plantation. A fair-minded depiction of Amazon warehouse workers would note that they are paid better than the entry-level employees at most companies.

2) Don't focus on the extremes (i.e., an Amazonian who fell dead at work) because most of us have no experience with that. If you want to help us, tone down the rhetoric and act as though you are willing to work with the company for the betterment of everyone. Most union messaging makes it sound as if the union is eager to go to war with Amazon. No employee I know of wants to be caught in the middle of such a war.

3) Listen to the voice of the worker and accept defeat when it comes your way. The Amazon workers in Bessamer didn't want what the union was selling. Why subject them to further importuning? If the wishes of the workers mean so little to you, why would any worker want to be represented by you?

3) Quit portraying yourselves as tiny Davids in a fight against corporate Goliaths. After the Bessemer votes had been tallied, the union's president, told the New York Times that the loss was the result of a "broken" election system that favors employers. It's a paradox that unions try to sell themselves to Amazonians by arguing that only they are strong enough to bring about the necessary changes to the workplace, but when they lose it is always because they are too small and too hampered by the rules to compete. If you don't have the ability to win over the workers, how will you ever win any concessions from management?

4) Don't model your behavior on Donald Trump's. Don't make baseless accusations against your opponent. Keep the rhetoric below the boiling point. We all saw what happened at the Capitol on January 6. No one wants to see anything like that happen at an Amazon facility.

Kevin Mims works at an Amazon warehouse.

The views in this article are the writer's own.