Many of the important events in leftist history are crushing defeats. The Pullman strike of 1894 ended with the dissolution of the American Railway Union. The conclusion of the Homestead strike was similarly depressing. Ronald Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers’ union. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death and so were the Haymarket martyrs. Fred Hampton was killed and the Black Panthers were infiltrated and destroyed. The wave of revolutionary sentiment during the 1960s collapsed. The Iraq war protesters failed to stop a bloodbath. The 2011 Wisconsin protests in defense of public sector workers did not halt the effort to destroy their unions.
Of course, we also have inspiring victories. The Flint sit-down strike of 1936 to ’37 unionized the auto industry. Martin Luther King was killed while supporting striking Black sanitation workers, but those workers did win their fight. Socialists in the U.K. built a great national healthcare system that endures to this day. Kickstarter successfully unionized and many media workers have done the same. Often it seems like it’s one step forward, two steps back: the antiwar movement succeeded in forcing Lyndon Johnson into retirement, but then the country got Richard Nixon. Bernie Sanders nearly won the Democratic nomination in 2016, but then we got Donald Trump.
A unionization fight has been going on at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and Amazon looks to have prevailed. The Bessemer union campaign has been inspiring in recent weeks—in a bleak environment for the labor movement, workers were taking on one of the most powerful and aggressively anti-union companies in the United States, and trying to fight back against the exploitative practices of the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos. Many people had gotten their hopes up, especially because support for the union had come from some unexpected places—even Marco Rubio suggested he was on the side of the workers. The failure of the campaign is deeply depressing, then, and of course Amazon will gloat and insist that we now have clear proof that Amazon workers are happy and love their jobs just the way they are, pee bottles and all. Bezos will have a big smirk on his face and it will be unbearable. Plenty of people who are not directly impacted by this union vote will feel defeated and frustrated.
But when you’re on the left, it’s important to get used to not winning, because it’s going to be the default state of things. This is for a very obvious reason: the powerful are powerful, and the powerless are powerless. The richest man in the world is a difficult person to beat. We will probably try and fail many times before we succeed.
In case you’re tempted to think of losing a union vote the way Amazon would like you to think of it—as the “genuine” expression of the “will” of the workforce—remember what the actual situation here is. The average fulfillment center worker probably hasn’t heard much about unions, and let’s assume they begin undecided. Amazon then deluges them with propaganda, saying that union dues will eat up their paycheck (false, union workers actually earn more money) and the union will “get in the way” of relations between them and management (in fact, having a union is like having a burly best friend who can take on bullies for you). Working in an Amazon warehouse means doing exhausting nonstop labor with barely enough time to go to the bathroom. When they do go to the bathroom, there will be signs in it telling them lies about unions. Amazon quickly punishes or fires any of their fellow workers if they try to talk about unionizing—the company is even willing to falsely accuse union organizers of harassment. Amazon does this even though it’s against the law, because they have one objective: to stop a union from forming, by whatever means necessary.
Union organizers in this kind of circumstance face an almost impossible task. When are they supposed to talk to workers to counter the company’s propaganda? How can they recruit people who fear being fired if they’re known as pro-union? The reason not many workers are in unions today is not that being in a union is bad for workers but that employers are incredibly powerful and have honed the means of thwarting campaigns. They hire “union avoidance” law firms who specialize in helping them make sure any vote goes their way.
It’s going to take changes in the law to make this easier, which is why so many who are pro-labor are aggressively pushing Democrats to pass the “PRO Act,” which would penalize companies that violate workers’ organizing rights and make it more difficult for them to spread anti-union propaganda. It is unsurprising that the National Retail Federation thinks it is “the worst bill in Congress” and Republican officials are desperately rallying to oppose it. If it becomes law, the playing field won’t be leveled, exactly, but it will be a little less tilted toward employers. It will be a small victory, which will have to be followed by a lot of hard work to try to build union power.
Small victories are the kind we most often get. Some on the left decry “incrementalism,” but sadly, progress tends to be slow and come in dribs and drabs and sometimes you just get completely screwed and have to figure out what to do next. It is important to see left successes and failures in the context of a long historic struggle. That struggle is more urgent than ever now, thanks to climate change and nuclear weaponry, but it will not be over soon even if we achieve zero emissions and permanent global peace. Both times Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, I was devastated, but then I reminded myself how incredibly significant it was that a democratic socialist had even come close to winning the nomination. Now we are seeing that the left has actually succeeded in changing the national political agenda for the better—the Wall Street Journal observes that Joe Biden appears to be rejecting some of the conservative economic tendencies of the Obama administration and that economic austerity has fallen out of fashion. This is in part because leftists have done a good job making their arguments and organizing people. It’s a small victory, but we shouldn’t discount it, because even small victories are the result of tireless labor by activists. Heck, the whole reason Amazon pays a $15 an hour starting wage—which it cited as a reason workers didn’t need a union—is that they were pressured by the enormously successful nationwide Fight For 15 movement. The company raised the wage “to quiet critics.” Well, as the critics, we need to make sure we’re not quieted, that we redouble our efforts and get even noisier. After the Bessemer loss, we cannot get despondent. We need to remember that labor activists for centuries have persevered in spite of more aggressive and violent repression than we see today.
It’s not always easy to recruit people to a cause that promises defeat after defeat. The socialist writer Alexander Cockburn used to recount the tale of a Communist party organizer who stood on the street corner issuing a depressing pitch: “Everywhere around the world, our communist brothers and sisters are rotting in prison! In Spain! In South Africa! Here in the United States!” Not exactly an advertisement for the joys of being in the Party. And it’s true that nobody joins the labor movement because it’s an easy way to have fun. Still, the small victories come with great satisfaction, and the joys of solidarity have no substitute. And when we lose, we dust ourselves off and keep on pushing.