The Amazon drive in Bessemer, Alabama was never going to be easy.
Dominated by the GOP, Alabama’s political institutions are so deeply corroded that they’ve attracted national attention twice in recent years — first due to a constitutional crisis that saw the heads of all three branches of government simultaneously investigated for corruption and second due to the near-election of an accused pedophile and bible-thumping reactionary too toxic even for Donald Trump to endorse for the US Senate. When United Nations experts visited the state for a 2017 study, they were “shocked” by the level of extreme poverty and lack of access to basic utilities. In another recent low, efforts to re-allow yoga in schools (yes, it is currently illegal to do yoga in schools in Alabama) are stalling as opponents fear it will insinuate Hinduism into Alabama schools.
This reactionary political and economic environment is hostile to progressive organizing of all sorts, much less a union drive at one of the world’s most powerful companies. But there were two other, often overlooked, hurdles that bedeviled the Amazon campaign and present a challenge to many other organizing efforts across the country: the lack of public spaces conducive to organizing and extreme media consolidation that tilts the playing field toward business.
Imagine organizing anything in a region so car-dependent as the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan district, with its vast expanses of suburbs (including “white flight” suburbs that sought to maintain de facto segregation after Brown v. Board), mazes of expressways, and tangles of Interstates (the 20/59-459-65 trifecta). Many Amazon workers live in suburban apartment complexes with “no public spaces,” where neighbors often don’t know each other, said Chris Izor, an organizer with Birmingham DSA. This “civic irresponsibility” of Birmingham’s numerous suburbs (to borrow a term from Lewis Mumford) “made it more difficult to engage community support,” Izor said. In this atomized world, Amazon found it easier to act as the benevolent mediator.
Amazon also tinkered with the built environment. The company pressured the municipal government to manipulate the traffic light leading to and from the complex — giving organizers less time to talk to workers — and pushed the post office to install a mailbox at the facility, something the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) later ruled was illegal.
In decades past, the Supreme Court was more conscious of the ways that private companies can trample the speech rights of workers. As scholar Anthony Maniscalco has pointed out, the court ruled in a landmark 1946 case concerning a company town that “civic engagements required First Amendment places and trumped constitutional rights of property.” This doctrine of limiting property rights in the interest of speech rights persisted for decades.
In the last major ruling upholding the view, “the Court opined that changing landscapes demanded a reformulation of embodied space, and of legal relationships between private property owners and a rapidly suburbanizing public. Writing for his colleagues, Justice Thurgood Marshall challenged the constitutional right of the former to legally exclude the latter. Moreover, he concluded that the state’s imprimatur for exclusions of speech and conduct had to be viewed in the context of suburbanization and transforming geographies in America.” Today, with the US working class increasingly suburbanized — priced out of the urban core by rapidly rising housing costs — these speech issues could hardly be more relevant.
In addition to public infrastructure hurdles, media concentration restricted the range of opinions during the Amazon campaign that were represented in the public discourse. The Sinclair Broadcast Group owns four stations in the Birmingham-Anniston-Tuscaloosa market (WABM, WTTO, WBMA, and WDBB). A 2019 study found that “stations bought by Sinclair reduce coverage of local politics … and move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction relative to other stations operating in the same market.”
On the print side, one national conglomerate, Advance Publications, owns the major daily, the Birmingham News. Appearing only three times weekly in print, the paper has significantly shrunk its newsroom in recent years and reduced its local coverage. A few hyper-local papers also exist, though with extremely low circulation and a focus more on lifestyle issues than politics. With conservative-leaning local media at best disinterested in the story and at worst following “a both-sides perspective that allowed for Amazon’s case to seem more reasonable,” as Izor put it, the deck was stacked against the union in the press.
All of this was exacerbated by the atomized social world of the pandemic. In an already disconnected suburban landscape, with few alternative sources of information, Amazon workers were effectively a captive audience for the company’s vociferous anti-union efforts.
How can these hurdles be overcome?
First, the long, hard work of consciousness-building — countering the dominance of right-wing ideology, depoliticization, and atomization — will have to occur from the bottom up, at the doorstep and in the neighborhood just as on the shop floor.
Fortunately, there are some existing examples in the South of building networks of local power that can complement confrontational labor organizing. Efforts like SWEET Alabama (“Sustainable Water, Energy & Economic Transition in Alabama”) and People’s Budget Birmingham are working to build up community power by focusing on bolstering political participation, energy independence, and housing rights. Less than a hundred miles south of Birmingham in Selma, two activists have founded the Local, a platform cooperative promoting community and worker ownership. In neighboring Jackson, Mississippi, Cooperation Jackson has constructed an impressive arsenal of initiatives despite staunch opposition from the political elite.
Similar efforts in places like Chattanooga have shown how difficult it can be to organize unions when business interests and political elites work hand in hand to undermine labor. So consciousness-building must be complemented by radical policy change. The federal PRO Act would limit employers’ ability to hold captive audience meetings, strike down right-to-work laws, legalize solidarity strikes, increase fines on anti-union employers, among many other pro-worker provisions. It would help break the nexus of reactionary political and economic power in the South. Reviving progressive legal traditions like the free speech strand outlined above could play a role here too.
Fighting to redefine the parameters of public infrastructure must equally be a part of the struggle — including the domain of the Internet, whose infrastructure is concentrated in the hands of companies like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon itself. One remedy is to foster new, collaborative models of the Internet. For example, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, introduced Solid in 2016 in the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. Solid “aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy”; a number of promising organizations have emerged using Solid’s decentralized architecture.
PolyPoly claims to be “the first trans-European data cooperative” and functions by removing the platform monopolies’ exclusive access to user data. The idea is “like a union for data,” allowing users to magnify their voices by dealing with their data privacy collectively not individually. Polypoly hopes to have over a million users over the next year. There’s nothing preventing American netizens from starting PolyPoly America. Such efforts would aid organizing drives by eroding the big players’ monopoly power and creating alternative sources of communication.
Creating local channels for disseminating news should also be a priority. In India, for instance, striking farmers facing a hostile media landscape have devised Whatsapp and Telegram groups to get their stories out. Building community-supported news media and boosting funding for public broadcasting can counteract a media landscape that rarely covers working-class struggles.
Above all, supporting efforts to democratize the economy and create alternative ecosystems where relations of solidarity and empowerment can flourish must be part of our strategic blueprint going forward. Without experiencing alternative imaginaries — even vicariously — injustice will continue to appear insurmountable and solutions impossibly out of reach.