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Some unions are shifting strategies, wary of the challenges of winning votes site by site.
April 12, 2021
Even as unionization elections, like the lopsided vote against a union at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., have often proven futile, labor has enjoyed some success over the years with an alternative model — what sociologist of labor calls the “air war plus ground war.”
The idea is to combine workplace actions like walkouts (the ground war) with pressure on company executives through public relations campaigns that highlight labor conditions and enlist the support of public figures (the air war). The Service Employees International Union used the strategy to organize janitors beginning in the 1980s, and to win gains for fast-food workers in the past few years, including wage increases across the industry, Noam Scheiber reports for The New York Times.
“There are almost never any elections,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “It’s all about putting pressure on decision makers at the top.”
Labor leaders and progressive activists and politicians said they intended to escalate both the ground war and the air war against Amazon after the failed union election, though some skeptics within the labor movement are likely to resist spending more revenue, which is in the billions of dollars a year but declining.
Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the retail workers union, said in an interview that elections should remain an important part of labor’s Amazon strategy. “I think we opened the door,” he said. “If you want to build real power, you have to do it with a majority of workers.”
But other leaders said elections should be de-emphasized. Jesse Case, secretary-treasurer of a Teamsters local in Iowa, said the Teamsters were trying to organize Amazon workers in Iowa so they could take actions like labor stoppages and enlist members of the community — for example, by turning them out for rallies.