Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are still voting on whether to join a union, in a mail vote that ends March 29. The company’s ongoing harassment campaign aimed at defeating the organizing effort has many workers looking forward to that date, when the barrage will end—much as Republican negative campaigning is aimed at turning people against politics and good governance.
This week, the workers and organizers have had to contend with another problem: a viral “boycott Amazon” campaign claiming to be in support of the workers. Many, many people shared the call to boycott the company for the week of March 7 to 13 in good faith—but it didn’t come from and wasn’t supported by the union or the workers, and it was not helpful.
After President Biden’s message of support for workers to vote free from interference, an anti-union worker at a media event organized by Amazon told reporters, “I don’t need someone from the outside coming in and saying this or that.” Workers on the fence about unionizing may also fear that a boycott will cost them their jobs, and that fear may make them more open to management messages that a union will hurt the company and its ability to create jobs. “One of Amazon’s talking points is that a union will hurt the business/lose jobs,” labor journalist Kim Kelly tweeted. “A boycott hands the boss ammunition.”
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union has disavowed the boycott call, saying the union had nothing to do with it—“The union has not called for nor endorses a boycott at Amazon”—and indeed, if you looked at both the RWDSU’s social media and that of the Bessemer Amazon union prior to the issue going viral, neither had said a word about a boycott. Having outsiders intervene in an organizing effort not by being responsive to the workers and the union can be directly harmful to the workers’ cause. So where did this come from?
The call to boycott originated with the “Leftist Unification Party,” which still has less than 100 followers on Twitter, having emerged on social media within the last few months. Slate’s Aaron Mak talked to the group’s “administrative director” and “head strategist”—lofty titles for what they told him was a six-person volunteer group. Administrative director Angie told him “This is my first time with any sort of leadership position—zero experience” after activist experience consisting mostly of canvassing and protesting.
Angie and head strategist Cassidy told Mak they intentionally hadn’t checked in with the union or workers about whether their boycott effort would be welcome because to do so would be an illegal secondary boycott. That’s not what a secondary boycott is. Strikewave’s C.M. Lewis explained, “A prohibited secondary boycott would be coercing a businesses to pull their merchandise from the Amazon marketplace, not telling consumers to not buy directly from the retailer.” When Mak challenged Angie and Cassidy on that, they stuck to their story about not consulting the union because it would be illegal to do so. On Twitter, they’ve also proudly proclaimed their lack of concern for the union’s preferences on this.
So maybe the six members of the Leftist Unification Party are just idiots who don’t know what they’re doing and got belligerent when people who do know something about organizing challenged them. (Sample tweet.) Or maybe the many questions people asked about exactly why and how a boycott call coming from a group that just appeared out of nowhere went viral at a time very convenient to Amazon are worth asking.
Unfortunately, there’s another part of the puzzle: The LUP’s boycott call was picked up and amplified, largely unattributed, by UComm, which made remarkable use of passive voice: “To support Amazon workers and let the company know that we do not approve of their union-busting tactics, a one-week boycott of the company has been planned. From Sunday, March 7th to Saturday, March 13th, everyone is being asked to not use Amazon or Amazon Prime and do not stream videos using the Amazon Prime video service.”
Planned by whom? Everyone is being asked by whom? That was never specified, just dropped in the middle of a piece reporting on the union effort. The inspiration, though, was the Leftist Unification Party. UComm is not a mysterious group like the Leftist Unification Party. It’s a communications consulting firm that works for unions and really should have known better, but, with more than 24,000 Twitter followers and more than 7,000 Facebook followers, it dramatically amplified the boycott push.
As one labor organizer tweeted, “the boycott call is, in the very best case, coming from amiable clowns and more likely coming from clout-chasers.” It took advantage of the good intentions of many people, though—and we need to take it as an opportunity for education.
First off, when you’re dealing with an active union organizing effort, always take your cues from the workers and their union. The point of organizing is building worker power, and coming in from the outside saying you know better is detrimental to that even when it doesn’t also feed into the boss’s talking points.
Related, do your homework. The first thing I did when I saw people sharing the boycott call was look at the RWDSU and BAmazonUnion Twitter feeds. They said nothing about a boycott, ergo I knew there was no real boycott effort.
What do I mean by “real”? The term “boycott” gets thrown around a lot, and it’s gotten cheapened as a result. Real boycotts, boycotts that are going to be effective, take work. It’s true that social media, with the potential for virality, has somewhat changed the equation—sometimes a brand will see a mass of negative attention and change course on something, like apologizing for an offensive ad or pulling back from a new practice. But a company as big as Amazon is not going to change its entire business model because of a social media boycott call. Boycotts take organization, planning, and clarity. They usually take institutional support, whether from unions or churches or major advocacy groups. They take follow-through—what do you do if the boycott succeeds? How do you make sure the win holds up, and, equally, how do you let your supporters know it’s time to stop boycotting?
There are lots of reasons to boycott—from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Nestle infant formula boycott—and a range of groups can organize them. But organizing is a key principle here. Educating people about why they should boycott and what success would look like. Viral hashtags are great, but if the goal is substantial change in the real world, they have to be backed up by something.
This week’s social media Amazon “boycott” is an unfortunate but excellent case study in the principles of listening to workers and not mistaking social media for real life. If the Amazon union effort fails, the company’s constant harassment of workers is obviously the first and by far the most important factor. But if it fails by a razor-thin margin … we’ll always have to wonder if this helped tip the balance.