Carmen Molinari analyzes why media strategies don’t win organizing campaigns. Image © Scott Lewis | Flickr
The RWDSU campaign against Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama was a media frenzy from the beginning. Not all of that may have been RWDSU’s intention, although they constantly promoted and responded to the coverage. Like many unions, they have often used the “corporate campaign” strategy of beating an employer up in the press.
Amazon has bowed to public pressure before — or, more precisely, they have responded to shifts in public opinion. On June 10, barely two weeks into the massive wave of protests over George Floyd’s murder, they announced a one-year moratorium on selling facial recognition software to police departments.
The best-known instance was the $15 wage floor, announced in October 2018. Bernie Sanders had introduced a proposed tax with a name shortened to the “Stop Bezos Act.” However, Amazon’s decision to raise wages seems to have had as much to do with the labor market. The company had expanded to the point that they could no longer simply choose to locate their warehouses in economically depressed areas with few jobs and low costs of living. The starting wage in facilities near expensive metropolitan areas, like the large warehouse south of Seattle that opened in 2016, was already approaching $15 an hour. Besides, Amazon’s “innovation” is not lower wages but Taylorism applied to the warehouse as if it were a factory. In facilities like the one in Bessemer, most workers spend their whole 10-hour shift doing repetitive tasks directed by a computer: putting items on shelves, taking them off, sorting them into individual orders, packing boxes. Working at the speed demanded by bosses takes a worker who is willing to risk their health and work to exhaustion. Amazon is filtering for the workers who are desperate enough, able-bodied enough, to work to the bone. And this takes a steady stream of new applicants who believe it’s paid well enough to try.
The Bessemer campaign had massive coverage. It was featured in over 53,000 news stories. Amazon was beat up (again) in the press. The workers were appealed to as heroes. Joe Biden weighed in with his support for the organizing effort. By the metrics of an earned media campaign, it was wildly successful.
But as we have learned, media coverage cannot win an organizing campaign.
Organizing a union in a workplace isn’t about abstract support for the concept of a “union,” it’s about workers building relationships with each other to tackle the issues they face on the job. Mass media strategies paint the company as bad, the union as good, and try to garner “yes” votes the same way a political candidate gets votes. They lean towards gathering support as a matter of individual opinion. As Organizing Work contributors have written about before, coworkers who espouse pro-union views often turn out not to want to do the hard work of talking to their coworkers or risk putting their jobs on the line with collective action. Conversely, when we start by talking to coworkers about their experience of work, people who are generally suspicious of unions or even right-wing politically become powerful union militants. The narratives that journalists choose to tell about union campaigns largely promote the opposite idea: that unionism is aligned with the Democratic Party and its policy platform, opposition to a union campaign with Republicans or conservative Southern politics, and that workers’ support for a union in their workplace flows from their values and political identity.
There are many differences between the way that journalism, even partisan journalism, approaches story-telling about unions, and the way that organizers have to.
In the IWW organizing model, stories take center stage in the first two components of the “one-on-one” organizing conversation. In “agitation,” our goal is to “get the story” from our coworker: not just understand what they want to change in the workplace, but why. How does work personally affect their life or make them miserable? As we draw that out, we reinforce that we hear them, we care about them, they deserve better, and we want to take action with them to improve things. In “education,” we tell stories of successful direct actions at other workplaces that help us imagine together how we can fight back and win.
Neither type of storytelling resembles the way journalists tell stories about organizing. A news story fundamentally needs to be interesting, whether the publication is funded via advertising or directly by readers. If the journalist and/or publication has a pro-union political angle, it will likely portray the company as a villain and its workers as victims. Stories focus on misery because it’s shocking and newsworthy and because it makes the reader sympathize with the plight of the worker.
Inside a campaign, we don’t ask workers to tell their stories to each other to move them to sympathy. We ask each and every worker what their own story is, and why that story justifies rocking the boat. Alyssa Battistoni’s essay Spadework, which relates the author’s experiences organizing fellow graduate students, has a beautiful passage I always return to when I’m thinking about how my fellow workers value themselves: “Your job as an organizer was to find out what it was that people wanted to be different in their lives, and then to persuade people that it mattered whether they decided to do something about it. This is not the same thing as persuading people that the thing itself matters: they usually know it does. The task is to persuade people that they matter: they know they usually don’t.”
Even when we do use others’ stories as part of “educate,” they have a very different form and purpose from journalistic accounts. We are telling a short anecdote that’s focused on the action workers took and its results. These stories aren’t about persuading the worker of the moral righteousness of taking action, they simply show that taking action and winning is possible.
The way media and even fiction have presented stories of unions over the last 100 years has profoundly undermined our ability to do this. Individual heroes are lionized out of context, and the nuts and bolts of how a union or a big strike are organized are lost — look at the Lawrence Textile Strike.
There’s nothing your campaign or its members can say to a reporter that will help your campaign, but there are a lot of things that can and will hurt and even make you lose. Journalists want details that need to be secret for a campaign in progress — in the worst case, they don’t care if what they publish gets you fired. Someone getting fired is a great story. Media functions by centering and publicizing individual faces and stories. That’s not something you want in a collective effort, where your opponent, the employer, is looking for people to retaliate against.
A journalist writes a shocking exposé about Amazon workers peeing in bottles because their bosses deny them sufficient bathroom breaks. The union puts out a press release about Amazon’s union-busting tactics, and when a worker gets fired they set them up with an interview with the New York Times.
What is the effect of these choices in how we frame the narrative? The story about a worker getting fired tells other would-be union activists that when you take action to improve things at work, you get fired. The story about peeing in bottles might confirm to a worker that others have shared their experience, or it might send the message that if they’ve never seen someone doing that, well, they’ve got it pretty good.
Now, a worker-organizer in a warehouse sits down with their coworker and hears that she’s been spoken to twice by managers’ assistants because she isn’t meeting her productivity quotas and is terrified of losing her job; not only that but she feels like maybe she deserves it because it’s true she’s below average and her manager is judged on her speed of work, too. The organizer tells a story about workers at an Amazon package delivery station coordinating to slow down conveyor belts when managers turned them up to an unsustainable speed.
Stories about other workers taking action says that change is possible, and that if you take action you can win.
Some unions, including CWA’s Alphabet Workers’ Union, have taken the strategy of trying to get media attention for the issues so the workers will already have heard about organizing. This creates mass campaigns that aren’t based on real relationships. Workers involved in organizing campaigns around ethics issues at multiple major tech companies have told me that they hoped their coworkers would be “agitated” when they read new stories about other workers being fired unjustly for being outspoken on these issues. This kind of agitation, though it may get workers upset, isn’t the same as agitation that comes out of their own story about their own experiences at work.
Organizing moves at the pace that workers have conversations with each other. There’s no shortcut, no magic bullet or PR strategy, that can change this. A flyer or a YouTube video with a persuasive argument might change a few minds, but it’s not our minds that need to be changed in order to be a union. What keeps us strong even in the face of the union-busting techniques employers have been sharpening against us for a century is our trust in each other. That trust is built on relationships where we talk about our experiences at work, and on the process of making decisions together, democratically, on what actions we want to take. It’s through this process that we develop an understanding of our shared interests as workers. What happens to us at work may be unjust, but employers create injustice in every workplace, every job. The difference between a workplace where workers fight back and one where they don’t isn’t the recognition of injustice but knowing their coworkers will be there with them.
Amazon workers have publicly shared stories of direct action, from Shakopee to Chicago, and there are certainly many more that haven’t become public. Simple narratives of collective action are essential to any worker-centered campaign but these are fundamentally different from sensationalist exposés or human-interest stories. No amount of “earned media” will help workers build power. Maybe the RWDSU loss will become an instructive story too, one for the inoculation phase of the organizing conversation: media won’t save us and neither will a good “communications strategy.” Only our organizing can.