A nationwide campaign to boycott Amazon is going viral this week as workers at the company’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, push to form a union. But there are a few issues: The actual organizers behind the effort in Alabama have nothing to do with the boycott. Some labor experts say this kind of boycott could ultimately hurt the union drive. And to experienced labor activists, the obscure group behind the boycott has raised some red flags, leading to speculation that either they don’t quite know what they’re doing, or they’re actually some kind of anti-union cutout.
Because a successful union drive would be a first in an Amazon facility, the campaign organized by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union has garnered national attention. Figures like Stacey Abrams and Danny Glover have thrown their support behind it. President Joe Biden released a video last week supporting “workers in Alabama.” Amazon’s efforts to subvert the union have also received widespread scrutiny. The company launched a bizarre anti-union campaign on social media and has reportedly been forcing employees to attend anti-union meetings, changing the timing of traffic lights near the facility to frustrate organizers, and posting “Vote No” signs in the bathroom stalls. The Bessemer facility’s 5,800 employees are voting until the end of the month.
With the end of the union election weeks away, a call to boycott all Amazon services from March 7 to 13 gained attention on social media. Memes and virtual flyers promoting “One Week No Prime” to express solidarity with the Bessemer workers have been spreading on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Some posts have racked up tens of thousands of likes and shares. Thousands of Twitter users tweeted the hashtag #BoycottAmazon. It wasn’t until the RWDSU denied being behind the campaign, though, that the boycott really started making headlines. Over the weekend, the RWDSU confirmed to HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson that it was not affiliated with the boycott in any way. RWDSU spokesperson Chelsea Connor told me, “We never called for it, nor were we part of it.” She declined to comment further on the record.
That’s when things got complicated. A little-known group called the Leftist Unification Party, which had organized the boycott, confirmed on Twitter and Facebook on Sunday that it hadn’t had any contact with the RWDSU. Labor activists and reporters on the platform soon began pointing out that launching a boycott without coordinating with workers and organizers on the ground in Bessemer could end up hurting the union drive. “This campaign is months in the making, and the organizers and workers involved have spent countless hours honing their strategy and meticulously working out the best way forward,” Kim Kelly, a freelance labor journalist who’s been reporting on the drive from Bessemer, wrote over email. “Now, the union is forced to deal with this situation, which takes away valuable organizing time, and has to allay the concerns of workers who saw the call and are confused or concerned.”
Boycotts can have the effect of playing into the anti-union talking point popular among executives that collective bargaining units end up hurting the company and make the workplace more fractious. There’s a fear that a ham-handed boycott could convince Bessemer employees who are on the fence to ultimately vote no. “A boycott like this really just plays into management’s hands by giving ammunition to the idea that this is going to be about conflict all the time and that you’re going to have outside people interfering in your life, which isn’t what a union is,” said Connor Lewis, editor for the labor publication Strikewave. Lewis also noted that any boycott in support of a union should come from the employees themselves, since they know their workplace better than anyone else and should be involved in labor actions on their own terms.
The Leftist Unification Party fielded a number of criticisms about the boycott and responded on Twitter that it could not legally work with the RWDSU due to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibits “secondary boycotts.” According to the group, the union working with an outside group on a solidarity action would constitute a secondary boycott, which is why it decided not to contact the RWDSU in the first place. Kelly, Lewis, and a number of Twitter users were quick to point out that the LUP had apparently misunderstood what a secondary boycott is. Lewis explained the concept by giving the hypothetical example of people boycotting Dell until they pulled products from Amazon’s marketplace in order to pressure Amazon into being more accepting of unions. Getting people to stop buying Dell computers would be an illegal secondary boycott, but targeting Amazon itself would be a permissible primary boycott. The upshot, Kelly said, is that the RWDSU could participate in the LUP boycott if it wanted to. “RWDSU has chosen not to do so, and I am certain that that decision was made for a reason,” she said.
The Leftist Unification Party’s interaction with critics and seemingly out-of-the-blue boycott campaign led many of its critics to suspect that it was actually a covert anti-union group. “This LUP thing has some real ‘how do you do fellow socialists’ energy,” one tweet read. Another user wrote, “if this were my organizing drive and I saw someone doing this, I’m making some phone calls to find out who is doing Amazon’s work for them.” Part of why people are so suspicious is that the Leftist Unification Party only started posting on social media in January, around the time the Bessemer union drive was gaining national attention. The group doesn’t have a website, and many in the labor space are unfamiliar with it. “Nobody I know has heard of them, it came out of nowhere, and they’ve got nothing they’re doing it seems other than pushing this boycott,” said Lewis.
“Of course I don’t know every leftist in the world, but … it’s just wildly suspicious,” Kelly wrote. “If they actually are who they say they are, merely a ‘baby org’ trying to find its footing, then that’s fine—but their actions here have been extremely harmful, and they have some learning and explaining to do.”
The Leftist Unification Party responded to these suspicions by tweeting, “You are welcome to a voice chat with us.” I took up the offer and ended up speaking on a conference call with two of its members: the co-founder and “administrative director,” whose first name is Angie, and the “head strategist,” Cassidy. (They didn’t want to disclose their surnames for what they said were safety reasons like “hateful people out there.”) Angie told me that the Leftist Unification Party formed in December 2020 after several members faced transphobia in another socialist Facebook group and decided to leave to form their own organization, with the aim of eliminating infighting among anti-capitalists and creating a viable leftist political party in the U.S. She said the organization consists of six core members, all of whom are volunteers, and that coordination mostly takes place online due to the pandemic. “We are a group of concerned citizens. We don’t make any money at all,” Angie said. “We’re not legally established as a nonprofit quite yet.” Angie and Cassidy noted that they had previous activism experience through canvassing and protesting, but that being in charge is new to them. “This is my first time with any sort of leadership position—zero experience,” Angie said. (To get a bit more of the flavor of the Leftist Unification Party, you can see Angie and Cassidy talking about socialism on the group’s Instagram Highlights.)
The group started talking about organizing a boycott in January to express solidarity with the Bessemer union drive. Members created memes and graphics to publicize the initiative, and they say it ended up getting far more attention than they’d anticipated. “All of us have been working to get friends and other allies to echo the message and we weren’t expecting more than maybe a thousand,” said Cassidy. When asked whether she was afraid of possibly dissuading workers to vote for the union, Cassidy said, “While we really can’t know for sure if this is going to be helpful or harmful for the union vote, union-suppression tactics being as effective as they are, we are here specifically to show solidarity with all workers of Amazon, not just those who are unionizing.” Angie added that she couldn’t see any way that raising awareness about Amazon’s “abysmal conditions” could negatively affect the union drive.
The two maintained their interpretation of the law around secondary boycotts, though they noted that there are no lawyers in the Leftist Unification Party. “We saw some reporting that a rep from RWDSU said they had no knowledge of our boycott. Good, that’s by design,” Cassidy said. She also said that, given the anti-union tactics that Amazon has pursued, she could see why people were questioning the Leftist Unification Party’s legitimacy. “Do I understand why they would be suspicious of a newly appearing, small organization? Yes,” she said. “But I feel like that suspicion is overstated, especially when, if successful, our drive stands to put some dents in Amazon’s profits.”