Voting has begun on the first real union election at an Amazon warehouse in the US. And the stakes couldn’t be higher
‘If our economy keeps evolving as it has been, any one of us could be forced to become an Amazon warehouse worker soon enough.’
Though Amazon is a sprawling international conglomerate, with more than a million employees and significant operations in areas ranging from technology to retail to food, it is possible to understand its essence by grasping a few key facts. Its boss is one of the richest men in the world. It exercises unparalleled influence over the consumer economy. And it has a long and well-documented history of abusing virtually every category of human it employs, from office workers to warehouse workers to customer service agents. Most recently, the company agreed to pay a $62m fine for stealing tips from its delivery drivers, an awful crime that nevertheless constituted a fairly average week in the annals of Amazon workplace horror stories.
Likewise, the labor movement in America has a rich history stretching back more than a century, but you can understand its key purpose like so: it exists to make working people as powerful in our economy as companies are. Without strong unions, the imbalance of power between employers and employees is so hopeless that it can produce a society where a tiny handful of super-rich people get ever richer, even while wages stagnate for everyone else and labor rights are constantly eroded, making the “American Dream” of upward mobility a cruel joke. In other words – what we have now.
Which brings us to the unlikely town of Bessemer, Alabama, where voting has just begun on the first real union election at an Amazon warehouse in the US. To be an Amazon warehouse worker today is to find yourself in the odd position of simultaneously having kind of a crappy job while also being perhaps the single most important kind of worker in America. That is to say, these workers represent the embodiment of where all of our corporate and economic trends are headed – low-wage jobs dictated by algorithms, in which people act as living automatons, completely at the mercy of the arcane needs of a trillion-dollar company. As small businesses across the country fail, more and more people every day wake up to find that these kinds of warehouse jobs are all that they can get. If our economy keeps evolving as it has been, any one of us could be forced to become an Amazon warehouse worker soon enough.
Seen in this light, the question is not whether these workers need a union – of course they do. It is their only hope. Nor is the question whether the labor movement needs to prove that it can successfully unionize Amazon warehouses. Of course it does. Not only do the people working there desperately need the power that comes with collective bargaining, but it is impossible to fulfill organized labor’s mandate of exercising true power for working people in today’s economy if you can’t crack the most meaningful job category at the most powerful company. The relevant question, rather, is whether we still live in a country where unions are able to do what we know they absolutely need to do, or whether the entire, uneasy social arrangement between capital and labor has fallen apart.
That is a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of 5,800 people in an Alabama warehouse. But this union election is a confluence of just about every single procedural obstacle that has been put in place over the course of decades to make union organizing harder. Alabama is a “right to work” state, meaning people represented by unions aren’t required to pay dues; the warehouse workforce is a toxic mix of regular employees and “contractors”, a job category that exists wholly to allow corporations to circumvent labor laws; and Amazon itself is sparing no expense pulling out every tired trick in the anti-union playbook, from bombarding workers with propaganda at work to building a wretched website full of distorted claims to reportedly recalibrating traffic lights outside the facility to make it harder for cars to stop and chat with union organizers. As with all corporate anti-union campaigns, theirs is a mix of barely legal inaccuracies and thinly veiled threats – a form of economic terrorism in which rich and powerful companies strongly imply that exercising your legal right to a union will cause your livelihood to disappear.
Whenever you see Jeff Bezos (net worth: $195bn) make a philanthropic donation or build another space rocket or buy another mansion, remember that his fortune comes directly from the legalized oppression of hundreds of thousands of people like those in his warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. He is a rich thief. His victims are the people whose labor made him rich.
The good news is that despite all of these obstacles – corporate threats, deplorable labor laws, the entire soul-sucking system of unrestrained global capital – the fact remains that the power to unionize now rests solely in the hands of those workers in Alabama. All they have to do is vote “yes”, and they will have their union, no matter how much it may cause Jeff Bezos’s gleaming bald head to grow red until it resembles a Christmas-themed light bulb. If they win, they will need the help of the entire union world and all of its political allies to force Amazon to give them a decent contract (and to refrain from closing the entire facility in retaliation); if they lose, the union world will still need to forge ahead with a plan to organize other Amazon warehouses, because the alternative is to accept a bleak dystopia that spells death for the labor movement. But right now, right now, the employees of the Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon warehouse have an opportunity to do what most people can only dream of: to really, truly and meaningfully stick it to the man.