The Amazon Union Drive and the Changing Politics of Labor
By Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New Yorker, March 25, 2021
Mar 26, 2021 - 12:09:37 PM
Most organizing campaigns have a symbolic quality, but a unionization fight at an Alabama Amazon facility is different because the company is so much at the heart of the economy’s potential future.
Most contemporary union drives are ultimately about the past—about the contrast that they draw between the more even prosperity of previous decades and the jarring inequalities of the present. But one that will culminate on Monday, the deadline for nearly six thousand employees of an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, to cast ballots on whether to affiliate with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, is the rare union campaign that is obviously about the future. In this case, hyperbole is possible. The Democratic congressman Andy Levin, of Michigan, a union stalwart, has described it as “the most important election for the working class in this country in the twenty-first century.” On Monday, the Reverend Dr. William Barber, as prominent a figure as exists in the modern civil-rights movement, travelled to Alabama and said, “Bessemer is now our Selma.”
That this election is about the future has something to do with the workers themselves, who embody the political transformation of the South to which progressives pin their dreams. According to union officials, a majority of the people employed at the facility, which is outside of Birmingham, are Black, and a majority are women. On the drive up to the facility, supporters of the R.W.D.S.U. planted a sign featuring the Democratic politician and voting-rights advocate Stacey Abrams striking a Rosie the Riveter pose. A high-ranking labor official in Washington pointed me to a detail from an interview, published in The American Prospect, with the campaign’s on-the-ground leader, a thirty-three-year-old organizer named Josh Brewer. Brewer said that many of the workers who supported the union had been involved in demonstrations to bring down Confederate statues in Birmingham, and they often organized themselves.
But the significance of the drive has more to do with the company itself. Amazon is now among the largest private employers in the United States; its founder, Jeff Bezos, is arguably the wealthiest man in modern history. The company has paid every one of its workers fifteen dollars per hour since November, 2018, while also pioneering second-by-second monitoring of its employees. “This isn’t just about wages,” Stuart Appelbaum, the R.W.D.S.U.’s president, told me, on Monday. It is also about the strenuous pace of work, and the real-time surveillance methods that Amazon has used to monitor employees. Appelbaum said some of the workers that his union has represented have had employers that monitored their locations with G.P.S. chips in their delivery trucks, “but there’s nothing like this, where you’re expected to touch a package every eight seconds.” It had been hard to organize within the Bessemer facility, he said, in part because many of the workers did not know one another. “It’s hyper-Taylorism,” Damon Silvers, the director of policy and the special counsel of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said. “Amazon has determined an optimal set of motions that they want their employees to do, and they have the ability to monitor the employee at all times and measure the difference between what the employee does and what they want them to do, and there is nowhere to hide.” Appelbaum said, “People tell us they feel like robots who are being managed by robots.”
The Amazon union drive has drawn a rare intensity out of the usual suspects. Abrams, Levin, and Bernie Sanders have announced their support for it, and so has President Joe Biden, who recorded a strong message encouraging the organizers and discouraging any effort to interfere with them. It has also drawn some unusual allies, above all the conservative Republican senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, who published an op-ed in USA Today declaring his support for the organizing workers and his opposition to Amazon’s ways: “The days of conservatives being taken for granted by the business community are over.”
Amazon’s influence is so vast—touching on issues from wealth and income inequality to antitrust policy, the American relationship with China, the omnipotence of workplace surveillance, and the atomizing effect of big business, in its most concentrated and powerful form, on families and communities—that it can scramble ordinary politics. For a moment, at least, it can put Marco Rubio and Stacey Abrams on the same side. Most organizing campaigns have a symbolic quality, in which the employer and its workers stand for different models of economic organization. The fight in Bessemer is different because it is so direct. Amazon isn’t a proxy for the future of the economy but its heart.
A year into a pandemic that has kept many Americans cooped up at home, ordering supplies and streaming their entertainment, seems an unpromising time to take on Amazon, which supplies many of those services. Amazon’s revenue grew by nearly forty per cent in 2020, and its workforce grew by about fifty per cent; Jeff Bezos’s wealth reportedly increased by nearly seventy billion dollars last year. The company has become so ubiquitous that even to inquire about it entangles you in its machinery: type “is Amazon popular?” into a search engine and you might find, as I did, that most of the top results are books about popularity which are sold on Amazon. You can find evidence that Amazon both is and isn’t popular in survey data. In one poll, ninety-one per cent of respondents said that they had a favorable view of Amazon; in another, fifty-nine per cent thought the company was bad for small business. To count on broad opposition to Amazon right now is to assume such cognitive dissonance: that Americans may increasingly rely on Amazon and view it favorably while also believing that the company needs to change.
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It is still rare to find Republicans who will cheer on the program of organized labor. But it has become easy to find prominent conservatives denouncing Amazon. Bezos’s accelerating wealth and Amazon’s profiteering have been targets of Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News since the middle of the Trump era; early this winter, Donald Trump, Jr., called Bezos “hypocritical” for celebrating Biden’s win, in November, while trying to restrict balloting in the Alabama union election a few months later. Josh Hawley, the firebrand Missouri senator, will publish a book titled “The Tyranny of Big Tech” in May, and was praised this week by Donald Trump for his antagonism of Silicon Valley. Many of the anti-Amazon arguments that have surfaced on the right revolve around the company’s interventions in politics, particularly its decisions to stop hosting Parler, the extremist social-media site, on Amazon Web Services and to exclude a conservative book critical of transgender identity from its bookstore. This, some conservatives say, is the “woke capital” problem.
Oren Cass, a former campaign staffer for Mitt Romney, told me that the “woke capital” criticism of Amazon enjoys “almost unanimous” support on the center-right. Cass, who runs a new think tank, American Compass—which is dedicated, in part, to challenging laissez-faire orthodoxy—thought that such support could be a seed for a broader conservative turn against free-market fundamentalism. “The behavior of firms like Amazon, as not only an economic but also a social and political force, is highlighting for conservatives that what’s good for profits is not always good for America,” he told me. There isn’t any formal caucus of Republicans who share this perspective. (The Party right now is a chaotic tangle of rivalrous personalities that often defies ideology.) But the roster of elected officials who have appeared on American Compass’s Zoom panels and published essays on its Web site is a start, even though these politicians have their own points of emphasis, and even though they have publicly denounced one another. Romney has emphasized a child tax credit and expanding government spending to support poor families; Tom Cotton, the senator from Arkansas, the ways in which Chinese manufacturing has warped markets; Hawley a war on Silicon Valley and a defense of traditional communities; Rubio the pressure that vast multinationals put on small businesses. My own observation is that there is a sharp generational break among conservative policy wonks and staffers: those under forty tend to be much more skeptical of free-market fundamentalism, just as the young policy talent on the left has broken with Obamaism to embrace the more skeptical, interventionist view of the free-market economy represented by Elizabeth Warren. There might be some opportunism in the Republicans who, after Trump, are experimenting with a working-class conservatism. But they also fit the generational pattern.
“Amazon is sui generis in a lot of ways,” Cass said, “so, while there is a broader argument necessary about the relationship between labor and management and the power of workers in the labor market, from a political perspective it offers an especially compelling circumstance for supporting change.” Cass recently collected, on a Twitter thread, a decade’s worth of news reports on Amazon’s labor practices. The stories recounted that Amazon had ambulances waiting outside of warehouses during summer heat waves, that employees were sometimes fired algorithmically, without input from a human superior (a charge that the company has denied), that it had hired Pinkerton detectives to gather intelligence on its warehouse workers. Cass pointed out that most of these stories included at least partial responses from Amazon. Still, he said, “the pattern here is pretty clear. And it points to the need for greater worker power.” Most conservatives are still skeptical of labor unions. Rubio has spoken of the need for less “adversarial” relationships between management and labor. But Cass’s Twitter thread also seems to suggest that Amazon had so perfected the model of an efficient corporation that to see the company clearly was to see that ideology in a full, cold light.
The labor leaders in Washington seemed to see Republican support as welcome but mostly ornamental—like if a distant relative had sent, for Christmas, a very large painting of a duck. They found the Democrats’ reaction more significant. In Biden’s message of support earlier this month, he warned employers not to interfere with union elections: “You should all remember that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that unions are allowed to exist. It said that we should encourage unions.” Silvers, of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said he thought that Biden was speaking directly to the workers who were organizing. “The way he’s talking is not unprecedented, but the precedents are in the Roosevelt Administration,” he said. Appelbaum, of the R.W.D.S.U., said that there had been more talk about the importance of unions in the last Presidential campaign than he’d ever heard before. “We used to talk about how even those Democratic Presidents who we like would barely talk about unions. Biden is different.”
What is rare about the Bessemer campaign is how neatly it encapsulates the modern economic system—it is, in many ways, a pinnacle of a pinnacle. Amazon represents an extreme expression of the twenty-first century’s extreme inequality and concentration of wealth and economic power, which has already changed the Democratic Party and some elements of the G.O.P. The Bessemer facility represents Amazon’s system fully realized, and so it carries one potential future for work. The union proposition is that, in Amazon, in Bezos, in Bessemer, after a year of the pandemic, the whole system can be seen clearly. Now the choice belongs to those six thousand workers. Appelbaum suspects that the early vote was unfavorable to the organizing effort, but that the late vote—once the union presented this vision—was more friendly, and that Monday’s outcome will hinge on when the most votes were cast. “We’re going up against the wealthiest human being since the beginning of time, and this incredibly powerful corporation,” Appelbaum said. “And they
Source: Ocnus.net 2020