Commentary on the new Vice article, The Unionizing Workers Who Became Amazon’s Biggest Threat.
Since the beginning of our transformation to a post-industrial society, and especially throughout the pandemic, we have seen a new wave of consolidation of capital. Nothing exemplifies this quite like Amazon, the digital retail behemoth that has propelled founder Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest man.
But despite promises of innovation, career advancement, community investment, and starting wages of $15/hr, Amazon workers are reporting that Amazon workplaces are increasingly looking like the shop floors of the early Industrial Revolution. They recount how workers are surveilled constantly and hounded to keep up productivity at all costs, leading many employees to forgo bathroom breaks and sleep in their cars in the parking lots of Amazon’s “fulfillment centers.”
Amid these conditions, Vice has published a new article highlighting how workers are finally beginning to push back. Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama are mounting a major unionization effort with the RWDSU that would mark the first American union of Amazon employees — 5,800 of them.
The article is an important look at a union drive that is increasingly seen as a national referendum on unions, with major national figures and even President Biden voicing support for the vote. The Amazon drive could also be an important bellwether for the American labor movement as a whole, as it represents the changing face of the American working class (which is increasingly occupied in the service sector rather than the traditional union strongholds of manufacturing). Downwardly mobile millennials and former union manufacturing workers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are the driving force behind the unionization effort for a workforce that is 85% Black. This intergenerational and interracial solidarity could be the key to their success.
It’s also notable where this effort is taking place. Bessemer has a poverty rate of nearly 25%, but stands out compared to the rest of the South as having a relatively high unionization rate of 8%. As union manufacturing jobs have left American shores, those former union workers are turning to Amazon, bringing with them their direct understanding of the power of organized labor. And historically, Bessemer has been a hotbed of labor organizing going back to the efforts of the Communist Party in the 1930s.
Nevertheless, there are major challenges. Amazon has colluded with the local government to decrease the length of red lights to limit the amount of time organizers can speak with employees on their way to work, and employees report being forced to sit in meetings full of anti-union propaganda. Vice reports that the 18-24 year-old cohort has been especially skeptical of the unionization effort, both because the decades-long assault on organized labor has left many young workers with little understanding of the importance of having a union and also because Amazon has all but threatened to slash pay or even shut down the facility if the union drive is successful. Effectively, they have become so accustomed to low expectations that even the promise of a better workplace seems fanciful.
Whatever the results, this unionization drive represents a major strategic effort for the American labor movement, and deserves close attention.
Read more via Vice: The Unionizing Workers Who Became Amazon’s Biggest Threat