Amazon Employees: Amazon warehouse workers have protested against what they deem unsafe conditions. These complaints and related campaigns have led to a rise in calls for unionization. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter. Above is an Illustration of the first American Labor parade held in New York City on September 5, 1882 as it appeared in Frank Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Newspaper’s September 16, 1882 issue.
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During the Industrial Revolution, workers who helped usher in the age of manufacturing were subject to horrible working conditions. This included 12- to 16-hour workdays seven days a week, oftentimes in unsafe and unsanitary settings. Many people felt this was unfair, and many workers felt invisible. As a result, in the late 1880s, a union leader named Peter J. McGuire suggested a celebration honoring American workers. Under his urging and sponsored by the Knights of Labor, 10,000 workers held a parade in New York City on September 5, 1882. Two years later, the same union adopted a resolution that named the first Monday in September as “Labor Day.” In 1887, Oregon became the first US state to make Labor Day an official public holiday. Less than seven years later, 30 other states jumped on board, forcing lawmakers in Washington to act. In 1894, Congress passed a bill recognizing the first Monday of September as Labor Day—an official federal holiday. President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law. However, this only applied to federal workers. Ultimately, after unions protested all the way into the 1930s, every US state went on to recognize Labor Day as a statutory holiday.
Labor disputes still exist to this day, however, especially as massive technology companies have benefited tremendously during the pandemic—while some individuals and employees have not. Take Amazon for example, whose warehouse workers have protested against what they deem unsafe conditions. These complaints and related campaigns led to a vote this past April, in which Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama were offered the choice to form a union. Workers voted more than 2-to-1 against unionizing. Despite this defeat, another vote might be right around the corner, Alina Selyukh and Stephan Bisaha report for NPR. This is because “a federal labor official has found that Amazon’s anti-union tactics tainted this spring’s election sufficiently to scrap its results,” and now, “the official is recommending a do-over of the unionization vote.” Therefore on this day of rest, we feel it’s worthwhile to refresh our collective memories about what both sides think of modern-day labor debates. Here’s what they said about the unionization push this past spring:
On The Right
Conservatives think the workers’ attempts to unionize will only boomerang back against them and believe a union would ultimately benefit Amazon and the Democratic Party—rather than employees. With that said, some on the right are hopeful that votes like the one in Bessemer will ultimately help launch a new era with more cooperative collective bargaining between companies and their workforce.
“Biden, Big Labor, and Amazon” Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal: The Editorial Board points out that the starting salary of the Alabama warehouse workers is $15.30 per hour. Although this is commonly considered “too low,” they say this is actually “above average for unskilled workers in Bessemer, where median household income in 2019 was $32,301.” They also note that these Amazon employees receive additional benefits such as matching retirement savings and the “same health-care coverage enjoyed by programmers and executives in Seattle.” The editors add that the Bessemer warehouse “granted a general raise and promoted more than 150 new hires to floor-level management” in the first 9 months after the facility opened. Ultimately, the WSJ Ed Board thinks that unionization jeopardizes these existing benefits and is a raw deal for employees after $500 in annual union dues is factored into the equation.
“Amazon should face unionization drive without Republican support” Florida Senator Marco Rubio, USA Today: While Senator Rubio generally agrees with the WSJ’s assessment, he also comes out in support of a new kind of collective bargaining approach. Writing for USA Today, the senator argues for “a more adversarial approach to labor relations” since Amazon has recently “waged a war against working-class values.” Still, he believes that “adversarial relations between labor and management are wrong…for both workers and our nation’s economic competitiveness.” Instead, Rubio promotes a “more productive relationship between labor and management” as opposed to Democratic legislation that he believes would create conflict between the two parties. Looking outward, Rubio seeks laws that “help build more productive relationships between labor and businesses, the vast majority of which treat their employees with dignity and want to work cooperatively with them.”
“Amazon union push gives giant retailer a taste of its own progressive medicine” Elaine Parker, Fox Business: Parker reiterates the concerns above and differentiates between “corporate behemoths” like Amazon and small businesses that operate on low profit margins. She states, “Just because a $15 entry-level wage works” for Amazon “doesn’t mean it will work for the Main Street convenience store.” Keep reading.
On The Left
The left sees the push to unionize as a critical step toward re-engaging with their labor roots. They also criticize Amazon for what they view as corporate bullying tactics and link worker rights to the larger issue of racial equity.
“Amazon warehouse workers deserve a union. Period.” Hayes Brown, MSNBC: Brown believes that working for Amazon presents “a nightmare for many of its employees.” He describes “stress, injuries, and dehumanization” at warehouses, as well as a pace that “breaks its workers,” leaving their bodies “depleted through their labor.” Brown accuses Amazon of “pulling out all the oldest anti-union tricks in the book to get workers to vote against joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union,” including negative emails and bathroom flyers. He dismisses what Amazon calls “flexibility,” “nimbleness,” or “freedom to innovate” as a “cloak of buzzwords used to hide a callous disregard for the health, safety, and economic security of workers.” From a political perspective, Brown believes the Alabama campaign has the potential to transform the state “from a GOP stronghold into the next blue-collar blue state in the South.” He ends by calling Amazon a bully and sending a “shoutout to every member of the Bessemer warehouse who’s daring to stand their ground.”
“Unions Are Back in Favor. They Need to Seize the Moment.” Joe Nocera, Bloomberg: Nocera makes the case for unions in Bloomberg, pointing out that “Between 1973 and 2007, labor’s decline accounted for 30% of the rise in income inequality among men and 20% for women.” He equates unionization with rebuilding the middle class and reducing income inequality. Nocera speaks to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which encourages collective bargaining by forcing companies to negotiate with union workers and helps “make sure everyone plays fair.” Some of these protections were later watered down by other bills and laws, leading foreign automakers to choose anti-union Southern states when they “began building assembly plants in the US in the 1980s.” Nocera also believes Democrats have “disconnected from the union movement,” as Bill Clinton “signed NAFTA into law and then spent the rest of his presidency ignoring the harm it did to manufacturing workers.” However, he ends on an optimistic note, calling on unions to “take advantage of this moment to start organizing drives.”
“Unionizing Amazon Workers Have Already Won” Stuart Appelbaum, Newsweek: Appelbaum agrees with the opinions shared above but also ties the labor movement to racial justice initiatives and other popular democratic causes. Keep reading.
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Following the failed Amazon warehouse union vote this past spring, a Morning Consult/Politico poll highlighted the messaging problem labor advocates face. “73 percent of a subsample of 1,028 registered voters said they at least somewhat supported employees’ right to bargain collectively for workplace conditions such as pay, health care, and time off,” Sam Sabin writes. However, “Once the phrase ‘labor union’ was included in the question framing and the other collective bargaining specifics were left out, support dropped. Among a second sample of 964 voters, 54 percent said they at least somewhat supported labor unions.”
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