Pandemic Profits, Political Polarization, and the Rebuilding of the American Labor Movement

Over the past year, workers at an Amazon Warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama put together the most serious unionization campaign against the online monopoly in the company’s history. Organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), this campaign gained national attention in light of the atrocious labor conditions at Amazon documented over the last several years. These include delivery drivers being forced to urinate in bottles in order to meet their strict timetables; workers having to process hundreds of packages per hour, often skipping bathroom breaks to meet their quotas; and a ubiquitous surveillance system that monitors every action taken by their employees while at work. Despite record profits for Amazon since the start of the pandemic, the majority of their workers make only a measly $15.00 per hour, a number only reached after significant political pressure in 2018. Meanwhile Jeff Bezos has increased his net worth by over $70 Billion.

Throughout March, the unionization vote was open to over 6,000 eligible employees and was driven by an on-the-ground campaign as well as an online movement supported by many politicians and activists such as President Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. 

Sadly, like previous unionization efforts against Amazon, the vote failed. However, the election highlighted a number of unfair anti-union tactics which Amazon employed to make sure the vote failed. From long mandatory lectures against unions to a memo which detailed plans to smear and fire union organizers, Amazon took significant actions to combat unionization which have caused the RWDSU to appeal the election. This fight is far from over. While this union vote failed, it is only the most recent chapter in the struggle for worker’s rights. This vote was only one of many which have been initiated in the past year, as the pandemic has exacerbated poor working conditions across all sectors of the American economy and given new life to the American Labor movement.

The failure of the Bessemer Amazon employees can serve as a lesson to trade unionists and socialists alike. The aggressive anti-unionization campaign driven by Amazon demonstrates the extreme and often illegal lengths capital will go to prevent workers from organizing, and from the perspective of Amazon’s bottom line, the motivation is clear. Capitalism is built on a profit motive. With an unorganized workforce, employers are able to pit employees in competition with one another to increase productivity while allowing wages and benefits to stagnate for the majority of the workforce. Organizing a workplace, however, can transform the work environment from competition to solidarity, giving employees a voice against management. Through unions, workers are able to collectively bargain for better working conditions by threatening to strike, thus leveraging labor’s inherent role in creating their employers profit.

Despite the clear benefits of trade unions for the working class, the unionization rate of the American workforce has fallen massively since the 1950s, fueled by anti-union legislation such as the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 which banned both solidarity and wildcat strikes. As a result, union membership has sunk from a high of around 35% in 1950 to a historic low of 10.3% of the workforce as of 2019, removing one roadblock that once helped prevent the ever-increasing transfer of wealth from the working class to the ultra-wealthy, which we’ve seen since since Reagan’s neoliberal policies quickly changed the conditions of American capitalism.

Putting this into the context of the political turmoil of the last four years offers a clearer picture of the way the American working class has reacted to the neoliberal economic policies of the last 40 years. Trump’s election in 2016 was driven by a small number of swing votes in a few key states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Each of these states have seen their manufacturing sectors hollowed out and shipped overseas as part of the economic globalization which has taken place under neoliberalism. Hillary Clinton failed to address the economic issues felt by the working class of these states, and as a result allowed Trump’s far-right populist rhetoric to fill the gap left by Clinton. In an option between continued neoliberalism and neofascism, the working class chose Trump. While the future is unpredictable, it’s easy to imagine that this will likely happen again unless the Democratic Party changes course to offer substantive change.

Political polarization isn’t going to go away in the coming decade and while neoliberalism has remained the core of the democratic platform under Biden, Trump’s success has given the GOP a new path to success: far-right populism. On the sidelines however exists a left-wing alternative, Democratic Socialism. Championed by Senator Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America, Democratic Socialism posits a solution to the contradictions of capitalism. 

Although we, as socialists, remain on the sidelines, we can learn from the success of the New Deal Coalition for cues in how the left can build power. At the core of the coalition was a strong labor movement which was ready to back bold policies and systemic change. Without the unions, the New Deal would likely have never become reality. With anti-union legislation such as the Taft-Hartley still law, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) act, which would overrule some of the worst provisions of Taft-Hartley, has become one of the most important pieces of legislation of 2021. In order to build a movement capable of enacting real change for the working class, we must rebuild the American labor movement. While the vote at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer failed, this fight is long from over. A better world is possible, and we must build it.