Do today’s unions stand a chance against corporate America?
Large unions are also experimenting. This month, thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, will begin voting on whether or not to join the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters wants to help Amazon warehouse and transportation workers get a union contract.
There is an urgency today that did not exist when Miranda assisted customers by phone: Amazon is now the avatar of a monopoly economy. This economy has made the 10 richest men in the world twice as rich in the gruesome months since March 2020. It’s an economy that makes me feel like the zillionth galloping spot in a global anthill. The days I don’t, it’s because of the workers I talk to and the little mutinies I see — at Amazon and in nursing homes, truck yards, schools, factories, and grocery stores. . “We’re definitely not going to have a better time to have a union,” Daniel Gross, a longtime organizer, told me recently. What sounded like his way of saying, The template is in place; we all know the score.
Workers always have organized in various ways, formal and informal. Since the beginning of the American labor movement in the 19th century, there have been unions, as well as more ad hoc groups of workers. Back in the days of Amazon’s call center campaign, organizations like WashTech were very much in vogue. They were called “worker hubs” and tended to focus on communities (such as Nepali immigrants) or types of jobs (such as restaurant delivery people) that traditional unions had failed to reach.
I got to know these groups in the mid-1980s when, as an attorney, I joined a legal services agency representing worker centers in New York. Center offices were welcoming and unbureaucratic. They had limited resources and small staff but, in the years that followed, achieved goals far beyond their means: bills of rights for domestic workers, new regulations for nail salon technicians and delivery cyclists. food, debt relief for taxi drivers.
I was impressed with their holistic approach: a construction day worker wasn’t defined by their salary and working hours — they also needed an affordable apartment and help applying for a green card. Members of progressive unions also thought this way, especially as the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street highlighted the larger context of workplace struggles. And over the past decade, as a journalist and no longer a lawyer, I have seen the influence of progressives grow.
In 2020, I thought this heightened enthusiasm for organizing, combined with mass death and financial hardship, could result in a broad labor movement. There were hints of fermentation in the essential worker walkouts and record turnout in protests following the murder of George Floyd. After that, things calmed down – due, I think, to the temporary lifting of an expanded welfare state.
But then, between August and November 2021, more than four million employees quit their jobs every month — individual actions that expressed a rebellious impulse. I have noticed the same confident discontent in organized labor: last fall thousands of unionized workers went on strike or were about to strike at John Deere, Kellogg’s, Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics and on Hollywood film sets. The wave of people quitting their jobs has been named the Great Resignation; the turmoil from within felt more like a great denial, a commitment to reject the status quo and demand transformation.