March 25, 2021 Editor

The fight to unionize Amazon is the most important labor story of this century

John W. Miller

March 25, 2021

photo above: Screenshot, America: The Jesuit Review

WN: Amazon/Jeff Bezos is possibly America’s most virulent symbol of full-bore sellout to Unadulterated Greed. Go for it, unions!


The campaign by Amazon workers to unionize in Alabama, with a vote that concludes on March 29, marks a new age in a 500-year history of labor struggle in the United States.

Historians say it was an enslaved colonial workforce who launched the labor movement. The first uprising was a slave revolt in 1526. The Industrial Revolution sparked a second chapter. Organizing in steel mills, coal mines and meat-packing plants, modern unions won the weekend, the vacation, the pension and the eight-hour workday.

In the third era, warehouse workers for companies like Amazon are seeking the right to bargain collectively in a heavily automated, postindustrial service economy that relies on their low wages. On March 29, the results will be announced of a mail-in vote organized by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., that employs almost 6,000 workers.

“They treat us like we’re just a number—like we’re nobodies,” Dale Richardson, an employee in Bessemer, told Voice of America.

At Amazon, the issue is not just compensation. The company has instituted a $15-an-hour starting wage. The problem is a dehumanizing work culture that includes tracking bathroom breaks during 11-hour shifts, pitting workers against each other as they sort and pick through hundreds of items an hour and dismissing workers for minor insubordination. And it is dangerous. The injury rate at 23 Amazon warehouses that were studied was double the national average for the warehousing industry. Amazon did not return a request for comment for this story.

For Ms. Brown, a veteran without a college degree who started at around $13 and now makes around $19 an hour, “I feel like it’s a con because you’re told to want all these things, like college, but they’re all too expensive for people like me.”

That “con” stands in deep tension with Catholic social teaching, which insists that every person be able to afford to participate fully in society. A living wage and support for unions are also core to Catholic social teaching, which emphasizes the dignity of every worker and is inspired by the story of God coming to dwell in a working-class refugee family. “There is no good society without a good union,” said Pope Francis in a speech to labor leaders in 2017.

‘Communities in the Workplace’

Almost two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, including President Joe Biden, who draws his philosophical inspiration from Catholic social teaching. “Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers,” said President Biden, who is the most pro-union president since F.D.R., according to every historian I interviewed.

In the landmark 1891 papal encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Leo XIII wrote that it is “a ‘natural impulse’ for human beings to form communities in the workplace so that they can pursue their God-given purpose together with others.” He also “correctly saw unions as necessary for protecting the dignity and rights of workers and their families given that capitalists, who hold an imbalance of power over workers, often do not give workers their just due,” Gerald Beyer, a professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University, wrote in an email interview.

But overall, unions are one of the best ways to push back against the capitalist imperative of maximizing profits at the expense of people, especially when the balance between capital and labor has fallen out of whack. From 1973 to 2016, productivity per worker-hour rose six times faster than compensation per hour, according to Beaten Down, Worked Up, Steven Greenhouse’s history of the labor movement. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is 37 percent lower than its 1968 level, given inflation. Chief executives of the 350 largest corporations make 320 times the pay of the average private-sector worker, up from 21 times in 1965. Not coincidentally, “We have the weakest unionized labor force in the industrialized world,” Mr. Greenhouse told me.

An Unseen Power

Ironically, Amazon workers have more leverage than they realize, because they operate key structural nodes. Like coal miners and steelworkers in the middle of the 20th century, they can disrupt American life. Ms. Brown, after all, helps feed New York City. In places like the Inland Empire, the warehouse center east of Los Angeles that processes goods coming from China across the Pacific for the rest of the country, workers “have tremendous power to impose demands on federal government and the state,” said Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes. “It was unions using that leverage who helped build the American Dream.”

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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