Amazon’s union campaign is succeeding where other unions failed
Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are currently voting by mail on whether or not to form a union. Their campaign against one of the world's most powerful -- and most anti-union -- corporations has captured public imagination, and inspired young activists, in a way that hasn't happened in almost a century.
1. The President and VP want Amazon workers to join a union!
On Sunday evening, President Biden expressed direct and unequivocal support for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) campaign at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama. Biden tweeted a video that included the following statement:
“Workers in Alabama -- and all across America – are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice – one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers. Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”
And on Monday, VP Kamala Harris followed his lead by tweeting, in another clear reference to the Amazon campaign: “I support union workers and those working to unionize, in Alabama and across America.”
The situation has been compared to the 1930s, when John L. Lewis, president of the newly-created Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) adopted the slogan, “the President wants you to join a union,” to help organize the auto and steel industries. The difference is that Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) had made no such statement -- it was apocryphal -- and in private, FDR was furious about it. But it did not matter – people believed he had said it and the rest, as they say, is history.
Previous sitting Democratic Presidents have made supportive statements about on-going labor campaigns. For example, President Clinton issued statements that were considered generally support of the union in the 1997 UPS/Teamsters dispute, and President Obama openly supported the workers’ factory occupation at Republic Windows in Chicago in 2015. But neither of these examples come remotely close to approaching the tone or the importance of Biden’s supportive comments about the RWDSU campaign at Amazon.
2. From Teen Vogue to Kotaku: the media is the message
The union campaign at Amazon has attracted a remarkable quantity and quality of media coverage. Short of Facebook and Google workers striking and crashing the internet, it’s difficult to imagine a union organizing campaign that would have generated greater media coverage – and overwhelmingly positive coverage -- than the RWDSU campaign at Amazon.
The only comparable recent labor events in terms of positive coverage is the Los Angeles Times' positive coverage of the ‘Justice for Janitors’ campaign in the mid-1990s, when the Service Employee International Union organized janitors in major downtown office buildings. There was also the New York Times' positive coverage of the United Parcel Service (UPS) strike in 1997 when the Teamsters successfully struck to oppose part-time work and outsourcing, and the Chicago Tribune coverage of the teachers’ strike in 2012, when the union struck for better conditions and increased funding for public education with widespread public support.
But those labor campaigns were largely regional stories. The Amazon union campaign, on the other hand, has attracted a remarkable amount of national and international media coverage. It even made the front-page story in the New York Times magazine. But it’s not just the usual suspects that have been involved. The story has also received positive coverage in fashion publications Elle and Teen Vogue, and gamer publications, such as Kotaku and 343 Industries. It has been covered extensively in the Black media, and in the pro-BLM media, including in The Giro and Jacobin, as well as in the tech media by publications such as Gizmodo and Pando. It has even made it to the pages of The Onion.
International media has also covered the union campaign at length, with an overwhelmingly positive tone. In the past few days alone, I have spoken about the campaign to, among others, journalists at Les Echos and Marianne (France) and Pagina/12 (Argentina). The campaign has also been covered extensively in Asian media. In the UK, The Guardian editorial board perhaps best summed up the supportive tone, and has captured the David vs. Goliath character of the struggle: “Workers fighting to form the first union at an Amazon workplace in the US are pioneers in the battle to civilize big-tech capitalism.”
3. Reaching the parts that other union campaigns can’t reach
In what must be a first for the union movement, the campaign at Amazon has attracted support from the gamer community, Teen Vogue, the Black Lives Matter movement, and TV and film writers such as Tina Fey, the NFL Players Union, and the MLB Players Union. The Bessemer union campaign has also gained support from the international labor community.
Moreover, in mid-February, a major poll showed that a clear majority of Americans support Amazon workers trying to form a union and disapprove of Amazon’s anti-union tactics; support for the workers crossed party lines. The survey found, for example, that “strong majority of voters — 69 percent — support Amazon employees’ efforts to unionize, with just 19 percent opposed.”.
No doubt this support is related to the broader context of the pandemic, which has both exposed and exacerbated glaring inequalities in American society, and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been a central theme in the union campaign in Bessemer. The union drive has also attracted such a stunning amount of attention because Amazon is not simply a ‘just another Big Tech company’.This campaign is not just about work in one industry, but about the future of work itself.
The Amazon union drive even made it to the subscription homework site Chegg.com, which used the following example: “Write the introduction to an informative speech. Topic: Amazon's poor work conditions, which led to employees attempting to form a union.”
In sum, the US labor movement has probably never had this amount of positive media coverage any time before in its history, possibly not even in the 1930s, when the number of media outlets was tiny compared with today.
4. Social Media amplification of the union message
Social media has greatly amplified this positive media coverage of the union campaign at Amazon. To cite but a few examples: Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who has 15 million twitter followers, has retweeted positive stories about the Amazon campaign on an almost daily basis. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who has also tweeted repeatedly about the Amazon campaign, has over 12.5 million twitter followers. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has tweeted about it to her 2.6 million followers, who likely include Amazon workers trying to organize at a warehouse in Minneapolis.
In the South, Stacey Abrams, a leading Democratic activist in Georgia, has tweeted extensively about the campaign to her 2.5 million followers. Even actors and celebrities have tweeted about the campaign. Given the key role of the media, and social media, in transmitting information about labor unions to the public, the coverage of the campaign at Amazon could have concrete immediate and longer-term benefits for labor.
The labor movement is a secondary institution in American society. It lacks the power to shape its environment, but it has the ability to take advantage of changes in the larger economic and political environment. That’s what John L. Lewis did in the 1930s by adopting the “President Wants You To Join a Union” slogan for the CIO -- but unlike Biden, FDR never actually said that.
The RWDSU’s inspirational Amazon campaign, and the President’s support for it, has also provided such a moment, which unions must take advantage of. Every union in the country should have Biden’s video comments on the Amazon campaign at the top of its website.
Not surprisingly, it already is at the front of the RWDSU’s website. Every labor leader in the country should be tweeting, emailing, and texting Biden’s video to every union member and non-member they can contact. Moments like this don’t come along very often; we don’t know when the next one will come along – or even if there will be a next one. Unions cannot allow it to go to waste.
Amazon workers trying to form a union should know that much of the country is rooting for them, and, of course, the President Wants Amazon Workers to Join a Union!