The Union Battle at Amazon Is Far from OverBreaking News
tags: labor history, Amazon, unionization
When Amazon opened its second fulfillment center in the Baltimore region, in 2018, most anyone driving to it from the city arrived via Dundalk Avenue, which took them past a yellow brick building that was constructed in 1952 to house Local 2609 and 2610 of the United Steelworkers and an adjacent building that opened after Local 2610 moved into its own space.
By then, the buildings were mostly vacant, because the steel mill whose workers the union had represented had closed, in 2012, after a long, steady decline. The Bethlehem Steel works were once the largest in the world, an industrial sprawl on the Sparrows Point peninsula that employed some thirty thousand people, several thousand of whom lived in an adjoining company town. The work had been gruelling and frequently treacherous since the mill’s founding, in the eighteen-nineties: “Always More Production” was the slogan of Eugene Grace, Bethlehem Steel’s president from 1916 to 1945. And, in the early decades of the twentieth century, a disproportionate share of the fruits of the workers’ labor flowed to the top: Grace’s predecessor split his time between a mansion on Riverside Drive, in New York, which with seventy-five rooms and a dining salon that could seat two-hundred and fifty was the largest residence in the city, and a thousand-acre, eighteen-building estate in Pennsylvania, which required a staff of seventy and included a replica of a farming village in Normandy.
But the work had become safer and far better paid by the nineteen-fifties, for one basic reason: in 1941, employees had voted to join the union. The unionization effort took half a century and had been met with fierce resistance from mill management, which had armed company police with several boxcars’ worth of submachine guns, rifles, shotguns, and revolvers, and deployed an endless stream of anti-union messaging. “Outsiders have not been necessary in the past,” read one company manifesto. “Nothing has happened to make them necessary now.”
What allowed a free union election at Sparrows Point to finally go forward was the Second World War and the company’s fear of losing out on military contracts from the labor-friendly Roosevelt Administration. Nearly seventy per cent of workers voted for the union. “We got more money, that was important, sure,” one of them told the journalist Mark Reutter. “But we got respect more, that was number one.”
Today, eighty years later, the mill and the company town have been wiped almost entirely off of Sparrows Point. In their place stands a thirty-one-hundred-acre business park, which includes the Amazon fulfillment center. Workers there have, in a sense, returned to the point in the economic cycle where the steelworkers of the early twentieth century had been. In the fall of 2018, the wage for Amazon workers started at about fourteen dollars an hour, about a third of what rank-and-file workers had been making at the steel mill in its final years. They would be working for a company that was synonymous with extreme inequality. Its C.E.O. had just become the richest man in the world, and he, too, had a taste for luxury real estate, with holdings that included the most expensive residence in Washington, D.C., on which he had spent thirty-five million dollars, and which contained twenty-five bathrooms. They would be at far less risk of serious injury, but they would face extraordinarily high demands from a company that had, essentially, adopted “Always More Production” as its own mantra, except that production, in this case, was not making steel for bridges, tunnels, and skyscrapers, but rather stowing and picking and packing products made elsewhere.
And these workers would, like those initial generations at the Point, lack union representation. That, too, had been swept off the peninsula.
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