Amazon Labor's Union Shows "Woke Capital" Still Uses Racism to Divide Workers for Profit

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tags: unions, racism, labor history, Amazon Labor Union

The workers who won a union election at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island earlier this month did something miraculous: They defeated a well-funded and implacable anti-union campaign run by the nation’s second-largest employer, a corporation with almost unlimited financial resources, without the aid of a major union.

The battle isn’t over—the union will still have to go through the difficult process of negotiating a contract—and Amazon will continue its union-busting efforts elsewhere. Still, as Alex Press, who covers the labor movement for the left-wing magazine Jacobin wrote, this victory was “an upset for which there are few parallels in the US labor movement’s post-Reagan history.” The story of the campaign is almost cinematic: workers hailing from all around the globe running a multilingual campaign to defeat a corporate behemoth that subjects its wage workers to harrowing conditions.

The victory of the Amazon Labor Union stands out against a landscape of union weakness. Notwithstanding the high-profile examples of unionization in the media and at corporations such as Starbucks, and despite the desire of many workers to join a unionprivate-sector unionism is in decline. As Stephen Greenhouse wrote last week, the campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks are particularly noteworthy because they were far less expensive than traditional campaigns, and so they have the potential to even a playing field that is heavily tilted toward employers. With a Supreme Court liable to decide through the Ouija board of originalism that any successful unionizing tactic is unconstitutional, organizers will need every edge they can get.

Amazon’s defeat is also notable for another reason: the victory of a diverse group of workers against a mighty corporation that has presented itself as racially egalitarian. Last year, for example, Amazon announced that it would be “recognizing Juneteenth with a curated mix of internal and external programs designed to honor and educate about the history of the date.”

As Will Evans wrote for The Atlantic last year, conditions for Amazon warehouse workers are notoriously exploitative: low pay; long shifts; few breaks, even to go to the bathroom; and a high injury rate. Such conditions reflect the corporation’s leverage over its own workforce—without the protections of a union, it is difficult for employees to secure better working conditions. Amazon would contribute much more to the cause of racial equality by ending its anti-union campaign than by offering any “mix of internal and external programs” that it could come up with. At the start of the union campaign, Amazon fired one of the lead organizers, a young Black worker named Christian Smalls. In a memo leaked to Vice, company executives described a plan to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement” because he was “not smart or articulate.” Perhaps the flaws and morality of this strategy can be addressed in future corporate diversity trainings or Juneteenth programs.

Historically, American employers have exploited ethnic and linguistic distinctions among workers with lethal effectiveness. In the aftermath of Reconstruction and during the height of American nativism, labor organizations were also compromised by white supremacy and exclusionism. Nevertheless, Booker T. Washington argued in The Atlantic in 1913 that he was “convinced that these organizations can and will become an important means of doing away with the prejudice that now exists in many parts of the country against the Negro laborer,” not out of simple virtue “but because it is to their interest to do so.”

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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