Monopoly Versus Democracy: Reflections on Unionizing Amazon

About 16% of Amazon workers voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in Bessemer, Alabama, according to the monopoly company’s statement. Consider in what way the process happened.

We turn to author, journalist and professor Juan González. “How do more than 2,000 workers sign union cards at Amazon’s Alabama plant but only 700 vote yes?” he tweeted  Bully-style, the monopoly company intimidated its workforce via captive management meetings with employees, a legal tactic.

Thus, labor law reform is one site of employees’ struggle to form unions at Amazon. “The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act … would institute meaningful penalties for private-sector employers that coerce and intimidate workers seeking to unionize—as has been clearly documented in the Amazon organizing campaign in Bessemer,” according to Celine McNicholas of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC.

Yet a loss is still a loss, right? Dr. William J. Barber, who co-founded the Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival, and is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, says otherwise. “The Amazon workers who voted for a union in Bessemer are already winners,” he said in a statement. “This is just the first round. Amazon did things to intimidate and suppress the vote. The workers are filing complaints, and they will continue to stand up. They have set a fresh trend in the South, and the echoes of their bold action will reverberate for years.”

While Amazon is a global monopoly company, capital’s overwhelming power over labor has been a defining feature of life in the American South particularly and the Global South generally. In the USA, that unequal class relationship persists from chattel slavery centuries ago to right-to-work red states such as Alabama now.

Rev. Barber wrapped with this viewpoint. “In North Carolina, it took several years for us to unionize the Smithfield plant, the world’s largest hog processing plant. Like them, the Bessemer workers will eventually win the vote. Jeff Bezos and Amazon, who fought the union and cut workers’ hazard pay, have already lost because they have revealed their contempt for the people their wealth depends on.”

Not far from Bessemer in Alabama, the United Mine Workers of America are continuing a strike begun on April 1 at Warrior Met coalmines. About 1,000 members of the UMWA voted to continue the strike on April 9. Meanwhile, the UMWA plans to launch “Unity Rallies” in the Brookwood, Ala., area for union members, families and community supporters to build solidarity, inviting local and national allies, according to a union press release.

Further, the UMWA backed the Amazon workers’ bid to unionize in Bessemer. Phil Smith is the UMWA director of communications and government affairs. “UMWA leaders and members attended several events with the RWDSU organizers in support of their efforts to organize the Amazon workers,” he told me via email, “and we continue to lend our name and support to that union’s efforts in Bessemer.”

Such support is essential. Amazon’s deep and union-free pockets have grown deeper to rent elected officials during the pandemic recession. “The profits of Amazon and Walmart increased 70% and 45% respectively in the first three quarters of 2020 as compared with the same period in 2019,” according to Molly Kinder, Laura Stateler, and Julia Du of the Brookings Institute. https://www.brookings. edu/essay/windfall-profits-and-deadly-risks/. With those profits, Amazon increases its power to rule marketplaces and workplaces.

Suffice it to say efforts to unionize the Bessemer workers face the billions of Bezos (a proxy for the ruling class). How to counter such class power? Worker solidarity including consumer boycotts are tools in the toolkit of people in and out of labor unions to force wealth and the power it controls to improve living and working conditions broadly across the economy stateside and abroad.

Women and men make history under conditions that they inherit, an old German wrote long ago. Over the past 40 years in America, bipartisan policies have shifted income and wealth from the bottom and middle to the top. As a result, the US private-sector union density rate is 6.2%, and monopoly firms such as Amazon lord their wealth over employees. How fast can the pushback from below grow under a widening class divide and Biden administration?







Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email