- CounterPunch.org - https://www.counterpunch.org -

The Growing Union Movement

Let me begin by congratulating the workers at Amazon in Staten Island who, for the first time, were able to win a union organizing campaign against that giant corporation which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the second wealthiest person in America.

Amazon spent over $4 million in trying to defeat the union drive. The independent union, the Amazon Labor Union, had almost no money at all for their grassroots campaign but ended up with 55% of the vote. Congratulations Amazon Labor Union.

I also want to congratulate the workers at Starbucks for their incredible union organizing efforts. Starbucks has coffee shops in some 15,000 locations all across the country and, until a few months ago, none of them were organized. Then, in December, workers in 2 shops in Buffalo, New York voted to join a union and that union organizing effort is now spreading like wildfire all across the nation. In fact, last Friday workers in New York City successfully voted to form the first Starbucks union roastery and tenth union Starbucks coffee shop in America. And, in the coming weeks and months, Starbucks workers in some 170 other coffee shops in 27 states will be holding union elections.

What makes these union victories so impressive is that from start to finish they were accomplished by a grassroots movement with very little financial resources.

Why is it important that we support these union organizing efforts? We live in a time of massive income and wealth inequality where CEOs make 350 times more than the average worker, where 2 people own more wealth than the bottom 42 percent.

While the billionaire class is becoming much, much richer, real weekly wages for American workers are $40 lower today than they were 49 years ago. In fact, during that period there has been a massive, massive transfer of wealth from the working class and middle class of our country to the top one percent.

According to the RAND Institute, since 1975, $50 trillion in wealth has been redistributed from the bottom 90% to the top 1% – primarily because corporate profits and CEO compensation has grown much faster than the wages of average workers.

And listen to this, which really says it all. During this terrible pandemic, when thousands of essential workers died, gave up their lives, doing their jobs, some 700 billionaires in America became nearly $2 trillion richer.

Today, multi-billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are off taking joy rides on rocket ships to outer space, buying $500 million super-yachts and living in mansions with 25 bathrooms.

And let’s be clear. It’s not just income and wealth inequality. It is economic and political power. In America today, just 3 Wall Street firms (Black Rock, State Street and Vanguard) control assets of over $21 trillion which is essentially the GDP of the United States, the largest economy on Earth. 3 Wall Street firms.

Why do we want to grow the union movement? Because unions provide better wages, benefits and working conditions for their members. In fact, union workers make, on average, wages that are about 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts. They also have much better healthcare and far better pension plans than non-union employees. And, by the way, when unions win decent contracts for their employees they drive up wages for all workers in the country.

Further, unions give workers some degree of control over their work lives and make them more than just cogs in a machine. They end the ability of companies being able to arbitrarily fire workers for any reason and to impose any schedule that they want on their employees. In other words, at a time when we are seeing more and more concentration of ownership in this country and increased corporate power, unions give workers the ability to fight back and have some control over their lives.

Similarly, when large corporations have enormous political power through the billions they spend on lobbying, campaign contributions and advertising, unions have the capability to fight back and create a legislative agenda that works for all Americans and not just the few.

What these union victories tell me is that working people all over this country are sick and tired of being exploited by corporations making record-breaking profits.

They are sick and tired of billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, becoming obscenely rich during the pandemic, while they put their lives on the line working for inadequate wages, inadequate benefits, inadequate working conditions and inadequate schedules.

And let’s be clear. If you think that the union victories at Amazon and Starbucks are an aberration, you would be sorely mistaken.

During the last year, I have been proud to stand in solidarity with courageous workers around the country who have been on strike or who are engaged in union organizing efforts.

I’m talking about the United Auto Workers who went on strike at John Deere in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas to protest against massive cutbacks to retirement benefits and totally inadequate pay raises.

I’m talking about the United Steel Workers who went on strike at Special Metals in West Virginia – a company owned by Warren Buffett worth $127 billion – to fight for good wages and good benefits.

I’m talking about Bakery Workers who went on strike at Kellogg’s, Nabisco and the Jon Donaire ice cream cake factory in California fighting for justice, dignity and respect.

I’m talking about the United Mine Workers who are still on strike at Warrior Met in Alabama – a company owned by BlackRock – the largest Wall Street investment firm in the country managing $10 trillion in assets.

I’m talking about the United Food and Commercial Workers who went on strike at the King Soopers grocery store chain owned by Kroger in Colorado.

And I’m talking about graduate students and Adjunct Professors at MIT who are waging a strong union organizing effort on that campus.

Today, I want to continue to express my support for these workers who are not only organizing for themselves and for their coworkers, but for all of us – and, in fact, for the future of the entire country.

While we may not hear much talk about the struggles of the working class in communities across the country, let’s be clear.

The union struggles that have been taking place against corporate greed ultimately determine the quality of wages, benefits, and working conditions that all American workers enjoy.

In other words, when unionized workers do well in raising the bar for economic and social justice, we all do well. Their success is our shared success. Make no mistake about it, we cannot have a strong middle class in this country without a strong labor movement.

Here is the bottom line. In the year 2022, the United States and the rest of the world face two very different political paths. On one hand, there is a growing movement towards oligarchy in which a small number of incredibly wealthy and powerful billionaires own and control a significant part of the economy and exert enormous influence over the political life of our country.

Remarks prepared for delivery in the US Senate.