Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Class conflict and the Amazon Union Drive


Published in Left Turn, Spring-Summer 2021


…the most important question: How do workers become class conscious?

      – Michael Yates, More Unequal

Karl Marx identified the central contradiction of capitalism as the antagonistic relationship between workers and their capitalist employers.   As Michael Yates has put it,

“the essence of this relationship is the exploitation of the workers, the extraction of a surplus by the employers from their labor, necessary to fuel the accumulation of capital in a milieu of intense competition.  Unlike other modes of production such as slavery or feudalism, this exploitation is hidden by the market….  [Workers] sell their ability to work in the impersonal market, and it appears that the market dictates their pay.” [1]

 Whereas, in the United States, class is almost universally perceived as a function of characteristics like income, wealth, educational attainment, and lifestyle, Michael Zweig reminds us that class “must be understood in terms of power,” allowing us to see it as a “dynamic relationship rather than a static set of characteristics.”  Class, in short, is more than and different from an identity, though it is that, too.  Thus the working class “are those with little personal control over the pace or content of their work and without supervisory control over the work lives of others,” whereas the capitalist class are the “corporate elite, senior executives, and directors of large corporations.”  The middle class are “professionals, small-business owners, and managerial and supervisory employees” –some of whom are “closely entwined with the working class” while others’ are “more fully involved in serving the capitalist class.”[2]

US Labor History and the Eclipse of Class Conflict:

            In their early years, American workers’ struggles against the “dark satanic mills” of industrial capitalism were often framed in Marxian terms of class conflict –notably by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and by labor activists like Eugene Debs, “Big Bill” Haywood, and Mary G. “Mother” Jones.  For decades, workers’ organizing efforts were brutally crushed by bloody attacks serving the interests of the robber barons.  Over the long, tumultuous haul of US labor history organized labor moved steadily away from promoting class conflict to an accommodation with US capitalism, although some labor leaders and individual unions have diverged from the accommodationist line.

            Alex Carey has identified three eras in which the contradictions of capitalism produced an aroused populace that challenged the US economy.  Each produced a well-orchestrated mass propaganda counterattack along with Red Scare repression.  Two occurred in the aftermath of labor militancy and long-delayed worker raises during the two World Wars and one after the tumultuous era of the 1960s.  In Carey’s words, “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power.”[3]

            The latter two eras are particularly relevant to the Amazon union effort.  The progressive and pro-labor initiatives of the New Deal –notably, the National Labor Relations Act (“Wagner Act”) which established the collective bargaining rights of workers and the governing National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)— are often viewed as saving capitalism from the threat of leftist revolt.  However, the post-WWII Taft-Hartley act, enacted by a conservative Congress over President Truman’s veto, watered down the protections of the Wagner Act.  Perhaps most importantly, it established the right of states to create so-called “right-to-work” laws which allowed non-dues-paying workers to become “free riders” enjoying the benefits produced by union actions.  Currently 27 states in the South, Midwest and interior West have right-to-work laws, now legitimized by the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision.  For its part, the NLRB’s ‘enforcement’ of worker rights has been shaped by the political objectives of the party in power.[4]

            Aided by anti-Communist purges, propaganda campaigns[5] and public policies that gave workers greater stake in the growing US economy, the postwar era produced the so-called “social contract” between labor and management in which the AFL-CIO and other unions embraced Cold War ideology and effectively collaborated with corporations.  1955 was the high point of union membership, with 35.7% of private sector workers belonging to unions.  By 1974, that figure stood at 26.2%.  The leading unions became heavily bureaucratized, with leaders receiving six-figure salaries; many workers were beginning to see unions as little more than a necessary evil.

            Even more relevant to the Amazon case is the post-1960s era which brought the New Deal regime and the postwar social contract to an end in the US and ushered in the global neoliberal regime.[6]  Triggered by corporatist reactions to the “excess democracy” of 60s-era activism, blamed for the declining profitability of capitalism in the 1970s, neoliberalism loomed as the guiding ideology of both Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and the Ronald Reagan presidency in the US.

            The combination of forces consistent with neoliberalism –property tax revolts, direct attacks on unions and collective bargaining, tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, globalization and capital flight of manufacturing industries in particular, investors shift toward more profitable financial speculation, and the internet and high tech industry—radically shifted the ground for union activity and confirmed most unions’ close collaboration with the Democratic Party.  As well-paying manufacturing jobs disappeared overseas and economic inequality soared, worker fears for the future became far more widespread –fears that proved fodder for racist dog-whistle and anti-immigration propaganda by right-wing forces.  Private sector union membership fell to 6.2% by 2019.  At the same time, new monopolistic enterprises –Amazon and WalMart in particular—gained dominant roles in the changing economy, devastating smaller businesses and local economies.  WalMart paved a path forward for Amazon and others with its massive accumulation of wealth, exploitation of workers, and successful campaigns against unionizing efforts.

The Amazon Behemoth:

            In twenty-six years, Amazon has gone from being an online bookseller to a corporate behemoth that, in Jonathan Rosenblum’s words, “has consolidated extraordinary monopolistic control over our daily lives….  It plays the central role in American capitalism’s distribution and logistics web and also in technology and its control of the internet through Amazon Web Services (AWS).”[7]  As documented by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese and others, the “magnitude of Amazon’s influence in the world’s economy” represents a “significant shift in the global political economy” that the authors identify as “Amazon capitalism.”[8]

            Indeed Amazon’s market value of approximately $1.5 trillion is the largest in the world and greater than roughly 90% of the world’s nations.  Only WalMart among private entities employs more people in the US than Amazon, which has 800 warehouses in the country and employs more than 500,000 workers in the US and 1.2 million worldwide.  Over the span of the last decade Amazon paid less than three percent of its $27 billion in US profits in taxes.[9]

Not surprisingly, with an estimated $179 billion in wealth, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is now the world’s richest individual, and one who refused to appear before a Congressional hearing on excessive executive salaries.  As Kim Moody put it, “Bezos and his crew” have done “what the robber barons have always done: raise, spend, and sometimes lose other people’s money, dodge taxes, swindle suppliers, and avoid unions.”[10]  In an effort to blunt rising criticism of its monopolistic, anti-union practices, Amazon increased starting wages to $15/hour and added to workers health benefits.

            In addition to being steadfastly anti-union, Amazon created a warehouse workplace that verges on totalitarian working conditions.  Upgrading classic Taylorist strategies, the corporation uses electronic surveillance of workers (as well as customers) to ensure maximum speed (or, as Rosenblum put it, to “throttle incipient organizing efforts”[11]).  It tightly regulates “time-off-task” (TOT), limiting warehouse employees to two bathroom breaks per shift, causing some employees to urinate in bottles.  Amazon’s delivery drivers, many of whom are subcontracted out gig workers with no benefits, are tightly exploited by surveillance and management by time-governing algorithms.

            Amazon’s inhumane practices were exposed in a four-part investigative report back in 2011-12 by the Morning Call in Allentown, PA.  The report documented workers suffering from heat exhaustion in the Lehigh Valley warehouse where temperatures reached 100 degrees; several were evacuated to area hospitals.  One worker who was hospitalized found that she had been terminated on her return and later struggled to gain unemployment compensation against the resistance of the company outsourced by Amazon for hiring warehouse employees.[12]

The Alabama Union Drive

            In April 2020, as demand for mail-order products was on the rise due to the pandemic, Amazon opened a new “fulfillment center” (corporate-speak for warehouse) in Bessemer, Alabama.  By fall, the president of the mid-South council of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was contacted by a Bessemer worker inquiring about organizing the plant employees.  The union began collecting authorization cards from workers and amassed a reported 3000 cards, sufficient to get NLRB authorization to hold a union vote.  The mail balloting spanned seven weeks, culminating on March 29, 2021.  Over a sixty-day period, the company hired thousands of additional workers, bringing the workforce to 5800, thereby diluting the potential appeal of union advocates.

RWDSU’s success in gathering so many union cards, along with its own and widespread supporters’ publicity efforts generated widespread media attention to the union drive.  Coming at a time when a Gallup poll showed two-thirds of Americans supporting labor unions (up from 50% in 2009), mainstream liberal media were drawn to the union drive’s potential to revive the labor movement, to say nothing of the possibility of bringing the Amazon giant to heel if the successful effort spread.  As labor studies professor Janice Fine commented, “This is happening in the toughest state, with the toughest company, at the toughest moment…. If the union can prevail given those three facts, it will send a message that Amazon is organizable everywhere.”[13]  Even President Biden made an unusually strong pro-union comment without explicitly mentioning Amazon, and as the media have commented, the House of Representatives passed the PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize Act) that would begin to address some anti-union practices and repeal right-to-work laws (though it is stymied in the current Senate).

From a left perspective, the union drive posed the possibility of an even greater shift in American politics.  Given the company’s multi-racial makeup at the lower “levels” of field and customer service, a spreading union effort across the range of Amazon facilities could generate powerful feelings of solidarity across racial lines.  One could imagine how that solidarity might begin to break down divisions long-fostered by powerful forces on the right, raising the specter of, well, class conflict.

However, for now anyway, that was not to be.  From the beginning, as expected, Amazon pulled out all the stops to defeat the union effort: hiring union-busting consultants from the notorious Morgan-Lewis law firm, seeking (unsuccessfully) to require an in-person vote during the pandemic, bombarding workers (along with local media) with anti-union text messages and postings throughout break rooms and bathrooms, requiring workers to attend regular anti-union propaganda sessions, and successfully getting the city of Bessemer to change the traffic light patterns in front of the warehouse to maximize the green lights for exiting cars (thereby making it difficult for organizers to speak to workers).  Workers were told “Where will your dues go?” “Do it without dues” (which, of course, are not required anyway in a right-to-work state), and “You’ll have to skip dinner and school supplies,” among many other bogus anti-union claims.

Defeat and its Aftermath:

            Given the hype about the union drive and its potential, along with highly visible support in a number of quarters, the vote of 1798 to 738 against the union was a crushing defeat and a telling commentary on the aspirations of many employees.  The prevailing side, in effect, voted to work in totalitarian-like conditions in exchange for wages that would place a family of four slightly above the poverty level.  Amazon’s tactics were a resounding success, but in addition the union faced broader obstacles: a younger workforce largely ignorant of the benefits of unionization and an internet-influenced culture which has greatly undermined the idea of solidarity.

            For its part, the RWDSU has promised to challenge Amazon’s “illegal” tactics in the courts, but the union appears to be shifting away from plant-based election organizing.  For the moment at least, a brighter future for working people seems less likely than it did before the organizing effort in Alabama.  We are clearly no closer to an appreciation of class conflict, though that should be part of labor’s message to its organizing audiences.  Yet, as Rosenblum observed, “It took more than a generation of failed organizing, most notably the 1919 steel strike, before workers honed the strategic smarts and organization unity to overcome the chokehold of corporate control.”[14]  And as the brutal effects of neoliberal capitalism become more profound and widespread, the continued work of activists may find more fertile ground for their organizing efforts.

[1] Michael D. Yates, ed., More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007) 10.

[2] Michael Zweig, “Six Points on Class,” Monthly Review (https://monthlyreview.org/2006/07/01/six-points-on-class/ --accessed 4/13/2021)

[3] Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty, Andrew Lohrey, ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 18.

[4] Writing towards the end of the Reagan-Bush years, Thomas Geoghegan observed that the NLRB “almost operates to prohibit” labor organizing.  Thomas Geoghegan, Which Side Are You On?  Trying to Be for Labor When Its Flat on Its Back (New York: Plume Books, 1991), 4.

[5] See Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-60 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

[6] I use “regime” in the sense used by presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek, to refer to eras in which a particular coalition of interest groups dominates the aims of presidencies, whether these be Democratic or Republican.

[7] Jonathan Rosenblum. “Resisting Amazon is Not Futile,” Jacobin, December 5, 2020 (https://jacobinmag.com/2020/12/amazon-cost-of-free-shipping-review-strikes --accessed 4/12/21).

[8] Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese, The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy (London: Pluto Press, 2020), 1.  The book details the unprecedented range of Amazon’s influence.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Quoted from The Cost of Free Shipping by Rosenblum, supra.

[11] Rosenblum, Resisting Amazon.

[13] Quoted in David Streitfeld, “How Amazon Crushes Unions,” New York Times, March 16, 2021 (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/16/technology/amazon-unions-virginia.html?searchResultPosition=1 –accessed March 25, 2021).

[14] Rosenblum, Resisting Amazon


The Capitol assault was an act of expressive politics. A backlash is surely coming -- against the left

 Published in Salon, February 27, 2021

With roots in the 1960s, this now-prominent form of protest politics has long proven futile and counterproductive

[Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley, known as the QAnon Shaman, is seen at the Capital riots. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images) ]

For weeks now, the news media have been flooded by a tidal wave of news and commentaries about the January 6 violent assault against the U.S. Capitol building. Most mainstream commentators condemned the assault using terms like "insurrection," "terrorism," and even "fascism." Right wing media and many Republicans have echoed the ex-President's lies about blocking a "stolen" election, while his Congressional defenders blocked his impeachment conviction.

I would suggest an additional way we might think about the January 6 assault, as a form of "expressive politics" that has its roots in the 1960s — a now-prominent form of protest "politics" that is both futile and counterproductive.

The 1960s era was a time when powerful social movements brought about profoundly important changes in the United States. But it was also a time when the news media broadcast seemingly incessant images of violence: police attacks on southern civil rights activists, shocking assassinations, the horrific U.S. war in Vietnam, and five successive summers of inner-city rioting as Black Americans' frustrations boiled over.

Furthermore, some anti-war militants engaged in violent attacks on property while others displayed Viet Cong flags at antiwar protests, and for a while the media seemed saturated with bizarre images of hippies and their countercultural lifestyles.

Television imagery in particular became a vehicle for protesters to "gain attention" through militancy or provocative behaviors — in effect, to feel more "powerful," even though the same media were consistently dismissing or attacking their fundamental criticisms of America.

As one young Black man declared after images of the 1965 Watts riot shocked the American public, "We won, because we made the whole world pay attention to us."

Antiwar protester Jerry Rubin revealed the narcissistic element in "expressive politics" this way: "Media attention can be comforting. Someone is paying attention, we are having some impact — is the feeling."

Yet in actual fact, the inner-city uprisings, along with other media images, were used then as fuel for a profound backlash campaign led by politicians on the right from Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to George Wallace and Richard Nixon. They appealed to people left out of, and often alienated by, the events they witnessed in the media.

Aided by a massive corporate campaign, the backlash turned the country's politics away from the democratic promise of the awakening social movements to a new creed that worshipped the so-called "free market" and rejected the use of government to meet the needs of people, the ideology known today as neoliberalism.

The mass media simply followed the cues. The 1960s became widely dismissed as an era of self-indulgence and mindless militancy. More precisely, the media romanticized a "good" sixties (civil rights and JFK) while condemning a "bad" sixties (virtually everything that happened after 1964). Consider, for example, how the imagery in the film "Forrest Gump" follows this demarcation to a T.

So now we have witnessed precisely those "left-out" and alienated populations on the right engaging in a violent assault against the U.S. Capitol. Not only did they feel the Congress was the enemy because it was going to validate an actual legitimate election outcome, but they took and broadcast so many selfies and videos that they provided law enforcement with a vehicle for arresting many of them.

Using burgeoning right wing social media, those who assaulted the Capitol continue to echo the wild conspiracy claims promulgated by neo-fascist organizations while simultaneously ranting about "revolution" or "civil war" and violence to come.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the Capitol event and its aftermath have had one dominant effect. They have energized the forces of backlash and repression — not only against groups on the Right, but any groups carrying out protests which officials might deem as threatening the social order.

The strident attacks and police violence against Black Lives Matter protests over the last year — reinforced by well-established patterns in our history — suggest that the impact of these repressive measures will fall not on white conservatives going forward, but disproportionately on racial minorities and others on the Left. 

What then do we make of "expressive politics" and what do they suggest about effective ways to bring about much needed change?

First, let us recognize how the media-captured provocative act is particularly seductive for those who are powerless in the political process. Despite Donald Trump's manipulative language, and except for the single factor of white supremacy, many of those assaulting the Capitol are as effectively cut off from political power as are racial minorities living in under-resourced neighborhoods and communities. White supremacy is, in effect, their only claim of "power" against Black Americans they feel threatened by.

Second, by itself, a media-captured episode of violence produces nothing but backlash and repression and fails to advance the real interests of those protesting.

How, then, can marginalized or oppressed groups effectively advance their interests? I would suggest both "inside" and "outside" strategies are necessary.

Inside strategy means tactics that cause political decision makers to reflect the interests of these groups. The 1960s are again a case in point — none of the significant, even historic, changes that occurred in that era would have occurred in the absence of mass movements from below. To achieve such a mass movement requires an outside strategy.

Obviously a great deal of networking and strategic on-the-ground organizing goes into creating a mass movement.  Mass protests become more powerful if they reach and draw into their ranks a wider slice of the population — or, according to a classic formula of direct action, if their audience becomes more sympathetic to the protesters' cause than to the target of their protest.

Both the civil rights and — until the media zeroed in on looters, and commentators attacked them — Black Lives Matter movements succeeded at this because their audiences saw the legitimate reason for their protest: police attacks on nonviolent civil rights protesters and the widely-viewed police murder of George Floyd that followed a long line of police killings.

A huge challenge facing those on the left is how they can get marginalized audiences on the right to see the threat of climate change, or the impact of racism, or the counter-productivity of U.S. militarism.

A pivotal first step, however, would be to get those audiences to see that their economic self-interests can be advanced by joining with others who are also struggling economically, at the same time recognizing that right wing claims about hot-button emotional issues are essentially just that. 

This suggests that class inequality can be an effective focal point for coming together around a range of issues — jobs, health care, inequitable taxes, inadequate pay, demeaning work, etc.— that can often be addressed in a variety of ways at the local level, but which ultimately direct attention to the nature of our capitalist economy. Joint collaboration, in turn, is a catalyst for growing trust and interaction.

President Biden often speaks of his desire for "unity" in the nation. However, he doesn't mean "unity" among all those who are struggling. Probably nothing scares the economic elites of this country more than a unified working majority mobilized to address economic inequities across the board.

That's a radically different animal from "expressive politics."