Will you finally let your workers unionize?
As this was unfolding, most of Big Tech, including Amazon, sent white-collar workers home to “flatten the curve” and fight the pandemic. Tim saw company leadership go to great lengths to make sure this new system was working and actively seek feedback from the remote workers. Christy heard from a warehouse employee who said productivity targets made it difficult for workers to take a break even for hand washing without a mark on their record. Pay for warehouse workers starts at $15 an hour with minimal access to time off; in May Amazon ended the unpaid leave policy that for a few weeks allowed them to stay home if they had Covid-19 symptoms.The contrast in the treatment of knowledge and warehouse workers couldn’t be starker. Equally clear is the cause: One group has power, the other doesn’t.
Amazon’s decision to fire the activists was easy to make in the United States, where Amazon workers have no union and are left to fend for themselves. With no right to paid sick leave or protection from unfair dismissal, American workers are among the most vulnerable in the world to pressure from any employer, not just Amazon.
Union-represented Amazon workers in Spain, Italy, France and Germany initially failed to resolve their concerns through negotiation, but with court action, regulatory intervention and strikes, they got their needs addressed.
Let’s look at France: Unions there brought a civil case arguing that Amazon had taken inadequate steps to protect workers from infection risk and that it had sidestepped the unions’ statutory role. The court ordered Amazon to limit its sales to only “essential” items, or face harsh penalties until it could reach a safety agreement with the unions. Rather than negotiate, Amazon closed its French operations and appealed. But the appellate court also sided with the workers, who ultimately negotiated a settlement including mandatory union consultation over safety measures, union hiring of external experts to assess the measures’ effectiveness and a continued increase in workers’ hourly pay. The news from Europe shows that Amazon can work with unions and get good results.
Both of us want Amazon to share the wealth with workers and stop putting the relentless pursuit of revenue growth ahead of all other concerns. One way or another, this requires putting more power in the hands of workers. Regulation and legislation are part of the solution. But there’s no need to wait; power can be taken, not just given. That’s what unions are for.
Amazon is a data-driven company. It should recognize the evidence showing that countries with more collective bargaining have a stronger social fabric and better growth, and are more able to weather economic ups and downs. Businesses with collective bargaining relationships, including Auchan Retail and Carrefour, navigated the Covid-19 crisis with less disruption to their businesses and emerged with their reputations intact and even enhanced.
For its own future and the future of the global economy, Amazon should become more responsive to the women and men who’ve enriched shareholders and be willing to recognize and bargain with their representatives. When it comes to the rights of its workers, it should be a leader, not a laggard.
It’s not just Amazon: The need for more unionization is urgent across Big Tech. Amazon stands out because it combines the extraordinary profit margins of these companies with employing hundreds of thousands of front-line workers. There are fewer of these workers at the other iconic tech companies, but nevertheless their employees also deserve a voice over the issues that matter to them.
The question for Mr. Bezos and the billionaires of the world is: Are they ready to rise to the occasion? Will Big Tech listen to and work with its employees to help the world overcome the worst economic and social crisis in recent history?
.. Six years before Trump’s win, the state’s voters elected conservative populist Scott Walker governor. With the help of a Republican-controlled legislature, Walker waged an unprecedented assault on public employee unions in the state and later signed a right to work bill, which undermined private-sector unions.
.. he would go along to these small towns and speak to people about this danger of corporate influence on their lives.
DAVIES: And how far into the 20th century did this sort of progressive trend hold in Wisconsin? And I note that Senator Joe McCarthy – probably the most notorious anti-communist of the century – came from that state.
.. he undertook a pretty radical approach to dealing with public employee unions. What did he propose to do?
KAUFMAN: Well, he proposed to all but strip them of collective bargaining rights, which is their ability to speak as a collective voice around wages, benefits and other workplace concerns, workplace safety, basically, reducing their ability to act as a collective voice. He exempted the police and fire department unions. Some would say that cynically because some of these unions supported him.
.. Tim Cullen, a moderate Democratic state senator – he said, the one thing that was non-negotiable was the automatic dues checkoff.
.. He stoked resentment against the public workers. It was clear in his inaugural address in 2011. He said the public employees can no longer be the haves, and the taxpayers can no longer be the have nots. Privately, he even went further.
There’s a famous recording of him speaking to a billionaire donor where she says when will we become a completely red state? When will we become a right-to-work state? She conflated the two. And he answered, you know, have you seen what we’re going to do with the public employees? And then he went on. He said, you know, because you use divide and conquer. What he meant by that was he was going to first attack the public employees. And then several years later, he instituted a right-to-work law against the private sector employees. Now you have a state that went from 14 percent union density when he was elected to 8 percent.
.. in 2016, the presidential election arrives in Wisconsin, as it does in the rest of the country. The Democratic primary – Bernie Sanders beats Hillary Clinton by 13 points. Why did Hillary Clinton have trouble connecting to Democratic voters in Wisconsin?
.. she has never been a close ally of labor. Wisconsin progressives were deeply wounded by the attacks on labor. She was a former corporate board member of Walmart, a notoriously anti-union company. And she also supported for many, many years free trade agreements, like NAFTA and the China’s membership into the World Trade Organization, that have really impacted the industrial Midwest in such a profound way. People are aware that you can drive by a factory, and they’ll say, oh, this factory moved to Mexico and then went on to Vietnam. They are very keenly aware. Other factors played a role – automation and so on – but these agreements really impacted particularly the industrial Midwest – Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio.
DAVIES: And particularly unionized workers, I think.
.. I think people forget that Donald Trump’s message during the campaign – he also twinned his message of resentment – racial resentment – with a defense of the welfare state. You can look at his speeches. He staged five huge rallies in Wisconsin. He almost always mentioned, we’ve got to protect Social Security and Medicare, and he railed against these free trade agreements. So there was a different kind of Republican message that resonated with a certain sector of the population enough to put him over the top, coupled with Hillary Clinton’s noncampaigning and non-effort in these places, and it really impacted the race.
.. There was frankly a weak Democratic opposition to his message, and there was a stoking of resentment in a time of economic insecurity. That is very powerful. And they weren’t – people weren’t being offered an alternative – a very compelling one anyway.
.. Another example is gerrymandering. In 2012 election, Wisconsin Democrats won an aggregate of almost 200,000 more votes than the Republicans, and yet they lost seats. That…
DAVIES: You’re talking about in the state legislature.
KAUFMAN: In the state legislature in the assembly, and that leads to demoralizing (laughter) of your party. I mean, it’s hard to get candidates to run when they know they’re going to be defeated if the district is just so heavily drawn to favor the Republicans where – and the Democratic seats are – you know, they’ll routinely win more than 70 percent of the vote. So they pack them in. And that case was, you know, brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s the first partisan gerrymandering case to go to the Supreme Court in more than three decades because the federal court agreed with the plaintiffs – the Democrats – that their rights had been denied because it was so extreme.
Senators such as Donnelly, Heitkamp and Manchin need to argue to those who are ambivalent about abortion, or even against it, that right-wing judges would sanction a plutocratic government with little capacity to defend their interests.
.. “The Supreme Court, in case after case, is freely imposing its own view of sound public policy — not constitutional law, but public policy,” Biden told me at the time. “What is at issue here is a question of power, whether power will be exercised by an insulated judiciary or by the elected representatives of the people.”
.. Biden acknowledged that the phrase “judicial activism” has “often been used by conservatives to criticize liberal judges.” But “the shoe is plainly on the other foot: It is now conservative judges who are supplanting the judgment of the people’s representatives and substituting their own.”
“The existing Court’s assault on voting rights, collective bargaining and religious liberty is awful enough — just imagine how bad working people will have it if another right-wing justice joins the Court.” He warned of the court “taking a vicious, anti-worker, anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-civil rights turn.”
.. The future of abortion rights is central to the coming battle. But so are civil rights, corporate power and our democratic capacity to correct social injustices. Conservatives should not be allowed to distract attention from the aspects of their agenda that would horrify even many who voted for Donald Trump.