Headlines tell us that something new is stirring in America’s workplaces, as we realize that the dreaded coronavirus, the power of giant corporations, and the fate of the labor force are all inextricably entwined.
Indeed, most likely, even as the epidemic rages, we’re at the dawn of something we haven’t seen in more than eight decades—a new spurt of labor-organizing activism, based around public health, as well as worker wages.
For instance, here’s a scary headline from Breitbart News on March 31: “Coronavirus Cases Reported at 19 Amazon Warehouses Across U.S.” So if you’re an Amazon customer, relying on packages from a perhaps virus-ridden facility, how does that make you feel? And maybe you shop at Amazon’s subsidiary, Whole Foods: Are you fully confident that the grocery store’s supply chain is being kept safe? And what about the workers at both Amazon and Whole Foods—does it seem to you that the big boss, Jeff Bezos, is doing all he can to look out for them, as well for you?
With those questions in mind, we might consider some recent headlines. NPR: “Amazon, Instacart Grocery Delivery Workers Demand Coronavirus Protection And Pay”; The Intercept: “No Masks and Uncertain Sick Leave: New York Whole Foods Delivery Workers Say Amazon Is Failing to Protect Them”; The Verge: “Amazon warehouse workers walk out in rising tide of COVID-19 protests”; Axios: “Virus spawns new labor movement”; the Detroit News: “Amazon workers stage walkout at Romulus warehouse during COVID-19 crisis.”
We might add that the news of labor ferment is being carried, now, by more than just “journalists.” That is, any activist or interested party can make himself or herself part of the story with a cell phone, for instance, taking pictures of protesters carrying signs reading, “Treat your workers like your customers,” and, “It’s difficult to close a business for 3 or 4 weeks. But it’s more difficult to close a casket for a loved one for an entire life.” And all this visual and audio material feeds into social media hashtags, such as #AmazonStrike.
Surveying the changing labor landscape, on March 30, Boston University law professor Tiffany C. Li tweeted:
The labor story is bigger than just the delivery strikes today. GE workers protesting to switch production to ventilators. Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods workers striking for hazard pay and sick leave. Kaiser nurses protesting for #GetMePPE. This is how movements begin.
Indeed, as the news flies by, new names move into view. For example, Christian Smalls, an Amazon worker at New York City’s JFK airport, was apparently fired on March 30 as a result of his activist efforts. Now something of a labor martyr, Smalls has become a loud presence on social media.
Also, New York State’s Democrat attorney general, Letitia James, has stepped in. James called Smalls’ firing “disgraceful,” adding, “In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited.” James further called on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate the incident.
The NLRB is an obscure federal agency now, but not so long ago, it was front and center, in the middle of a great many labor disputes, more often than not, siding with workers.
The roots of the NLRB reach all the way back to the New Deal of the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt put the federal government squarely on the side of workers wanting to organize so as to improve their wages and working conditions.
Today, if the NLRB chose to, it could look in on Amazon, especially in the wake of a scoop from Paul Blest at Vice, who reported that top Amazon executives, including CEO Jeff Bezos, had met to discuss how to get revenge on Smalls; according to Vice, Amazon planned to paint Smalls as “not smart or articulate,” all as part of a corporate communications strategy to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” Is such corporate targeting a violation of NLRB rules? Or a prima facie case of defamation? Or is it just a cloddish PR plan? We’ll find out.
Yet for now, Amazon is so strong that it seems impervious to the claims of workers, stakeholders, and the nation as a whole. As the company said in a statement to USA Today on March 31, the various job actions against it had “no operational impact” and service continued at “all of our [Whole Foods] stores without interruption.”
Indeed, it’s hard to comprehend just how huge Amazon has become. Even with the recent stock market tumble, Amazon boasts a market capitalization of more than $900 billion. As of October 2019, it had more than 750,000 employees, and it has apparently hired 200,000 since. (Of course, all these numbers are hard to pin down, since Amazon uses so many contractors who are not technically counted as employees—more on that later.)
And while Amazon is, in many ways, a brilliantly innovative company, it’s also evident that it short-shrifts its blue-collar workers. As Alex Webb of Bloomberg News noted of the company, “It’s sitting on $55 billion in cash and is expected to generate another $34 billion of free cash flow this year.”
Yet for all that wealth, Bezos and Amazon seem determined to hoard it. As Webb observed of the company, “Cost control is often a euphemism for low wages, ungenerous benefits.” Moreover, “A 2018 analysis by The Economist found that after Amazon opens a storage depot, local wages for warehouse workers fall by an average of 3%.”
For perspective, we might point out that, as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Amy K. Glasmeier, the “living wage” in the U.S. is $16.07 an hour. Assuming a 50-week work year, that hourly wage amounts to about $32,000 per annum—and it’s not so easy for a family to live on that, especially in a higher-cost city.
And Amazon is fighting hard to keep wages down. As Alleen Brown of The Intercept reported, the e-commerce colossus uses as many ten contract-delivery companies at a single warehouse. When one worker was asked why Amazon has so many contractors at one location, he answered, “So that we don’t unionize.”
Meanwhile, according to Business Insider, Jeff Bezos himself is worth $120 billion and makes an additional $2,500 per second, which is more than twice what the median American worker makes per week.
We can praise Bezos for his entrepreneurial skill, and we might even be philosophical as to why he thinks he needs $120 billion, even as he is shorting his workers–and yet we must also note that his employees and others are working hard for their relative pittance. Indeed, sometimes, they are even denied bathroom breaks.
And we must further note that in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, anyone who ventures forth into the world of warehouses and street deliveries—especially in crowded cities—is showing no small degree of personal courage.
So maybe these brave blue collars deserve a better deal. As we shall see, the nation has thought that way in the past—and maybe we will again in the future.
The New Deal for Workers
The New Deal was a long, sometimes disappointing, but ultimately successful struggle against economic hard times. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as the 32nd president in March 1933, replacing the disastrous Herbert Hoover, the unemployment rate stood at 24.9 percent. After his first four years in office, FDR had managed to whittle it down to 16 percent. That rate was still way too high, of course, but at least FDR had joblessness moving in the right direction. The country recognized his progress: That’s why he was reelected in 1936 with more than 60 percent of the vote, carrying 46 of 48 states.
Still, FDR knew that he had much more to get done. As he said in his second inaugural address in 1937, “I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.”
Having described the challenges too many Americans faced, FDR pledged more bold action:
But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
The New Dealers believed that one way to make sure that those who had too little got more was to let them bargain for it. That is, help workers to organize, so that they could sit at the table with their bosses. This was a key feature of New Deal thinking: It was an agenda based on solidarity, not charity, of active worker-strength, not passive victimology. As FDR had declared in 1935, mere welfare was a “narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” What he wanted instead was work—fairly-paid work.
To help workers get their fair share, Roosevelt signed into law the Wagner Act of 1935, the so-called Magna Carta for labor, which enabled workers to organize. And other New Deal legislation helped as well, such as the Walsh-Healy Act of 1936, which directed federal purchases toward companies that bargained in good faith with their workers.
Thanks to these legal and political supports, American workers enjoyed success in their organizing drives. For instance, U.S. Steel, then one of the largest employers in the nation—that is, a firm so big that it was somewhat akin to Amazon today—agreed to unionize in March 1937.
Yet the path for the labor movement was not straight. Having successfully organized “Big Steel,” the Congress of Industrial Organizations then targeted “Little Steel,” namely such smaller companies as Republic Steel, Bethlehem Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, National Steel, Inland Steel, and American Rolling Mills.
Unlike Big Steel, Little Steel resisted unionization. Indeed, the toughest nut to crack was Republic Steel, run by one Tom Girdler. On Memorial Day, 1937, Chicago police shot at picketers outside a Republic plant, killing ten and seriously injuring dozens more.
In the face of such violence, the organizing effort faltered. And yet it was a short-lived victory for Little Steel. In his 1940 presidential campaign, Roosevelt campaigned directly against Republic Steel’s Girdler. As he said in Cleveland on November 2, 1940:
There are certain forces within our national community, composed of men who call themselves American but who would destroy America. They are the forces of dictatorship in our land—on one hand, the Communists, and on the other, the Girdlers. [emphasis added]
On Election Day 1940, the voters sided with Roosevelt over Girdler; that is, with labor over capital. And that, of course, is where the votes are; FDR won the popular vote by ten points, carrying 38 of 48 states. Little Steel was organized the following spring.
We might note that while Girdler might have been excoriated by the popular president of the United States, he himself didn’t suffer much. Indeed, being a talented, albeit hard-hearted, executive, he took over the leadership of two aviation companies during World War Two, overseeing the production of such vital military aircraft as the B-24 Liberator.
So there’s a good lesson there: Able corporate leaders should be allowed to run companies and use their know-how to produce products, even if their sense of social responsibility is stunted. Thus it’s up to the rest of the citizenry, voting through the democratic process, to make sure that the rules of the road are such that all employees are treated fairly. That’s a decent version of the social contract, in which companies, workers, and the government jointly agree to assure everyone of a fair deal.
Girdler Then? Bezos Now?
So now, back to Jeff Bezos, who looms larger today than did Tom Girdler in his time. Indeed, the Amazon founder ranks right up there with the greatest tycoons of an earlier era, such as John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan.
Yes, Bezos deserves his due as a corporate visionary. And yet we should also note that the labor protections built up during the New Deal have been badly eroded in the decades since. For instance, many of the on-the-job protections included in the Wagner Act are mooted if the employee is redefined as a “contractor,” or “gig worker.” The work is the same, it’s just that after the redefinition the worker’s rights are gone. And so that’s one big reason why Bezos has grown so rich so fast—he hasn’t had to share his capital gains with his line employees.
So while Bezos, tending to his $120 billion stash, might be happy paying his delivery people $15 or $17 an hour as they brave viral death and debilitation, the United States should demand better of him, and his company.
As Roosevelt explained in his 1937 inaugural address, in times of crisis, the public interest must take precedence over private fortunes:
We … sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease. We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.
Today, American workers deserve a better deal. Quite likely, that means updating the 1930s legal framework that helped bring workers their high wages in the first place.
The ongoing quest for this better deal will be a great issue in the 2020 presidential election, and, after the coronavirus crisis abates, the quest will be an even greater issue in 2024.
So which candidate, and which party, will, as FDR said 83 years ago, protect the people against disasters once considered inevitable, and solve problems once considered unsolvable? The prize is a broad political majority, as well as, of course, widely shared prosperity.