It’s the kind of workplace you can find most anywhere: a sprawling small-town fulfillment center for Amazon. But the choice made by the nearly 6,000 workers at this plant in Bessemer, Alabama, is ringing across the globe: Will they vote to form a union? The result, which will be known in the coming days but could be tied up in litigation far longer, may shake a behemoth that dominates American commerce in a way no company ever has. The ramifications will also ripple through American politics and a labor movement that has seen its power drip away. But at a time of incredible economic churn and yawning inequality across the globe, unions are innovating to find their voice from Silicon Valley to Karachi. Brothers and sisters, let us join together to fill you in.
Daniel Malloy and Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editors
why bessemer matters
1. Amazon Dominoes
If Bessemer’s union drive succeeds, it would be the e-commerce giant’s first U.S. union, which is partly why it’s drawn such global attention. Amazon workers in Italy and Germany went on strike this week over working conditions, and union leaders have taken calls from as far afield as South Africa about how to organize their own union drives. And while Amazon is unique among American tech titans for the size of its blue-collar workforce, its peers are agitating, too. Alphabet workers mobilized in January to push Google’s parent company for change, although it does not yet have collective bargaining rights.
2. Social Union-Busting
The real threat of an organizing chain reaction is why Amazon is responding by aggressively taking anti-union campaigns into the 21st century. On Tuesday, Twitter shuttered several fake accounts that masqueraded as Amazon warehouse employees while tweeting positive things about their jobs and attacking the Bessemer union drive — a tactic similar to the one used by Russians to influence the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections in America. It’s part of a punchier PR response (reportedly driven by CEO Jeff Bezos himself) to address pro-union Amazon critics such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Combined with some classic suppression tools, such as anti-union signs in bathroom stalls and mandatory meetings where bosses rail against unionization efforts, Amazon is showing how to innovate union busting. Could this presage how future battles between Big Tech and politicians play out?
3. Organizing While Black
“Bessemer is the new Selma,” civil rights leader Rev. William Barber II said at a rally with union organizers. Racial justice themes have infused the Alabama union drive: The vast majority of the workers at the fulfillment center, about 20 miles outside of Birmingham, are Black, and a majority are female, underscoring that the face of labor in 2021 is far from the white male autoworkers of yore. In fact, Black workers are more likely to be unionized (12.3 percent) than any other ethnic group. There’s substantial crossover with the Black Lives Matter movement, as many of the workers supported BLM marches and joined efforts to take down Confederate statues in Birmingham. Look for the next phase of organizing to be Black-led and infused with BLM tactics.
4. More Than Money
Union drives are often about negotiating power for better wages, but with Amazon — which has paid all of its U.S. employees at least $15 per hour since 2018 — that isn’t necessarily the case. Local organizers say this is more about the hyper-surveillance of their movements, as Amazon tracks everything, down to each time an employee touches a package. “People tell us they feel like robots who are being managed by robots,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told The New Yorker. Reports indicate that underperforming employees are even targeted for firing by robots. An Amazon spokesperson tells OZY that Appelbaum is “misrepresenting the facts” and “our employees know the truth — starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encouraged all of our employees to vote, and their voices will be heard in the days ahead.”
5. Whose Side Are You On?
After Donald Trump helped scramble the politics of organized labor by wooing away many blue-collar voters, many Republicans are trying to brand themselves as the workers’ party — leading Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to embrace the Bessemer union drive. But no other big-name Republicans have joined him, and promoting labor-friendly policies remains the domain of Democrats, who are embracing unions with renewed vigor from President Joe Biden on down. Democrats are pushing a federal bill that would override state “right to work” laws — designed to diminish union power by preventing workplaces from requiring union membership — which are on the books in 28 states, including Alabama. Washington’s most powerful Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently floated the idea of the reverse — a national right to work law — if Republicans retake power, after a scorched-earth session with Democrats.
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Their companies are cutthroat rivals. But drivers of Uber and its biggest Indian competitor, Ola, are banding together with other gig worker groups in the country to create an “umbrella union” that would advocate for all of them. Gig workers in India have particularly been hammered by the pandemic: One study released by Azim Premji University researchers shows that 23 percent of workers in the informal sector in Bangalore lost their jobs, and 15 percent remain unemployed nearly a year after lockdowns began. If such a pan-industry union of gig workers takes off in the world’s largest democracy, it’s only a matter of time before the idea spreads elsewhere.
Unions haven’t exactly been a growth industry lately, but there’s one demographic that’s becoming more union-friendly: millennials. That trend has been true in recent years and through the pandemic: 25- to 34-year-olds were the only age bracket that rose in the labor ranks as companies shed jobs left and right from 2019 to 2020, according to U.S. federal data. The young unionizers are shaking up workplaces with scant union history, from digital media to Hollywood writers rooms, speaking a language of activism that would be foreign to their brothers and sisters in the steel mills of the past. And since millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce and increasingly helming leadership roles, that could lead to more worker-friendly corporate cultures going forward.
Campaigning outside factory gates with pamphlets outlining your cause is no longer an efficient way to unionize when many of your members are likely working online, at home. Cue the rise of a new wave of apps designed specifically to organize labor digitally. There’s UnionConnect, which helps unions communicate directly with their members, while creating a personalized dashboard for each worker to track details about their company and union that matter to them. Walmart employees have used an app called WorkIt, which uses artificial intelligence to answer questions about their rights and allows labor leaders and workers to set up virtual chat rooms where they can brainstorm. And then there’s UnionBase, a Facebook of sorts for the workers movement where unions can set up verified pages and members can communicate with each other. It currently boasts 30,000 American unions as members.
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changing global currents
1. Bourgeois Communists
China is home to the world’s largest trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which has nearly as many members (around 300 million) as America’s entire population. It’s also the country’s only legally recognized union, and the Communist Party cracks down on efforts to form independent unions. But none of that’s helping Beijing manage growing disenchantment among Chinese workers, visible in an explosion of labor disputes. The country has witnessed 530 known strikes in the past seven months, which represents a 30 percent uptick from the previous seven-month stretch. Can these labor pains deliver a new balance of power between Beijing and the country’s working class?
They’ve been ignored for generations. Now, the women who constitute 80 percent of Pakistan’s home-based workforce, running cottage businesses that hold up much of the country’s economy, have had enough. They’re organizing like never before, forming trade unions and winning battles for better working conditions. So much so that the country’s mainstream male-dominated labor unions, which have been on the decline for years, are now turning to these female labor activists for inspiration.
Of course, the challenge of declining union membership is hardly unique to Pakistan. In Australia, another country with a strong history of labor movements, unions are reinventing themselves by using social media platforms as central organizing tools, moving away from the stilted language of earlier generations and adopting the lingo of millennials and Gen Zers. They’re staying relevant, now pressuring the Australian government to raise the federal minimum wage, among other causes. Memes might do for them what Marx couldn’t.
Tunisia’s labor movement was a pivotal pillar of the Arab Spring protests that brought down dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Now the Tunisian General Labour Union is plotting another revolution by helping workers buy the defunct factories and businesses where they previously worked, getting them financial assistance and legal support to help them own their destinies.
The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” was the anthem of Egypt’s protests during the Arab Spring that began in 2010. But in reality, they needn’t have looked anywhere beyond Egypt for inspiration. More than three millennia ago, tomb builders and craftsmen stopped work and marched in protest against their pharaoh, Ramses III, after their pay had been repeatedly delayed. Pastries couldn’t pacify them despite chants of “we are hungry!” and, after multiple strikes, they got their wages. It’s the first known labor strike in history, and inspired similar strikes across the Egyptian empire in subsequent centuries.
2. Shaking the Soviets
If taking on the pharaoh was fraught with danger, challenging the Soviet Union-backed Polish politburo in the 1980s was no less risky. That’s what the trade union Solidarity did, drawing its initial strength from protests by shipyard workers in Gdansk before growing into a national phenomenon with 10 million members within a year. Under pressure from Moscow, the Polish government imposed martial law and cracked down on Solidarity. But the movement continued underground, emerging as a fulcrum of fresh protests that ultimately led to the fall of communism in Poland. Its influence was so evident that Solidarity leader and Nobel laureate Lech Wałęsa became the country’s first president in 1990 after its transition to a democracy.
3. Breaking Apartheid’s Bank
In racially segregated 1980s South Africa, the government effectively owned homes in “townships” that reserved residential neighborhoods for people of color. The apartheid regime’s handpicked Black foot soldiers managed these townships and collected rent from residents, in a scheme that also helped swell the regime’s coffers. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), formed in 1985, played a central role in disrupting that exploitative model: It helped coordinate rent boycotts across more than 50 townships, leading to nearly $100 million in unpaid rents to the government by 1989. Today, COSATU is battling its traditional ally, the African National Congress government, over wage disputes. As South Africa’s largest trade union, it has been a key power broker that’s helped the ANC stay in control of South Africa. But could labor now bring down the party of Nelson Mandela?
4. Vaccine Voice
Brazil’s biggest trade union, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), also gained prominence while taking on a repressive regime: the U.S.-backed military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. That struggle helped shape the union’s argument that “growth is not enough” — the economy expanded at 10 percent some years, but the poor remained poor while labor rights were crushed. CUT’s influence has only grown this century, with former trade unionist Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva instituting massive social welfare schemes (including the Bolsa Família) when he was president from 2003 through 2010. Now the CUT’s leading protests against controversial President Jair Bolsonaro. Its latest demand? Universal COVID-19 vaccines for Brazilians, who have seen the world’s third-highest death toll.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has steamrolled his democratic opposition in repeated elections, ignoring concerns of religious minorities and students to retain his popularity with vast sections of the majority-Hindu electorate. But there are chinks in his armor, none more so than the growing frustration with his policies among the country’s massive working class. In January 2020, an estimated 250 million workers joined strikes and flooded India’s streets in protest of economic policies that critics say benefit big private firms over small businesses and state-owned enterprises. But will worker unity stand in the face of Modi’s use of Hindu nationalism to bait (and divide) voters?
6. The Battle of Blair Mountain
It was the largest armed uprising since the Civil War. In 1921, some 10,000 workers marched southward from the West Virginia state capital of Charleston to anti-union counties in an effort to protest coal companies’ complete control of the territory. They were met by a force of 3,000 law enforcement officers and militiamen at Blair Mountain in Logan County, where a protracted battle ensued — with many of the officers firing machine guns and the local sheriff chartering planes to bomb the union men. Federal troops were called in to stop the fighting, which left scores dead. The battle left a linguistic legacy, too: The term “redneck” can be traced to the red bandanas worn around the necks of striking miners.