In a video released on Sunday, President Joe Biden expressed solidarity with Amazon warehouse workers currently organizing to form a union in a Bessemer, Alabama warehouse.
“Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” Biden stated. “This is vitally important — a vitally important choice, as America grapples with the deadly pandemic, the economic crisis and the reckoning on race — what it reveals is the deep disparities that still exist in our country.”
“Let me be really clear,” the President continued, “It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: It’s not up to an employer to decide that either. There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.”
Professor Joseph A. McCartin, the Executive Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, told Salon that Biden’s choice to avoid singling out Amazon is especially noteworthy.
“It’s important that he speaks to principle rather than getting involved in a specific dispute,” McCartin explained. “In that respect, you could say there’s a similarity between what he said and a quote widely attributed to Roosevelt in the 30s. Roosevelt said, ‘If I were a factory worker, I would join a union.’ He didn’t say ‘If I were a GM employee, I would join the United Auto Workers.'”
Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, tweeted that “Biden’s attack on employer intimidation of workers seeking to join a union is something new for a president since 30s.”
Over 5,800 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are set to vote next week on whether they would like to be represented by Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RDSU), a 100,000-strong labor union started in 1937 that represents a variety of different industries, including health care, retail, farming, and grocery stores.
Following Biden’s statement, the RDSU thanked the President for his nod. “As President Biden points out,” said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum, “The best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is by organizing into unions. And that is why so many working women and men are fighting for a union at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama.”
In the past, Amazon has fought vociferously against any worker-led efforts to unionize. Leading up next week’s vote, Amazon inundated its workers with text messages and flyers cautioning them against organizing, and summoned them to mandatory anti-union meetings. The company also launched a website –– called “doitwithoutdues.com” –– that explicitly dissuades workers from unionizing because of what the company warns would be “burdensome” membership dues. “Don’t buy that dinner, don’t buy those school supplies, don’t buy those gifts,” the site warns, “because you won’t have that almost $500 you paid in dues.”
In November, VICE reported that Amazon hired the private detective agency Pinkerton to secretly gather intelligence on European workers who attended union meetings, expressed dissatisfaction with work conditions, and stole from warehouses.
More recently, in early February, Amazon reportedly colluded with Jefferson County officials to change the timing of a traffic light just outside of the Bessemer warehouse in an effort to prevent pro-union canvassers from approaching Amazon workers during a red light.
To McCartin, the diversity of union-busting tactics employed by Amazon epitomizes the cloak-and-dagger coercion that separates the present from the past.
“The anti-union movement has evolved into a sophisticated campaign structure run by law firms and security services that may not beat up workers as they once did,” he said, “but they have plenty of ways to intimidate workers and make them feel fearful. Those tactics have been, unfortunately quite successful at undermining workers’ basic right to join a union.”
If Amazon workers manage to successfully unionize, it would mark a watershed moment in labor organizing, which has long been on a decline for the past several decades –– with union participation down nineteen percent since 1964. As one of the largest employers in the U.S., Amazon would be something of a white whale for labor organizers. “Amazon is now the most powerful employer in the US,” McCartin said “and it’s strongly against collective bargaining. It’s equivalent to the auto workers signaling out General Motors during the Flint sit-down strike of 1936 and 1937. Everyone knew that, if you could get GM to go union, then you could unionize the entire industry.” Amazon, he said, “is an employer that sets the tone.”