Is the uprising at Amazon the beginning of a new labor movement?
In 2020, a group of workers decided to fight back against the risks of the pandemic. Out on Staten Island, New York, they were going to work while white-collar types were staying home and ordering on Amazon.
Infection rates were very high, and people were dying all over the boroughs. The Staten Island workers decided they wouldn’t die, too, just for going to work.
A bunch of them refused to go back to work after a break. Essential in a logistics-driven economy, Christian Smalls and the gang sat down and refused to work during the pandemic, in fear for their lives.
That’s a sit-down strike: it doesn’t happen very often, but it’s often effective when it does. (There haven’t been sit-down strikes in the U.S. since the 1930s, the last time organized labor expanded rapidly.)
It was effective, but they didn’t stop there. They organized, they petitioned, and then they won. By themselves. The Amazon Labor Union is an independent union.
Smalls, fired from his job, standing by the bus stop in his bright-red street gear and shades, is in major contrast with the usual suit-and-tie, logo-shirt union guys I’m used to.
Most union struggles don’t make the news. But this upstart David-versus-Goliath story has won the hearts and minds of America.
And how about the Starbucks’ baristas?
Undervalued and overworked through the pandemic, they kept on serving the rest of us high-priced coffee, masked and gloved. Fed up and disgusted, hundreds of workers in dozens of shops have organized their unions. Reportedly, 200 locations are mobilized.
What’s new is that the law is stepping up in defense. The National Labor Relations Board, an arm of presidential executive policy, is taking aggressive action. President Biden is proudly the most pro-union president in generations.
When I was a young labor lawyer, we begged the NLRB in vain to go to court to reinstate workers who were fired for union activity. Biden’s NLRB just used Section 10(j) of the law to reinstate three baristas who were fired and disciplined for union activity. Is it a new day with the law, too?
What happens next? There’s the traditional path, and then there’s the possibility of a new way.
If traditional, it’s months (sometimes years) of legal hearings and movement-sapping bargaining struggles, warehouse by warehouse, coffee shop by coffee shop. If something new, it’s rapid expansion to many other locations, building escalating pressure and tension toward worker power and just resolution.
The future isn’t clear.
I’ve been working for working people and their unions for a while. (I started back in the 20th century.) Sometimes waiting for the next workers’ uprising has felt like waiting for the coming of the Lord.
Is this a new workers movement? An expanding labor pool has unemployment insurance claims at a half-century low. Jobs are plentiful, and workers are restless for more.
Perhaps you remember way back to 2009, when the federal minimum wage was last raised, to an incremental $7.25 an hour. (Except for tipped employees, like baristas.)
Then came the “Fight for Fifteen and a Union,” an audacious, outlandish claim that the base wage should be $15 an hour. How quickly the audacious has become the norm.
Now, $7.25 is ridiculous and irrelevant, and $15 an hour is, in practical terms, the minimum wage.
Working people are still catching up from decades of wage stagnation, despite dramatic increases in productivity.
The AFL-CIO calculates that the minimum wage would be $24 an hour if it had been adjusted to keep pace with inflation since 1968. Instead, all that productivity has gone into massive CEO salaries, and workers are ready for their fair share.
I just read that a progressive candidate for office is calling for the new minimum wage to be $30 an hour. Audacious.
Your young are prophesying, and this old-ish man is dreaming dreams.
Working in law, labor, faith and politics, he is a union-side lawyer and former AFL-CIO official who has served the United Food and Commercial Workers for years. National legal counsel for Jobs with Justice, he represents historically Black Simmons College of Kentucky in Louisville.