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John W. MillerMarch 25, 2021
Photo: AP/iStockAmericaPhoto: AP/iStockAmerica

Editor's Note: The Moral Economy is a new series that tackles key economic topics through the prism of Catholic social teaching and its care for the dignity of every person. This is the third article in the series.

The campaign by Amazon workers to unionize in Alabama, with a vote that concludes on March 29, marks a new age in a 500-year history of labor struggle in the United States.

Historians say it was an enslaved colonial workforce who launched the labor movement. The first uprising was a slave revolt in 1526. The Industrial Revolution sparked a second chapter. Organizing in steel mills, coal mines and meat-packing plants, modern unions won the weekend, the vacation, the pension and the eight-hour workday.

In the third era, warehouse workers for companies like Amazon are seeking the right to bargain collectively in a heavily automated, postindustrial service economy that relies on their low wages. On March 29, the results will be announced of a mail-in vote organized by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., that employs almost 6,000 workers. 

“They treat us like we’re just a number—like we’re nobodies,” Dale Richardson, an employee in Bessemer, told Voice of America.

The most ambitious attempt to unionize in Amazon’s 26-year history has been widely endorsed, including by Senator Marco Rubio.

The most ambitious attempt to unionize in Amazon’s 26-year history has been widely endorsed, including by Senator Marco Rubio. And it could mark the beginning of a new chapter for unions. In 2020, only 10.8 percent of Americans belonged to a union, compared with one-third 50 years ago. “The Alabama vote is exciting because it shows no company is untouchable, which people thought Walmart and Amazon were,” J. D. Wilson, a United Steelworkers representative based in West Virginia, told me. “People don’t just need jobs,” Mr. Wilson added. “They need good-paying jobs.”

Amazon belongs at the center of the conversation because Jeff Bezos’ $1.6 trillion company has wired itself into almost every part of the U.S. economy. Its workforce of 1.3 million, second only to Walmart, includes over 500,000 individuals sorting, picking and packing in 800 warehouses across the country. It is the new U.S. Steel, General Motors and Pennsylvania Railroad wrapped into one smiling face-stamped truck delivering your emergency toilet paper.

And during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become even more dominant. Amazon added $9.7 billion in profit to its bottom line in 2020, as it persuaded a nation of its virtuous utility. In the war against Covid, “Amazon was our troop carrier,” Alec MacGillis writes in his new book Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, which chronicles how Amazon thrives by dividing America into rich places, where it finds office staff, programmers and its best customers, and poor communities, who sort and deliver. 

Workers on the Margins

The new labor movement seeks a better life for the people like Courtenay Brown. The 30-year-old works at an Amazon Fresh warehouse in northern New Jersey that delivers food to New Yorkers. There are millions of people like Ms. Brown, working silently on the margins of winner-take-all cities, delivering apples, soda, phone chargers and thousands of other essentials to white-collar workers. Because this one-click prosperity is not easily available to people like her, “the American Dream is like a magic trick to me,” she said.

Joining a union would give Ms. Brown and others the right to bargain collectively for better pay, protection against arbitrary dismissal and a more humane work environment. Workers at companies with a strong union presence, like U.S. Steel, can make over $100,000 a year with overtime. But a broad pay hike would cut into Amazon’s jaw-dropping profits, which is why the company has aggressively pressed workers to resist unionization—by firing or furloughing workers who promote unions and publicizing a website that tells workers to “be a DOER, stay friendly and get things done versus paying dues.” 

Joining a union would give workers the right to bargain collectively for better pay, protection against arbitrary dismissal and a more humane work environment.

At Amazon, the issue is not just compensation. The company has instituted a $15-an-hour starting wage. The problem is a dehumanizing work culture that includes tracking bathroom breaks during 11-hour shifts, pitting workers against each other as they sort and pick through hundreds of items an hour and dismissing workers for minor insubordination. And it is dangerous. The injury rate at 23 Amazon warehouses that were studied was double the national average for the warehousing industry. Amazon did not return a request for comment for this story.

For Ms. Brown, a veteran without a college degree who started at around $13 and now makes around $19 an hour, “I feel like it’s a con because you’re told to want all these things, like college, but they’re all too expensive for people like me.”

That “con” stands in deep tension with Catholic social teaching, which insists that every person be able to afford to participate fully in society. A living wage and support for unions are also core to Catholic social teaching, which emphasizes the dignity of every worker and is inspired by the story of God coming to dwell in a working-class refugee family. “There is no good society without a good union,” said Pope Francis in a speech to labor leaders in 2017.

‘Communities in the Workplace’

Almost two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, including President Joe Biden, who draws his philosophical inspiration from Catholic social teaching. “Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers,” said President Biden, who is the most pro-union president since F.D.R., according to every historian I interviewed.

In the landmark 1891 papal encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Leo XIII wrote that it is “a ‘natural impulse’ for human beings to form communities in the workplace so that they can pursue their God-given purpose together with others.” He also “correctly saw unions as necessary for protecting the dignity and rights of workers and their families given that capitalists, who hold an imbalance of power over workers, often do not give workers their just due,” Gerald Beyer, a professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University, wrote in an email interview.

In “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Leo XIII wrote that it is “a ‘natural impulse’ for human beings to form communities in the workplace.”

To be sure, unions are not perfect. They collect pools of money that can tempt leaders to embezzle. They make it harder for companies to stop and restart plants, and trickier to fire an incompetent worker. And unions are not the only way to protect workers. In Europe, strict labor laws are also effective. 

But overall, unions are one of the best ways to push back against the capitalist imperative of maximizing profits at the expense of people, especially when the balance between capital and labor has fallen out of whack. From 1973 to 2016, productivity per worker-hour rose six times faster than compensation per hour, according to Beaten Down, Worked Up, Steven Greenhouse’s history of the labor movement. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is 37 percent lower than its 1968 level, given inflation. Chief executives of the 350 largest corporations make 320 times the pay of the average private-sector worker, up from 21 times in 1965. Not coincidentally, “We have the weakest unionized labor force in the industrialized world,” Mr. Greenhouse told me.

When Unions Lost Their Mojo

That was not the case in the middle of the 20th century, when unions commanded the allegiance of millions and attracted national attention with frequent strikes. They showed up in the music of singers like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, movies like “On the Waterfront” and Broadway hits like “The Pajama Game.”

But in the 1970s, unions lost their mojo. American industry had reigned supreme for decades, so the U.S. government saw no problem letting in foreign imports with low tariffs. Germany shipped Volkswagens, Japan sent Toyotas and Sonys, and the whole world, it seemed, sent steel to the U.S. market. Struggling U.S. manufacturers fell like dominos, taking unions with them. 

Over the course of the 1980s, the number of steelworkers fell to 170,000 from 450,000. And the Reagan administration, which famously defeated a strike by the air traffic controllers union, championed bosses over workers.

In the age of weakened unions, companies fled to so-called right-to-work states, which allowed workers to opt out of joining and paying union dues.

Struggling to survive, unions narrowed their focus on preserving wages and work conditions for their members, stepping away from their role as political bloc on par with the media, the business community, and the government. 

In the age of weakened unions, companies fled to so-called right-to-work states like Alabama, which allowed workers to opt out of joining and paying union dues. Reality TV helped undercut actors’ unions in Hollywood. Temp agencies morphed into billion-dollar companies. The Uber-led gig economy exploded. In the new postindustrial economy, dominated by companies like Walmart, Amazon and McDonald’s, unions were a nuisance to be avoided. Public-sector unions have fared better. Their unionization rate is 34.8 percent, compared with 6.3 percent for the private sector.

That is the world that Courtenay Brown and her two sisters grew up in. Children of a Jamaican mother and a Black American father in Brooklyn, they first found work at Macy’s and Home Depot. In the end, they gravitated to the new kid on the block, Amazon. For a while, all three were employed there at the same time. Courtenay now works from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., directing traffic on the loading dock. Like many at Amazon, she does not have a car. The commute takes half an hour, so she works her first hour to work off the carfare.

An Unseen Power

Ironically, Amazon workers have more leverage than they realize, because they operate key structural nodes. Like coal miners and steelworkers in the middle of the 20th century, they can disrupt American life. Ms. Brown, after all, helps feed New York City. In places like the Inland Empire, the warehouse center east of Los Angeles that processes goods coming from China across the Pacific for the rest of the country, workers “have tremendous power to impose demands on federal government and the state,” said Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes. “It was unions using that leverage who helped build the American Dream.”

‘People across society recognize that it’s absurd to work full-time and be poor. That’s a bad economy that’s not working.’

The Amazon push has boosted the movement Fight for $15, which was launched after the 2008 financial crisis inspired sporadic strikes and protests, and later buoyed Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns. Although the Biden administration has failed to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, it has made it mandatory for federal contractors.

What is inspiring about the current struggle, said Christine Firer Hinze, chair of the theology department at Fordham, is that it carries “a spirit of solidarity” that hearkens back to pre–World War II labor movements that swept society. As unions evolved, they focused more intensely on their own workers and companies and less on society as a whole. But that is changing back “because people across society recognize that it’s absurd to work full-time and be poor,” said Dr. Hinze. “That’s a bad economy that’s not working.”

Amazon has based its business strategy on the inequality baked into our economy, carving the country into rich markets like Seattle, New York and Washington, D.C., where its best customers and white-collar workers live, and more rural places, especially in the Rust Belt, where it is easy to find people willing to work for $15 an hour.

The problem of inequality is often cast as an economic demand problem. In the 1950s, when a Ford auto executive was giving United Automobile Workers president Walter Reuther a tour, the Ford man pointed to new robotic machines. “How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?” he asked. Mr. Reuther responded, “How are you going to get them to buy Fords?”

It is also a moral problem. Amazon has penetrated the lives of many more people than Ford ever did. (Literally: The company has sold over 100 million of its Alexa home robot companions.) And, unlike Ford, it does not have to wonder if we will keep buying what it is selling. It has become part of the fabric of our lives, even if we have no idea what life is like for the people who deliver the MacBook, the Monopoly game and the macaroni to our door. 

Telling us, and standing up for those workers, might be something only a union can do.

Watch: Unionize Amazon? Why the Catholic Church supports labor unions

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