Coverage

The Amazon Union Drive and the Changing Politics of Labor

Mar 25, 2021

Most contemporary union drives are ultimately about the past—about the contrast that they draw between the more even prosperity of previous decades and the jarring inequalities of the present. But one that will culminate on Monday, the deadline for nearly six thousand employees of an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, to cast ballots on whether to affiliate with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, is the rare union campaign that is obviously about the future.

Oren Cass, a former campaign staffer for Mitt Romney, told me that the “woke capital” criticism of Amazon enjoys “almost unanimous” support on the center-right. Cass, who runs a new think tank, American Compass—which is dedicated, in part, to challenging laissez-faire orthodoxy—thought that such support could be a seed for a broader conservative turn against free-market fundamentalism. “The behavior of firms like Amazon, as not only an economic but also a social and political force, is highlighting for conservatives that what’s good for profits is not always good for America,” he told me. There isn’t any formal caucus of Republicans who share this perspective. (The Party right now is a chaotic tangle of rivalrous personalities that often defies ideology.) But the roster of elected officials who have appeared on American Compass’s Zoom panels and published essays on its Web site is a start, even though these politicians have their own points of emphasis, and even though they have publicly denounced one another. Romney has emphasized a child tax credit and expanding government spending to support poor families; Tom Cotton, the senator from Arkansas, the ways in which Chinese manufacturing has warped markets; Hawley a war on Silicon Valley and a defense of traditional communities; Rubio the pressure that vast multinationals put on small businesses. My own observation is that there is a sharp generational break among conservative policy wonks and staffers: those under forty tend to be much more skeptical of free-market fundamentalism, just as the young policy talent on the left has broken with Obamaism to embrace the more skeptical, interventionist view of the free-market economy represented by Elizabeth Warren. There might be some opportunism in the Republicans who, after Trump, are experimenting with a working-class conservatism. But they also fit the generational pattern.

“Amazon is sui generis in a lot of ways,” Cass said, “so, while there is a broader argument necessary about the relationship between labor and management and the power of workers in the labor market, from a political perspective it offers an especially compelling circumstance for supporting change.” Cass recently collected, on a Twitter thread, a decade’s worth of news reports on Amazon’s labor practices. The stories recounted that Amazon had ambulances waiting outside of warehouses during summer heat waves, that employees were sometimes fired algorithmically, without input from a human superior (a charge that the company has denied), that it had hired Pinkerton detectives to gather intelligence on its warehouse workers. Cass pointed out that most of these stories included at least partial responses from Amazon. Still, he said, “the pattern here is pretty clear. And it points to the need for greater worker power.” Most conservatives are still skeptical of labor unions. Rubio has spoken of the need for less “adversarial” relationships between management and labor. But Cass’s Twitter thread also seems to suggest that Amazon had so perfected the model of an efficient corporation that to see the company clearly was to see that ideology in a full, cold light.

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