I’m Gonna Join the CIO—‘Cause Everyone I See I Owe
That was the pro-union calling-card of the post WWII economy and Rosie-the Riveter swung right in behind the men in joining up.
If that history is a little too ancient for you
Listen to what an old fart (other than me) by the name of Joe Biden has to say:
“Unions did in fact build the middle class. And here's what that did. That built the United States of America as we know it.”
Or more properly said, as we knew it, because today we are very far from having a vibrant middle class and America’s most prosperous decades—the 1950s through 70s—are a fading memory. The House passed Democrats’ wide-ranging overhaul of labor laws yesterday, inching Joe Biden closer to fulfilling a campaign promise and coinciding with Amazon workers’ ongoing push to unionize an Alabama warehouse. But the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which advanced mostly along party lines, is unlikely to win the 60 votes needed for passage in the narrowly controlled Senate.
Here’s what the ‘Great Communicator’ once told us
During his 1980 election campaign Ronald Reagan said,
"Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost!"
And he lied to us, not for the first nor the last time. Once elected, he took on, as his very first act to fire the nation’s air traffic controllers and bring in scabs in order to destroy their union. Apparently for Reagan, much depended upon who’s ox was being gored. When Ronnie led the Screen Actors Guild walkout in 1952, roughly a third of the entire American workforce belonged to a labor union. Today, about 12% of the workforce is unionized. Corporate profits are at an all-time postwar high as a percentage of GDP, and wages as a percentage of GDP have fallen to an all-time low.
An interesting thing about collective bargaining…
…is that collectively, Amazon the world’s second largest employer bargains mercilessly with its suppliers. One supplier, who declined to be identified due to privacy concerns, said Amazon reviews its contract every year and plays hardball tactics to put pricing pressure on its deal. Some of the concessions include forcing the supplier to take on more of the freight cost between warehouses, or to buy more ads on Amazon, in return for remaining a major wholesale partner.
“It’s just a never-ending ask on every line item,” this person said. “Every year they try to get more, so we fight with them every year not to give it up.”
And that’s okay, because it’s just business doing business and made Jeff Bezos the richest man on the planet.
What’s not okay, is workers bargaining for wages and benefits
The penalty for workers supporting workers is that no one ever became the richest man on the planet working for wages. Which is okay as well, because the man or woman on the line doesn’t expect—or ask—to become rich. What they do ask—and are asking Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama—is what they call ‘a seat at the table’ on such things as job security, rest/bathroom breaks and advancement. Having lived through both the rise and fall of unions in America, I have always felt that there should be union representation on company boards of directors. It’s counter-productive to have harsh words at contract time, when most issues might well have been agreed long in advance.
Interestingly, there’s been overseas attention
Uni Global Union, a Swiss-based federation of unions from 150 countries, helped persuade more than 70 investment firms and institutional investors with combined assets of over $6tn to demand that Amazon cease “all anti-union communications, including public statements, captive audience meetings, texts, websites, on-site billboards.” “An election of this size in Alabama with such an anti-union company is incredibly important,” said Christy Hoffman, Uni Global’s general secretary. “We want Amazon to realize that all eyes are on them. The captive audience meetings, the relentless text messages, the signs in the bathrooms, that kind of stuff is considered barbaric in Europe. It’s hard to imagine that a large multinational like Amazon would dare do that in Europe.”
It seems someone is about to be found on the wrong side of history
Yet history shows the best times for corporate profits and wealth retention across classes were when both unions and the middle class were strong. It’s well past time to ask history once again which is its right side. And may the winners be kind to the losers.
Image Credit: Getty Images