What’s the option for workers caught between Big Business and Big Labor? This is the dilemma facing Amazon warehouse employees, Starbucks baristas, and others enduring mistreatment at the hands of major corporations helmed by woke crony capitalists.
Corruption in Big Business, however, doesn’t negate corruption in Big Labor or invalidate all of the right’s longheld arguments against unions. Conservatives seeking to support the plight of workers against certain callous corporations needn’t embrace another corrupt institution in the process.
Tempting as it is to throw out the old playbook and stick it to today’s corporatists in every way possible, the reality that unions are not always good for workers remains true. It’s also true, however, that unions have their place in the private sector, even after years of worker-friendly regulations and changes in the economic climate.
This makes the case of Amazon difficult, as its own workers seem to know. After its first warehouse voted to unionize to JK8 facility in New York last week, the country’s second-largest employer could be in for a major shakeup—one that would affect the economy more broadly if other warehouses follow suit. Millions of livelihoods are on the line.
The Case For Amazon Warehouse Unions
Will it be for better or worse? I’m not sure we know the answer to that question yet, as litigation and negotiation unfolds. In the case of Amazon, however, it’s abundantly clear workers need a stronger mechanism to hold the company accountable, especially on safety. An independent labor union like the one workers voted to join at JFK8 seems likely to do more good than harm. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I donated a small amount to the union organizers’ GoFundMe.)
Wells King of the conservative American Compass emphasizes that “the Amazon Labor Union is independent and worker-led, not formally associated with Big Labor.” This, King notes, “was probably an advantage for the purposes of organizing. Workers want to fund and run their own organizations focused solely on workplace issues; they are rightly skeptical of Big Labor and its focus on national politics.”
“But,” he cautions, “being a new, independent [union] means that they may lack the know-how to effectively represent workers and negotiate with the world’s largest retailer. That’s unfortunate because Amazon warehouses are rife with hazards, issues, and abuses that a worker organization would be well-positioned to address or hold Amazon accountable to solving.”
This leaves workers with a poor set of options, according to King. “I fear that we’re headed for is something like a trilemma in labor relations, where the only options available to workers are to join a partisan and corrupt Big Labor system, form an independent but potentially under-resourced local organization (like the new union at Staten Island), or remain unorganized and lack the power and representation that many workers say they want,” he told me.
Indeed, American Compass Executive Director Oren Cass raised that very issue after the unionization drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. failed last year. “The one group that clearly understands the folly in both perspectives is workers themselves,” wrote Cass. ”Workers have shown that they dislike the hyper-adversarialism and political activism that American unions bring into their workplaces but are eager for more representation, voice, and support than they can achieve individually. What they want, and need, is a middle ground that neither side is offering.”
American Compass suggests reforms to the National Labor Relations Act and experimentations with sectorial bargaining or the Ghent system common in northern Europe, among many other policy proposals. In the year since Bessemer, however, the GOP hasn’t exactly jumped at the opportunity to pursue such innovations, despite mounting evidence workers need support.
On Big Labor, The Right Is Still Right
The right has long been correct to criticize unions as corrupt and partisan arms of the Democratic Party. Among the many factors contributing to the decline in union density, worker choice clearly played a major role. Workers deserve the right to withhold their wages from mismanaged organizations just as they should have the right to bargain against their mismanaged employers who do the very same.
As King once wrote, regarding decreasing union membership, “the American structure of organized labor is itself much of the problem. Most of the decline in unionization is attributable to the decline of employment growth in unionized sectors and firms, a result not only of unions’ prevalence in stagnant or shrinking industries like manufacturing, but also the effect of unionization itself – raising labor costs for employers who then hire fewer workers and, with lower profitability, attract less investor capital.”
There are, of course, companies that treat their employees well, with or without unions. Some of this is certainly due to the looming threat of unionization, but depending on the labor market and economy, even the greediest capitalist has financial incentives to treat workers well. Whether they recognize that is another question, and those incentives certainly shift along with the economy. (The Great Resignation of recent months, for instance, has put the ball in workers’ court.)
An excellent BuzzFeed report from Bessemer last year found many employees were happy with their wages and benefits and reasonably concerned a union would jeopardize them. “I’m very worried about what would happen should the union be voted in. It could mean sacrificing benefits in exchange for things we don’t want or need,” said one worker. “As Amazon currently stands, employee raises [and] overtime are excellent, and I would hate to jeopardize what has definitely been the most reliable and financially stabilizing job I’ve had.”
Labor apologists may dismiss such sentiments as the result of Amazon’s robust propaganda campaign, but Amazon warehouse workers are paid competitively and get decent benefit packages. Yet the company’s safety track record show workers’ concerns should be taken very seriously.
Amazon Workers Have A Strong Point
Data the company itself supplied to OSHA show that “Since 2017, Amazon reported a higher rate of serious injury incidents that caused employees to miss work or be shifted to light-duty tasks than at other warehouse operators in retail,” as a Washington Post story put in 2021. (The Post is, of course, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.) The company’s rate of serious incidents is nearly double the rates of non-Amazon warehouses. It was much higher than Wal-Mart’s.
The company also relies on a deeply creepy tracking system that measures worker productivity in ways that seem ripe for abuse.
Democrats are beholden to Big Labor. Republicans, who now find themselves with more support from working-class Americans, need to fill the void and offer reform immediately. Not merely for the sake of politics, but for the sake of millions of workers who are employed by major corporations eager to skirt accountability, whether that involves China, woke business practices, or worker treatment.
In some cases, these problems overlap. For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., supported the initial unionization drive in Bessemer precisely because it was easy to see how workers may need collective bargaining power to push back on company policies related to race and sex they find morally objectionable.
Consider the case of a “high-incident” Starbucks in Eugene, Ore., where workers seeking to unionize actually cited the expectation that they act as ”untrained social workers” in their argument for organizing. Starbucks famously implemented an open bathroom policy after being accused of racism, but an obvious consequence of the company’s decision is that more working-class baristas—who also enjoy decent benefits—are placed in more stressful, high-risk confrontations.
The same cowardice and moral bankruptcy that inspires America’s corporate class to push radical cultural ideas down the country’s throat and sell out to China inspires the way they treat their workers. That is very bad news.