In Bessemer, Ala., on a morning in 1983, I saw America’s future — even if I was utterly clueless about it at the time. I was a cub reporter for the Birmingham News, ambushed by a breathless editor when I walked into the newsroom. He said the second richest man in the world — as he’d just read in the Wall Street Journal — was in our area and I needed to race over there and interview him.
So I sped 15 minutes west down I-20, to a discount store I’d barely heard of, called Walmart, to meet a man I’d absolutely never heard of named Sam Walton. I talked briefly with the folksy and super-amiable multi-billionaire and then watched him enthusiastically cheerlead his crew of retail workers, who likely were paid at or near the then-minimum wage of $3.35 an hour.
At the time, Bessemer (population then, 32,000; now, 27,000 or so) still had plenty of unionized U.S. Steel workers at a nearby mill to keep Walmart’s aisles humming, but the belching plant (which I blamed for two years of asthma-type problems that disappeared the instant I moved back to the Northeast) was already shrinking and finally closed in 2015. Today, service-sector workers like the ones cheered on by Sam Walton aren’t a slice of the city’s economy, but they are the economy, especially since Amazon — founded by the world’s current richest man — broke ground on a massive fulfillment center there in 2018.
Three years since the 800,000-square-foot center launched, could Bessemer be leading America back to the future — when strong labor unions propel workers into the middle class, as happened in the decades following World War II? We’ll know better near the end of the month when the votes are tallied from warehouse workers seeking to form a union at the Amazon site, which employs 5,800. While the online retail giant pays $15 an hour — or more than double the minimum wage — pro-union advocates want to bargain for better working conditions and more flexible hours.
The labor showdown in Bessemer is the latest in a series of such battles across the Deep South, where large companies with their consultant-driven strategies and appeals to modern America’s ambivalence over unions have won repeatedly, as happened twice recently at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee. But then the workers in Bessemer seeking to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union got a powerful boost from an unlikely source: Newly elected President Joe Biden.
Late last month, Biden surprised and delighted union advocates when he released a short video encouraging workers in Alabama — and any other union elections taking place — to participate while calling for a fair election, urging that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.” The 46th president was careful with his words — not officially taking a side in the Amazon vote — which arguably was a carryover of decades in which even Democratic presidents have been tepid, at best, in supporting the labor movement. That Biden addressed the issue at all, those on the ground in Bessemer seem to agree, has been a huge emotional boost to workers seeking the union.
Mike Elk, the journalist behind the essential labor news site The Payday Report, who covered those losing battles in Chattanooga and elsewhere, told me that in those other places “union activists lost momentum in the closing days as workers gave into fear and intimidation tactics. What Biden did was shift momentum to the union activists while acting as a inoculation tool against anti-union tactics similar to the way a vaccine would act.”
Biden’s focus on union organizing wasn’t an isolated incident, either. On Capitol Hill, the new president’s Democratic allies in the House (joined by five Northeastern Republicans) this week passed the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act. It would address some of the labor-organizing issues that have been raised in the Alabama Amazon fight, such as ending “captive audience meetings” where management bombards workers with anti-union propaganda. It would also weaken so-called “right to work” laws and allow contractors like Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize. Biden has promised to sign it if it passes the Senate — but that’s unlikely unless Democrats get rid of the filibuster.
But Congress and Biden were able this week to enact one perk that will benefit union members — a $68 billion pension bailout tucked into the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that will rescue rank-and-file Teamsters and other workers (including my own union, the News Guild.) That COVID-19 aid package understandably got the bulk of attention in the media, including the growing realization that Biden and the Democrats are helping the underprivileged on a scale of LBJ’s mid-1960s “War on Poverty.” But the pro-union moves could bolster the next rung up the ladder, the also-struggling working class.
The Democrats’ moves on the Amazon battle, and on backing labor unions more broadly, are smart politics that — along with the GOP’s united opposition to the $1.9 trillion relief package — demolishes the GOP’s claim that after Donald Trump it has become the party of the working class. An animated U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a possible 2022 Senate candidate, shouted toward his Republican colleagues during the debate on the PRO Act: “Heaven forbid we tilt the balance that has been going in the wrong direction for 50 years! Now, stop talking about Dr. Seuss, and start working with us on behalf of the American workers.”
The economic argument for bolstering labor unions is arguably more powerful than the political one. Experts who’ve researched why U.S. paychecks started stagnating around the 1980s, and why income inequality exploded, have found the decline in bargaining power from a weakened labor movement — punctuated by Ronald Reagan crushing the air-traffic controllers’ union in 1981 — was a huge factor, and maybe the biggest one. Last year, the Economic Policy Institute reported that for male workers, the decline in union membership accounted for more than one-third of income inequality, and the lost wages from labor’s decline are about $200 billion a year, “with that money being redistributed upward, to the rich.”
President Biden gets it. But even with his supportive words, Bessemer’s Amazon fulfillment center will be a tough place to take that first step forward. In raising its minimum wage to $15 in 2018, the Jeff Bezos-founded behemoth — which scored a public-relations coup while putting pressure on less-profitable rivals — can rightly argue that it pays more than other employers in the down-on-its-heels steel town. And Biden’s video may prove little incentive for some employees at the racially diverse facility, in a state where white voters often back the GOP and its anti-union ideology.
For advocates, though, unionizing isn’t only about securing the highest possible paycheck but also about restoring the dignity of warehouse work, at a company where in recent years employees have complained about oppressive and sometimes sweltering working conditions or fears of taking sick days or even long bathroom breaks.
“The workers answer to a lot of robotic information systems that deliver their discipline [for instance, if they fall behind their hourly production quota], and they have no say in it,” Josh Brewer, the lead local organizer for the retail workers’ union, told the veteran labor writer Steven Greenhouse in the American Prospect recently. “It’s not just that I have a bad supervisor or one who doesn’t like me. It can be, I looked at him wrong one time, and I will lose my job and my family’s food. In Alabama, a driving force [for the workers] is to just have someone on their side.”
That’s why the notion that the president of the United States is tilting toward their side is so energizing. In the interview, Brewer said support from the Biden administration as well as from their neighbors in Bessemer “make us feel confident.” Raised in post-war America, Biden has a better sense than most of what the pro-labor policies of Franklin Roosevelt did for prosperity in the mid-20th century. This Democrat seems to be offering U.S. workers another new deal, if they can keep it.
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