Karl Marx identified the central contradiction of capitalism as the antagonistic relationship between workers and their capitalist employers. As Michael Yates has put it, “the essence of this relationship is the exploitation of the workers, the extraction of a surplus by the employers from their labor, necessary to fuel the accumulation of capital in a milieu of intense competition. Unlike other modes of production such as slavery or feudalism, this exploitation is hidden by the market…. [Workers] sell their ability to work in the impersonal market, and it appears that the market dictates their pay.”
Whereas, in the United States, class is almost universally perceived as a function of characteristics like income, wealth, educational attainment, and lifestyle, Michael Zweig reminds us that class “must be understood in terms of power,” allowing us to see it as a “dynamic relationship rather than a static set of characteristics.” Class, in short, is more than and different from an identity, though it is that, too. Thus, the working class “are those with little personal control over the pace or content of their work and without supervisory control over the work lives of others,” whereas the capitalist class are the “corporate elite, senior executives, and directors of large corporations.” The middle class are “professionals, small-business owners, and managerial and supervisory employees” — some of whom are “closely entwined with the working class” while others’ are “more fully involved in serving the capitalist class.”
US Labor History and the Eclipse of Class Conflict
In their early years, American workers’ struggles against the “dark satanic mills” of industrial capitalism were often framed in Marxian terms of class conflict — notably by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and by labor activists like Eugene Debs, “Big Bill” Haywood, and Mary G. “Mother” Jones. For decades, workers’ organizing efforts were brutally crushed by bloody attacks serving the interests of the robber barons. Over the long, tumultuous haul of US labor history organized labor moved steadily away from promoting class conflict to an accommodation with US capitalism, although some labor leaders and individual unions have diverged from the accommodationist line.
Alex Carey has identified three eras in which the contradictions of capitalism produced an aroused populace that challenged the US economy. Each produced a well-orchestrated mass propaganda counterattack along with Red Scare repression. Two occurred in the aftermath of labor militancy and long-delayed worker raises during the two World Wars and one after the tumultuous era of the 1960s. In Carey’s words, “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power.”
The latter two eras are particularly relevant to the Amazon union effort. The progressive and pro-labor initiatives of the New Deal — notably, the National Labor Relations Act (“Wagner Act”) which established the collective bargaining rights of workers and the governing National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — are often viewed as saving capitalism from the threat of leftist revolt. However, the post-WWII Taft-Hartley act, enacted by a conservative Congress over President Truman’s veto, watered down the protections of the Wagner Act. Perhaps most importantly, it established the right of states to create so-called “right-to-work” laws which allowed non-dues-paying workers to become “free riders” enjoying the benefits produced by union actions. Currently 27 states in the South, Midwest and interior West have right-to-work laws, now legitimized by the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision. For its part, the NLRB’s ‘enforcement’ of worker rights has been shaped by the political objectives of the party in power.
Aided by anti-Communist purges, propaganda campaigns and public policies that gave workers greater stake in the growing US economy, the postwar era produced the so-called “social contract” between labor and management in which the AFL-CIO and other unions embraced Cold War ideology and effectively collaborated with corporations. 1955 was the high point of union membership, with 35.7% of private sector workers belonging to unions. By 1974, that figure stood at 26.2%. The leading unions became heavily bureaucratized, with leaders receiving six-figure salaries; many workers were beginning to see unions as little more than a necessary evil.
Even more relevant to the Amazon case is the post-1960s era which brought the New Deal regime and the postwar social contract to an end in the US and ushered in the global neoliberal regime. Triggered by corporatist reactions to the “excess democracy” of 60s-era activism, blamed for the declining profitability of capitalism in the 1970s, neoliberalism loomed as the guiding ideology of both Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and the Ronald Reagan presidency in the US.
The combination of forces consistent with neoliberalism — property tax revolts, direct attacks on unions and collective bargaining, tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, globalization and capital flight of manufacturing industries in particular, investors shift toward more profitable financial speculation, and the internet and high-tech industry — radically shifted the ground for union activity and confirmed most unions’ close collaboration with the Democratic Party. As well-paying manufacturing jobs disappeared overseas and economic inequality soared, worker fears for the future became far more widespread — fears that proved fodder for racist dog-whistle and anti-immigration propaganda by right-wing forces. Private sector union membership fell to 6.2% by 2019. At the same time, new monopolistic enterprises — Amazon and Walmart in particular —gained dominant roles in the changing economy, devastating smaller businesses and local economies. Walmart paved a path forward for Amazon and others with its massive accumulation of wealth, exploitation of workers, and successful campaigns against unionizing efforts.
The Amazon Behemoth
In twenty-six years, Amazon has gone from being an online bookseller to a corporate behemoth that, in Jonathan Rosenblum’s words, “has consolidated extraordinary monopolistic control over our daily lives…. It plays the central role in American capitalism’s distribution and logistics web and also in technology and its control of the internet through Amazon Web Services (AWS).” As documented by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese and others, the “magnitude of Amazon’s influence in the world’s economy” represents a “significant shift in the global political economy” that the authors identify as “Amazon capitalism.”
Indeed Amazon’s market value of approximately $1.5 trillion is the largest in the world and greater than roughly 90% of the world’s nations. Only WalMart among private entities employs more people in the US than Amazon, which has 800 warehouses in the country and employs more than 500,000 workers in the US and 1.2 million worldwide. Over the span of the last decade Amazon paid less than three percent of its $27 billion in US profits in taxes.
Not surprisingly, with an estimated $179 billion in wealth, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is now the world’s richest individual, and one who refused to appear before a Congressional hearing on excessive executive salaries. As Kim Moody put it, “Bezos and his crew” have done “what the robber barons have always done: raise, spend, and sometimes lose other people’s money, dodge taxes, swindle suppliers, and avoid unions.” In an effort to blunt rising criticism of its monopolistic, anti-union practices, Amazon increased starting wages to $15/hour and added to workers health benefits.
In addition to being steadfastly anti-union, Amazon created a warehouse workplace that verges on totalitarian working conditions. Upgrading classic Taylorist strategies, the corporation uses electronic surveillance of workers (as well as customers) to ensure maximum speed (or, as Rosenblum put it, to “throttle incipient organizing efforts”). It tightly regulates “time-off-task” (TOT), limiting warehouse employees to two bathroom breaks per shift, causing some employees to urinate in bottles. Amazon’s delivery drivers, many of whom are subcontracted out gig workers with no benefits, are tightly exploited by surveillance and management by time-governing algorithms.
Amazon’s inhumane practices were exposed in a four-part investigative report back in 2011–12 by the Morning Call in Allentown, PA. The report documented workers suffering from heat exhaustion in the Lehigh Valley warehouse where temperatures reached 100 degrees; several were evacuated to area hospitals. One worker who was hospitalized found that she had been terminated on her return and later struggled to gain unemployment compensation against the resistance of the company outsourced by Amazon for hiring warehouse employees.
The Alabama Union Drive
In April 2020, as demand for mail-order products was on the rise due to the pandemic, Amazon opened a new “fulfillment center” (corporate-speak for warehouse) in Bessemer, Alabama. By fall, the president of the mid-South council of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was contacted by a Bessemer worker inquiring about organizing the plant employees. The union began collecting authorization cards from workers and amassed a reported 3000 cards, sufficient to get NLRB authorization to hold a union vote. The mail balloting spanned seven weeks, culminating on March 29, 2021. Over a sixty-day period, the company hired thousands of additional workers, bringing the workforce to 5800, thereby diluting the potential appeal of union advocates.
RWDSU’s success in gathering so many union cards, along with its own and widespread supporters’ publicity efforts generated widespread media attention to the union drive. Coming at a time when a Gallup poll showed two-thirds of Americans supporting labor unions (up from 50% in 2009), mainstream liberal media were drawn to the union drive’s potential to revive the labor movement, to say nothing of the possibility of bringing the Amazon giant to heel if the successful effort spread. As labor studies professor Janice Fine commented, “This is happening in the toughest state, with the toughest company, at the toughest moment…. If the union can prevail given those three facts, it will send a message that Amazon is organizable everywhere.” Even President Biden made an unusually strong pro-union comment without explicitly mentioning Amazon, and as the media have commented, the House of Representatives passed the PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize Act) that would begin to address some anti-union practices and repeal right-to-work laws (though it is stymied by the current Senate).
From a left perspective, the union drive posed the possibility of an even greater shift in American politics. Given the company’s multi-racial makeup at the lower “levels” of field and customer service, a spreading union effort across the range of Amazon facilities could generate powerful feelings of solidarity across racial lines. One could imagine how that solidarity might begin to break down divisions long-fostered by powerful forces on the right, raising the specter of, well, class conflict.
However, for now anyway, that was not to be. From the beginning, as expected, Amazon pulled out all the stops to defeat the union effort: hiring union-busting consultants from the notorious Morgan-Lewis law firm, seeking (unsuccessfully) to require an in-person vote during the pandemic, bombarding workers (along with local media) with anti-union text messages and postings throughout break rooms and bathrooms, requiring workers to attend regular anti-union propaganda sessions, and successfully getting the city of Bessemer to change the traffic light patterns in front of the warehouse to maximize the green lights for exiting cars (thereby making it difficult for organizers to speak to workers). Workers were told “Where will your dues go?” “Do it without dues” (which, of course, are not required anyway in a right-to-work state), and “You’ll have to skip dinner and school supplies,” among many other bogus anti-union claims. Defeat and its Aftermath
Given the hype about the union drive and its potential, along with highly visible support in a number of quarters, the vote of 1798 to 738 against the union was a crushing defeat and a telling commentary on the aspirations of many employees. The prevailing side, in effect, voted to work in totalitarian-like conditions in exchange for wages that would place a family of four slightly above the poverty level. Amazon’s tactics were a resounding success, but in addition the union faced broader obstacles: a younger workforce largely ignorant of the benefits of unionization and an internet-influenced culture which has greatly undermined the idea of solidarity.
For its part, the RWDSU has promised to challenge Amazon’s “illegal” tactics in the courts, but the union appears to be shifting away from plant-based election organizing. For the moment at least, a brighter future for working people seems less likely than it did before the organizing effort in Alabama. We are clearly no closer to an appreciation of class conflict, though that should be part of labor’s message to its organizing audiences. Yet, as Rosenblum observed, “It took more than a generation of failed organizing, most notably the 1919 steel strike, before workers honed the strategic smarts and organization unity to overcome the chokehold of corporate control.” And as the brutal effects of neoliberal capitalism become more profound and widespread, the continued work of activists may find more fertile ground for their organizing efforts.
Ted (Edward) Morgan is emeritus professor of Political Science at Lehigh University and the author of What Really Happened to the 1960: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.