By Maya Hernández (Program Coordinator)
This past year, profit-over-people ideology and anti-union efforts were particularly prevalent in sectors that demanded the most labor. Millions of dollars went into campaigns to stop union organizing at the same time that several anti-worker policies passed into effect, painting a grim future for workers across the United States. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the single most important federal entity where workers can supposedly go for legal protection. In recent years, particularly following the Trump Administration’s maneuvering, pro-corporate appointees and anti-labor judges have taken over the NLRB.
Late capitalism has exposed the drastic inequalities inherent to our neoliberal economy. While mega billionaires got richer from the demands created by COVID millions in the U.S. suffered excessive levels of debt, unemployment, poverty and overwhelming loss. These are clear violations of people’s human rights – all the while, corporations’ anti-worker agenda continues to charge powerfully forward.
This past year in labor set a concerning precedent for the future of workers across the country. The union-busting and structural policy changes that have taken place are on track to pressure unions to prioritize the interests of their employers over the rights of workers. The power of corporations over working people is being cemented into policy as we speak to further promote the exploitation of workers and obstruction of unionizing efforts. Our only way out is for workers to gear up for the fight of their lives to push back against these building blocks of corporate interest.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2021 report revealed the effectiveness of corporate anti-union tactics. The report showed 241,000 fewer union members than the previous year, which means just one in 10 workers is part of a union. In the private sector, it’s one in 16. Without a sturdy base, unions are no match for the union-busting strategies of their employers.
Labor exploitation & union-busting: the case of Amazon
Amazon, often referred to as the white whale of the labor movement, is among the most notorious union-busters today. Still, when an Amazon warehouse opened in Bessemer, Alabama in 2020, it took a little under a year for workers to push for a union election. Among their reports were descriptions of abusive productivity expectations across the frenzy-filled pandemic summer. The Amazon behemoth is the world’s fourth-most-valuable company, and Jeff Bezos, its founder, is one of the world’s richest people. Amazon employs a little over a million people and is the top American e-commerce platform. It’s an example of what a successful business model looks like in the 21st century. It’s also a temperature check for labor conditions today.
As fundamentally anti-worker and pro-capital, Amazon’s priority is first and foremost to maximize worker productivity and minimize labor costs, which is done by tracking its workers’ every movement. In Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon touts paying workers double the minimum wage, which in the state is $7.25, but workers still struggle to meet the demands of their industry let alone get their basic needs met. Until this past year, little public attention was paid to the working conditions fostered by Amazon. The Bessemer Amazon workers changed the name of the game by calling attention to the drastic conditions they’re expected to work under. Workers revealed urinating in bottles while on their shift because they don’t have time to use the bathroom. This goes beyond inhumanity and points to the lengths that Amazon will go to in order to control workers and guarantee rapid fulfillments.
The worker-led unionizing campaign that arose at the end of the summer sparked a lot of attention because it was in the South and because organizing within Amazon was unexpected. Immediately following the announcement that workers would push to unionize their warehouse, Amazon shot back with an anti-union campaign, employing several aggressive tactics to discourage unionization. This included hiring the anti-union law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, forcing employees to sit through mandatory meetings that emphasized the company’s anti-union position, anti-union signage such as “Vote No” signs in bathrooms and pestering workers while in the workplace.
The “just and favorable” working conditions defended in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are far from represented at the Amazon Warehouse in Bessemer. And yet, organizing workers to fight union-busting has proven incredibly difficult. Though Amazon workers are still in the process of pushing to unionize the Bessemer warehouse, their severe working conditions have not decreased. Neither has the union-busting for that matter. Targeting workers from the most in-demand sectors ensures that millions of workers remain submissive to their employer’s control.
The sustained anti-union agenda
Efforts to quell union organizing are not only prevalent in newer work sectors; in fact, one of the longest strikes of 2021 featured workers from a coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama. On April 1st, 2021, 1,100 union coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama began striking against the unjust labor practices headed by Warrior Met Coal. Mining in Alabama dates back to the 19th century. The miners at Warrior Met who carry on that history of working under grueling conditions with long-lasting effects on their health and physical well-being are demanding a new and fair contract that includes better pay and more time off.
Warrior Met Coal is a multi-million-dollar coal mining company. It was founded to buy the assets of Walter Energy after it declared bankruptcy in 2015. Workers took on cuts to wages and benefits in the aftermath, promised to regain their income and then some once the company regained solvency. The United Mine Workers of America (UMW) have calculated that as per their agreement with Warrior Met, miners are owed over $1.1 billion in pay and other benefits.
In 2021, Warrior Met Coal reported a net income of $150.9 million. Last December the company hired the firm Sitrick and Company to improve its public image. One of its tactics was to launch a smear campaign against the miners by feeding stories to the press that described the miners as lawless and violent. At the same time, multiple miners who were striking were hit by cars and trucks driven by company employees while they were on the picket lines. Warrior Met’s publicity team also created a Twitter account called WarriorMetCoalFacts that includes videos and written posts painting miners in a bad light while uplifting the image of the company.
The unionists have been on strike for over 10 months. This has presented many financial struggles for the miners and their families, and they have seen little to no headway or success. The human right to fair payment, to equal pay for equal work, is not being realized by any means. At Warrior Met Coal, workers are permitted to unionize, but their union is not respected, nor is it protected from attacks by its employer. These are clear violations of workers’ human rights.
Exploitation and repression of gig workers
Workers for food delivery services and rideshare drivers for billion-dollar corporations like Uber, Lyft, and GrubHub were in high demand this past year. They were also some of the most neglected workers to date, regularly robbed of their most basic human rights. The onset of the gig economy has normalized short-term labor contracts that disallow unionizing, paid time off, hazard pay and other significant benefits. Short-term labor contracts and the hiring of workers as independent contractors lets corporations sidestep nearly all of the responsibility and cost that is fundamental to protecting employees. It essentially dismisses corporations from being held accountable for overworking their workers.
The gig economy’s normalization of protocols that violate workers’ best interest and dismiss their right to protest against such protocols is disturbing and sets a concerning precedent for the future of labor law. Any employer that withholds the right to a safe and dignified work environment is violating workers’ fundamental human rights. Gig workers are prevented from organizing themselves, another tactic aimed at undermining their autonomy.
In addition to the union-busting and anti-worker organizing by corporations, we’ve seen a strategic effort to cement anti-worker policies within the structural framework of today’s labor force. Once those policies become part of labor law, violations against the rights of workers become next to impossible to regulate. One such example of a policy pushed forth in 2021 was California’s Proposition 22.
In a win for Californian gig workers, lawmakers passed the Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) that re-classified gig workers as employees in 2020. The legislation meant that gig companies could no longer classify their workers as independent contractors. If gig workers were required by law to be hired as employees and not contractors, then these companies would have to increase their expenses to accommodate employer-paid insurance, unemployment insurance, severance and reimbursements for fuel and other job-related costs. The reclassification of gig workers as employees would obliterate the gig economy’s business model.
Immediately following the legislation announcement, Uber and Lyft, among other app-based companies, launched a $200 million campaign to support the Prop 22 ballot initiative, which would exclude them from that law. Their campaign included “Vote Yes” ads that told voters consumer prices would rise and that drivers would suffer if the initiative did not pass. Their campaign was successful; the measure passed, and all gig companies in California raised their prices regardless of what they had previously promised voters.
The Prop 22 ballot measure allows corporations like Uber to continue exploiting workers as independent contractors. It also incentivized businesses such as the California grocery chain, Albertsons, to lay off their in-house unionized delivery drivers and hire DoorDash contractors instead. According to Idrian Mollaneda from the California Law Review, “Proposition 22, financed almost entirely by gig companies, is a case study in how businesses can purchase new laws.” The win for gig companies in California will likely have a ripple effect across the country, a very concerning prospect for workers who will need to fight even harder to resist this policy-making agenda.
Victories of the labor movement
The PRO Act is the most important and encouraging policy to be introduced to labor law in a long time – maybe ever, when considering the contemporary issues of the gig economy. If passed, the PRO Act would provide significant labor protections for all workers and restrictions against labor misclassification. The PRO Act would also strengthen unions, protect the right to strike and protect digital organizing.
While passing the PRO Act should continue to be an immediate priority, it certainly isn’t enough to transform labor relations in the U.S. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that the PRO Act will become law any time soon, considering the excessive lobbying power that corporations have to dictate legislation. Only an organized labor force can fundamentally shape policy outcomes and the conditions of workers in the U.S.
This past March, following two years of organizing, workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island voted to unionize and become part of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a historic and monumental win for the e-commerce labor movement and one of the largest labor forces in the world. Immediately following this landmark win, unionization efforts at other Amazon locations in New York City began snowballing. The success of this worker-led struggle against the Amazon behemoth carries important stakes for the future – most notably, the question of whether workers’ ability to build a revolutionary labor movement is possible.
We need all-hands-on-deck, worker-led organizing. We need motivated unionizing efforts to continue. We need consistent worker-to-worker solidarity. And we need voters to read the legislation and advocate for policies that will uplift workers’ rights. The issues workers are confronting today have nothing on the issues workers will confront in the coming years if we don’t resist the institutionalization of corporate agendas that undermine workers’ rights, democratize our labor force and build working class power from the bottom up.
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