While Americans’ chief worries these days are surging inflation and the fate of global democracy at stake in the Ukraine’s struggle to repel Putin’s barbaric invasion, Americans—and certainly the mainstream media—pay much less attention to recent rumblings in the American labor movement that represent sources of hope on both these fronts, offering at once greater financial stability and also more robust economic and political democracy for Americans.
Amazon workers at a processing facility in Staten Island voted by a significant margin to form the first ever collective bargaining unit at the behemoth corporation. Amazon, of course, has long and strenuously resisted such organizing efforts, apparently believing workers should have no say in workplace conditions, the organization of their work, or their pay and benefits. In short, while we supposedly honor democracy in America, Amazon doesn’t believe democracy belongs in the American workplace or economy at all.
This victory, though, which may prove a springboard for more widespread unionization of the American workforce, highlights the key role unions can and need to play in ensuring economic security for Americans as well as for protecting and realizing democracy in America and around the globe.
Here’s what I mean.
First, let’s recognize that the reason Americans are concerned about inflation is, simply put, that rising prices make it difficult for the many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck to continue to afford their basic needs.
While the momentary problem might be identified as “inflation,” we need to recognize that the long-standing, persistent, and fundamental problems are the obscene income inequality and economic injustice characterizing American society and economy.
In a just economy in which the American people shared more of the fruits of their labor, of the wealth they help create, and in which people enjoyed basic rights and access to health care, affordable housing, and higher education, inflation would not nearly be as huge an issue or concern. But we live in a political world and economy in which the wealthiest one percent have been allowed, through our economic structures and value systems and through brute power, to hoard unto themselves the fruits of labor produced by workers in American and across the globe.
Unions bring workers together, uniting their power so they can engage in negotiations on a more equal footing and so they can have some say, some modicum of democracy, in their workplaces.
When we look at what Amazon workers in Staten Island and Starbucks and REI workers around the country are hoping for, it is mainly and quite simply to have some say in their workplaces, some basic respect as human beings, and the ability to make a living.
Chief demands for the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), for example, are immediate changes to health and safety policies and better working conditions as well as pay raises that keep pace with inflation so the ability of workers to afford their lives is not eroded.
Are these really outrageous demands from a company that makes tens of billions of dollars in profits and in some years has paid no taxes?
At Starbucks, a primary reason for the recent unionization efforts by workers has been simply so they can have a basic say in their workplace and be treated with a basic respect for their humanity and lives.
Liz Alanna, for example, a shift supervisor in a Mesa, Arizona Starbucks where workers recently voted in a union, puts it in the simplest terms: “People who sit behind a computer do not know how to make a latte, do not know how to clean a toilet—we need to have a say.”
And Brittany Harrison, a manager at the same store who was battling leukemia and was repeatedly denied time off or the help of an assistant manager, puts it even more starkly: “This company will not be happy until I work myself to death.”
And according to Sydney Durkin, a shift supervisor at a Seattle location that recently voted to unionize, workers are simply seeking a living wage.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, we see corporate leaders from Jeff Bezos at Amazon, to Elon Musk at Tesla, to Howard Schultz at Starbucks, all resist democracy in their workplaces.
They want autocratic control.
And this autocracy they seek really needs to be understood as dangerously damaging to democratic institutions in America and around the globe.
These folks, in their distaste for democracy, do in fact support autocratic societies.
Musk, for example, was quite clear that he had no problem with overthrowing Evo Morales’ as the democratically-elected president of Bolivia, if it helped him acquire the lithium he needed for his batteries.
It’s no surprise that Musk, like Bezos and Schultz, has fought vigorously to silence and deny collective-bargaining rights to their workers.
As I’ve detailed elsewhere in the pages of PoliticusUsa, Musk and Bezos treat the lives of their workers as disposable.
They believe they have the right to own the world, to hoard its resources for themselves, and to govern it in their own interests.
These behaviors and beliefs are not different from Vladimir Putin’s. Putin believes he, as one individual man, has the right to decide which lands and which resources belong to him and disrupt or outright destroy the lives of millions based on his preferences.
We in America need to recognize the existence and practice of autocracy in America if we are to have any hope of actually preserving what elements of democracy we have put in place and of realizing democracy in its fullest reality and flourishing.
American workers and their quests for unionization represent, at present, one of the strongest, most promising, and most necessary movements for democracy we have.
And we need to recognize the role of labor and collective organizing in achieving democracy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.