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Biden’s support for unionizing Amazon is a big deal

Timothy Noah writes:

My morning newspapers were so transfixed by Sunday night’s vindictive speech by the president who lost reelection in November that they neglected to take note of Sunday night’s historic remarks by the president who’s running the country right now. Perhaps it was just a matter of early Sunday print deadlines, but I observe with interest that USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and Axios didn’t post their stories about Biden’s remarks online until this morning.

Allow me to catch you up.

At 8:01 p.m., President Joe Biden posted on Twitter a speech that took labor’s side in a union election. No president has done anything remotely like this in my lifetime. “This is new, nothing like it before,” observed the labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein on Twitter. “Politicians always give great speeches at union conventions and avoid union organizing campaigns because of possibility of failure. But Biden broke this norm.”

The union election at issue concerns roughly 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, an industrial suburb of Birmingham. Amazon is the second-biggest employer in America, after Walmart, and, like Walmart, it maintains no union shops on U.S. soil. The organizing drive at Bessemer marks Amazon’s second union election in the United States. The first, undertaken in 2014 by a bargaining unit of 30 at an Amazon distribution center in Delaware, failed, 21–6.

Rashad Long, who complained about working conditions at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island and tried to unionize workers there, got fired in 2019. The company claimed Long was fired for safety violations, but the company is so bent on keeping its facilities union-free that, according to a Vox report last fall, it’s developing its own line of dystopian-sounding surveillance software (the “geoSPatial Operating Console”) largely to track labor organizing.

Biden didn’t mention Amazon by name in his speech, and he took care not to tell the Bessemer workers how to vote on whether to organize under the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which he also didn’t name. Indeed, the only tipoff that Biden was talking principally, though not exclusively, about the conflict at Bessemer was a fleeting mention that “today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama … are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace.”

But Biden didn’t leave anybody guessing where his sympathies lay. “Unions built the middle class,” he said. “I made it clear when I was running that my administration’s policy would be to support union organizing and the right to collectively bargain. I’m keeping that promise.” [Continue reading…]

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