May Day revisited

The International Socialist Workers Party met in Paris in July 1889, the centenary of the storming of the Bastille.

Its agenda included constraints on child labor, the abolition of all standing armies, and a resolution calling for an international demonstration for an eight-hour working day on May 1, later known as International Workers Day. The date was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Haymarket Riot (1886), which was also about an eight-hour workday.

In the U.S. and Canada, we celebrate Labor Day in September. But in the rest of the world, if labor is still celebrated at all, it is on May 1st. The day will probably pass unnoticed in Bessemer, Alabama, where 6,000 Amazon warehouse workers will put in their usual eight-hour day.

Recently, a majority of those workers voted not to unionize, despite the efforts of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union organizers. The workers’ reasons varied: some felt they couldn’t do better, with starting pay already at twice the minimum wage; some didn’t want to pay union dues. Organizers argued that pay is not the only issue, that fairness and safety were also on the table. And of course, there are accusations that Amazon played dirty in preventing the union from organizing.

Over the past year, many retail workers lost their jobs due to the pandemic, but that really only accelerated the store closures resulting from the undeniable disruption of online shopping. Malls and stores had already been struggling, with iconic retailers declaring bankruptcy. But Amazon, one of the original and now the dominant online shopping website, was hiring: as of December 2020, it employed 1.3 million people worldwide, with over 400,000 coming on board just last year.

During the pandemic lockdowns, as those workers came to be seen and to see themselves as essential, there were several work stoppages at Amazon fulfillment centers protesting working conditions, and all sorts of gruesome stories: about pressure to pick, scan, and pack a quota of orders during a shift, limited bathroom breaks, physical injuries and strains, skimping on machine maintenance and on training and safety practices, and skimping on Covid protocols.

But for many workers in many places, Amazon became the only game in town. Bessemer, for example, has seen its steel mills and textile mills go elsewhere or just fold, and, until Amazon, hopes of a decent wage had disappeared as well.

The last few decades have not been kind to union membership in the U.S., and to labor in general. Wages have stagnated, both in real terms and in relative importance compared to capital, for example, measured as a proportion of gross productivity. There are probably many reasons, but the result has been an undeniable reduction in living standards for those who labor.

Maybe it was the appeal of start-up disruptions, real or imagined, where success sprang from the head of the brilliant entrepreneur, supported by the well-educated, well-rewarded, and driven few. By the time the start-up needed labor to flesh out their expanding logistical needs—that is, to actually pick, scan, and pack the orders, for example—the company’s ethos had been established, borne of the myth of endless effort and dedication.

Or maybe it was just a backlash against the success of unions, against the Cold War threat of Communism, or against the sensationalized corruption, racism, and sexism of the unions themselves, unappealing to a changing workforce. Whatever the reason, union membership in the U.S. is down to about 11% of the workforce, compared to about 20% in 1983, and down from its peak of almost 35% in 1954.

Recently however, employees even at tech companies have been organizing, although not necessarily unionizing in any conventional sense. At Alphabet, Google’s parent company, a group affiliated with the Communications Workers of America has formed, not to demand a collective bargaining process, but just to address workplace “issues.”

Unions evolved as a solution to a problem created by mass production and the implications of the assembly line: workers as interchangeable, replaceable parts. That made everyone employable, but also expendable. Collective bargaining was the only way of claiming a share of the proceeds.

Ironically, the Amazon warehouse may be a workplace where that old dynamic remains, despite executing the business model for a company built on disruptive tech. The workers along the conveyor belts are still interchangeable, employable but also expendable, and, individually inessential—just as the steelworkers and textile workers before them. Except that they don’t seem to see a union as their answer.