Apr 12, 2022

Amazon workers unionize.

Amazon workers unionize.

Plus, why do people hate taxes?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're covering the major unionization at an Amazon warehouse. Plus, a question about why people hate taxes and a plug for our latest podcast.

Photo: War on Want
Photo: War on Want

Quick hits.

  1. U.S. inflation rose another 1.2% from February to March, the biggest month-to-month jump since 2005. The consumer price index was driven up mainly by supply chain issues, robust consumer demand and more disruptions to global food and energy markets. (The numbers)
  2. Five people were shot and unexploded devices were found at a Brooklyn, New York City train station this morning. (The shooting)
  3. President Joe Biden said he is suspending a federal rule preventing the sale of higher ethanol blend gasoline this summer in an effort to lower the price of fuel. (The rule)
  4. Philadelphia announced it will restore an indoor mask mandate as Covid-19 cases rise across Pennsylvania. It's the first major city to reinstate mask mandates. (The reversal)
  5. The mayor of Mariupol, a city in Ukraine, said more than 10,000 civilians were killed in Russia's weeks-long siege. (The siege)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Podcast promo!

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These are just a few of the questions I asked Justin Higgins, a former legislative assistant and Republican National Committee opposition researcher who — in 2016 — switched his political party affiliation. He is now the founder of the Politics + Media 101 podcast. You can listen to our conversation by clicking here.


Today's topic.

The Amazon unionization vote (side note: thanks for voting in my poll on what to cover today). Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, voted to unionize earlier this month, the first time a successful organizing effort has taken place at one of the largest companies in America. A previous high profile union effort failed twice in Alabama, but in Staten Island 2,654 workers voted in favor of unionization while 2,131 workers voted against. The vote marked one of the most significant labor victories in modern U.S. history, and ended Amazon's unbeaten streak of union busting.

“We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” Amazon said in a statement.

Amazon had pushed hard to stop the union by calling for mandatory meetings where management attempted to dissuade workers from voting in favor of the union. The company also launched an anti-union website and posted anti-union posters in English and Spanish throughout the warehouse.

Now, the new union — dubbed Amazon Labor Union, or ALU — will get to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement (a contract for workers) with Amazon. ALU says its top priorities are an hourly wage increase to a $30 minimum (the average warehouse starting pay is $18) and longer breaks for workers. The ALU also says it is looking to help a neighboring Staten Island warehouse in its unionization vote later this month.

“The president was glad to see workers ensure their voices are heard with respect to important workplace decisions,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing. “He believes firmly that every worker in every state must have a free and fair choice to join a union and the right to bargain collectively with their employer.”

Some expressed skepticism the labor union would wield strong results. Mark Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University, told the Associated Press he didn't see how workers would benefit from a unionized facility. He described Amazon as a “highly disciplined and regimented” business that's already paying premium wages while demanding a lot of output from workers.

“Amazon is not going to change their culture because there is now a union in their midst,” Cohen said. “They might be forced to let people work eight hours but those people will make less money.”

The unionization comes at a time when unions across the U.S. are enjoying some renewed momentum after years of declining influence. Union pushes have already taken place at other major corporations like Starbucks — where more than 100 stores have filed for unionization — and REI. It also comes at a time when support for unions is beginning to garner some bipartisan consensus — though for different reasons (more on that in a second).

Amazon may not be done fighting, either. It has filed a challenge of the vote with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees union elections like the one in Staten Island, arguing — among other things — that the board's attempts to reinstate a warehouse employee who was fired for suspected union-related activity destroyed the "laboratory conditions" of the election that are supposed to be present for a vote. It also accused the union organizers of disrupting anti-union meetings Amazon attempted to host. It's possible the challenge could make it all the way to the Supreme Court, though that would take years.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left supports unionization.
  • Many speculate this is the beginning of a tidal shift of workers taking back power.
  • Some criticize Amazon for how it treats workers and how it continues trying to shut this effort down.

In The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie said these workers were able to deal a blow to one of the most powerful anti-union companies thanks to the strong economy.

"Even with rising inflation, this is the strongest economy we’ve had for workers in at least a generation," Bouie wrote. "Overall, in 2021 the United States added more than 6.4 million jobs to its economy, a record high. At the start of this year, the nation’s labor market was on track to recover from the pandemic three times as fast as it did from the Great Recession a decade earlier. And it still is: The United States added 431,000 jobs in March and 95,000 more than previously recognized for the months of January and February, both of which also saw record job growth. Unemployment has dropped below 4 percent, the lowest since the economic boom of the 1990s, and wages are growing this year at an annual rate of more than 5 percent.

"Employers can go ahead and threaten to fire workers who try to unionize, even if these threats are illegal, but the tight market for labor gives those workers other options, which makes the threat less potent than it might have been when the economy was weaker and jobs were scarce," he added. "On the flip side, a red-hot labor market means that employers who want to fire employees are hamstrung by the fact that they may not be able to replace them with new workers. This, on its own, gives workers leverage where they may have possessed very little... In theory, Amazon could simply close a warehouse that voted to unionize... But the value of Amazon’s shipping business rests on its ability to deliver packages as quickly as possible, which means that the products must be as physically close to customers as is feasible. The very thing that makes Amazon what it is — its ubiquitous presence across the American landscape — also makes it vulnerable to those workers who are able to organize themselves."

On April 1, in The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson said "As of today, the balance of power in America’s class struggle seems to have shifted just a bit."

"Class struggle? What class struggle? More like an unending, one-sided blitzkrieg. Big businesses and small, corporations and private equity firms, shareholders and employers have all been clobbering workers for decades," Meyerson said. "The fierce and unified opposition of America’s bosses to allowing their workers even a smidgen of power has been the foundation of American economic life for the past 40 years. But today, just maybe, that changed... America’s wealthiest, most powerful, most seemingly indispensable company has lost to a pop-up coalition of workers who waged their campaign without affiliation or assistance from a single established union. A generation, it’s clear, is stirring.”

On April 7, Meyerson added that Amazon's pledge to compensate workers fairly and give them dignity and respect is a "tad disingenuous," writing that "the annual rate of job turnover for their huge warehouse workforce is a mind-boggling 150 percent. Given the careful study and precision with which Amazon crafts its business practices, this turnover rate is not a bug but a deliberate, considered feature. By making the work in its warehouses so debilitating to its employees’ bodies, so demoralizing to their minds, and so exquisitely monitored by digital technology to track their employees’ every move, Amazon plainly intends to have its workers sprint through their rounds until they drop, and then hire the next crew of sprinters."

In The Washington Post, Helaine Olen said the unionization contains some "warnings" for Democrats.

"Three Democratic senators — Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, along with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin (the perennial killjoy to the left’s wish list) — voted against the Biden administration’s nominee to head the Labor Department’s wage and hour division," Olen said. "David Weil headed the same department during the Obama administration, and his defense of workers made business interests unhappy. So what did Weil do to engender this internal party opposition? During the Obama administration, he spearheaded an aggressive upgrade of U.S. overtime laws, which would have boosted the wages of an estimated 4 million salaried workers. (The effort was first stayed by courts and then dialed back by the Trump administration.) He looked unfavorably on the franchise model in which major corporations slough off responsibility for employees to a smaller franchisee. Weil deemed both responsible for the welfare of those workers, a designation the Trump administration later reversed.

"In other words, Weil was an effective advocate for workers — and he attempted to hold multinational corporations responsible for their employees’ low wages," Olen said. "Little wonder business interests such as the Chamber of Commerce came out in force against his nomination... Biden is attempting to tackle the imbalance, but he can’t achieve more for workers on his own. He needs the support of his party to make regulatory and legislative changes. Some Democratic legislators are missing that bigger picture. Which is how we came to see Weil voted down, the first nomination vote defeat of Biden’s administration."


What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided about unionization, with some opposed to Amazon's business practices and others saying it isn't necessary.
  • Some say Republicans need a much stronger pro-worker message.
  • Others say the unionization efforts happened without Democrats’ help.

In The New York Post, Nicole Gelinas said Amazon's first-ever union won't be thanking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"She was supposed to attend a rally last summer for the workers, but jilted them without warning — a snub [union leader Christian] Smalls called 'a slap in the face.' She has cited both scheduling conflicts and security concerns as excuses," Gelinas wrote. "Fact is, though, the Democratic Socialist of America movement has never been a union movement. Nearly four years ago, when AOC herself first won her Democratic primary, she beat the union-backed incumbent, Joe Crowley... This all creates a huge tension between Amazon (and Starbucks) workers creating unions and AOC types who claim to stick up for workers’ rights.

"AOC wants people to look to the government for all their benefits, whereas Smalls and fellow organizers want to extract even better benefits from their employers. Unionized workers with excellent health care have never been advocates of 'Medicare for All' because they don’t need it," Gelinas said. "AOC and fellow Democratic Socialists claim to support unions, but much of their labor agenda consists of universal benefits that would make labor unions obsolete. The most obvious one, from the DSA’s platform: to 'guarantee a job with union wages and benefits to everyone who wants one by creating millions of public sector jobs.' With 'union wages and benefits,' there is no need for a union. Ironically — and something AOC is well smart enough to understand — a newly powerful service-sector workforce actually harms support for the DSA movement... people with good jobs are not street protesters or socialist voters."

Diana Furchtgott-Roth said Amazon employees don't need a union.

"Workers don’t need unions because the economy is booming, and workers face a sellers’ market for their skills. They also don’t want to pay substantial union dues. And they understand that the union agenda would drive jobs offshore," Furchtgott-Roth said. "Over the past year, the American economy has created more than 7 million jobs. Production earnings rose by 7 percent, and the labor-force participation rate increased by almost a full percentage point. In February of this year, the economy created 678,000 jobs. The forecast for March, due out April 1, is similar. The unemployment rate stands at 3.8 percent.

"The labor market is getting tighter. Amazon workers have more bargaining power without a union than they did a year ago," she added. "Moreover, with almost 11 million unfilled jobs, employees have their pick of other positions if they want to move. People at all income levels, including adults without a high school diploma, are getting jobs, and they don’t need unions to advance."

In The Federalist, Emily Jashinsky said workers caught between big business and big labor need Republicans.

"Corruption in Big Business, however, doesn’t negate corruption in Big Labor or invalidate all of the right’s long held arguments against unions," Jashinsky said. "Conservatives seeking to support the plight of workers against certain callous corporations needn’t embrace another corrupt institution in the process. Tempting as it is to throw out the old playbook and stick it to today’s corporatists in every way possible, the reality that unions are not always good for workers remains true. It’s also true, however, that unions have their place in the private sector, even after years of worker-friendly regulations and changes in the economic climate.

Still, she says, "The right has long been correct to criticize unions as corrupt and partisan arms of the Democratic Party. Among the many factors contributing to the decline in union density, worker choice clearly played a major role. Workers deserve the right to withhold their wages from mismanaged organizations just as they should have the right to bargain against their mismanaged employers who do the very same...There are, of course, companies that treat their employees well, with or without unions. Some of this is certainly due to the looming threat of unionization, but depending on the labor market and economy, even the greediest capitalist has financial incentives to treat workers well."


My take.

It feels hard to overstate how remarkable this all is.

Not just the fact that bottom-up labor organization finally worked at Amazon, but the reaction from across the political spectrum as well. While their reasons may differ, the left and right have shown genuine support for the unionization effort — something that is obviously rare in today's political landscape. The Democrats' traditional arguments are all still there, however hollow given their love for corporate cash: Big business takes advantage of workers, doesn't pay them fair wages, doesn't treat them well, and allows the wealthiest to hoard resources at the top.

The right's arguments feel more novel, though: A disgust with consolidated corporate power, a recognition that their support among working class Americans is blossoming, and a sense that the same people driving progressive cultural ideology and offshoring jobs to China may not be their allies.

There was plenty said above about the remarkable nature of this vote, so I won't waste space repeating it here. It is, indeed, remarkable. What I find more important, though, is the larger context. We are currently witnessing the rise of worker power — not just in unions — but in nearly every corner of American life, and especially in more urban and suburban areas (where there are an abundance of jobs).

People are quitting in droves to find better work, get higher wages, better benefits and, yes, even unionizing. And employers are just... caving. In a lot of places. Or being defeated, like Amazon was. They have little other choice. The tight labor market and post-pandemic boom in spending have handed increased leverage to workers across the board.

It may also portend a rising class conflict. The new breed of working-class Americans now demanding better pay and better jobs recognizes that Democrats' core funders are the likes of Amazon and Starbucks CEOs. They view the party that once represented the working class as “corporate-affiliated” and “elite.” They also recognize that the GOP is traditionally the union-busting, "free-market" party that has allowed so much wealth to be concentrated at the top for so long. It's politically significant that this group may not see allies in either political camp, and is instead ripe for the picking.

Americans are skeptical about their future, and their kids' future, at a time when they view CEOs, corporations and the wealthy very negatively. This kind of worker-led revolt, whether it's in the form of unionization, mass resignations, political shifts, walkouts, strikes or demand for higher wages, cannot be ignored — and it has the potential to reshape the entire country.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Support our work.


Your questions, answered.  

Q: Why are taxes so despised?  When I think of taxes, I think of all the great things that can be done with that money to make our lives better. I understand that governments can be quite inefficient sometimes, but that seems like mostly an organizational/policy issue, and the services are generally things we all want.  Can you think of any way to get people excited about where their taxes are going instead of so upset over it?

— Chris, Oakland, California

Tangle: I think there are a number of reasons. As a newly minted business owner, I can certainly understand it. One of the dynamics that happens when you're an employer is that you really see how much money the government takes. Rather than getting a paycheck that is my paycheck and maybe being owed taxes later, now I see all my revenue come in, pay my staff, and then (around this time every year!) do a bunch of math and find out I owe the government tens of thousands of dollars. When it happens like that, it changes your perspective a bit.

Another simpler reason is the one you sort of touched on: You want your taxes going to things you support. I recently reflected on whether we are right to spend so much tax revenue on the military, but plenty of Americans despise those numbers. If I knew all my taxes were going to my retirement, a safety net for the poor, well behaved police, honest politicians, building schools, supporting veterans and efficiently ensuring our food and water was safe to consume, I wouldn't have many gripes. But when you realize your tax dollars are often wasted or going to the salaries of inept and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, it becomes less appealing.

I think the best way to get people excited about taxes would be to significantly reduce government waste and to improve the quality of government funded entities — like government health insurance, schools, public transportation and regulatory agencies — in a way that allows people to really see the benefits. I also think local, state and federal governments could all do a much better job of promoting the use of tax dollars and educating Americans about who their tax dollars actually employ (teachers, police, firefighters, etc). I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many Americans don't even know that.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Fewer than one in 10 Americans now describe Covid-19 as a crisis, with one in six saying it is no problem at all, according to a new Axios report. Republicans (31%) were ten times as likely as Democrats (3%) to say Covid-19 isn't a problem. An overwhelming majority of Republicans and Democrats said Covid-19 is a problem, but manageable, while just 16% of Democrats and 3% of Republicans called it a serious crisis. The poll shows that a growing number of Americans have moved into a new phase of the pandemic, one where public health officials will face significant challenges if and when they want to re-implement measures like masking in public places (as we're seeing in Philadelphia). Axios has the breakdown.


Numbers.

  • 1.1 million. The number of people employed by Amazon in the U.S.
  • $18/hour. The average starting wage at Amazon after a wage hike in 2021.
  • 7.8 per 100. The number of serious injuries per 100 employees at Amazon warehouses in 2019.
  • 3.1 per 100. The number of serious injuries per 100 employees at non-Amazon warehouses in 2019.
  • $1 billion. The amount of money Amazon spent in 2020 on safety measures that included expanding a program for stretching, meditation and nutritional guidance.
  • 5.9 per 100. The number of serious injuries per 100 employees at Amazon warehouses in 2020.
  • 40%. The percentage of online retail in the United States that is accounted for by Amazon.

Have a nice day.

An area in Mexico once famous for cropping narcotics and cannabis is now turning to forestry. The Golden Triangle of Opium is starting to be referred to as the Golden Triangle of Sustainable Forestry, and the shift in Durango, Mexico — which took decades — is now emerging as a major success story. “When we initially began providing them with technical assistance, we saw the situation [the strong presence of crops destined for drug production] and made a real effort to convince them to move away from growing narcotics,” Carlos Zapata Pérez, a community forest management engineer, told Mongabay. “We told them their forest was an important resource because it could offer them many benefits, eco-systemic services, for example.” Now, Durango state is one of Mexico’s top timber producers, contributing 70 million cubic feet to the national industry, according to the Good News Network.


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