Amazon workers have spoken — are progressives listening?

BY WILL MARSHALL

Following a high-profile organizing campaign that drew international attention, workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, have voted overwhelming against joining a union. While National Labor Relations Board officials are still sifting through contested votes, the anti-union forces lead by almost a 3–1 margin.

The emphatic rejection was a bitter blow to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which launched the first-ever drive to organize an Amazon warehouse. Its fight to organize the largely African American workforce was likened to past civil rights struggles in Alabama and cast as a “David vs. Goliath” parable by sympathetic reporters.

But the blowout in Bessemer also is a rebuff to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the progressive left. They invested heavily in the organizing push as an opportunity to resuscitate the traditional union organizing model while also curbing the power of one of the Big Tech companies they love to hate.

The independent socialist from Vermont and a coterie of left-leaning lawmakers, Hollywood actors and social justice activists regularly descended upon Alabama to show solidarity with Bessemer’s supposedly downtrodden proletariat. “You’re prepared to stand up and say that every worker in this country deserves to have decent wages, decent working conditions, decent benefits, and to be treated with dignity, not as a robot,” Sanders thundered at a recent rally.

Evidently, however, Amazon’s workers weren’t feeling the Bern. It’s not hard to understand why, especially when we look past Sanders’s nostalgic class warfare tropes to the realities of the local economy.

Even before the pandemic hit, Jefferson County, where Bessemer is located, had not yet regained the jobs it lost in the 2008–2009 recession. Manufacturing jobs, in particular, never recovered.

The hard times, of course, intensified during the pandemic. When Amazon’s fulfillment center opened in March 2020, it was greeted as a godsend in Bessemer. With a poverty rate of about 30 percent, this city of 27,000 is among the poorest in the state.

The $325 million center originally was expected to employ 1,500 workers. However, as the pandemic took hold, and Amazon’s e-commerce and remote shopping business boomed, that number has swelled to almost 6,000 jobs.

All workers at the Bessemer center start at $15.30 an hour. That’s more than twice the federal minimum wage in Alabama ($7.25 an hour). Warehouse workers also get the same health plan that Amazon’s salaried employees have, as well as retirement and parental leave benefits.

Obviously, that Amazon was hiring in a struggling economy was a strong point in its favor for the union vote. But it was also paying entry-level wages competitive with many manufacturers in the area. For example, Royal Switchgear Manufacturing in Bessemer was advertising for an assembly worker for $13.50-$14.00 per hour. Airgas Southeast, a subsidiary of Airgas USA, LLC, the nation’s “leading distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases and welding supplies,” was advertising for a plant operator position at its Bessemer plant, at pay starting from $15 per hour.

Looking at BLS data for the Birmingham-Hoover MSA, which includes Bessemer, also suggests that Amazon was paying competitive wages. For example, the median hourly wage for “emergency medical technicians and paramedics” in the area was $14.08 per hour, according to the BLS, while the median pay for dental assistants was $15.32 per hour. The median pay for the broad category of production occupations was $16.77 per hour.

In short, Amazon is doing exactly what you’d expect good businesses to do — create new jobs with decent pay and benefits in places that badly need them. But these realities don’t comport with the populist left’s cartoonish political narrative, in which working Americans are merely the passive playthings of rapacious capitalists, billionaires and tech barons — until unions and a beneficent government can step in to save them.

Bessemer’s workers, however, declined to play the victim. Nor in the end did union complaints about working conditions in the center — a grueling pace and high productivity targets that leave little time for breaks — get much traction with workers.

No doubt the union will try again, probably in a blue state more friendly to organized labor. But the setback in Bessemer should be a warning to Democrats that the left’s reflexive hostility to business and anti-capitalist posturing isn’t the way to win over working-class voters. On the contrary, it just reinforces how out of touch college-educated elites can be with the actual economic and social aspirations of working Americans.

Along with better wages and benefits, U.S. workers do want more voice and power in their workplaces. They want the dignity that hard and conscientious work of any kind should confer. It turns out that Amazon’s Bessemer workers don’t think they need a union to get these things.

The workers have had their say. Are progressives listening?

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Radically Pragmatic. We seek to advance progressive, market-friendly ideas that promote American innovation, economic growth, and wider opportunity.

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