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Organizing to Reduce Workplace Dangers

Workers are standing up to intimidation with bold campaigns at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Dollar General.

BY JESSICA E. MARTINEZMARCY GOLDSTEIN-GELB

Screen Shot 2022-05-17 at 9.46.52 AM.png

Creative Commons / Starbucks workers on strike

Jordan Romero, 28, was struck by a vehicle and died in a trench at a Boston construction site in February 2021. Romero was the father of two young children. They will grow up without him.

Robert Woods, 42, was murdered in 2018 during a robbery at the St. Louis Dollar General store where he worked, leaving behind a grieving daughter. Despite multiple violent incidents at its stores, Dollar General has not taken measures to adequately address security concerns.

Janine Denise Johnson Williams, 50, was one of nine workers who died this past December when a tornado struck Mayfield Consumer Products in Kentucky. She is survived by her husband, four children and 17 grandchildren. Five workers at the Mayfield plant say they asked to leave after severe weather alerts but were told to stay or risk being fired. 

These three preventable deaths are just a few of those that took place at workplaces recognized as this year’s Dirty Dozen unsafe employers by our organization, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Each year we release this list to call attention to egregious actions by companies who put workers and communities at risk. 

You may ask: can employers really prevent a traffic accident, a shooting or a death from a tornado? The answer is yes, yes and yes.

Any competent contractor must safely manage traffic at a construction site. Retail stores have a responsibility to protect employees and customers with safe staffing, security systems and other measures. In an era of climate change, factories and warehouses must have emergency procedures in place for severe weather — and forcing workers to stay on the job can have terrible consequences. 

More than 4,700 U.S. workers died from workplace trauma in 2020, the latest year for which data is available. And as many as 95,000 U.S. workers die each year from long-term exposure to toxic hazards including silica and asbestos.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought new risks to many workplaces, leading to a huge loss of life. One insurance company reports a 40 percent increase in deaths of working age Americans, from ages 18 to 64, since the pandemic began. 

Indigenous, Black and Latinx people and Pacific Islanders are dying from COVID-19 at far greater rates than white people and Asian Americans. Disparities in access to health care and other resources can mean the difference between life and death. 

When workers organize, U.S. employers often respond with brute force, firing a few so the rest are afraid to speak up. The nation’s 11 million undocumented workers are especially vulnerable, due to fears that their immigration status will be used against them.

But in today’s labor market, where employers are dealing with a shortage of workers, the old tricks aren’t working. Workers are standing up to intimidation with bold campaigns at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Dollar General. Stories from these workplaces and others can be found on workedup.us, a new National COSH platform for workers who are joining together to turn bad jobs into good jobs and good jobs into better ones.  

We might hope that unsafe employers would take steps on their own to reduce risks and eliminate hazards. But hope is not a plan. Organizing with coworkers is a much better bet. 

[Source]

Are Unions Making a Comeback?

The United States is seeing a revival in union membership.

In the last six months, the National Labor Relations Board has recorded a 60 percent increase in workers filing for petitions that allow for union elections to take place.

The circumstances that have prompted these unionization efforts have some similarities with the period that brought the largest gain in union membership in U.S. history, during the 1930s.

What can that era tell us about today, and are current efforts just a blip?

Guest: Noam Scheiber, a reporter covering workers and the workplace for The New York Times.

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Background reading: 

For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily

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Where Are All the “Pro-Worker” Republicans Now?

While employees at Amazon and Starbucks win historic unionization campaigns, the “populist” wing of the GOP has been noticeably silent.

By NICK VACHON 

Amazon workers are taking on the corporate elite. Republican officials are nowhere to be found. ELLIOT LEWIS 

Over the past few years, a small but highly-visible band of Republicans have publicly declared their intention to transform the GOP into a ​“worker’s party.” Sens. Marco Rubio (R‑Fla.), Josh Hawley (R‑MO), Ted Cruz (R‑Tex.) and Tom Cotton (R‑AR) have all embraced versions of this vision, part of a high-brow attempt to divorce the party from its sole adherence to pro-business conservatism.

On election night 2020, Hawley — who was elected to the Senate in 2018 after running a relatively conventional Republican campaign—declared that the GOP was ​“a working class party now. That’s the future.” Cruz and Cotton have since echoed Hawley’s populist rhetoric, the former blasting Democrats as ​“the party of the rich” while claiming for Republicans the mantle of ​“the party of the working class.” 

There has been some movement on the legislative side, too. Early last year, Cotton and Sen. Mitt Romney (R‑UT) introduced legislation to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour. Hawley’s personal crusade against Big Tech — which attracted bipartisan support before he refused to certify the 2020 presidential election and supported the insurrectionist crowd outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — is, on its face, anti-monopolistic.

But in reality, a few policy gestures aside, their rhetoric hasn’t lived up to the hype. In recent weeks, as American workers have won a string of significant victories — organizing Starbucks coffee shops across the country and unionizing an Amazon warehouse for the first time in the company’s history — this group of supposedly ​“pro-worker” Republicans have been handed a prime opportunity to speak out in support of these organizing efforts. Instead, they’ve been silent. 

This reticence is particularly notable from Rubio, who already supported one Amazon union drive. Last year, when workers and organizers in Bessemer, Alabama, tried unsuccessfully to form a union at a local facility, Rubio penned an op-ed in USA Today effectively endorsing the efforts, writing that Amazon’s corporate behavior was ​“uniquely malicious” — a notable stand for someone who once warned that unions threatened to ​“destroy industries their workers are in.” But when it comes to the successful campaign at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse in New York, Rubio has kept mum.

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Union Busting: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

John Oliver discusses the mechanics of union busting, why the companies who do it face so few consequences, and what it really means when your manager wants to talk to you about “your attendance.”

SOURCE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gk8dUXRpoy8&t=1s

Amazon Prime Is an Economy-Distorting Lie

A new antitrust case shows that Prime inflates prices across the board, using the false promise of ‘free shipping’ that is anything but free.

Matt Stoller

Last week, the Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed an antitrust suit against Amazon. The point of the suit is simple, but not stated explicitly – to unravel Amazon Prime, which at this point has at least 126 million members, roughly the same number of households in America (128.5 million).

I’ve read a bunch of the coverage, but no one has hit that point yet. So that’s what I’m going to write about today.

Photo by Marco Verch, licensed via Creative Commons.

“Happily and Deeply Intertwined”

It’s a fascinating moment in the political fight over big tech. On the one hand, the four dominant tech firms have never been more powerful or profitable. On the other hand, there is increasingly a consensus that our political leaders have to do *something* about their power. As a result, Google and Facebook are facing government litigation, and Apple has been fighting off legislative attempts to rein in app stores. Nothing has yet breached the castle walls of any of these firms, but we’re getting closer all the time.

This week, it was Amazon’s turn. On Wednesday, Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine alleged that Amazon was using its power to manipulate online retail prices. But there is something a bit different about this case than the ones targeting Google and Facebook. As Shira Ovide put it in the New York Times, Racine is making the claim that Amazon isn’t just crushing competitors, but *raising* consumer prices in the process.

It’s a longstanding claim by some of the independent merchants who sell on Amazon’s digital mall that the company punishes them if they list their products for less on their own websites or other shopping sites like Walmart.com. Those sellers are effectively saying that Amazon dictates what happens on shopping sites all over the internet, and in doing so makes products more expensive for all of us.

The reason this case is considered important is because higher consumer prices fit within the orbit of the consensus for antitrust. While there are possible problems with the case, Racine isn’t going outside the orthodoxy of modern antitrust the way enforcers are with the Facebook case. Against Facebook, enforcers are trying to claim that Facebook is engaged in more surveillance than consumers would otherwise prefer, and that this choice is akin to a price hike. That’s true, but it’s a somewhat novel antitrust claim. In this case, Racine is saying Amazon raised consumer prices using monopoly power. This case is not pushing the boundaries of antitrust law, it’s straightforward consumer harm.

That said, I think there’s another important aspect of this case that has gone largely unmentioned, which is that the Amazon Prime program, the keystone that holds Amazon’s dominance over retail together, is effectively being subsidized by the scheme Racine laid out. If you get rid of Amazon’s ability to force sellers to keep their prices high, then Prime, and its promise of free shipping, falls apart, as does much of the Amazon Marketplace business model. Other parts of Prime, such as Amazon’s ventures in Hollywood (like its recently announced purchase of MGM), may also not make sense if Racine wins.

To understand why, we have to start with the idea of free shipping. Free shipping is the God of online retail, so powerful that France actually banned the practice to protect its retail outlets. Free shipping is also the backbone of Prime. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos knew that the number one pain point for online buyers is shipping – one third of shoppers abandon their carts when they see shipping charges. Bezos helped invent Prime for this reason, saying the point of Prime was to use free shipping “to draw a moat around our best customers.” The goal was to get people used to buying from Amazon, knowing they wouldn’t have to worry about shipping charges. Once Amazon had control of a large chunk of online retail customers, it could then begin dictating terms of sellers who needed to reach them.

This became clear as you read Racine’s complaint. One of the most important sentences in the AG’s argument is a quote from Bezos in 2015 where he alludes to this point. In discussing the firm’s logistics service that is the bedrock of its free shipping promise, Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA), he said, “FBA is so important because it is glue that inextricably links Marketplace and Prime. Thanks to FBA, Marketplace and Prime are no longer two things. Their economics . . . are now happily and deeply intertwined.” Amazon wants people to see Prime, FBA, and Marketplace as one integrated mega-product, what Bezos likes to call ‘a flywheel,’ to disguise the actual monopolization at work. (Indeed, any time you hear the word ‘flywheel’ relating to Amazon, replace it with ‘monopoly’ and the sentence will make sense.)

Why would FBA be the glue here between Prime and Marketplace? Shipping and logistics is extremely expensive, far more than the membership fees charged by Prime; Amazon spent $37.9 billion on shipping costs in 2019, and much more in 2020. No matter how amazing your logistics operation, you can’t just offer free shipping to customers without having someone pay for it. Amazon found its solution in the relationship between Prime and Marketplace. It forced third party sellers to de facto pay for its shipping costs, by charging them commissions that reach as high as 45%, according to Racine, merely to access Amazon customers. That’s nearly half the revenue of a seller going to Amazon! And this high fee isn’t just because fulfillment or selling online is expensive; Walmart charges significantly less for its fulfillment services and access charges to its online market, and eBay’s market access fees are also much lower than Amazon’s.

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Organizing at Amazon: What Went Wrong? (+1 more)

Jane McAlevey on the fight in Bessemer, plus Amy Wilentz on Hunter Biden.

By Start Making Sense and Jon Wiener

(Igor Golovniov / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

https://embeds.audioboom.com/posts/7844411/embed/v4

The union organizing campaign at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., was defeated by a vote of 1798 against and 738 in favor. Jane McAlevey argues that the biggest factor in the vote was the laws that give tremendous advantages to the corporate side—but the union itself made a series of tactical and strategic errors. Jane is The Nation’s strikes correspondent.

Also: Hunter Biden was the target of a massive Republican attack campaign for more than a year leading up to the election; at the same time, the gossip pages seized on his disastrous private life. They made the most of his decades of alcohol addiction and drug abuse, and his subsequent affair with the widow of his brother. Now he’s written a book—it’s called Beautiful Things: A MemoirAmy Wilentz comments.

[Listen]


The Next Fight Against Voter Suppression

Dale Ho on Georgia, plus Karen Greenberg on ending our forever wars.

By Start Making Sense and Jon Wiener

(Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

https://embeds.audioboom.com/posts/7839139/embed/v4

There’s one political prediction that always comes true: Record turnout in one election will be followed by a tidal wave of voter suppression efforts before the next one. So it’s not surprising that after 2020 had record turnout, 2021 is seeing voting rights under attack nationwide by Republican-controlled state legislatures. Georgia has taken the lead—and Georgia is being challenged in court by the ACLU, along with the the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Dale Ho comments: He’s director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and supervises the ACLU’s voting rights litigation nationwide.

Also: Joe Biden and Congress should end our forever wars—and they can—by starting with three key steps: Karen Greenberg explains. She is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author, most recently, of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State.

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How Corporations Crush the Working Class

TRANSCRIPT:

The most dramatic change in the system over the last half-century has been the emergence of corporate giants like Amazon and the shrinkage of labor unions.

The resulting power imbalance has spawned near-record inequalities of income and wealth, corruption of democracy by big money, and the abandonment of the working class.

Fifty years ago, General Motors was the largest employer in America. The typical GM worker earned $35 an hour in today’s dollars and had a major say over working conditions.

Today’s largest employers are Amazon and Walmart, each paying far less per hour and routinely exploiting their workers, who have little recourse.

The typical GM worker wasn’t “worth” so much more than today’s Amazon or Walmart worker and didn’t have more valuable insights about working conditions.

The difference is those GM workers had a strong union. They were backed by the collective bargaining power of more than a third of the entire American workforce. 

Today, most workers are on their own. Only 6.4% of America’s private-sector workers are unionized, providing little collective pressure on Amazon, Walmart, or other major employers to treat their workers any better.

Fifty years ago, the labor movement had enough political clout to ensure labor laws were enforced and that the government pushed giant firms like GM to sustain the middle class.

Today, organized labor’s political clout is minuscule by comparison. 

The biggest political players are giant corporations like Amazon. They’ve used that political muscle to back “right-to-work” laws, whittle down federal labor protections, and keep the National Labor Relations Board understaffed and overburdened, allowing them to get away with egregious union-busting tactics.

They’ve also impelled government to lower their taxesextorted states to provide them tax breaks as a condition for locating facilities there; bullied cities where they’re headquartered; and wangled trade treaties allowing them to outsource so many jobs that blue-collar workers in America have little choice but to take low-paying, high-stress warehouse and delivery gigs. 

Oh, and they’ve neutered antitrust laws, which in an earlier era would have had companies like Amazon in their crosshairs.

This decades-long power shift – the ascent of corporate leviathans and the demise of labor unions – has resulted in a massive upward redistribution of income and wealth. The richest 0.1% of Americans now have almost as much wealth as the bottom 90% put together.

The power shift can be reversed – but only with stronger labor laws resulting in more unions, tougher trade deals, and a renewed commitment to antitrust.

The Biden administration and congressional Democrats appear willing. The House has just passed the toughest labor reforms in more than a generation. Biden’s new trade representative, promises trade deals will protect American workers rather than exporters. And Biden is putting trustbusters in critical positions at the Federal Trade Commission and in the White House.

And across the country, labor activism has surged – from the Amazon union effort, to frontline workers walking out and striking to demand better pay, benefits, and safety protections.

I’d like to think America is at a tipping point similar to where it was some 120 years ago, when the ravages and excesses of the Gilded Age precipitated what became known as the Progressive Era. Then, reformers reined in the unfettered greed and inequalities of the day and made the system work for the many rather than the few.

It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re now living in a Second Gilded Age. And today’s progressive activists may be on the verge of ushering us into a Second Progressive Era. They need all the support we can give them.