A car exits the highway and stops at a red light outside of a warehouse. Two union organizers, standing on the sidewalk, wave hello and strike up a short conversation. The car’s driver is one of the 5,800 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, where the first union election at any of the company’s U.S. warehouses since 2014 began last month. And the organizers from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in nearby Birmingham are optimistic.
Inside the building, the warehouse bosses plastered the bathrooms and breakrooms with anti-union fliers. On the company’s internal app, they post anti-union propaganda featuring smiling pictures of workers who don’t support the effort. And they hold mandatory, daily meetings to convince the workers that they don’t need a union.
But right after those meetings end, the workers return to their grueling ten-hour workday where computers track their every move. If they don’t work fast enough or take too many water breaks, workers run the risk of losing pay or even their jobs. Lunch breaks are so short that after walking through the 14-football-field long warehouse, workers don’t have enough time to pop a meal in the microwave. Of course, if you like to scarf down days-old unrefrigerated Grab-n-Go sandwiches like a desperate seagull, that might not be a problem. For everyone other than my co-columnist, less time than needed to warm up food isn’t even a break.
Right now, workers across the U.S. wait in anticipation of the results of the union election, which ends on March 30. If the workers win, it’ll be one of the biggest labor successes of the 21st century — a success that all Americans desperately need.
See, over the last seventy years, the American labor movement has lost almost all of its 20th century power. Union membership, which peaked at 35 percent of the workforce in 1953, has since fallen to 10 percent. States across the country have enacted “right-to-work” laws that make it difficult to unionize. And with the rise of the gig economy, more and more workers are classified as contractors, which means they can’t join unions.
Besides that, a lot of workers today don’t think that they would be helped by a union. Take tech workers. They’re paid relatively well, get lavish benefits and, before the pandemic, often worked in futuristic compounds with nap rooms and bikes. Why should they unionize? What more could they possibly want?
Or even take staff at our college, who don’t have a union. The lowest wage Amherst pays is about three bucks more than Massachusetts minimum wage, and word on the street is that Amherst pays pretty well in comparison to other area jobs. If they get paid so well, why unionize?
Company bosses often use this as one of their primary arguments against union efforts. They say that workers already get paid well and that a union would just cost them money in dues. When Amazon forces its Bessemer workers to attend anti-union meetings, this is what it tells them. However, union workers make more in wages and benefits than their non-union counterparts. And what the bosses won’t tell workers is that unions do far more than just bargain for better pay and benefits.
Rather, unions help us build worker power by bringing us together to fight for each other. The structure of wage labor ensures that individual workers are powerless in the workplace. If we speak out against the bosses, we’re fired. And if our co-workers try to protect us, they’re fired too. But when everyone stands up together and says that enough is enough, there’s nothing that managers can do to put us down.
This isn’t just some abstract thought experiment. Unions protect workers from unfair policies, safeguard worker safety, and give workers a voice in the way a company works. All of this is impossible without solidarity and the incredible potential for change that results from banding together. There’s a reason that the slogan goes, “The people united will never be defeated.”
Most importantly, unions help us realize what it means to work together towards a common goal. They give us the skills to do that in the workplace and beyond. And in the process, they fight for necessary change in real life, whether new policies at a specific company or stronger laws that help everyone.
Even if you think that you get good benefits and pay, you need a union that will stick up for you if that ever changes. You need a union to make sure you get paid if you’re injured on the job. You need a union to make sure that bosses can’t fire you unreasonably. And you need a union to make sure that you actually have a say in the way your company — the company that makes its money off of your labor — is run.
All workers, even those who aren’t union members, benefit from unions. Labor organizing got us the weekend and the eight-hour work day. Unions won us workplace safety laws and bans on child labor. But these fights aren’t over. Americans work longer hours — and suffer from worse health as a result — than workers in other post-industrial democracies. We can change this, but we can’t do it one by one. We need a powerful worker’s movement.
Students, faculty, staff, and alumni, you need a union. You may already work in a job without one, and if so, I encourage you to unionize. Think about what it would mean to build power in the workplace, make more money and have better job security. Consider what solidarity with other workers could accomplish.
And students, odds are that you won’t work in a traditional union job after you graduate. However, that just means it’s even more important that you join a union — it’s up to our generation to be trailblazers in the next iteration of the labor movement. Just like the workers before us, we need power in the workplace, power that we can use to make our lives better.
And if you won’t unionize for yourself, then at least do it for your neighbors, whether they’re next door or from a town like Bessemer, Alabama. Unions help all of society, not just individuals.
As the late Senator Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.” The workers of the 20th century knew it. Will we?