The president wants Amazon workers to join a union
What a difference a few weeks makes in the age of Twitter. On Jan. 8, Twitter permanently suspended the official account of former President Trump for inciting violence. On Feb. 4, President Biden tweeted the following: “Every American deserves the dignity and respect that comes with union organizing and collective bargaining. The policy of our government is to encourage union organizing, and employers should ensure their workers have a free and fair choice to join a union.” Biden has pledged to be the “most pro-union president” in history, and his tweet is perhaps the clearest pro-union statement we’ve ever had from a sitting president.
Biden’s comments are not without precedent. Most students of New Deal labor remember FDR’s quote, “the president wants you to join a union.” In reality, the quote was probably apocryphal, but it was believable — and the newly organized labor federation, the CIO, used it to help organize workers in the mass-production sector, leading to historic victories in auto, steel and rubber industries. President Obama also used the bully pulpit of the office to celebrate the role of unions in creating the American middle class, saying: “We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests, because we know that you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement”; a few weeks later, Obama’s pro-labor comments were used, with significant impact, in a historic union organizing victory at Smithfield meatpacking plant in North Carolina.
But Biden’s comments are more significant. Unlike those of FDR, his comments are not of dubious providence and are unambiguous: the president wants you to join a union. Unlike Obama, Biden has vowed to be the “most pro-union” president we’ve ever seen. Obama said positive things about unions, but he did relatively little to support the critical pro-union legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act, and his recently published memoir of his time in office, A Promised Land, makes zero mention of union issues. Biden, in contrast, has vowed to prioritize the PRO Act, passed by the House of Representatives last February, which would strengthen workers’ right to choose a union, make more transparent aggressive corporate anti-union campaigns, and limit employer efforts to misclassify workers. The new president has already removed anti-union officials appointed by his predecessor to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Federal Service Impasses Panel, among others.
But, of course, there’s an enormous difference between Biden’s tweet and the increasingly deranged tweets of his predecessor. Trump was appealing to our id; Biden is appealing to our superego. Unfortunately, it’s easier by tweet to incite a mob than it is to get corporations owned by the world’s richest, such as Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, to do the right thing and “ensure their workers have a free and fair choice to join a union”
The Historic Union Campaign at Amazon:
Biden’s comments, just like those of FDR and Obama, will have a concrete impact on real union organizing campaigns — most notably in the historic campaign by predominantly African-American Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The campaign has attracted more domestic and international media coverage than any union drive in decades, and secretary of Labor nominee, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, was even asked about it during his well-received Senate confirmation hearing last Thursday. The Bessemer campaign has been described as a campaign for racial justice by a union that has a long history of representing Black workers and supporting civil rights in the American South.
Last Friday, Amazon lost its last-ditch effort to delay the vote, and the NLRB election will now take place by mail between Feb. 8 – March 29. Shortly after Biden made his pro-union tweet, it was being interpreted as a direct message to workers in the Amazon union campaign. Indeed, the day of the tweet, Alabama’s leading newspaper reported, “Alabama Amazon unionization reportedly backed by Biden administration.”
Contrary to the message in Biden’s unambiguously pro-union remarks, Amazon is already mounting an aggressive union-busting campaign: it has hired a powerful anti-union law firm; it is texting anti-union messages to workers’ phones on a daily basis; it has an anti-union website that is full of tried and tested disinformation designed to mislead and confuse workers; it is holding mandatory anti-union “captive audience” meetings within the plant, which workers can be fired for refusing to attend; and it is subjecting workers to anti-union propaganda even when they visit the restrooms at the Bessemer facility. However, Alabama workers should have no doubt: he may never utter the word Bessemer, but if Joe Biden were an Amazon worker, he would join a union — and so would his Labor secretary, Marty Walsh. The president wants you to join a union!
John Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.