Bessemer, Amazon and the Power Shift

Bessemer, Amazon and the Power ShiftThe most dramatic change in American capitalism over the last half century has been the emergence of corporate behemoths like Amazon and the simultaneous shrinkage of organized labor. The resulting imbalance has spawned near-record inequalities of income and wealth, corruption of democracy by big money, and the abandonment of the working class.

All this is coming to a head in several ways.

Next week, Amazon faces a union vote at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. If successful, it would be Amazon’s first U.S.-based union in its nearly 27-year history.


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Conditions in Amazon’s warehouses would please Kim Jong un – strict production quotas, 10-hour workdays with only two half-hour breaks, unsafe procedures, arbitrary firings, “and they track our every move,” Jennifer Bates, a warehouse worker at Bessemer, told the Senate Budget Committee last week.  

To thwart the union drive, Amazon has required Bessemer workers to attend anti-union meetings, warned workers they’d have to pay union dues (wrong – Alabama is a so-called “right-to-work” state that bars mandatory dues), and intimidated and harassed organizers.

Why is Amazon abusing its workers?

The company isn’t exactly hard-up. It’s the most profitable firm in America. Its executive chairman and largest shareholder, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world, holding more wealth than the bottom 39 percent of Americans put together.

Amazon is abusing workers because it can.

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 around $15 an hour and treating their workers like cattle.

The typical GM worker wasn’t “worth” more than twice today’s Amazon or Walmart worker and didn’t have more valuable insights about how work should be organized. The difference is GM workers a half-century ago had a strong union behind them, summoning the collective bargaining power of over a third of the entire American workforce.

By contrast, today’s Amazon and Walmart workers are on their own. And because only 6.4 percent of America’s private-sector workers are now unionized, there’s little collective pressure on Amazon or Walmart to treat their workers any better.  

Fifty years ago, “big labor” 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 miniscule by comparison. The biggest political players are giant corporations like Amazon. And what have they done with their muscle? Encouraged state “right-to-work” laws, diluted federal labor protections, and kept the National Labor Relations Board understaffed and overburdened.

They’ve also impelled government to lower their taxes (Amazon paid zero federal taxes in 2018); extorted states to provide them tax breaks as condition for locating facilities there (Amazon is a champion at this game); bullied cities where they’re headquartered (Amazon forced Seattle to back down on a plan to tax big corporations like itself to pay for homeless shelters); 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 earlier era would have had companies like Amazon in their crosshairs.

This decades-long power shift – the emergence 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 has almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent put together.

Corporate profits account for a growing share of the total economy and wages a declining share, with multi-billionaire executives and investors like Bezos taking home the lion’s share.  

The power shift can be reversed – but only with stronger labor laws, 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 law reforms in over a generation. Biden’s new trade representative, Katherine Tai, promises that trade deals will protect the interests of American workers rather than exporters. And Biden is putting trustbusters in critical positions at the Federal Trade Commission and in the White House.

I’d like to think America is at a tipping point similar to where it was some hundred twenty years ago when the ravages and excesses of the Gilded Age precipitated what became known as the Progressive Era. Then, reformers reversed the course of American capitalism for the next 70 years, making it work for the many rather than the few.

Today’s progressive activists – in Washington, at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse, and elsewhere around the nation – may be on the verge of doing the same.

About the Author

Robert ReichROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock" and “The Work of Nations." His latest, "Beyond Outrage," is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

Books by Robert Reich

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few -- by Robert B. Reich

0345806220America was once celebrated for and defined by its large and prosperous middle class. Now, this middle class is shrinking, a new oligarchy is rising, and the country faces its greatest wealth disparity in eighty years. Why is the economic system that made America strong suddenly failing us, and how can it be fixed?

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.

 

Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it -- by Robert B. Reich

Beyond OutrageIn this timely book, Robert B. Reich argues that nothing good happens in Washington unless citizens are energized and organized to make sure Washington acts in the public good. The first step is to see the big picture. Beyond Outrage connects the dots, showing why the increasing share of income and wealth going to the top has hobbled jobs and growth for everyone else, undermining our democracy; caused Americans to become increasingly cynical about public life; and turned many Americans against one another. He also explains why the proposals of the “regressive right” are dead wrong and provides a clear roadmap of what must be done instead. Here’s a plan for action for everyone who cares about the future of America.

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.

Recommended books:

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty. (Translated by Arthur Goldhammer)

Capital in the Twenty-First Century Hardcover by Thomas Piketty.In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, says Thomas Piketty, and may do so again. A work of extraordinary ambition, originality, and rigor, Capital in the Twenty-First Century reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.


Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature
by Mark R. Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams.

Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature by Mark R. Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams.What is nature worth? The answer to this question—which traditionally has been framed in environmental terms—is revolutionizing the way we do business. In Nature’s Fortune, Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy and former investment banker, and science writer Jonathan Adams argue that nature is not only the foundation of human well-being, but also the smartest commercial investment any business or government can make. The forests, floodplains, and oyster reefs often seen simply as raw materials or as obstacles to be cleared in the name of progress are, in fact as important to our future prosperity as technology or law or business innovation. Nature’s Fortune offers an essential guide to the world’s economic—and environmental—well-being.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.


Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it -- by Robert B. Reich

Beyond OutrageIn this timely book, Robert B. Reich argues that nothing good happens in Washington unless citizens are energized and organized to make sure Washington acts in the public good. The first step is to see the big picture. Beyond Outrage connects the dots, showing why the increasing share of income and wealth going to the top has hobbled jobs and growth for everyone else, undermining our democracy; caused Americans to become increasingly cynical about public life; and turned many Americans against one another. He also explains why the proposals of the “regressive right” are dead wrong and provides a clear roadmap of what must be done instead. Here’s a plan for action for everyone who cares about the future of America.

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.


This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement
by Sarah van Gelder and staff of YES! Magazine.

This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement by Sarah van Gelder and staff of YES! Magazine.This Changes Everything shows how the Occupy movement is shifting the way people view themselves and the world, the kind of society they believe is possible, and their own involvement in creating a society that works for the 99% rather than just the 1%. Attempts to pigeonhole this decentralized, fast-evolving movement have led to confusion and misperception. In this volume, the editors of YES! Magazine bring together voices from inside and outside the protests to convey the issues, possibilities, and personalities associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement. This book features contributions from Naomi Klein, David Korten, Rebecca Solnit, Ralph Nader, and others, as well as Occupy activists who were there from the beginning.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.



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