Do Democrats really want Amazon workers to win?

Photo: Eduardo Munoz Avarez/AP/Shutterstock

Seventy-nine years old and slumped toward a devastating midterm reprimand, President Joe Biden rarely seems to enjoy his job these days. But some of the old spark was there on Wednesday, when addressing a gathering of construction unionists in Washington, D.C., Biden spoke in the first person plural of the labor movement’s goals, as if he was also a union welder and not the commander-in-chief. At one point, he asserted that “the choice to join a union” should rest with the “workers only.The line received light applause. But then, as a playful smile spread across his face, Biden leaned into the microphone and said, “By the way, Amazon, we arrive.” The crowd burst into cheers. Raising a finger, Biden said, “Look. Watch.”

The taunt, which came just five days after workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island voted to become the retail giant’s first unionized store in the United States, was remarkably brutal for a sitting president, recalling – much like the workers’ historic victory – another era of labor militancy and democratic loyalty to the cause of labour. “President Biden is right,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders, a very lightly ventriloquist. “Let’s put every Amazon worker in a union. Later in the day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki seemed to shield herself a bit from the press corps: What Biden “wasn’t doing was sending a message that he or the government American would be directly involved in any of these efforts or take direct action.” But the sentiment — and the playful recklessness with which he expressed it — had served its purpose. only adds to the original charm. For a mortifying moment, the phrase “Let Biden be Biden” flashed in my mind.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; Biden considers himself a trade unionist. The PRO Act, a package of pro-union labor law reforms, remained a centerpiece of his national agenda. Last year, without naming the company, Biden expressed support for workers organizing at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. One of his first moves in office was to replace Trump’s pro-manager National Labor Relations Board general counsel with Jennifer Abruzzo, a much more zealous labor law enforcer who in December presided over a deal with Amazon that forced the company to allow 24-hour workers to engage in on-site union activity, a significant factor in JFK8’s success. And last year, Biden appointed Lina Khan, a fierce critic of Amazon’s monopoly power, to the Federal Trade Commission.

This apparent willingness to oppose the empire of Jeff Bezos is also remarkable in light of Amazon’s plan over the past decade to recruit an army of Democratic Party operatives to shield itself from such antagonism. As readers may know, Amazon’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs is Jay Carney, who was Vice President Biden‘s communications director and later the president’s press secretary. Barack Obama. Carney, according to The Wall Street Journal, sent “frustrated messages” to his friend and Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, about the “perceived slights against Amazon”. (When Carney was hired by Amazon in 2019, Klain told CNBC, “If you’ve spent any time as press secretary to the President of the United States, you’re used to a lot of high-pressure situations — and Jay sailed all that… That’s a big asset to Amazon.” Carney was also playing in a garage band with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.) Last year, Amazon hired a PR firm aligned with the Democratic Party, Global Strategy Group, to produce anti-union reports. materials and monitoring pro-union activists at the Staten Island warehouse. PSAKI is a former employee of GSG. (A GSG spokesperson said the new yorker“We deeply regret being involved in any way.”)

But the entanglements between the Biden and Obama White Houses, the Democrats and Amazon go deeper. Tom Sullivan, the younger brother of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, works at Biden’s State Department; during the Trump years, he worked under David Roth, another Obama alumnus, on international public policy for Amazon. Mark Schwartz worked in Obama’s Department of Homeland Security for seven years and served on Biden’s transition team; now he’s a “business strategist” for Amazon Web Services. Alex Haurek worked for Democrats on the Hill for 13 years before taking up his role as senior director of political communications at Amazon. A former aide to Biden’s Secretary of Labor, former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, was hired from Mayor Walsh’s office in Amazon’s “external affairs” department in December 2020. Scott Jacobs served in the administration Obama then worked for seven years at Albright Stonebridge, the company founded by Madeleine Albright, from which ten Biden administration officials came from. Jacobs is now senior director of public policy for Amazon. The list is lengthened increasingly. (One more, because I find this particularly insidious: Heather MacDougall, an Obama appointee who reviewed OSHA appeals for the federal government, is now Amazon’s vice president for health and safety in the world.)

I promise you, the above list doesn’t even exhaust my quick LinkedIn keyword research. And we shouldn’t squeeze our pearls. That’s how the game works, and Amazon is an enthusiastic player. Carney, hired in 2015, built a smart and powerful operation, and Bezos gave him the resources to do it. The company spent $19.3 million on lobbying in 2021, up from $4.7 million in 2014. This means the personal and professional backgrounds from which top Democratic Party and White House officials come is often the same as Amazon policy and politics. Public relations officers. At least one major obstacle to reorienting the party around an “Amazon, we arriveis that the people the Democrats would “come for” are their friends, former colleagues and bandmates. More precisely, they are part of the same class, a class with overlapping instincts, standards and obligations. Labor activism is not part of this common cause.

In an age of populism and anti-elite suspicion, this reality—of an incestuous consulting class that vacillates between public and private power—deeply undermines the legitimacy of the Democratic Party.

By contrast, embracing a newly resurgent grassroots labor movement makes good strategic sense for Biden and Democrats. The story of JFK8 is practically biblical in its moral clarity: a diverse group of workers stood up to a campaign of harassment and misinformation from one of the most powerful, profitable and sophisticated corporations in the world. – and won, opening up the possibility of a better future. for their families and colleagues. If Democrats, adrift and lacking a cohesive identity, are looking for a story to tell about their party, what it stands for and who it intends to hold accountable, they could do worse than repeat, over and over again, history. by Christian Smalls, Derrick Palmer and their colleagues.

Meanwhile, Republicans, despite their half-hearted rebranding as the “party of the working class,” are largely silent on Amazon’s victory — preoccupied instead with accusing gay elementary school teachers of sexual predation. Insisting against Bezos on Twitter, as President Trump has often done, is one thing; slashing Bezos’ profits through collective bargaining is another. Seizing this moment, Democrats can call the GOP bluff, challenging them — as Sanders often cleverly does — to choose a side between workers and their billionaire bosses.

These are, of course, the dreamy aspirations of a Labor leftist who, despite a lifetime of defeats, managed the dizzying distance between the optimism of his will (The work is underway!) and the pessimism of his intellect (the Democrats are doomed, beholden to career professionals and unions are weak fortresses clinging to their remaining membership for dear life). A stray remark from a deeply unpopular leader to a host of local teams does not make a political revolution.

But if the fact remains that even the moderate social-democratic horizons of Biden’s platform are inaccessible in the absence of a much stronger organized labor movement, something must be done. And this time is as good as any other. Indeed, the conditions are right: a tight labor market, populist sentiments and militant workers taking big risks and winning. Labor and Democrats have been locked in a hesitant dance to death, but there may still be room to choreograph something else.

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