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Recent Successes in Labor Movements Promise a More Democratic Future

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Amazon workers in Staten Island successfully voted to be a part of Amazon’s first union, Amazon Labor Union on April 1. Amazon is among a group of companies like Starbucks that have seen a large unionization push nationally in the past year to rally for increased wages, better training, safe working conditions and worker’s benefits.

While unionizing remains an incredibly difficult task in the United States, the successes of unions at Starbucks and Amazon are a much needed change to the waning democracy of the American workplace caused by a recent decline in union membership during the past century. 

Unions are essential to a functioning democracy. Unions help maintain a balance of power between the owner of a business and workers. German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued in The Communist Manifesto that a person’s position in society is determined by their relationship to labor and the means of production; the working class must sell their work for a wage, while the production owners often have some combination of economic control over the workplace, political power and capital to invest in production.

Through purely analyzing wealth and income, we are seeing the results of class — as the two only measure the differences in a person’s possessions, but not how the differences in wealth and income are related and created. However, Marx and Engels believed that the origins of class inequality lie in the systemic issues that the capitalist workplace presents between the worker and owner. Unions and union contracts seek to correct the systemic imbalances that Marx and Engels identified because they give workers the ability to voice how they want to be treated and the conditions in which they want to work under.

Business owners aren’t fond of unions because the key to competing in our capitalist economy is to have flexibility in wages, hiring and hours. Giving into the union worker demands of higher salaries and less hours would result in lower company profits, as wages and salaries range from 50 to 80% of the total of industry costs.  

Despite the recent successes of Starbucks and Amazon unions, there has been a decline of union membership over the past century. In 1935, 35.7% of private sector workers belonged to unions compared to only 6.7% in 2015. Studies have concluded that the decline in union membership has a direct correlation with a decline in the overall health of workers, given that union contracts provide worker benefits such as health insurance, raised wages, protection from discrimination and retirement benefits.

The federal government has also increased its deployment of union-busting tactics in the past century. One of the most prominent historical examples of union busting involved the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike in 1981. President Ronald Reagan ordered all 12,000 striking PATCO members to return to work, firing those who didn’t return after 48 hours. 

The historical context of unionization in the U.S. further emphasizes the need to celebrate the emergence of Amazon Labor Union and Starbucks Workers United.

While logistically addressing the every need of labor unions is complex, it’s undeniable that workers deserve what they’re asking for. Sydney Durkin, a 26-year-old committee member of Starbucks Workers United and Starbucks shift supervisor in Seattle expressed that unions are a civil right.

“It’s a basic armor of democracy to have rights as workers and to have the ability to bargain collectively and have a voice that is equal to your bosses in such an unequal employer-employee relationship,” Durkin said in an interview with New University. 

Starbucks Workers United is one of the most successful union movements in recent years, with over a hundred locations around two dozen states all across the United States. Durkin’s location was the first Starbucks in Seattle to unionize. 

However, it’s important to recognize that the success of Starbucks unions is a unique case on its own. Starbucks attempts to portray their company as progressive and worker friendly, which appeals to the Starbucks worker demographic that Durkin described as primarily composed of young liberal college students. “I think we have higher expectations of what our workplace should be like, so when it’s not measuring up to that expectation, it becomes the question of ‘what’s the next step?’” Durkin said to New University. To Durkin and many other workers, unions are the obvious next step.

Amazon, on the other hand, has a history of being hard-line on unions, making the formation of Amazon Workers United all the more exciting. In addition to the difficulty of unionizing under large private employers, Amazon has created explicit anti-union campaigns through negative messages and meetings. The e-commerce corporation also spent $4.3 million just last year on anti-union consultants. 

According to company documents recently leaked by the Intercept, Amazon had discussed blocking a list of words including “union,” “compensation,” “slave,” “diversity,” “grievance” and “injustice” from a company internal messaging app currently in development. This is a clear example of Amazon infringing on their workers’ freedom of speech. This abuse of power is a prime example of the imbalance of power between workers and employers that Marx and Engels pointed to. The extent to which Amazon is attempting to disrupt communication is extremely concerning and highlights our desperate need for a more democratic workplace.

Labor unions are a civil right that improves the health and lives of workers and ultimately strengthens our democracy. Durkin believes that while the acceptance and success of unions will be a long process, we should remain optimistic about our future. “I think what’s happening right now are the seeds of a very important movement,” Durkin said.

For Amazon Labor Union to join the recent unionization movement despite the company’s efforts to union bust is spectacular. Given the decline in union membership in the U.S., this new emergence can inspire more union formations in the future, ultimately painting a promising trajectory of establishing a more democratic work environment.

Erika Cao is an Opinion Apprentice for the spring 2022 quarter. She can be reached at caoea@uci.edu.