In the 21st century, labor unions are in a very deep hole

Amazon managed to persuade its workers in Bessemer, Alabama, to vote against unionizing. Its tactics in doing so skirted and may have violated laws meant to ensure that workers have a right to collective bargaining and a fair shot at asserting that right.[1] I am, of course, disappointed. Amazon is one of many employers, some of which deny they’re even employers, that make low wage work abusive; this evil is vast and well-documented.[2]

But I also understand. At any union job I’ve ever worked, the union has been absolutely toothless or even complicit with employers. They’ve been merely yet another paw on my paycheck. How, then, would I argue to folks younger than me that unions have done any good whatsoever in living memory? The truth is, I really can’t.

The only unions I’m aware of with any muscle are police unions, who refuse any accountability whatsoever for police murders of Blacks.[3] While it certainly shows that unions can be powerful, that isn’t an argument I’d want to bring to workers of color or their white friends, and its applicability to the broader union movement would, in any case, be dubious.

Part of the problem is a sort of chicken and egg, now, because under neoliberalism’s relentless hostility to workers,[4] unions now have a much steeper hill to climb than they’ve had since the Great Depression. They can’t win significant power without winning a lot more elections like the one they just lost. And they can’t win more elections like the one they just lost without winning significant power. Workers need to have faith in unions, but unions have been under a propaganda attack for decades, so how do workers have faith in unions?

In the meantime, employers are free to act collectively to individualize and exploit workers with seemingly unlimited resources to resist, bypass, or change laws, or to overrule court rulings that would limit their ability to do so, as we see with California’s Proposition 22.[5] They are empowered by a neoliberal political class that largely limits its view of a ‘trust,’ subject to antitrust enforcement, to labor unions,[6] and by a capitalist libertarian ideology that imagines a level playing field in the labor market[7] even as employers inherently possess greater leverage in any system of exchange,[8] even as employers are free to gang up on workers as individuals.

The battle continues. The union is challenging Amazon’s tactics and there are other “fulfillment centers” (warehouses) to organize. If the National Labor Relations Board upholds this challenge, another election might be held.[9] I don’t know how much it would change.

  1. [1]Sarah Jones, “Amazon Defeats Union Drive in Alabama,” New York, April 9, 2021,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Time for the gig economy to grow up,” Not Housebroken, August 30, 2019,; David Benfell, “The expendable worker,” Not Housebroken, July 5, 2020,; David Benfell, “A piper needs paying,” Not Housebroken, January 29, 2021,; Johana Bhuiyan, “Amazon ends practice of dipping into drivers’ tips to meet their wage guarantees,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2019,; Jessa Crispin, “Amazon is a disaster for workers. Nomadland glosses over that,” Guardian, March 23, 2021,; Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013,; Timothy Egan, “The Corporate Daddy,” New York Times, June 19, 2014,; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 19, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Tens of thousands protest, over 100 arrested in Black Friday challenge to Wal-Mart,” Salon, November 30, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Finally paying for Wal-Mart’s sins: Wage theft settlement yields millions,” Salon, December 16, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Freezing for Wal-Mart: Sub-zero warehouse temperatures spur Indiana work stoppage,” Salon, January 14, 2014,; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014,; Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (New York: Owl, 2001); Nichole Gracely, “‘Being homeless is better than working for Amazon,’” Guardian, November 28, 2014,; Steven Greenhouse, “The Changing Face of Temporary Employment,” New York Times, August 31, 2014,; Erin Hatton, “The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy,” New York Times, January 26, 2013,; Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014,; Paul Jaskunas, “The Tyranny of the Forced Smile,” New York Times, February 14, 2015,; Allison Kilkenny, “Ohio Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013,; Ken Klippenstein, “Documents Show Amazon Is Aware Drivers Pee in Bottles and Even Defecate En Route, Despite Company Denial,” Intercept, March 25, 2021,; Paul Krugman, “The Plight of the Employed,” New York Times, December 24, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “The Fear Economy,” New York Times, December 26, 2013,; Danielle Kurtzleben, “Read McDonald’s workers’ shocking harassment and discrimination complaints — and why they’re so important,” Vox, January 22, 2015,; Colin Lecher, “How Amazon automatically tracks and fires warehouse workers for ‘productivity,’” Verge, April 25, 2019,; Edward McClelland, “You call this a middle class? “I’m trying not to lose my house,’” Salon, March 1, 2014,; Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, March/April 2012,; Patrick McGreevy and Suhauna Hussain, “California demands that Amazon comply with COVID-19 investigation,” Los Angeles Times, December 14, 2020,; Nathaniel Mott, “From Amazon warehouse workers to Google bus drivers, it’s tough working a non-tech job at a tech company,” Pando, October 9, 2014,; Ari Rabin-Havt, “Wal-Mart flunks its fact-check: The truth behind its sarcastic response to the Times,” Salon, June 25, 2014,; José Rodríguez, Jr., “The Aftermath Of Prop 22 Is Not As Happy As Big Tech Promised,” Jalopnik, February 18, 2021,; Lia Russell, “The Silicon Valley Economy Is Here. And It’s a Nightmare,” New Republic, January 16, 2020,; Michael Sainato, “‘I’m not a robot’: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, grueling conditions at warehouse,” Guardian, February 5, 2020,; Alexander Sammon, “Prop 22 Is Here, and It’s Already Worse Than Expected,” American Prospect, January 15, 2021,; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “Tougher workplace makes home life worse too,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Faiz Siddiqui and Andrew Van Dam, “As Uber avoided paying into unemployment, the federal government helped thousands of its drivers weather the pandemic,” Washington Post, March 16, 2021,; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Lehigh Valley Morning Call, September 18, 2011,; Matt Stieb, “Amazon Called Out for Denying Workers Go to Bathroom in Bottles,” New York, March 25, 2021,; Lindsay Wise, “Report: Temp jobs at all-time high in U.S.,” McClatchy, September 2, 2014,
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Time to take the guns away,” Not Housebroken, January 6, 2015,
  4. [4]David Benfell, “A piper needs paying,” Not Housebroken, January 29, 2021,
  5. [5]Sophia Bollag, “California Uber, Lyft drivers to become employees under measure Gov. Gavin Newsom says he’ll sign,” Sacramento Bee, September 11, 2019,; Kim Bojórquez, “Why are Black and Latino advocacy groups backing Uber, Lyft in California labor law fight?” Sacramento Bee, August 23, 2020,; Jessica Bursztynsky and Lauren Feiner, “Lyft may suspend service in California if court requires it to classify drivers as employees,” CNBC, August 12, 2020,; Alexia Fernández Campbell, “California is cracking down on the gig economy,” Vox, May 30, 2019,; Lauren Feiner, “Uber CEO says its service will probably shut down temporarily in California if it’s forced to classify drivers as employees,” CNBC, August 12, 2020,; Lauren Feiner, “Appeals court grants Uber and Lyft a temporary reprieve following threats to shut down in California,” CNBC, August 20, 2020,; Aaron Gordon, “Uber To California: Make Us,” Jalopnik, September 11, 2019,; Hastings College of the Law, “UC Hastings Professor, Academic Leaders Call for Support of AB5,” August 26, 2019,; Andrew J. Hawkins, “California seeks to force Uber and Lyft to reclassify drivers as employees within weeks,” Verge, June 24, 2020,; Andrew J. Hawkins, “California labor commissioner sues Uber and Lyft for alleged wage theft,” Verge, August 5, 2020,; Nathan Heller, “A New California Law Takes Aim at Uber and Lyft,” New Yorker, September 12, 2019,; Steven Hill, “The broken business model of Uber and Lyft is taking a heavy toll on society,” Fortune, December 19, 2020,; Michael Hiltzik, “How millions from Uber and Lyft are funding the harassment of a critic,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2020,; Michael Hiltzik, “Uber and Lyft just made their campaign to keep exploiting workers the costliest in history,” Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2020,; John Kingston, “Uber/Postmates Driver Loses Court Challenge To California’s AB5 Law,” Yahoo!, September 21, 2020,; Diane Mulcahy, “California’s New Gig Economy Law Is All Bark, No Bite,” Forbes, September 20, 2019,; Jeong Park, “Fact check: Will Uber, Lyft drivers get paid less than minimum wage under Proposition 22?” Sacramento Bee, September 24, 2020,; Jeong Park, “Uber, Lyft win approval of California gig worker measure,” Sacramento Bee, November 3, 2020,; Therese Poletti, “Uber and Lyft’s ‘day of reckoning’ is finally here,” MarketWatch, August 12, 2020,; San Jose Mercury News, “CPUC rules Uber, Lyft drivers are company employees,” Sacramento Bee, June 11, 2020,; Faiz Siddiqui, “Uber and Lyft must make their drivers in California full employees, judge rules,” Washington Post, August 10, 2020,; Faiz Siddiqui and Reed Albergotti, “Uber drivers sue app over ‘constant barrage’ pushing California anti-employment initiative,” Washington Post, October 22, 2020,; Kanishka Singh and Tina Bellon, “California appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must reclassify drivers as employees,” Reuters, October 22, 2020,; Jonathan Stempel, “Judge rejects Uber, Lyft bids to delay California driver injunction,” Yahoo!, August 13, 2020,
  6. [6]Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012).
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  8. [8]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 94-101.
  9. [9]Sarah Jones, “Amazon Defeats Union Drive in Alabama,” New York, April 9, 2021,

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