By Harold Meyerson

February 22, 2024  The American Prospect


Today on TAP: Lawyers for Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Amazon say the Court erred in 1937 by letting workers have rights on the job.

Fourscore and seven years ago—1937, to be exact—our fathers on the Supreme Court (well, five of them, which was just enough) brought forth a new nation: New Deal America. In that year, the justices ruled that the most fundamental legislative works of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency—Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—were constitutional. So said the Court; so said, in the NLRA case, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, the decision’s author, who had been the Republican candidate for president in 1916. From these decisions, which saved seniors from destitution and enabled workers to form unions, a broadly shared prosperity emerged that gave the nation a middle-class majority for the three decades after World War II.

Now we are engaged in a war with the rulers of the new economy, who, having already downsized that middle class by appropriating an ever larger share of the proceeds from its work for themselves, actually want to strike down the NLRA. In the past few weeks, three pillars of that economy—Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, and the Albrecht family’s Trader Joe’s—have all asked federal courts to declare the core functions of the NLRA unconstitutional, on the grounds that the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) administrative courts, like those of other regulatory agencies, mix judicial functions with executive branch functions. In actual practice, what those bodies do is hear and rule on cases such as those brought by workers on organizing campaigns who’ve been illegally fired. What Elon and Jeff would prefer is that federal courts hear such cases directly, which guarantees that by the time they reach the bench, those organizing campaigns will have become a dim memory. Or maybe, they want no one to hear such cases. Or perhaps, given the deep hatred that Sam Alito holds toward unions, they hope that Alito can persuade enough of his colleagues to toss the NLRA altogether, as he did with Roe v. Wade.

Their arguments are the same that came before the Court in 1937, when the most reactionary corporate overlords of that era sought to destroy the threat of some modestly countervailing worker power, which then had been rising for several years. That same dynamic clearly threatens the Musks and Bezoses today, with unions’ approval rating at its highest levels in 60 years, with young workers particularly bent on winning a say in their work lives, and with Joe Biden’s NLRB working to restore some teeth to the NLRA, which had been largely defanged by decades of decisions from pro-corporate courts.

This isn’t an academic exercise for the Elons and Jeffs; it’s personal. Musk’s Tesla is the target of organizing efforts from the UAW and a number of European unions, while Bezos’s Amazon, having suffered the indignity of having one of its warehouses vote to unionize, is avidly surveilling all of its workers for any sign of undue collective ambition. Like the CEOs of yesteryear, the current crop of corporate autocrats knows they can’t win the public to their cause: The optics of the world’s richest person (Musk) and the third-richest (Bezos) destroying American workers’ right to go union and win living wages could be, well, problematic. If rebuffed in the court of public opinion, though, they might just prevail in the courts of the United States.

But really—in a time of stratospheric economic inequality and overwhelming public support for unions, they want the courts to strike down workers’ right to collective bargaining? One of the fundamental landmarks of the New Deal? Shall we negate all of America’s mid-20th-century social progress? All of Roosevelt’s legacy? How about we revisit World War II and surrender to the Nazis and Japan?

As with the company formerly known as Twitter, Musk is the sole owner of SpaceX, as the Albrecht family is of Trader Joe’s. But Amazon, at least, is publicly traded, and its board of directors includes a few members who may not wish to be so closely associated with the evisceration of the New Deal’s good works. Lawyer Jamie Gorelick has, to be sure, lobbied for drug companies and done work for Jared Kushner, but she’s also on the board of the Urban Institute and once was Bill Clinton’s deputy attorney general. Patty Stonesifer, whom Bezos installed as the interim CEO of The Washington Post, has worked for a number of giant tech companies, but has also played key roles establishing and running a number of foundations and nonprofits, once even serving as CEO of Martha’s Table, an organization that makes fresh and healthy food more available to the poor of Washington, D.C. While Martha’s Table’s clientele would surely grow if unions were wiped off the map, we shouldn’t assume that Stonesifer would therefore support the Court’s revocation of the right to collective bargaining. For Jamie and Patty and their fellow Amazon directors, dancing on FDR’s grave, and the mass grave of the American working class, may be viewed by future historians as really unseemly.


-Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.


PHOTO CAPTION/CREDIT: Amazon JFK8 distribution center union organizer Jason Anthony speaks to the media, April 1, 2022, in Brooklyn, New York. Eduardo Munoz Avarez/AP Photo