Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organizer and former Amazon worker Chris Smalls testified in a Senate Banking Committee hearing called by Bernie Sanders on May 5th to investigate whether Amazon and other monopoly corporations that violate labor law should receive federal contracts. That Amazon would receive federal assistance despite accumulating record profits amid a global pandemic is bad enough. Worse yet is that it took months before so-called progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged the efforts of workers organizing a union within the corporate behemoth.
The hearing proceedings went viral after Smalls replied to Republican Senator Lindsay Graham’s screed against the “demonization of companies” by reminding him that “the people are the ones who make these companies operate, and when we’re not protected, the process for when we hold these companies accountable is not working for us, then that’s the reason why we’re here today.” Smalls continued: “It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s a workers’ issue, and we’re the ones that are suffering.”
Smalls affirmed a fundamental truth of Marxism on Karl Marx’s birthday. Marx argued that the development of capitalism is characterized by the socialization of labor and the concentration of the means of production in private hands. The workers drive all production but it is the capitalist class which appropriates the surplus. Surplus under capitalism is derived from the unpaid labor of the worker; the basis of exploitation and profit.
Amazon is the quintessential example of Marx’s thesis. The mega-monopoly is the second largest employer in the U.S. and has posted record profit margins during the COVID-19 pandemic . Amazon’s profits are derived from the super exploitation of the working class. Low wages, long hours, and disastrous working conditions subsidize Amazon’s growth. It also helps that the corporation pays zero in federal taxes. Smalls thus made a positive contribution to the spread of class consciousness at the Senate hearing by pointing out the centrality of the working class in the production process.
However, not everything about the ALU’s visit to the halls of Washington was positive. In typical Democratic Party fashion, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris exploited the moment to score a photo opportunity with the ALU. Bernie Sanders congratulated Biden for “standing” with union organizers and the trade union movement.
In many ways, this obvious example of electoral posturing makes sense. Joe Biden’s public favorability rating has declined significantly in recent months amid the persistence of COVID-19, rising inflation, and the U.S.’s role in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The problem is that Joe Biden has demonstrated that his administration has nothing to offer the trade union movement, particularly the ALU. Amazon scored a Biden-approved contract from the National Security Agency (NSA) worth $10 billion in late April . The contract runs in complete contradiction to Biden’s campaign promise to end federal contracts to union-busting corporations such as Amazon. Furthermore, Biden has dragged his feet in convincing so-called “moderate” Democrats to support the PRO Act. The PRO Act would remove barriers to unionization by placing heavy restrictions on employers that illegally interfere in the organizing process.
Joe Biden shook hands with Chris Smalls but has shown little indication that he will move an inch in favor of working people. This is the same Joe Biden that voted for the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the elimination of welfare during the Clinton administration. It’s also the same Joe Biden who stayed silent during the unionization campaign at the Bessemer Amazon facility last year while nominating union-busting former president of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden , to head his Office of Management and Budget. And we shouldn’t forget that Biden served as Barack Obama’s Vice President when the Democratic Party held a majority in Congress yet failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA ), a less comprehensive version of the current PRO Act.
The Democratic Party has thus played a central role in the decimation of the trade union. From Clinton to Biden, Democrats have thrown all of their support to austerity, privatization, and endless war. At present, just ten percent of all workers in the United States belong to a union . The very existence of unions in the United States is no certainty. Joe Biden’s hollow words and gestures do nothing to change this fact.
Karl Marx wrote extensively about the trade union movement , detailing the sharp contradiction between the struggle of trade unions to improve working conditions within a particular employer and the need for a broad movement of the working class to seize power from capital itself. This contradiction has become extremely advanced in the United States. Decades of political and economic assault against the working class has led to a crisis of leadership where the majority of unions have devoted enormous resources toward the election of Democratic Party representatives. Such a narrow political framework has only strengthened the hand of capital and placed unions on the defensive.
An upsurge of labor organizing over the past decade which arguably began with the successful resistance of the Chicago Teachers Union under Obama has attempted to reverse this trend by rebuilding the power of workers from the ground up. The Amazon Labor Union’s (ALU) recent success in Staten Island thus did not occur in a vacuum. However, still missing from the trade union movement in the United States is a coherent class politics which are independent of the Democratic Party. When Joe Biden reaches out for a photo opportunity with unions, they shouldn’t be accepted without the demands of the workers being met first. The future of organized labor hinges upon placing the Democratic Party, including Joe Biden, in its rightful place in history as an instrument of the capitalist state that is organized to suppress the power of the workers.