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In These Times - November 29, 2021

We are told that Joe Biden is the most pro-labor president in decades. That statement seems to be true. It is also a good demonstration of the fact that looking to the Democratic Party for salvation is a surefire way for the labor movement to continue getting nowhere. Take a moment to reflect on what our Democratic friends have done for us lately.

People who view the world through the lens of electoral politics don’t tend to like the phrase ​“Which side are you on?” It is seen as unsophisticated, simplistic — a black-and-white view of a political reality in which compromise is the path to getting anything done. But the phrase has great utility. It acknowledges that there are sides, and that you have to be on one of them. Organized labor is about power. Power concedes nothing without a fight. Compromise is fine, as long as everyone can tell — without looking too hard — which side you are working for.

A year into full Democratic control of the federal government, and a year out from the likely end of that happy arrangement, is a useful time to consider what the labor movement has gotten out of this ostensibly ideal situation. Have we gotten the PRO Act, the number one thing that labor wants and needs? No. Nor will we, until the filibuster is gone. In fairness, only a minority of Congressional Democrats are holding this legislation back, a result of the fact that the Democratic Party is not one unified thing, but a very loose collection of many disparate things united only by our nation’s poor two-party design. It is fair, however, to look at what the Democrats are doing from the very top — where the agenda is set, and where symbolism matters.

The reason the PRO Act is so important is that it is not an easy time for unions in America. The law is tilted against them. Major victories are rare. Inspiration is at a premium. Democrats claim to understand this. During the pandemic-wracked year of 2020, there was no more important or inspiring union story than the effort to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. It represented an attempt to crack the most influential and powerful (and anti-union) company in the nation, where the battle to organize workers will have ripple effects on what the future of work looks like across the country in decades to come. Though the union lost that election, the company cheated, and another election will be held. In the fight to unionize Amazon, everyone must be on a side.

Last week, we learned that former President Barack Obama’s foundation has accepted a $100 million donation from Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. It is a trifling sum for Bezos, who has made more than $100 billion while doing everything possible to ensure that his hundreds of thousands of workers are unable to organize to improve their own lives. The donation was reportedly arranged by Jay Carney, Obama’s former press secretary, who is now Amazon’s spokesman, and who spoke out against the union drive in Alabama. ...
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