I was always amazed by the shows. Over the course of a few hours, a vast empty space would transform into miles of booths showcasing fashion accessories, gifts, attire, you name it. Multistory setups. Lighting and ceiling-hung signage. From nothing into a virtual city, nearly instantly.
As someone with a booth, though, I was not amazed by the union workers. At the Javits Center, I had to pay someone to carry my suitcase. At the Moscone, I had to pay someone to plug in my lamp. It often felt like the union had tied my hands behind my back, preventing me from doing simple tasks of which I was more than capable.
But, as I said, that was a lifetime ago. Before I had done much reflecting on the nature of power and privilege. Before I had considered the reasons why people might fight to join a union, and why a union might fight so hard to protect its workers. Before I understood how utterly common it is for large companies to exploit their workers at every opportunity -- and how, without unions, those workers are utterly powerless to fight back.
Massive business models have emerged for the explicit purpose of letting companies avoid dealing with employees at all, let alone unionized ones. The entire gig economy is not-so-subtly built around the ambition of eliminating the “burden” of a workforce, with companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain a legal fiction that drivers are “independent contractors.”
As Cory Doctorow wrote in a scathing thread this week, “Every gig economy company is a mirage in search of a monopoly. Any concessions the workforce wins are an existential crisis for these money losers.”
As we go to press, it’s looking virtually certain that Amazon has been successful in preventing workers at its fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama from unionizing. I say “Amazon prevented” rather than “workers chose not to” because Amazon held all the power in the process, and was shameless about using it, according to an NBC News post: “Workers said they were required to attend multiple meetings during their shifts, in which Amazon representatives explained why a union was not, in their view, beneficial for workers. Posters all over the warehouse, some of them in bathroom stalls, encouraged workers to vote no. The company also distributed buttons and stickers for employees to wear, and it created a website and a hashtag, #DoItWithoutDues, highlighting how workers might have to pay $500 in annual dues to the union.”
The first line of that quote is my favorite. It’s hard to get much more disingenuous than being a representative of Amazon pretending you care about workers' welfare -- while trying to convince them to vote against the only thing that would give them any ability to actually stand up for themselves.
Let me be clear: I’m perfectly capable of plugging in my own lamp. But I’m also perfectly capable of seeing that worker exploitation is a feature of the system, not a bug. Milton Friedman was dead wrong when he said that market forces will force good corporate behavior. In the calculus between returning dividends to shareholders and paying people fairly, the shareholders almost always win.
This week, they won in Bessemer. Where will they win next?