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The Guardian view on Amazon and unions: an unfair fight, but not yet over

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Editorial
·3 min read
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<span>Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Goliath beats David isn’t half as good a story, but it is the usual way of the world. So last week’s news that Amazon has fended off an attempt by workers to form its first ever US trade union is unsurprising, if sad. What intrigues is the volume and variety of support that the struggle won across the US and the world, from faith leaders to the NFL players association to Republican ever-hopefuls such as Marco Rubio. In that intensity of interest lies the real surprise: the change in popular politics towards both big business and workers.

As battles go, it was always ridiculously lopsided. In one corner you had the world’s richest man sitting atop corporate America’s second-largest employer, in perhaps the most anti-union country in the rich world. Opposing him were workers and activists in Alabama, one of the most conservative of all US states, trying something never attempted before in the land of the free: to unionise an entire Amazon warehouse, those hangars full of consumer goods and crushing conditions for workers that together define our way of life. No wonder Jeff Bezos won last week, with workers at the Bessemer warehouse voting more than two to one against forming a union. That result allows Amazon to continue hiring and firing at will. It also brings to a halt perhaps the most watched union drive in the US in years. The future of industrial relations inside a giant warehouse in the Deep South became a subject of debate across Europe, so vast is Amazon’s empire. In the UK, the GMB and Unite are both looking to organise more Amazon employees.

Just why the defeat was so large is a question that has prompted much soul-searching among American progressives, with some blaming poor strategic choices by the activists and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union claiming Amazon pursued “egregious and illegal” anti-union tactics, allegations that the company denies. But perhaps the fairest assessment is that from the longstanding labour writer and activist Jane McAlevey: “If the rules for unionization in the US came close to being fair, they [pro-union workers] would have won. But the rules aren’t fair. Quite the opposite: they are outrageously unfair.”

But there are two hopeful lessons that America and the rest of the world can take from this story of disappointment. First, it is now convention to argue that societies need strong unions. Last month, Joe Biden gave that message in a video address, but he is only catching up with some of his neighbours in Washington. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund have long pointed out the links between inequality and financial crises, and argued that “restoration of the lower income group’s bargaining power is more effective” than a crash in righting a giant wealth gap. In that battle between the billionaire Mr Bezos and the Alabama workers, it’s clear who those IMF researchers would have rooted for.

Second, the excitement around that Alabama ballot shows how far sentiment in the capitalist heartland is moving against big business and towards labour. Opinion polls suggest American public approval for trade unions is the highest it has been in almost 20 years, at 65%. This is not a shift in mood that has been led by Mr Biden; rather, the president is being compelled to channel it, often under the tutelage of politicians and advisers further to the left. This is a very different kind of politics than seen in the era of Barack Obama. Where it goes next will be worth watching.