Right now, Bessemer, Alabama is the site of maybe the most high-profile union drive in the United States, as close to six thousand Amazon warehouse workers vote on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). A successful vote could make them the first unionized Amazon workers in the country, blow a hole in the South’s longtime resistance to unionization, and spur similar organizing efforts across the country, widening the bounds of possibility for millions of US workers. Not surprisingly, the company is doing everything it can to beat back what is also, in effect, one of the most important fights for racial equality of the decade so far.
Yet President Joe Biden is missing in action.
Despite a political career and presidential campaign built in large part around the image of a hardscrabble, working-class union man “from belt buckle to shoe sole” — and despite pledging to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” — Biden has stayed silent on the unionization battle, choosing not to even condemn Amazon’s union-busting tactics. It’s in stark contrast to the White House’s outspoken support for embattled Office of Management and Budget nominee (and union-buster) Neera Tanden, with officials “working the phones” to save the controversial nominee from herself.
This silence isn’t out of ignorance, as if that possibility could even be seriously considered. Labor leaders brought the issue to the White House’s attention after Biden’s inauguration, and a “senior advisor to Biden” is keeping tabs on the effort, according to Reuters. This has understandably disappointed RWDSU leadership, progressive activists, and those involved in the effort.
There are various possible reasons why Biden is keeping mum. His supporters would argue he wants to avoid the appearance of impropriety, particularly if the National Labor Relations Board he appoints ends up having to rule on the matter — though this has never been a concern for anti-union conservatives like former senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Tennessee governor Bill Lee, or former president Ronald Reagan, all of whom have freely waded into major labor conflicts when it meant crushing workers.
There’s also the fact that Biden’s union-friendly image is built on remarkably little beyond affable backslapping and some well-placed cultural signifiers. For a large chunk of his career, Biden championed policies vehemently opposed by unions, including entitlement cuts, constitutionally required austerity, and the dismantling of welfare; and has betrayed labor with his votes in favor of NAFTA and normalizing trade relations with China. For a time, his rating from the AFL-CIO was as low as neoliberal Sen. Gary Hart, whom organized labor despised.
But there’s also the fact of what Amazon is, and how it operates.
First and foremost, there is, of course, the money. According to a Reuters analysis, after Microsoft, it was Amazon senior executives who gave Biden the most donations during the Democratic primaries, while the company and its employees were the fifth-highest contributors to his candidate campaign committee.
The company’s longtime general counsel and a senior vice president was one of Biden’s top fundraisers, while it was one of many corporate giants to donate an unspecified sum (up to $1 million) to Biden’s inauguration, an event that, given the circumstances, should have been scaled back. Inauguration fundraising has long been criticized as an unregulated back door for plutocratic influence, and this year was no different, with those who maxed out getting a private audience with Biden and the First Lady.
But there’s also Amazon’s gradual melding with the US government, part of a larger trend among the tech sector and the Democratic Party. Amazon was one of the companies from whom the incoming administration drew on to staff its transition team, before it launched a lobbying campaign to get allies into top government posts, albeit with not much success. It’s now in talks to assist the government’s vaccine rollout, which at this point is the administration’s only real containment strategy for the pandemic, because, as one former State Department official put it: “FEMA does not have that capacity. The National Guard does not have that capacity. Amazon might.”
All the while, sitting in the position of Amazon’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs has been a former press secretary for both Obama and Biden, who prominently displayed a framed Joe Biden poster last year at a DNC policy roundtable as he boasted about his role in the convention.
Alongside this, consider the role that the paper owned by Amazon’s now–executive chair Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post, has played in Biden’s political fortunes. During the Democratic primary, the Post relentlessly hounded Biden’s chief rival, Bernie Sanders, deploying everything from op-eds to dubious “fact-checks” in the service of either attacking Sanders or defending Biden. And while the paper still publishes good critical reporting of the administration, its opinion section — when not criticizing the president from the right — tends to defend his swampy potential appointees, wave away justified policy criticisms, or publish someone like Jennifer Rubin, a rabid neoconservative Obama critic who has since transitioned to full-time Biden cheerleading.
Contrary to how it was initially reported, Bezos hasn’t actually stepped down from Amazon, but has simply become the executive chair of its board. As the company’s finance chief explained, Bezos is going to stay “very involved” in Amazon, he’s “really not going anywhere,” and the role change was “more of a restructuring of who’s doing what,” with Bezos continuing to “have his imprint on new product developments.” And as Bezos explained to his employees, he will use this shift in responsibility to, among other things, focus on the Post. At this point, it’s worth remembering the 2006 admission of the paper’s current editorial page editor, that its opinion pieces “speak for the publisher, for the owner,” who intended to “hire someone (me) who they think generally will share their world view.”
Just as Amazon’s size allowed it to bully and potentially extract outrageous concessions from cities and states to get it to move there, the breadth of Amazon’s economic clout gives it a myriad of ways to both curry influence with the US government and make itself indispensable to the politicians who run it. We don’t know now if that’s what’s behind the Biden administration’s silence on its union-busting. But we’re rapidly moving toward a future where there’ll be no question.