The union certification vote at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., fulfillment center has received enormous attention, including from President Biden. Some 5,000 workers are likely to participate in the mail-in ballot before the end of this month. But Amazon itself employs nearly 1 million blue-collar workers at more than 110 U.S. distribution centers, so the stakes are enormous. A union victory might well spur other Amazon employees to organize. A defeat will undoubtedly be a large setback — not only for organized labor but for contemporary efforts to reduce economic inequality in the United States and limit the seemingly unfettered economic and cultural power that Silicon Valley corporations now hold.
The vote comes at a time in which critics across the political spectrum believe that Amazon is too big and holds too much power. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others on the right oppose Silicon Valley’s cultural liberalism, while on the left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is among the many voices proposing a break up of Big Tech. And of course, even if a majority of Bessemer employees vote for a union, success on a companywide basis will require both more organizing and more governmental pressure.
But the union certification vote could be a key step toward the sort of grand bargain that will shift the contours of American capitalism. A similar compact was struck during the New Deal in the battle over the legitimacy and power of chain retailers. That history shows that trade unionism itself may well be the most efficacious road to a reform of Silicon Valley capitalism.
This is not the first time a giant retailer has been caught between unionizing pressures from below and antitrust agitation from the Washington corridors of power. During the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of multistate chain stores — Woolworth, J.C. Penney’s, A&P, Safeway and several others — generated every bit as much alarm as that evoked by Amazon and Facebook today.
Much opposition came from the South, where “the chain-store menace” was equated with Yankee imperialism, the destruction of local enterprise and the emasculation of White manhood as a generation of independent proprietors were transformed into an army of salaried clerks beholden to New York capitalists. Huey Long, the governor of Louisiana and later a U.S. senator, told his constituents, “I would rather have thieves and gangsters than chain stores in Louisiana.”