Monday, March 1, 2021

Joe Did What? Labor Edition

In "Joe Did What?" news, President Biden posted a video reaction to the upcoming vote of the 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama as to whether they should become the first workers in Amazon history to be represented by a union (the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union):

“Workers in Alabama, and all across America, are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” Mr. Biden said in a direct-to-camera address posted on the White House Twitter page, after a recent pressure campaign by pro-union groups pushing him to weigh in on the drive.

“Let me be really clear: It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union,” he said. “But let me be even more clear: It’s not up to an employer to decide that either.”

Yes, sir, the second sentence was more clear than the first. Thank you.

Amazon's inveterate opposition to unions is well known (that's what torpedoed their plan for a Long Island City headquarters, more than anything else, making it impossible for Mayor de Blasio to keep supporting the deal), and the company has been willing to descend to a near–Roger Stone level of dirty trickery to stop them, as in this Alabama case, as Sarah Jones reports at New York:

Amazon’s anti-union campaign is as manipulative as these campaigns usually tend to be; the company even went to the National Labor Relations Board to try to force workers to vote in person amid a pandemic. The NLRB shot the company down....

Amazon’s campaign has also strayed at times into potentially unlawful territory. As Vice reported in February, Amazon recently bombarded workers with mailings and texts urging them to vote no by today, March 1 — over three weeks before the election is legally set to end. Amazon has also urged workers to mail in their “no”’ ballots at a strange new mailbox installed on the Bessemer property by the U.S. Postal Service. Workers told Vice that they felt intimidated, even pressured, by the tactic, which could violate the very law Biden explained in his new video. 

This is an unprecedented act of support for organized labor on Biden's part, and, as Jones says, a "big fucking deal." It is also, and I think it's important to point this out, not exactly Biden's idea: it's a result, as all the coverage notes, of some pressure on the part of the labor movement to get Biden to show he's keeping his campaign promise to be "the most pro-union president ever".

What that doesn't mean: that Biden really didn't mean his promise sincerely, since he had to be pushed.

What it does mean: that he won't do it on his own, that the pushing is part of the process. That's the point of the almost certainly fictional story about Franklin Roosevelt telling A. Philip Randolph, "I agree with you, now go out and make me do it." As a matter of fact, FDR may have agreed in principle (with the idea of issuing an executive order, in 1941, outlawing racial discrimination in the defense industries), for all we know, but he probably didn't ask Randolph to "make" him, with a wink and a nudge. There's all the evidence you could want that he didn't want to do it—didn't want to expend the necessary political capital, as they say—and had no intention of doing it until Randolph forced his hand with the threat of an alternative strategy on the part of the civil rights leaders: a march on the Washington Mall with up to 100,000 people, and a public invitation to FDR to address it:

FDR and his wife, Eleanor, who served as his liaison to the African-American community, were aghast. “The Roosevelts feared the march would result in a race war in the nation’s capital that would prove an embarrassment to a country that held itself up as a model of democracy,” [Paula F.] Pfeffer wrote.

FDR met with Randolph and the civil rights leaders again in June 1941. FDR attempted to charm them and urged them to cancel the march. In exchange, the president offered to call defense industry chieftains to get them to voluntarily hire blacks. Randolph and the other civil rights leaders refused to budge. Roosevelt finally relented, issuing Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in the defense industries. Randolph and his colleagues then canceled the march.

FDR didn't actually want to be "made" to issue the order, but he could be. That's the broader point. Progressives were wrong, perhaps, to keep giving up on Clinton or Obama because they were too "centrist", and those who want to do that with the still more "centrist" Biden are clearly making a mistake. This gesture is yet another instance of how remarkably far he's prepared to go.

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