Leading Like a Feudal Lord

The establishment of a union at Amazon breathes new life into American labor unions. However, resistance remains high — even among German employers in the United States.

Regulated working hours, an $18 hourly wage, heating in the winter, air conditioning in the summer and management that seeks “direct dialogue” with its workers — who needs a union? With this cynical, paternalistic attitude, the retail giant Amazon has succeeded in preventing any and all employee representation from being established in its native United States for almost three decades. But that’s over now. Workers at a warehouse in New York voted in favor of establishing a union that bears the simple name Amazon Labor Union, ALU for short.

It is a triumph that once seemed almost inconceivable and therefore has a signal effect far beyond this specific case. That’s because it breathes new life into a movement that was considered clinically dead for decades.

Only one in 10 American workers is still a member of a labor union, and even this number conveys a grossly distorted image. In private companies, which make up the vast majority of businesses, the figure is just 6% because the country’s shift toward service and financial capitalism has led to the loss of its industrial companies and its union members along with them. Only the public sector, with 34%, reaches a degree of organization that earns the respect of veteran unionists.

The reasons why this success at Amazon has now become possible primarily have to do with the company: The corporation pays better than others, but it continues to draw criticism because of harsh working conditions, surveillance of employees, and a lack of health protection, among other charges. If an employee achieves too little or airs a grievance, the employee is often fired. The New York warehouse workers reached their limit — necessitated by the pandemic that made them, like workers at other locations, realize how relevant they are to the system and raised their self-confidence. Finally, there is the extremely low U.S. unemployment rate of just 3.6%, which has assuaged the fears of many workers about being fired. If someone loses a job, that individual can usually get a new one within days, often an even better one.

A Golden Age Is by No Means About To Start for American Workers

Despite all this, it would be naive to believe that a golden age is about to start for American workers. The war in Ukraine could quickly unravel the good job market situation. And there is the traditional resistance against labor unions, which is far greater in the United States than in Europe, where workers’ organizations publicly record dwindling membership as well. Furthermore, American companies have countless opportunities to destroy the reputations of union activists at work, put them under pressure, fire them or even close entire plants if employees cannot be dissuaded from organizing. Even when they have broken the law, companies often face little more than a ridiculously minimal fine.

There is also the distinctive kind of American individualism, which transforms the most destitute workers beneath the veneer of self-reliance into heroes of entrepreneurial freedom, as well as CEOs who mimic sneaker-wearing, joint-smoking buddy types while creating an often toxic, male-dominated workplace as brutal capitalists. The protagonists of this species are libertarian spirits like Elon Musk, who stroll through company grounds, give and take favor like a feudal lord and scorn legislatures, authorities, rules and laws as pure obstructions to business — to say nothing of unions. As long as no foundational culture change occurs, the idea of a collectivization of employee interests has no real chance in the United States.

Incidentally, South Carolina has the fewest union members in the United States; that is, practically none. Of course, the largest industrial employer in the state does not want to break ranks either and is foregoing unions — although it does things differently at home: BMW.

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About Michael Stehle 102 Articles
I am a graduate of the University of Maryland with a BA in Linguistics and Germanic Studies. I have a love for language and I find translation to be both an engaging activity as well as an important process for connecting the world.

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