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We Need a Power Shift in American Capitalism

Robert B. Reich, Tribune Content Agency on

The most dramatic change in American capitalism over the last half-century has been the emergence of corporate behemoths like Amazon and the simultaneous shrinkage of organized labor. The resulting imbalance has spawned near-record inequalities of income and wealth, corruption of democracy by big money, and the abandonment of the working class.

All of this is coming to a head in several ways.

On March 29, Amazon faces a union vote at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. If successful, it would be Amazon’s first U.S.-based union in its nearly 27-year history.

Conditions in Amazon’s warehouses would please Kim Jong Un — strict production quotas, 10-hour workdays with only two half-hour breaks, unsafe procedures, arbitrary firings, “and they track our every move,” Jennifer Bates, a warehouse worker at Bessemer, told the Senate Budget Committee last week.

To thwart the union drive, Amazon has required Bessemer workers to attend anti-union meetings, warned workers they’d have to pay union dues (wrong — Alabama is a so-called “right-to-work” state that bars mandatory dues), and intimidated and harassed organizers.

Why is Amazon abusing its workers?

 

The company isn’t exactly hard-up. It’s the most profitable firm in America. Its executive chairman and largest shareholder, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world, holding more wealth than the bottom 39 percent of Americans put together.

Amazon is abusing workers because it can.

Fifty years ago, General Motors was the largest employer in America. The typical GM worker earned $35 an hour in today’s dollars and had a major say over working conditions. Today’s largest employers are Amazon and Walmart, each paying around $15 an hour and treating their workers like cattle.

The typical GM worker wasn’t “worth” more than twice today’s Amazon or Walmart worker and didn’t have more valuable insights about how work should be organized. The difference is that GM workers a half-century ago had a strong union behind them, summoning the collective bargaining power of over a third of the entire American workforce.

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