Large unions are experimenting, too. This month, thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., will begin voting on whether to join the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters wants to help Amazon’s warehouse and transportation workers win a union contract.
There’s an urgency today that didn’t exist when Miranda assisted customers by phone: Amazon is now the avatar of a monopoly economy. That economy has made the world’s 10 wealthiest men twice as rich in the grisly months since March 2020. It’s an economy that makes me feel like the zillionth scampering fleck in some global ant farm. The days I don’t, it’s because of the workers I talk to and the small mutinies I see — at Amazon and in nursing homes, truck yards, schools, factories and grocery stores. “We’re definitely not gonna have a more favorable time to have a union,” Daniel Gross, a longtime organizer, recently told me. Which felt like his way of saying, The jig is up; we all know the score.
Workers have always organized in various ways, formal and informal. Since the beginning of the American labor movement, in the 19th century, there have been unions, as well as more ad hoc worker groups. Around the time of the Amazon call-center campaign, organizations like WashTech were much in vogue. They were called “worker centers” and tended to focus on communities (like Nepalese immigrants) or types of jobs (like restaurant-delivery workers) that traditional unions had failed to reach.
I got to know these groups in the mid-aughts, when, as a lawyer, I joined a legal-services agency representing worker centers in New York City. The centers’ offices were welcoming and low on red tape. They had limited resources and small memberships but, in the years that followed, attained goals well beyond their means: domestic workers’ bills of rights, new regulations for nail-salon techs and food-delivery cyclists, debt relief for taxi drivers.
I was impressed by their holistic approach: A construction day laborer wasn’t defined by his wages and hours — he also needed an affordable apartment and help applying for a green card. People at progressive unions thought this way, too, especially as the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street highlighted the larger context for struggles in the workplace. And over the past decade, as a journalist and no longer a lawyer, I’ve seen the progressives’ influence grow.
In 2020, I thought that this increased enthusiasm for organizing, combined with mass death and financial hardship, might bring about a broad working-class movement. There were hints of ferment in the walkouts of essential workers and the record turnout at protests following the murder of George Floyd. After that, things quieted down — because, I think, of the temporary lift of an enlarged welfare state.
But then, between August and November of 2021, more than four million employees quit their jobs every month — individual actions that expressed a rebellious impulse. I noticed the same confident discontent in organized labor: Last fall, thousands of unionized workers went on strike or were on the verge of striking at John Deere, Kellogg’s, Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics and on the sets of Hollywood films. The wave of people leaving their jobs was named the Great Resignation; the agitation from within felt more like a great refusal, a commitment to reject the status quo and demand transformation.