Amazon defeats push for a union — and organizers charge the company took 'blatantly illegal actions'

Amazon managed to secure enough votes to halt the formation of the company's first United States union in Bessemer, Ala., according to a current tally of the votes.

According to The Verge, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has counted more than 1,700 opposing votes on the initiative. That number of votes accounts for more than half of the 3,215 ballots cast by Amazon warehouse employees. It is being reported that a total of 700 votes were tallied in favor of the measure, but approximately 500 of the ballots have been contested.

The tally comes weeks after Amazon workers voted by mail on whether or not to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an initiative Amazon has fought to prevent by way of anti-union meetings and other aggressive corporate measures.

In wake of the latest tally, the RWDSU has indicated it will appeal the election. On Friday, April 9, the RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum released a statement criticizing the election results.

"We won't let Amazon's lies, deception, and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote," Appelbaum said.

The push for a union at the Bessemer, Ala., location has shed light on the unfavorable and particularly harsh working environment at Amazon facilities. Back in March, Jennifer Bates, a notable organizer who has worked to advance the union efforts, previously described the Amazon work environment as "grueling."

"We have to keep up with the pace. My workday feels like a nine-hour intense workout every day. And they track our every move -- if your computer isn't scanning, you get charged with being time-off-task," said Bates. "From the onset, I learned that if I worked too slow or had too much time-off-task I could be disciplined or even fired."

    However, in response to Bates' concerns, an Amazon spokesperson released a statement. "We take employee feedback seriously, including Ms. Bates', but we don't believe her comments represent the more than 90% of her fulfillment center colleagues who say they'd recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family," the spokesperson said adding that Amazon employees "earn at least $15 an hour, receive comprehensive healthcare and paid leave benefits."

    Amazon admits drivers do sometimes pee in bottles

    Faced with irrefutable evidence and the prospect of yet another public relations debacle, Amazon apologized on Friday to Rep. Mark Pocan for an "incorrect" tweet denying that its delivery drivers sometimes urinate in bottles while on the job because they don't have time to find and use restrooms.

    The Twitter feud between the tech titan and Pocan (D-Wis.) began late last month when the latter responded to a tweet by Dave Clark—head of Amazon's worldwide consumer unit—that took a swipe at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a vocal supporter of the unionization effort by workers at the company's Bessemer, Alabama warehouse.

    "I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that's not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace," Clark tweeted, touting Amazon's $15 hourly pay floor.

    Pocan, who is chair emeritus of the House Progressive Caucus, shot back that "paying workers $15/hr doesn't make you a 'progressive workplace' when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles."

    Amazon retorted: "You don't really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?"

    According to Jason Del Rey at Recode, the directive to fight back against Pocan's tweet came from outgoing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who "expressed dissatisfaction in recent weeks that company officials weren't more aggressive in how they pushed back against criticisms."

    However, after Motherboard published Amazon driver testimonials confirming that some of them do indeed relieve themselves in their delivery vehicles—and a photo of a bottle full of what it said is urine—the company apologized to Pocan.

    "This was an own-goal, we're unhappy about it, and we owe an apology to Representative Pocan," Amazon said in a blog post. "First, the tweet was incorrect. It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers."

    "We know that drivers can and do have trouble finding restrooms because of traffic or sometimes rural routes, and this has been especially the case during Covid when many public restrooms have been closed," the company admitted, adding that it "will look for solutions" to the problem.

    Amazon also said the issue is "industry-wide" and is "not specific to Amazon." Indeed, Uber and Lyft drivers, as well as drivers for delivery companies including FedEx and UPS, have long complained about how difficult it can be to find restrooms while on the job.

    On Saturday, Pocan shrugged off Amazon's apology, tweeting that "this is not about me, this is about your workers—who you don't treat with enough respect or dignity."

    "Start by acknowledging the inadequate working conditions you've created for ALL your workers, then fix that for everyone & finally, let them unionize without interference," he wrote.

    Amazon's security thought company Twitter account was hacked after 'antagonistic' tweets attacking liberal lawmakers

    Amazon's security filed a report stating it believed the company's Twitter account might have been hacked late last week after the Amazon's public relations account posted tweets attacking liberal lawmakers, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

    The Intercept's Ken Klippenstein reports "staffers were so concerned about the 'unnecessarily antagonistic' tone that a security engineer filed a suspicious activity report, believing that the company's social media account had been hacked, according to internal company documents obtained by The Intercept. One tweet, responding to Rep. Mark Pocan's criticism of Amazon labor practices, said, 'You don't really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?'"

    "The tweets in question do not match the usual content posted by this account, and doesn't seem to match the quality careful wording, and doesn't report the same source-label (the offending tweets all report 'Twitter Web App' instead of 'Sprinklr')."

    Last week Senator Warren posted this video and said, "I'll be introducing a bill to make the most profitable companies pay a fair share."

    Amazon, a $386 billion multi-national corporation, delivered several tweets in response, which some saw as stunning that a public corporation would talk to a sitting U.S. Senator this way:

    The Intercept adds company personnel think Amazon's aggressive actions on Twitter are "embarrassing."

    "A lot of folks thought the account was compromised due to those rants," one Amazon employee told The Intercept.

    The report did not elicit action. The company's "PR leadership are aware of it."

    The tweets are still up and active.

    'Amazon is trying to intimidate workers': Why Biden's support of the Alabama union push was 'crucial'

    Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are in the final days of voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States. Ballots have been sent to nearly 6,000 workers, most of whom are Black, in one of the most closely watched union elections in decades. Amazon has fought off labor organizing at the company for decades, but workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver and Southern California are now also reportedly considering union drives. "Amazon is trying to intimidate workers. They want them to be afraid," says Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. We also go to Bessemer to speak with Michael Foster, an RWDSU member-organizer leading the union drive at Amazon's warehouse, who says casting a ballot in the union election, amid Amazon's attempts to discourage warehouse workers from supporting the union drive, is "the only way that we can allow our voices to be heard." We also discuss how this week marks the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the deadliest workplace accident in New York City's history and a seminal moment for American labor.

    This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

    AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

    The final week of voting has begun in one of the most closely watched union elections in decades. Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — that's the RWDSU — and become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the United States. Voting ends March 29th. Ballots have been sent to nearly 6,000 workers, most of whom are Black.

    Amazon has fought labor organizing at the company for decades, but Bloomberg is reporting Amazon workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver and Southern California are now also considering launching union drives. Nationwide, Amazon has over 1.3 million employees, making it the second-largest private workforce in the United States, behind Walmart. The unionization effort in Alabama has attracted widespread support, even from President Biden.

    PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important, a vitally important choice, as America grapples with the deadly pandemic, the economic crisis and a reckoning on race. What it reveals, the deep disparities that still exist in our country. And there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.

    AMY GOODMAN: Congressmembers Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Terri Sewell and other lawmakers recently traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, to support the unionization drive. Last week, Amazon worker Jennifer Bates, who's helping to organize in Bessemer, testified before the Senate.

    JENNIFER BATES: We hope, with a union, we will finally have a level playing field. We hope will be able to talk to someone in HR without being dismissed. We hope that we will be able to rest more, that there will be change in the facility to make some of the stress off our bodies. We're hoping we get a living wage, not just Amazon's minimum wage, and be able to provide better for our families. We hope that they will start to hear us and see us and treat us like human beings. It's frustrating that all we want is to make Amazon a better place to work, yet Amazon is acting like they are under attack. Maybe if they spent less time and money trying to stop the union, they would hear what we are saying. And maybe they would create a company that is as good for workers and our community as it is for the shareholders and executives.

    AMY GOODMAN: Amazon worker Jennifer Bates, testifying on Capitol Hill.

    This comes as a new study, out today, from Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies has found Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his personal wealth increase by $65 billion since the pandemic began a year ago. That means Bezos's wealth increased on average by over $7.4 million every hour for the past year.

    Meanwhile, Amazon workers in Bessemer and other locations are being forced to work 10-hour shifts with just two 15-minute bathroom breaks.

    We're joined now by two guests. Here in New York, Stuart Appelbaum is with us, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. And with us in Bessemer, Alabama, is Michael Foster, a member and organizer of the RWDSU who's helping lead the Amazon unionization drive. He's also a poultry plant worker.

    We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Michael, it's great to have you back. Let's begin with you in Bessemer. In this last week, what message are you putting out? And what are the tactics Amazon is using to fight the unionization effort?

    MICHAEL FOSTER: Well, our efforts right now is just to encourage the employees to get their ballots out in the mail, to mail them out, because that's the only way that we can allow our voices to be heard. And Amazon tactics that they are using, instead, are steady going around from person to person, telling them, you know, to vote no, and just doing a whole bunch of other stuff. They're not having care for the meetings, but they are going to individuals at a time and telling them these things.

    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Stuart Appelbaum, I wanted to ask you — these statements by President Biden, before the election or as the election is unfolding, I don't recall a president ever making a statement, of any party, before a major union drive in the country. The impact of that and Biden's stance so far on the right of labor to organize?

    STUART APPELBAUM: Hello, everybody. You are right. It is the most pro-union, pro-worker statement that has ever been made by a president of the United States. And that is so crucial in this election. Amazon is trying to intimidate workers. They want them to be afraid. And what President Biden's statement says is that you may be up against perhaps the most powerful corporation in the world, the wealthiest person in the world, but the president of the United States has your back. And that is crucial for workers to be hearing.

    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you and follow up on that. The National Labor Relations Board, President Biden won't be able to have a majority on the board until probably later this year, because the terms are staggered.


    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But he did appoint a general counsel recently to the NLRB that is much more pro-labor. Could you talk about the impact that that's having on the potential for future union drives?

    STUART APPELBAUM: I'd also mention what it's having on this union drive, as well, because labor law in this country is tilted to favor employers and to make it difficult for workers to ever be able to achieve a union. And that's incredibly unfortunate. We saw that the Trump board often sought to make it even worse for workers trying to organize, lengthening time periods, giving employers more time to try to intimidate and interfere with workers.

    We need to — we need to change the way we conduct union elections in this country, and that means two things. It means we need to have a board composed of people who are going to be supportive of what is the policy of this country, which is to promote collective bargaining and unionization. And it also means that we have to change the laws in this country, that now make it so difficult for workers trying to get a collective voice to be able to achieve unionization.

    AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to journalist Kim Kelly with More Perfect Union, who produced a video report that shows the mail ballot dropbox has been placed right in front of the warehouse, even though the National Labor Relations Board said Amazon couldn't have one. This clip starts with Joshua Brewer with the RWDSU.

    JOSHUA BREWER: When you see this box, as you see, it's right by the front door. Everything at Amazon is tracked. Everything is surveilled. So, this idea that this massive box that's 20 feet from the front door of Amazon isn't being surveilled is ludicrous. Somebody is lying. So, either Amazon is lying or the Postal Service is lying. We tend to believe that Amazon is lying. They've told a lot of lies throughout this process. …
    That went up middle of the night. The second night, Amazon immediately sent out a text message that said, "Look, we — the Postal Service installed this box. We don't have keys." We've reached out to the postmaster in Bessemer. We haven't heard back. We've got a Freedom of Information request out there, and we haven't heard back. We've put a lot of pressure on different areas, trying to figure out, you know, look, number one: Did you even install this box, or is this Amazon's cluster box? Does the Postal Service own it or not? And then, who has the keys? Who actually has access to it? Because everything we're reading is showing that the Postal Service doesn't install these boxes.
    DARRYL CRAIG: Even in an apartment complex, the tenant has one, and the mailman and the rent office. Who knows who has the key to that box?

    AMY GOODMAN: That was Amazon worker Darryl Craig, that last voice. Michael Foster, talk about the significance of this.

    MICHAEL FOSTER: Well, the significance of it is that workers just truly believe that something is going on with this mailing box, that — why would Amazon want them to bring their ballots from home and bring it to the plant and put it in their mailbox, when they can just literally put it back in their own mailbox? People called me and asked me, "Is Amazon stealing some of the ballots?" because they have seen people put their ballots in that mailbox. And it's just really scary. I believe it's an intimidation, so to speak.

    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to go back to Stuart Appelbaum to ask him about the — Amazon trumpets a lot on their advertising on television. They're constantly doing ads on television these days talking about their workforce, and they trumpet the fact that they pay $15 an hour. Could you compare the situation in, let's say, an average Amazon workplace to those of unionized warehouse workers in a different parts of America?

    STUART APPELBAUM: Absolutely. Amazon is trying to hide behind a fig leaf of giving $15 an hour, but that wage rate is actually below what unionized warehouses in the area are providing workers. It's also below the median wage in Alabama. It's lowering the median wage. And it's not enough for people to survive on.

    I also want to remind you that Amazon cut people's wages in the middle of the pandemic. At the end of May, they eliminated the $2 hazard pay they had been giving, even though the pandemic continued to rage, even though the hazards were just as bad, if not worse, as they had been before. And why did they do it? They didn't do it because they needed to. You talked about how much money Bezos has made during this period. They did it because they thought they could get away with it. Oxfam put out a report that said if Jeff Bezos had given every one of his employees a bonus of $105,000, Bezos still would have been wealthier at the end of the pandemic than he was at the beginning.

    And it's not just wages. It's working conditions. Despite the wage that Amazon pays, it has extraordinary turnover of more than 100% a year, because people can't take those jobs at any cost, at the way they're being abused within the workplace. Amazon dehumanizes and mistreats its employees. It breaks them down and uses them up, and then just replaces them with other people. The working conditions are terrible. And that's what really needs to change.

    AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a very significant anniversary, Stuart, that I'm sure you, being a labor leader here in New York, have been observing for years. Thursday marks the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the deadliest workplace accident in New York City's history and a seminal moment for American labor. On March 25th, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, Jewish and Italian, died after a fire broke out at the factory. Many of them leaped to their deaths when they tried to escape and found the emergency exits locked. I want to play an excerpt of a radio piece I produced 35 years ago, in 1986, along with Kathy Dobie. It was then the 75th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

    PAULINE PEPE: I worked right near where the fire was. There was cutters there. They were cutting the material. And as soon as they were just going out, it was time to go home. It was 4:00 on Saturday.
    AMY GOODMAN: Pauline Pepe is a 94-year-old survivor of the Triangle fire.
    PAULINE PEPE: I saw the fire in the tables, where they were all full with lingerie material, you know, and that had come up in a flame. When I saw that, I ran out. I went to the door that was closed. I didn't know that was closed. I went there, knocked on the door. Closed. I just stood there 'til they opened it. Forty people going down the steps, we all tumbling one right after another. And I saw people throwing themselves from the window. And as soon as we went down, we couldn't get out, because the bodies were coming down. It was terrible.
    KATHY DOBIE: The women that died that late afternoon were young Jewish and Italian immigrants. When the fire broke out, they tried to escape down the stairs but found the doors had been locked. The owners believed that, given the chance, workers would sneak out with stolen material, and union organizers would sneak in.
    AMY GOODMAN: Some of the women climbed onto the single fire escape. It collapsed. As onlookers watched, women fell nine stories to the sidewalk below. Inside the factory, the fire spread quickly, and with no exit left to them, the women climbed through the windows and leapt to their death.
    While some union members walked in the vigil, others took buses to a Brooklyn cemetery, where seven unidentified Triangle victims lie buried. Union members paid their respects and read the stone marker above the women's graves.
    MONTAGE OF VOICES: "In sympathy and sorry, citizens of New York raise this monument over the grave of unidentified women and children who, with 139 others, perished by fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Washington Place, March 25th, 1911."

    AMY GOODMAN: That report done for the 75th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I interviewed the last survivor of that fire. Now it's the 110th anniversary. Stuart Appelbaum, in addition to being president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, you're a longtime union activist, vice president of the national AFL-CIO. Can you talk about the significance of this moment in history and what it means for today?

    STUART APPELBAUM: The importance of this election in Bessemer, Alabama, transcends this one workplace. It even transcends this one company. It's really about the future of work and how workers are going to be treated in our economy going forward, whether or not people are going to be abused, or whether or not they're going to be treated with dignity and respect. That's why this fight is so important. As Mike can tell you, many workers talk about how they feel like they are being treated as robots being managed by other robots. It's not the way we want workers to be treated.

    We didn't want them to be treated they were at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and we saw what the extraordinarily horrific consequences of that treatment was. And we don't want workers anywhere to be treated the way workers at Amazon are being treated today. Something needs to change. And what the courageous workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are doing is standing up for that change. I don't see how we can't be more inspired by all of them.

    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Stuart, we only have about 30 seconds left, but I wanted to get your reaction to the approval by the Senate of President Biden's nominee for secretary of labor, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the first time in 50 years that a union member, a former union member and leader, is named secretary of labor.

    STUART APPELBAUM: I think that's very significant. Joe Biden said, when he was running for president, that he wanted a union leader to be in his Cabinet. And he's delivered on that promise. We have someone who understands what it means to be a working person as the secretary of labor, someone who's devoted a good portion of his life to working with unions and trying to make conditions better, and who understands what this is all about. And I'm delighted that Marty Walsh is our new secretary of labor.

    AMY GOODMAN: Stuart Appelbaum, we want to thank you for being with us, president — Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union president, and Michael Foster, RWDSU organizer, leading the charge to unionize Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

    That does it for our broadcast. There's a job opening at Democracy Now!, a senior producer. Check our website. I'm Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

    How employers punish workers for forming unions

    Workers at Solvay's Pasadena, Texas, plant voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2017 and looked forward to sitting down with the company to quickly negotiate a fair contract.

    Solvay decided to play games instead.

    Company representatives canceled some bargaining sessions at the last minute, took two-hour lunches on days they did show up, dithered for weeks over the union's proposals and pulled every stunt imaginable to drag out the talks and frustrate the workers into giving up.

    "They were angry that we actually had the audacity—in their mind—to challenge them with a union. This was their way of getting back at us," said USW Local 13-227 President Steve "Tote" Toto, noting the spiteful antics cost him precious time with his wife, Mary, who was dying of pancreatic cancer about 1,500 miles away.

    The U.S. House just passed bipartisan legislation to end shenanigans like this and help ensure that workers achieve the fair contracts they earned.

    The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

    And once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act would set timelines for progress toward a contract and impose mediation and binding arbitration when employers stall and delay.

    Although Toto and his coworkers achieved an agreement in January 2019—after more than a year of fighting—corporate foot-dragging on contract talks continues to worsen nationwide.

    Right now, companies resort to stall tactics so often that about half of all workers who organize still lack a contract one year later. Worse, 37 percent of workers in newly formed private-sector unions have no agreement after two years. And some continue fighting for a first agreement long after that.

    The PRO Act, which President Joe Biden hails as essential for leveling the playing field for workers and rebuilding the middle class, will spur employers to show up at the bargaining table and reach agreements as expeditiously as possible.

    That's exactly what would have helped Toto and his colleagues four years ago.

    The workers at Solvay organized to obtain safer working conditions and a voice at the chemical plant, recalled Toto, who relocated to Pasadena after the company closed the Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, facility where he originally worked. His wife, already battling cancer, remained in the couple's Philadelphia area home to be in comfortable surroundings and to stay close to her doctors.

    Talks stretched out month after month as Solvay's negotiators refused to schedule regular bargaining sessions, made onerous proposals solely intended to bog down the discussions and even balked at excusing workers for jury duty. But nothing infuriated union members as much as finding the company's chief negotiator asleep one day in a room where he had ostensibly gone to study union proposals.

    "It's about discouraging you," Toto said of the company's ploys. "It's about breaking you down. It was also frustrating for me because it was taking time away from the last year I had with my wife."

    Just like Toto and his colleagues, workers at the Bishop Noa Home in Escanaba, Michigan, made modest demands that they expected to speedily resolve at the bargaining table.

    Yet more than three years after voting to join the USW, the 55 certified nursing assistants and dietary, environmental services and laundry workers continue fighting for a contract even as they put their lives on the line to care for the facility's residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The home refuses to accept the workers' choice to organize. It brought in a union-busting attorney who belittles workers at the bargaining table, makes unreasonable proposals, spurns efforts to bring the parties together and drags out talks to try to break the workers' morale.

    Marcia Hardy, a dietary worker who has dedicated 35 years to Bishop Noa, said she and other negotiating committee members repeatedly made good-faith compromises that they felt certain would speed talks along.

    "That didn't happen," she said, noting the home not only rebuffed the workers' goodwill but refused to budge from its own proposals.

    "They don't want to have to answer to anybody but themselves," Hardy said of the facility's efforts to silence workers. "They will not give that up for anything. It's just so disheartening because you've put your heart and soul into the place."

    Throughout the pandemic, workers have been putting in extra hours, taking on additional responsibilities and serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from loved ones, all so Bishop Noa can continue providing a top level of care. And although a contract would afford opportunities for building on that record of excellence, Hardy said, Bishop Noa prefers to wage war on workers instead.

    She and her colleagues, who have widespread community support, will keep fighting for the agreement they earned. "If I give up," Hardy said, "they win."

    Solvay, Bishop Noa and other employers that drag out negotiations squander resources that could be better used to provide safe working conditions, serve customers or otherwise improve operations.

    Toto said workers want to put contract talks behind them and "live our lives." And he predicted that the PRO Act would hold employers' feet to the fire and finally force them to approach contract talks with the urgency the task requires.

    "It puts accountability back at the bargaining table," Toto said. "The job is to go in there and get it done in a timely fashion."

    Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

    This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

    'We decided to take a stand': Report details how workers battled Amazon during the pandemic

    It was 11 months ago, in April 2020, that workers at an Amazon sorting facility in Chicago launched a series of mini-strikes to demand better COVID-19 protections on the job. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic was going from bad to worse at the time, and as the workers saw it, they were fighting for the right to not get killed on the job. Journalist Rachel M. Cohen looks back on those strikes in an article published by The Intercept this week, noting that the workers faced "retaliation" and "intimidation" for demanding safe working conditions.

    Cohen recalls that the April 2020 strikes in Chicago occurred after management announced that an Amazon worker in that city had tested positive for COVID-19.

    "Roughly 70 to 80 workers participated in the four safety strikes," Cohen explains. "Among other things, the Chicago workers demanded that their warehouse be shut down for two weeks and cleaned; that Amazon cover the costs of any medical bills for workers who get sick on the job; that the warehouse pause processing non-essential items; and that management provide immediate transparency if and when anyone else got infected."

    Cohen notes that one of the striking Amazon workers, Shantrece Johnson, was infected with COVID-19 in mid-April — and Cohen quotes Johnson as saying, "We decided to take a stand. Most of us, we don't mind working, but we're in the middle of a pandemic, and we had the potential to bring this (virus) home."

    Many workers in the U.S. and other countries have been thankful for Amazon during the pandemic, stressing that the world's #1 e-commerce company has made it easier for them to practice social distancing and receive the products they need at home. But the striking Amazon workers in Chicago obviously didn't have work-from-home jobs, and they wanted to be able to do their jobs without being infected with COVID-19.

    Those workers, according to Cohen, "faced retaliation in the form of intimidation and disciplinary write-ups." But they didn't take it lying down.

    Cohen explains, "The workers banded together and filed a charge with their regional National Labor Relations Board office. Their charge, known as an unfair labor practice, or ULP, included five allegations of National Labor Relations Act violations. The workers accused their site lead, Domonic Wilkerson, of unlawfully disciplining them for protected activities, unlawfully interrogating them, unlawfully engaging in surveillance, unlawfully breaking up their gatherings."

    The NLRB, according to Cohen, "found merit to the workers' claims." One of the Chicago-based Amazon workers who field that NLRB charge was Ted Miin, who described NLRB's decision as "a major victory" and told The Intercept that the "message" of that decision was "that we have rights, we should know them, and we should know how to use the NLRB as a tool to make more room for us to organize."

    The success of those Chicago workers, Cohen notes, has been followed by efforts by Amazon employees in different parts of the U.S. to unionize under the Amazonians United banner. And in Chicago, the workers have been calling themselves Amazonians United Chicago.

    Min notes, "We are not affiliated with any legal organization that claims to be a union, especially major business unions, many of whom have tried to recruit us."

    Four Tennessee Republicans voted against removing slavery exception from the state’s constitution

    Although Tennessee abolished slavery after the Civil War, an article in the state's constitution says that "slavery and involuntary servitude" are allowed for someone who has been convicted of a crime. Understandably, there's a strong push to strip that language out — but four Republicans in the Tennessee Senate have voted against removing it.

    The bill to remove that article from the Tennessee Constitution was sponsored by Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who serves in the Tennessee Senate. When the bill came up for a vote, Sen. Brian Kelsey and three other Republicans voted against it.

    Article I, Section 33 of the Tennessee Constitution presently states that "slavery and involuntary servitude" are "prohibited in this state" except "as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

    The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, contained a similar exception:

    Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

    Many argue that this exception has permitted gross abuses, exploitation, and cruel forced labor of the incarceration population.

    Most Republicans in the Tennessee Senate, however, voted for Akbari's bill along with Democrats. And on Tuesday, the Tennessee House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on it.

    If the bill passes in the Tennessee House of Representatives, it would go to the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Lee — who could either sign it into law or veto it. Tennessee, a red state, presently has two Republican U.S. senators: Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty. And both houses of its state legislature are Republican-controlled.

    Legendary social scientist explains why we may be on the cusp of a new Progressive era

    Last week, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) was passed by the Democrats in Congress — without a single Republican vote — and signed into law by President Biden. The $1.9 trillion ARP includes such provisions as $1,400 relief checks for most Americans, an increase in tax credits for low and middle-income earners to a maximum of $3,600 dollars a year per child under age six, more food assistance, $300 a week in additional unemployment insurance, hundreds of billions in funds for local and state governments, help in preventing renters and homeowners from being evicted or foreclosed upon, and more money for COVID-19 vaccines and research.

    Unlike previous legislation passed by the Republicans during the Trump regime (and before), the vast majority of money and other assistance in the Biden administration's COVID-19 stimulus plan goes to poor, working class and middle-class Americans. By all reports, the vast majority of Americans will receive some form of aid from ARP.

    Historian Heather Cox Richardson expands on this at Moyers on Democracy and also in her newsletter "Letters From an American":

    Unlike the previous implementations of this theory, though, Biden's version, embodied in the American Rescue Plan, does not privilege white men (who in Lincoln and Roosevelt's day were presumed to be family breadwinners). It moves money to low-wage earners generally, especially to women and to people of color. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) called the child tax credit "a new lifeline to the middle class." "Franklin Roosevelt lifted seniors out of poverty, 90 percent of them with Social Security, and with the stroke of a pen," she said. "President Biden is going to lift millions and millions of children out of poverty in this country."

    Many of the most important provisions in the ARP are likely to remain law because programs such as increasing the child tax credit are very popular with the public.

    Because they are social Darwinists and plutocrats with no care or concern for the American people, Republicans in the House and Senate unanimously opposed the ARP. Contrary to how the Republicans and broader right-wing (with the help of neoliberal corporate Democrats) have spent decades creating a narrative that "big government" is the "enemy of the people", the ARP offers an example of how the U.S. government can respond quickly if it so chooses (and has the proper leadership): COVID survival checks have already begun to arrive in Americans' bank accounts.

    The ARP is correctly being described as the most progressive legislation since the Great Society, and Biden appears keenly aware of his unique role in history as the successor to a neofascist who attempted a coup during a pandemic and left the country teetering on the edge of a potentially irreversible calamity.

    To that end, on Friday Biden invoked Lyndon B. Johnson and the legacy of the Great Society during a Rose Garden speech, saying that this historic legislation "changes the paradigm":

    For the first time in a long time, this bill puts working people in this nation first. It's not hyperbole; it's a fact.
    For too long, it's been the folks at the top. They're not bad folks. A significant number of them know they shouldn't be getting the tax breaks they had. But it put the richest Americans first, who benefited the most. And the theory was — we've all heard it, and especially the last 15 years. The theory was: Cut taxes, and those at the top and the benefits they get will trickle down to everyone. Well, you saw what trickle-down does. We've known it for a long time. But this is the first time we've been able, since the Johnson administration and maybe even before that, to begin to change the paradigm.

    We've seen time and time again that that trickle-down does not work. … This time, it's time that we build an economy that grows from the bottom up and the middle out. And this bill shows that when you do that, everybody does better. The wealthy do better. Everybody does better across the board.

    What can the Democrats learn from history, to help maintain this progressive energy and momentum? How do the vast inequalities and other horrors seen in America's Gilded Age resemble the problems we see in America today? What lessons can be learned from how progressives fought back in that earlier era? And what does that overused term, "progressive," mean in 2021?

    In an effort to answer, or at least address, these questions, I recently spoke with Robert Putnam, one of America and the world's most distinguished and influential social scientists. Putnam is currently the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, and is a former president of the American Political Science Association and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2012, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal, the nation's most prestigious honor for contributions to the humanities.

    He is the author of 15 books including the landmark "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" and "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis." Putnam's new book is "The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again."

    This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

    How are you feeling, given all of the tumultuous changes and challenges the American people have been facing with the Age of Trump and now into Biden's presidency? We have gone from a nightmare scenario to some hope under Biden, but matters are still dire.

    Given all the ups and downs of recent months — the pandemic, the economy and politics — prediction is hard, especially about the future. One can imagine many things going wrong — new virus strains, white nationalist terrorism and so on. That said, I'm feeling optimistic about where the country is headed, not merely in the short run, but even in the long run — and the long run is my main concern.

    In my new book "The Upswing," I examine parallels between the second decade of the 21st century, and a period 125 years ago which is very much like our present. I argue that we should and likely will be replicating the kinds of changes that were pursued in the Progressive Era during the first part of the 20th century. There is a phenomenon called the "I-We-I" curve, a movement from selfishness to community to selfishness. That curve is ripe for change in the United States.

    Biden and the Democrats just passed a landmark COVID relief and survival bill. Given your concerns about social progress, how do you assess Biden's presidency so far?

    Biden is proving to be just what the doctor ordered for a shaken country, focused explicitly on "we," not "I." It's not just his well-known empathy for people in pain, nor his equally well-known propensity to work across the aisle, but also his ability to adapt to changed political circumstances. While he tried to work with Republicans on the Hill — and polls show that the public believes he was sincere in that effort — he also proved able to act on his own when the GOP party leaders blew him off. His rising poll numbers show that he's got most of the public, including many Republican voters, on his side.

    From the Age of Trump and its many disasters to Biden's presidency and its potential and opportunities, it feels as though America is in a world-historical moment. Who knows what happens next? How do you make sense of what could be a true turning point in history?

    I have that same feeling. I also felt that way during another pivot point in American history, which was the middle of the 1960s. I went to college in the fall of 1959 and graduated from college in the spring of '63. That was a period of time when we — the whole country, but especially college students and other young people — thought that we were going to change the world. We were going to end racism and social inequality, for example. Everybody in the world knew that big things were happening in all spheres of life. It's an experience that is very difficult to explain and describe to someone who has not lived through such a moment.

    What about backlash and right-wing reactionary politics?

    When you are in a world-historical moment, some moment of great change, you do not know how it is all going to turn out at the end. That's the nature of the thing. One is so close to the surface that they cannot get up to that 30,000-foot level and see what is happening in context, to see what is just around the corner. In the 1960s, we did not know what was going to happen next and it could have been anything. And in that case, what did in fact happen next was exactly the opposite of what we hoped. The reform movement of that period seemed to be winning, but then there was a dramatic reversal and basically bad things happened in every respect.

    That was true in terms of racial justice. It was true in economic terms with Richard Nixon. Those questions of backlash are hanging over us now too.

    If you could bring a Progressive-era activist through time to America today, what do you think they would see that is familiar? What would be different?

    The first thing they would see would be completely familiar to them. That time traveler would see a world of great inequality. That is the world they knew in the Gilded Age. It was a world of intense political polarization like America's present. Social relations among people, that is, their connections to their families, to the community and to religion and so on, were weakening.

    That time traveler would see that is true here today. Their era was one of great narcissism or even self-centeredness. That is true in America today as well, especially given Trump's presidency. He is the greatest narcissist of all.

    And then, if our visitors from the Gilded Age were a bit more thoughtful, they would see that the strategies used during their era to fight back against inequality might work today as well.

    We need a moral revival right now across issues such as racism and political polarization, and also more generally in terms of how our society treats human beings. We can learn from the Gilded Age how so many of our country's problems require local solutions as well.

    During the Gilded Age there was a great amount of experimentation with local solutions which would be piloted in different parts of the country and then shared nationally if they worked. These were called "laboratories of democracy." Many of the solutions did not come from Washington. Then, as now, we also needed grassroots mobilization. And another echo of the past with the Progressive movement is how young people were the leaders. It will likely be young people who again lead the United States out of our current crises as well.

    If you were to write a simple mission statement, what does it mean to be a progressive?

    "We want to make progress." Progressives also believe that we have the right ideas about how to solve problems. However, progressives are not exclusive in how we find solutions to problems. Other people and groups may have good solutions as well.

    A mission statement for progressives right now would be: Think morally. That is the first part of the mission statement. Progressives must think about how to make changes that will improve the lot of the least well-off people in society. Progressives should also think scientifically in terms of solutions and real evidence. Do not rely on old myths or hearsay and rumors.

    What do we know empirically about the impact of social capital and the "I-We-I" curve on American society today?

    Children who grow up in social isolation do far worse than children who grow up in communities where the "we" is emphasized. In such communities the neighbors look out for one another. "We-ness" also positively impacts education and health and social mobility. People who grow up in areas where there is low social capital do not live as long. They also have higher mortality rates from many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

    How come America's death rate from COVID is so much higher than almost every other country in the world? How does such a thing happen?

    The country was at the lowest ebb of our "we-ness," that sense of collective care and concern and identity. America was at a low point in social capital, which meant that when the pandemic hit we were more vulnerable than other countries. Trump did not cause that accidental coincidence. It was a function of low social capital and COVID happening at the same time.

    What advice do you have for young progressive activists today?

    Change happens because people want to make change. We are agents. We are not merely the objects of history. We are the agents of history. That's what change-makers during the Progressive Era understood. You can make a difference, and without you society is not going to change for the better.

    Do you have any advice for the Biden administration and the Democratic Party on how to keep their momentum and work to create the progressive renewal you described?

    Politically, their top priority has to be the midterm elections, and the American Rescue Plan is an excellent start. Whatever else may affect the Democrats' chances in 2022 — from Dr. Seuss to crises at the southern border to unexpected Supreme Court decisions to shenanigans in Trump's Republican Party to voter suppression — the electoral fundamentals next year will be, a) whether the pandemic is in the rearview mirror and b) whether the economy is booming again. All the experts agree that the COVID-19 rescue plan has more or less assured those two fundamentals. I'd much rather be playing Nancy Pelosi's hand than Mitch McConnell's hand over the next two years.

    I'm focused much more on the next two decades than the next two years. But the prospects for the long run depend on what happens in the short and medium run. I'm more optimistic today than I have ever been in my life that within my lifetime. And I'm now 80! America may once again pivot toward a "we" society — more equal, less polarized, more altruistic, less socially fragmented and more attentive to historic, structural inequalities.

    A key vulnerability in the American economy could be the country's downfall — will Biden fix it?

    Sam Phillips and Trey Maestas fought tirelessly to save TIMET's titanium sponge plant, both to protect the jobs of about 420 coworkers and to safeguard America's future.

    The decades-old facility in Henderson, Nevada, was the nation's last remaining producer of the coral-like material essential for manufacturing warplanes, munitions, satellites, civilian jetliners, ships and even joints for artificial hips.

    The plant's closing last year—despite the best efforts of Phillips and Maestas of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4856—left the nation completely dependent on foreign imports of titanium sponge and further decimated manufacturing supply chains crucial to the nation's security.

    America can only be truly free if it rebuilds these and other vital lifelines.

    On February 24, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring an immediate, 100-day federal review of supply chain vulnerabilities in industries like computer chips and pharmaceuticals.

    That's a welcome start. But it will take a much broader and long-term rebuilding commitment to overcome the damage that decades of neglect and offshoring inflicted on the country's manufacturing base.

    Over the past year, widespread shortages of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the withered state of U.S. industry.

    However, the nation cannot regain industrial strength merely by ramping up the assembly of PPE, cars, refrigerators, electronic devices and the other finished products that consumers need for emergencies and everyday life. That would leave the job half done.

    The country's security also depends on patching hollowed-out supply chains and building back the capacity to produce all of the raw materials, parts and components, like titanium sponge, that go into those end products.

    That means ensuring America not only makes sufficient numbers of face masks and surgical gowns but also continues to produce the homopolymers that go into them.

    It means manufacturing and stockpiling hand sanitizer, as well as the springs that operate the hand pumps.

    America needs to manufacture air conditioners to cool homes and businesses and earth-moving equipment, wheat combines and elevators to power a diverse economy. But it's just as important to produce on U.S. soil the bearings and other parts that keep these machines running.

    "We're at the mercy of whoever is supplying us," said Maestas, vice president of Local 4856 and a TIMET worker for 17 years, noting foreign nations can cut off shipments for economic or political reasons whenever they want. "Our supplies could change at the drop of a dime."

    Maestas and Phillips, the Local 4856 president, repeatedly warned last year that eliminating domestic production of titanium sponge posed a grave threat to national security.

    "We were keeping planes in the air, military and civilian," Maestas recalled. "I, for one, was proud of what we were doing."

    The USW sent an urgent letter to the previous administration, stressing that the importance of titanium sponge "cannot be overstated" and demanding that the plant be saved "to assist in the defense of our nation." But no help ever came.

    It wasn't just the USW raising the alarm. The Defense Department has cited unavailability of titanium sponge as a "potential single point of failure" in military supply chains.

    Yet TIMET idled the plant anyway. And more losses like this will only render the country weaker and weaker.

    "If you can do this to the only titanium sponge plant in North America, what else are you going to do it to?" asked Phillips, who has worked at TIMET for 20 years. "Where does it stop?"

    Right now, America's failure to produce sufficient numbers of computer chips hinders recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

    Ford and General Motors scaled back production in three states in recent days because of severe shortages of the semiconductors needed to operate vehicle entertainment, navigation and safety systems.

    But the bottleneck puts more than automobile production at risk. Computer chips also power vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances, cell phones and the U.S. space program, among many other industries, so scarcities imperil vast swaths of the U.S. economy as well as millions of jobs.

    Biden's executive order requires the government to conduct 100-day reviews of supply chain weaknesses in the computer chip, pharmaceutical, electric battery and rare minerals industries while also launching yearlong analyses of capacity in the defense, transportation and several other industries.

    Filling the many gaps will require historic, long-term investments in manufacturing facilities, in innovation and research, and in the roads, ports and other transportation systems essential for moving U.S. goods across the country and around the world.

    America's prosperity and security will require shoring up the supply chains in all industries, not just the handful that Biden has highlighted so far. Because while the nation faces urgent shortages of PPE and computer chips today, it could face just as pressing a demand for other products—like components and infrastructure for energy generation—tomorrow.

    "We make important stuff," said Paul Bartholomew, president of USW Local 2285, whose 200 members produce valves, spacers and compressor disks for gas turbines, along with products for the aerospace and defense industries, at Wyman-Gordon in Massachusetts.

    "You just saw what happened in Texas," Bartholomew said, referring to a collapse of the state's power grid that plunged millions into darkness during frigid winter storms in February. "You need electricity. You need heat. We assist in power generation."

    After decades of decline, Bartholomew said, the nation now seems "on the brink" of understanding that it's let far too much manufacturing capacity slip away.

    Phillips hopes the nation will yet realize the mistake of idling titanium sponge operations in Nevada. But once a plant like that goes idle, it takes time to build the capacity back.

    Phillips estimates it would take two years to have the facility fully operational again. And in a crisis, America may not have that time to spare.

    Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

    This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

    Joe Biden is taking over the Democrats' great unfinished mission of the last century

    You might be tired of me talking about the American Rescue Act, which is now back to the House of Representatives and expected to pass today before going to the president's desk. But while the rest of the country is talking about Joe Biden's dog, and while the press corps is asking about the White House cat (I am, alas, quite serious), we should talk about how this legislation, the first of more to come, reflects a sea change.

    That sea change might be described as the difference between being a citizen who is inherently worthy of help by dint of being a free citizen as opposed to being a deserving person who is worthy of help by dint of being a deserving person. The latter is pretty much the core belief animating the conservative approach to welfare, an approach enshrined in economic policy by the Clinton administration, while the latter is pretty much the core liberal approach of the Great Society that never got off the ground fully because the Vietnam War consumed Lyndon Johnson's presidency.

    Put another way, it has been conventional wisdom for decades that if you got help from the government, you had to show you deserved it by working. If you did not work, at least a little, you were undeserving of help. The government has an interest in your working, because the government has an interest in promoting productive labor, self-improvement, and in general a strong and robust national economy. A government that does not take into account deservingness is vulnerable to abuse, fraud and waste.

    This conventional wisdom was so unquestioned a dozen years ago, in the aftermath of the 2008 panic, that it was downright dangerous, reputationally speaking, to suggest that maybe 40 percent of the $789 billion stimulus bill enacted in the early weeks of the Obama administration should not go to tax breaks given that tax breaks don't help people who aren't working. A better policy—and this was the dangerous part—was pitching people bales of cash. The Republicans already called any form of welfare a "government handout." Could you imagine what they'd say about an actual handout?

    Resistance to the idea of direct cash payments to needy people wasn't just political. Mainstream economists and orthodox policymakers genuinely feared inflation of the kind that paralyzed the country before the era of conservative politics began. The late 1970s saw a double whammy of stagnant wages and rising prices so that it mattered less how hard you worked—you still could not get ahead. The prime objective then was crushing inflation in order to maximize employment. And for the most part, the scheme worked until the 2008 panic. By then, however, the conventional wisdom was so deeply rooted the concept of printing money for needy people was unthinkable.

    In the past year, however, we have seen the United States Congress pass five rounds of stimulus spending, trillions of dollars' worth, with a sixth round on the way. The new law would set up a permanent structure by which virtually all American children would receive direct cash subsidies. We have also seen a Federal Reserve chair, Jerome Powell, flip the order of the central bank's twin mandates. When Paul Volcker was the chair, he elevated price control over full employment. He raised interest rates in the late 1970s to stop inflation. Four decades later, Powell is unconcerned with inflation, as are most mainstream economists and policymakers. He has repeatedly privileged full employment over price control. The Fed has been printing all the cash needed to prevent the economy from spilling over the edge during this time of the covid.

    And no one is talking about deservingness. No one is talking about "work requirements." The very concept of "workfare" seems moldy. Sure, the Republicans in the Senate say they are worried about deficits and so on. (Rick Scott, Senator of Florida, told Bloomberg TV there will be "a reckoning.") But that's not going to hold water for the 75 percent of Americans who want the Congress to pass the American Rescue Act. That's not going to be persuasive to Americans who want the government to spend more—trillions more on things like paid sick leave and paid family leave and other income-support programs necessary in a 21st century economy. All of a sudden, the conventional wisdom that endured for decades is making way for something new. We are moving in the direction of being worthy of help by dint of being free citizens.

    In a very real sense, Joe Biden's first major piece of legislation picks up where Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs left off, according to historian Joshua Zeitz. He wrote on Twitter that critics believed that the Great Society focused too much on "'qualitative' measures—education, health care, job training, housing—intended to put people in a position to capture their share of prosperity and economic growth." Critics believed that people needed cash instead, he said. The Johnson administration eventually came around but by then the president was focused on the Vietnam War.

    Compared to Johnson's Great Society programs, "the Biden relief plan poses a radical departure in liberal thought," Zeitz wrote on Tuesday. "It provides ongoing direct payments to 93 percent of families with kids, one-off cash to many more. That goes way beyond the Great Society, whose framers considered and rejected income support." In the 20th century's final quarter, Zeitz said, "Democrats had to settle for defending the important but patchwork range of Great Society programs that were never intended to counter the decline of unions, growing income and wealth inequality. Something more radical than the Great Society was unthinkable.

    "Until now."

    The reality of work in the Biden-Harris era

    A year ago, just a few weeks before San Francisco locked itself down for the pandemic, I fell deeply in love with a 50-year-old. The object of my desire was a wooden floor loom in the window of my local thrift shop. Friends knowledgeable on such matters examined photos I took of it and assured me that all the parts were there, so my partner (who puts up with such occasional infatuations) helped me wrangle it into one of our basement rooms and I set about learning to weave.

    These days, all I want to do is weave. The loom that's gripped me, and the pandemic that's gripped us all, have led me to rethink the role of work (and its subset, paid labor) in human lives. During an enforced enclosure, this 68-year-old has spent a lot of time at home musing on what the pandemic has revealed about how this country values work. Why, for example, do the most "essential" workers so often earn so little — or, in the case of those who cook, clean, and care for the people they live with, nothing at all? What does it mean when conservatives preach the immeasurable value of labor, while insisting that its most basic price in the marketplace shouldn't rise above $7.25 per hour?

    That, after all, is where the federal minimum wage has been stuck since 2009. And that's where it would probably stay forever, if Republicans like Kansas Senator Roger Marshall had their way. He brags that he put himself through college making $6 an hour and doesn't understand why people can't do the same today for $7.25. One likely explanation: the cost of a year at Kansas State University has risen from $898 when he was at school to $10,000 today. Another? At six bucks an hour, he was already making almost twice the minimum wage of his college years, a princely $3.35 an hour.

    It's Definitely Not Art, But Is It Work?

    It's hard to explain the pleasure I've gotten from learning the craft of weaving, an activity whose roots extend at least 20,000 years into the past. In truth, I could devote the next (and most likely last) 20 years of my life just to playing with "plain weave," its simplest form — over-under, over-under — and not even scratch the surface of its possibilities. Day after day, I tromp down to our chilly basement and work with remarkable satisfaction at things as simple as getting a straight horizontal edge across my cloth.

    But is what I'm doing actually "work"? Certainly, at the end of a day of bending under the loom to tie things up, of working the treadles to raise and lower different sets of threads, my aging joints are sore. My body knows all too well that I've been doing something. But is it work? Heaven knows, I'm not making products crucial to our daily lives or those of others. (We now possess more slightly lopsided cloth napkins than any two-person household could use in a lifetime.) Nor, at my beginner's level, am I producing anything that could pass for "art."

    I don't have to weave. I could buy textiles for a lot less than it costs me to make them. But at my age, in pandemic America, I'm lucky. I have the time, money, and freedom from personal responsibilities to be able to immerse myself in making cloth. For me, playing with string is a first-world privilege. It won't help save humanity from a climate disaster or reduce police violence in communities of color. It won't even help a union elect an American president, something I was focused on last fall, while working with the hospitality-industry union. It's not teaching college students to question the world and aspire to living examined lives, something I've done in my official work as a part-time professor for the last 15 years. It doesn't benefit anyone but me.

    Nevertheless, what I'm doing certainly does have value for me. It contributes, as philosophers might say, to my human flourishing. When I practice weaving, I'm engaged in something political philosopher Iris Marion Young believed essential to a good life. As she put it, I'm "learning and using satisfying and expansive skills." Young thought that a good society would offer all its members the opportunity to acquire and deploy such complicated skills in "socially recognized settings." In other words, a good society would make it possible for people to do work that was both challenging and respected.

    Writing in the late 1980s, she took for granted that "welfare capitalism" of Europe, and to a far lesser extent the United States, would provide for people's basic material needs. Unfortunately, decades later, it's hard even to teach her critique of such welfare capitalism — a system that sustained lives but didn't necessarily allow them to flourish — because my students here have never experienced an economic system that assumes any real responsibility for sustaining life. Self-expression and an opportunity to do meaningful work? Pipe dreams if you aren't already well-off! They'll settle for jobs that pay the rent, keep the refrigerator stocked, and maybe provide some health benefits as well. That would be heaven enough, they say. And who could blame them when so many jobs on offer will fall far short of even such modest goals?

    What I'm not doing when I weave is making money. I'm not one of the roughly 18 million workers in this country who do earn their livings in the textile industry. Such "livings" pay a median wage of about $28,000 a year, which likely makes it hard to keep a roof over your head. Nor am I one of the many millions more who do the same around the world, people like Seak Hong who sews garments and bags for an American company in Cambodia. Describing her life, she told a New York Times reporter, "I feel tired, but I have no choice. I have to work." Six days a week,

    "Ms. Hong wakes up at 4:35 a.m. to catch the truck to work from her village. Her workday begins at 7 and usually lasts nine hours, with a lunch break. During the peak season, which lasts two to three months, she works until 8:30 p.m."
    "Ms. Hong has been in the garment business for 22 years. She earns the equivalent of about $230 a month and supports her father, her sister, her brother (who is on disability) and her 12-year-old son."

    Her sister does the unpaid — but no less crucial — work of tending to her father and brother, the oxen, and their subsistence rice plants.

    Hong and her sister are definitely working, one with pay, the other without. They have, as she says, no choice.

    Catherine Gamet, who makes handbags in France for Louis Vuitton, is also presumably working to support herself. But hers is an entirely different experience from Hong's. She loves what she's been doing for the last 23 years. Interviewed in the same article, she told the Times, "To be able to build bags and all, and to be able to sew behind the machine, to do hand-sewn products, it is my passion." For Gamet, "The time flies by."

    Both these women have been paid to make bags for more than 20 years, but they've experienced their jobs very differently, undoubtedly thanks to the circumstances surrounding their work, rather than the work itself: how much they earn; the time they spend traveling to and from their jobs; the extent to which the "decision" to do a certain kind of work is coerced by fear of poverty. We don't learn from Hong's interview how she feels about the work itself. Perhaps she takes pride in what she does. Most people find a way to do that. But we know that making bags is Gamet's passion. Her work is not merely exhausting, but in Young's phrase "satisfying and expansive." The hours she spends on it are lived, not just endured as the price of survival.

    Pandemic Relief and Its Discontents

    Joe Biden and Kamala Harris arrived at the White House with a commitment to getting a new pandemic relief package through Congress as soon as possible. It appears that they'll succeed, thanks to the Senate's budget reconciliation process — a maneuver that bypasses the possibility of a Republican filibuster. Sadly, because resetting the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour doesn't directly involve taxation or spending, the Senate's parliamentarian ruled that the reconciliation bill can't include it.

    Several measures contained in the package have aroused conservative mistrust, from the extension of unemployment benefits to new income supplements for families with children. Such measures provoke a Republican fear that somebody, somewhere, might not be working hard enough to "deserve" the benefits Congress is offering or that those benefits might make some workers think twice about sacrificing their time caring for children to earn $7.25 an hour at a soul-deadening job.

    As New York Times columnist Ezra Klein recently observed, Republicans are concerned that such measures might erode respect for the "natural dignity" of work. In an incisive piece, he rebuked Republican senators like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio for responding negatively to proposals to give federal dollars to people raising children. Such a program, they insisted, smacked of — the horror! — "welfare," while in their view, "an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work." Of course, for Lee and Rubio "work" doesn't include changing diapers, planning and preparing meals, doing laundry, or helping children learn to count, tell time, and tie their shoelaces — unless, of course, the person doing those things is employed by someone else's family and being paid for it. In that case it qualifies as "work." Otherwise, it's merely a form of government-subsidized laziness.

    There is, however, one group of people that "pro-family" conservatives have long believed are naturally suited to such activities and who supposedly threaten the well-being of their families if they choose to work for pay instead. I mean, of course, women whose male partners earn enough to guarantee food, clothing, and shelter with a single income. I remember well a 1993 article by Pat Gowens, a founder of Milwaukee's Welfare Warriors, in the magazine Lesbian Contradiction. She wondered why conservative anti-feminists of that time thought it good if a woman with children had a man to provide those things, but an outrage if she turned to "The Man" for the same aid. In the first case, the woman's work is considered dignified, sacred, and in tune with the divine plan. Among conservatives, then or now, the second could hardly be dignified with the term "work."

    The distinction they make between private and public paymasters, when it comes to domestic labor contains at least a tacit, though sometimes explicit, racial element. When the program that would come to be known as "welfare" was created as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, it was originally designed to assist respectable white mothers who, through no fault of their own, had lost their husbands to death or desertion. It wasn't until the 1960s that African American women decided to secure their right to coverage under the same program and built the National Welfare Rights Organization to do so.

    The word "welfare" refers, as in the preamble to the Constitution, to human wellbeing. But when Black women started claiming those rights, it suddenly came to signify undeserved handouts. You could say that Ronald Reagan rode into the White House in 1980 in a Cadillac driven by the mythical Black "welfare queen" he continually invoked in his campaign. It would be nice to think that the white resentment harnessed by Reagan culminated (as in "reached its zenith and will now decline") with Trump's 2016 election, but, given recent events, that would be unrealistically optimistic.

    Reagan began the movement to undermine the access of poor Americans to welfare programs. Ever since, starving the entitlement beast has been the Republican lodestar. In the same period, of course, the wealthier compatriots of those welfare mothers have continued to receive ever more generous "welfare" from the government. Those would include subsidies to giant agriculture, oil-depletion allowances and other subsidies for fossil-fuel companies, the mortgage-interest tax deduction for people with enough money to buy rather than rent their homes, and the massive tax cuts for billionaires of the Trump era. However, it took a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to achieve what Reagan couldn't, and, as he put it, "end welfare as we know it."

    The Clinton administration used the same Senate reconciliation process in play today for the Biden administration's Covid-19 relief bill to push through the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. It was more commonly known as "welfare reform." That act imposed a 32-hour-per-week work or training requirement on mothers who received what came to be known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. It also gave "temporary" its deeper meaning by setting a lifetime benefits cap of five years. Meanwhile, that same act proved a bonanza for non-profits and Private Industry Councils that got contracts to administer "job training" programs and were paid to teach women how to wear skirts and apply makeup to impress future employers. In the process, a significant number of unionized city and county workers nationwide were replaced with welfare recipients "earning" their welfare checks by sweeping streets or staffing county offices, often for less than the minimum wage.

    In 1997, I was working with Californians for Justice (CFJ), then a new statewide organization dedicated to building political power in poor communities, especially those of color. Given the high unemployment rates in just such communities, our response to Clinton's welfare reforms was to demand that those affected by them at least be offered state-funded jobs at a living wage. If the government was going to make people work for pay, we reasoned, then it should help provide real well-paying jobs, not bogus "job readiness" programs. We secured sponsors in the state legislature, but I'm sure you won't be shocked to learn that our billion-dollar jobs bill never got out of committee in Sacramento.

    CFJ's project led me into an argument with one of my mentors, the founder of the Center for Third World Organizing, Gary Delgado. Why on earth, he asked me, would you campaign to get people jobs? "Jobs are horrible. They're boring: they waste people's lives and destroy their bodies." In other words, Gary was no believer in the inherent dignity of paid work. So, I had to ask myself, why was I?

    Among those who have inspired me, Gary wasn't alone in holding such a low opinion of jobs. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for instance, had been convinced that those whose economic condition forced them to work for a living would have neither the time nor space necessary to live a life of "excellence" (his requirement for human happiness). Economic coercion and a happy life were, in his view, mutually exclusive.

    Reevaluating Jobs

    One of the lies capitalism tells us is that we should be grateful for our jobs and should think of those who make a profit from our labor not as exploiters but as "job creators." In truth, however, there's no creativity involved in paying people less than the value of their work so that you can skim off the difference and claim that you earned it. Even if we accept that there could be creativity in "management" — the effort to organize and divide up work so it's done efficiently and well — it's not the "job creators" who do that, but their hirelings. All the employers bring to the game is money.

    Take the example of the admirable liberal response to the climate emergency, the Green New Deal. In the moral calculus of capitalism, it's not enough that shifting to a green economy could promote the general welfare by rebuilding and extending the infrastructure that makes modern life possible and rewarding. It's not enough that it just might happen in time to save billions of people from fires, floods, hurricanes, or starvation. What matters — the selling point — is that such a conversion would create jobs (along with the factor no one mentions out loud: profits).

    Now, I happen to support exactly the kind of work involved in building an economy that could help reverse climate devastation. I agree with Joe Biden's campaign statement that such an undertaking could offer people jobs with "good wages, benefits, and worker protections." More than that, such jobs would indeed contribute to a better life for those who do them. As the philosopher Iris Marion Young puts it, they would provide the chance to learn and use "satisfying and expansive skills in a socially recognized setting." And that would be a very good thing even if no one made a penny of profit in the process.

    Now, having finished my paid labor for the day, it's back to the basement and loom for me.

    Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon

    Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.

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