(Lessons for Jeff Bezos from George Pullman)
Nearly 100 years ago (1925) A.Philip Randolph began organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first all Black union. Pullman porters worked exhausting hours on long stretches away from home, and suffered incredible indignities (literally having to answer to “George” not their own names). The starvation wages were, in the context of extreme racial inequity and limited economic opportunity for African Americans, coveted jobs. (Hmm — kind of like $15 an hour for hard dangerous work in a warehouse in an economy where the minimum wage has so eroded that this is better pay than you can get for miles around…)
George Pullman was something of a Jeff Bezos of his day. A new technology (trains) was upending business models and Americans could not get enough of the new mobility and novelty of his Pullman cars. “George Pullman’s unbending business acumen made him a mogul, but also inspired the greatest labor uprising of the 19th century.”
If someone had judged the success of Asa Philip Randolph’s organizing strategy or prospects in his first year (or his first eleven years) and the courageous Black men and women who worked with him, they would have scoffed. It would be 1937 — twelve years of hard work, losses, wins and more losses (and passage of labor law reform in 1935) before the Pullman Porters won union recognition, a contract and a charter from the AFL-CIO.
(Do watch the movie 10,000 Black Men Named George for a riveting story of progress, heartbreaking setbacks and the tenacity of Black organizers and A. Philip Randolph, the iconic labor leader who pushed FDR to desegregate the defense industry, won from Truman desegregation of the Army and federal workforce and who, with Bayard Rustin, organized the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.)
Workers at the Amazon plant in Bessemer Alabama lost an NLRB election on April 9 but this history is far from finished being written. Here is what they won:
- A company scared enough of their workers’ organizing that it showed it’s backside to the world resorting to shameful (and some likely illegal) tactics to squash that activity and a bright light shone on working conditions that give millions cause for concern
- Public interest in unions and workers organizing unions and more media stories detailing the David v Goliath reality of this than we have seen in decades
- The Amazon workers and their union are not alone. A growing crowd of allies Black Lives Matter Athena Jobs to Move America. As Erika Smiley of Jobs with Justice wrote John Lewis would march from Selma to Bessemer to support the Amazon workers and brilliant new video activism from More Perfect US; everyone wanted to do their part to help the Bessemer workers and their badass union RWDSU; new people and energy are flowing into a revitalized movement for workers’ rights.
- Accelerated interest in the PRO Act because Amazon just made it SO clear that US labor law is broken and we need common sense reforms to give workers a real choice
- Their own dignity and self-respect. Workers like Jennifer Bates and Darryl Richardson are heroes known to many of us now — to stand up to injustice and mistreatment is a powerful transformative act — these folks are not going back. As Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU President said Together, these workers — the majority of whom are Black and female — are taking a stand against the world’s most powerful corporation. Amazon may have dealt a tactical blow but they cannot undo the raised expectations, the pride at standing up, the thousand workers who watched Bessemer and called the union because they want to be part of something to change their workplace too.
There is a new spirit in the air for worker justice. After this long pandemic, people are much more aware of the Essential Workers they and their families depend on and the greater risks warehouse, meatpacking, retail, delivery, fast food and care workers have had to take on. There is more awareness of and less tolerance for the low wages and unsafe working conditions than we have seen in decades. A majority of Americans support a $15 minimum wage thanks to Fightfor15. We have a President who believes in doing right by working people — including their right to join and form unions.
Jeff Bezos (and his billionaire friends who also made record profits during the pandemic) has a choice. Does he want history to remember him as a man who innovated and delivered astounding new products and services… or as the George Pullman of the 2020’s? He could afford right now to raise wages substantially and sit down with workers and their union, LISTEN and bargain about how to make Amazon a good workplace. Not a 100% turnover sweatshop, not a story about urinating in bottles.
He can count on this: workers and organizers in the tradition of A Philip Randolph and the Pullman porters and so many more, know that one defeat just means you get back up and keep going. Bessemer is neither the beginning nor the end of this chapter.