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Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during the SEIU Unions for All Summit in Los Angeles, California on October 4, 2019. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during the SEIU Unions for All Summit in Los Angeles, California on October 4, 2019. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Progressives Urge Biden to Prove 'Pro-Union' Stance by Publicly Backing Amazon Workers in Alabama

"One of the most important things a president can do to help working people is to have their backs when they challenge corporate power."

Kenny Stancil

As warehouse workers in Alabama continue organizing to establish the first-ever union at Amazon in the U.S., a coalition of labor and progressive groups on Thursday urged President Joe Biden to fulfill his campaign promise to be "the most pro-union president you've ever seen" by publicly backing the ongoing union drive.

"During the 2020 campaign, you vowed to be 'the most pro-union president you've ever seen.' This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make that pledge a reality."
—Letter to Biden

In a letter (pdf) sent to the White House, 37 social justice organizations, including a handful of unions, called on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue "to publicly voice support for the unionization effort of Amazon warehouse workers currently underway in Bessemer."

"These brave individuals are providing an inspiring and important example of collective labor action, and deserve the backing of not just all Americans, but specifically their federal government," the letter reads.

The letter was spearheaded by the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly nonprofit, and People's Action, a network of community organizations. The coalition included several advocacy groups, such as Public Citizen; think tanks, such as the Economic Policy Institute; as well as organized labor stalwarts like Unite Here, a union of 300,000 service workers; the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 airline workers; and additional progressive groups. 

The letter's signatories reminded Biden that "during the 2020 campaign, you vowed to be 'the most pro-union president you've ever seen.'"

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make that pledge a reality," the groups wrote.

"One of the most important things a president can do to help working people," the coalition added, "is to have their backs when they challenge corporate power, providing public support to the idea that Americans have a right to bargain collectively for better working conditions."

As HuffPost labor journalist Dave Jamieson reported Thursday:

Nearly 6,000 workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are currently voting to determine whether they will join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). It is the most closely watched union election in years, with high stakes for Amazon and organized labor, since it could create the first unionized workforce within the company's U.S. operations. 

Amazon has rolled out an aggressive anti-union campaign, holding meetings with workers, sending out mailers, and putting signs up around the warehouse urging them to vote "no." The RWDSU has countered with a campaign of roughly 100 organizers contacting workers on the ground and by phone.

Biden—despite deploying pro-union rhetoric and even making some pro-labor moves, including nominating CWA's Jennifer Abruzzo for the top legal post at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after firing the "extreme, anti-union ideologue" Peter Robb—has avoided endorsing the union drive at Amazon, as Jamieson reported earlier this week.

With Amazon workers at the Bessemer warehouse "now casting ballots in the most high-profile union election in years," Jamieson wrote, "the administration's relative silence hasn't gone unnoticed."

"I think it's important for the administration to demonstrate during this campaign its support for unionization," Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU's president, told Jamieson. "This is the largest campaign in many years, and this is a great opportunity for the administration to show working people what's important to them."

When Jamieson asked what was preventing Biden from explicitly backing the union drive at Amazon, a White House spokesperson "reiterated the president's general position, saying he encourages union organizing and collective bargaining, and urges employers not to run anti-union campaigns." In addition, the spokesperson explained that "Biden has called for increasing penalties on companies that illegally bust unions, among other significant labor law reforms."

One lawmaker who has publicly supported Amazon warehouse workers in their unionization push since they first filed notice with the NLRB is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who called the effort in Alabama a potential "shot heard around the world," as Common Dreams reported in November 2020.

With the Amazon workers in Bessemer now in the midst of a seven-week mail-in election, Sanders on Wednesday again voiced his support for their struggle. "The fight you are waging will send a message to workers all across the country that if they stand up, stand together, and fight, they can win," the senator tweeted.

That's the kind of messaging that progressives would like to see from Biden. As Jamieson wrote Thursday, "Some have invoked Franklin Roosevelt's support for unionization as the benchmark Biden should strive for."

"Presidents," Jamieson added, "can send important symbolic messages on collective bargaining, the way Ronald Reagan's firing of the air-traffic controllers may have emboldened companies to fend off union drives."

According to Public Citizen, "Nowhere is a union more urgently needed," given Amazon's "horrific track record of labor abuse and exploitation."

In the letter to Biden, the coalition stressed that "Amazon's profits rose by nearly 200% and its stock price rose by 70%" amid the coronavirus pandemic, yet "it has shared barely any of that largesse with its workers, even as they have put their own health at risk to help earn those profits."

"But Amazon's labor abuses go beyond its actions during the pandemic," the letter reads. "Thanks to its monopoly in warehousing and logistics, Amazon subjects its workers to unsafe conditions, constant surveillance, and an unfair 'time off task' policy that prevents workers from taking adequate breaks."

"Instead of owning up to these issues and correcting them," the coalition continued, "Amazon has vigorously labored to prevent unionization from occurring."

The groups concluded by urging the president "to lend all your support to the Amazon workers in Bessemer. They deserve nothing less."

Read the full letter:

Dear President Biden, We write to urge you to publicly voice support for the unionization effort of Amazon warehouse workers currently underway in Bessemer, Alabama. These brave individuals are providing an inspiring and important example of collective labor action, and deserve the backing of not just all Americans, but specifically their federal government.

In recent decades, corporate monopolies have leveraged their market power to abuse working people, suppress their wages, and obstruct their efforts to unionize. Amazon has perfected this approach—but a unionized workforce can begin to counteract some of those efforts, so Amazon workers can gain more of the benefits that their labor creates.

During the course of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon's profits rose by nearly 200% and its stock price rose by 70%—and it has shared barely any of that largesse with its workers, even as they have put their own health at risk to help earn those profits. Nearly 20,000 Amazon workers have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the corporation's own numbers. According to the Brookings Institution, Amazon could have quadrupled its hazard pay to workers during the pandemic, and still made more in profits than it did last year.

But Amazon's labor abuses go beyond its actions during the pandemic. Thanks to its monopoly in warehousing and logistics, Amazon subjects its workers to unsafe conditions, constant surveillance, and an unfair "time off task" policy that prevents workers from taking adequate breaks. Amazon warehouse logs, where available, show an injury rate nearly double the warehouse industry average, and three times the average for private companies in general.

Instead of owning up to these issues and correcting them, Amazon has misled the public and lawmakers, and corrupted local officials into turning a blind eye to its transgressions.

Though policymakers have a significant role to play in altering Amazon's ability to leverage power over its workers, so too does a union—which is why Amazon has vigorously labored to prevent unionization from occurring, even going so far as to work with local authorities to change traffic light patterns outside the warehouse in Bessemer so that organizers wouldn't be able to speak to workers.

One of the most important things a president can do to help working people is to have their backs when they challenge corporate power, providing public support to the idea that Americans have a right to bargain collectively for better working conditions. During the 2020 campaign, you vowed to be "the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen." This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make that pledge a reality. We urge you to lend all your support to the Amazon workers in Bessemer. They deserve nothing less.

Sincerely,

American Economic Liberties Project

People's Action

198 methods

350.org

ACW: Adapting Canadian Work and Workers: Union-University Action Canada

AFGE Local 704

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA

Beyond Extreme Energy

Center for Popular Democracy

Demos

Earth Action, Inc.

Economic Policy Institute

Friends of the Earth

Futures Without Violence

Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition

Indivisible

Just Economics of WNC

Labor Network for Sustainably

Maine AFL-CIO

National Council for Occupational Safety

National Employment Law Project

National Partnership for Women & Families

NNUCHE District 1199NM

Oil Change U.S.

Our Revolution Birmingham

Our Revolution West Philly 'Burbs

PA Working Families Party

People's Parity Project

Principles NOT Parties

Progressive Democrats of America

Public Citizen

Revolving Door Project

Sunrise Movement

SWEET Alabama

Union of Concerned Scientists

UNITE HERE

Working Families Party


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