The American worker needs to unionize again

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Christian Smalls, age 33, was fired from Amazon for attempting to organize his coworkers. He is now the first union president in Amazon history.

As you look to graduate, ask not what your workforce can do for you, but what you can do for your workforce.

For many of us college students, our first, tentative steps into the world of white-collar professionalism are only a few short weeks away. This is a great and applaudable achievement, one which we have earned with tireless hours of study and many a sleepless night, haunted by test anxiety.

Many of you have earned the right to celebrate and look eagerly at the beginning of the next chapter of your life as a college-educated adult. 

Yet as you reflect internally in well-deserved personal satisfaction, I urge you to also look externally in critical analysis of the workforce you are joining and think not just of what you can take from it, but also what you can bring to it. 

Do this not just from the perspective of greater profitability, but also of greater morality, greater inclusivity, and greater humanity. 

There is a different workforce than the one many of you are about to enter, one which many of you may not have ever had to suffer through like myself and countless others have. 

One with dismal pay, toxic management, poor workplace safety regulations and terrible, inconsistent hours which can have you working till 11 p.m. and coming in at 6 a.m. the next day. 

Many of these terrible conditions are synonymous with working in Amazon’s distribution centers and are high on the list of reasons why Amazon employees at a Staten Island, New York distribution center have voted to create the first Amazon union in the history of the company. 

I read this news with mixed feelings. I of course celebrate the victory of workers, yet I lament living in a version of America where the formation of a single union, at a single location of a single company, is a rare enough occurrence to make headline news. 

One of the many things you learn in Dr. Michael Honey’s “American Labor Since The Civil War” class at UW, is how the pro-labor, pro-union directives of the New Deal not only pulled the country out of the Great Depression but paved the way for what many Americans- ironically including anti-union Republicans- view as the golden age of America: the post-war 20th century. 

During that time, a single-income household could afford a decent place to live, keep a savings account and pay for their children’s education. Even blue-collar workers could afford to provide for their present and plan for their future at the same time.  

Now, many American workers can barely provide for their present, much less plan for the future. So, what happened?

The Republican-led assault on unions happened. According to “From the People Who Brought You The Weekend” by Priscilla Murolo and A. B. Chitty., American unionization was at its peak of 35% in the 1950s and 60s. 

“This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it.” was a troublingly prophetic statement made around this time by President Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell.

Referring again to Chitty, since Nixon, the rate of unionization has plummeted to just over 10% today. 

What often goes ignored, is that you can track the rise of income inequality, homelessness, crime, incarceration rates and many other social ills right along with the decline of unions.  

If you ask me, division of labor should be based on mutual respect first and foremost. It should be an equal partnership. 

I do not deny that those in skilled professions deserve to be rewarded for the years of hard work it took to develop those skills, yet blue-collar work is just as necessary and just as deserving of our respect. “All labor has dignity” as famously said by Martin Luther King Jr.

One side does not have to suffer in order for the other to be rewarded for their education and skills. 

This is a lesson Jeff Bezos and Amazon need to learn. This is a lesson America has forgotten, and finally, this is a lesson that each of you should keep in mind as you join the workforce.

Like any human institution, unions are subject to human error. There have been corrupt or incompetent unions in the past, and there certainly will be in the future. Yet the idea that workers have the right to organize and advocate for their own rights in an official capacity is beyond debate, and deserves our unfailing support. Solidarity forever!

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