The aggregate numbers assessing the state of the U.S. labour movement did not look good in 2020. The spike in strikes we saw in 2018 and 2019, propelled by teachers, collapsed amidst the pandemic in 2020, with only eight major strikes (involving more than 1,000 workers, lasting more than one 8-hour shift). This is the third-lowest number since 1947.
Meanwhile, union density was up slightly in percentage terms at 10.8 percent, up from 10.3 percent in 2019. But this increase had nothing to do with an increase in union members, and everything to do with a pandemic-induced collapse of the labor market. The fact that more non-union jobs disappeared than union jobs simply meant that the denominator used to calculate the percentage of union members decreased more than the numerator. All told, nothing to celebrate.
Still, there are some hopeful signs for labour. Nowhere is this more the case right now than in Bessemer, Alabama, where a group of warehouse workers at an Amazon fulfillment center are voting about whether or not to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The election goes until March 29, with results expected to be announced in mid-April.
The Amazon campaign is historic and symbolic on many levels. It would be the first unionized beachhead in all of Amazon’s vast U.S. operations. It would be a landmark union victory in the U.S. South, a region with a proud history of organizing and class struggle, but weighed down by a power structure dominated by white supremacy and political reaction. It marks an extension of the #BlackLivesMatter movement into workplace organizing, with the campaign putting racial justice issues front and center.
For these reasons and more, the Bessemer Amazon campaign has attracted attention worldwide—including Quebec. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss the state of U.S. labour generally, and the Amazon campaign specifically, with two Quebec labour audiences.
The first is a podcast called « Solidaire » (“In Solidarity”), hosted by a group of Quebec labour activists. You can find that discussion here (in French).
The second is a briefer discussion I had with former Radio-Canada reporter Julien Bilodeau (also in French) on a show called « D’un autre angle » (“From a Different Angle”) on CKIA-FM in Quebec City. It’s a show sponsored by the Syndicat canadien de la function publique (SCFP), the Quebec affiliate of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) [Side note: Why don’t more unions have weekly radio shows?!]. You can see a video of the radio interview here.