The Amazon Union Exposes the Emptiness of ‘Woke Capital’

It’s ordinary laborers who have the best opportunity to improve society.

An illustration of a black fist breaking out of a box, against a red background
The Atlantic

The workers who won a union election at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island earlier this month did something miraculous: They defeated a well-funded and implacable anti-union campaign run by the nation’s second-largest employer, a corporation with almost unlimited financial resources, without the aid of a major union.

The battle isn’t over—the union will still have to go through the difficult process of negotiating a contract—and Amazon will continue its union-busting efforts elsewhere. Still, as Alex Press, who covers the labor movement for the left-wing magazine Jacobin wrote, this victory was “an upset for which there are few parallels in the US labor movement’s post-Reagan history.” The story of the campaign is almost cinematic: workers hailing from all around the globe running a multilingual campaign to defeat a corporate behemoth that subjects its wage workers to harrowing conditions.

The victory of the Amazon Labor Union stands out against a landscape of union weakness. Notwithstanding the high-profile examples of unionization in the media and at corporations such as Starbucks, and despite the desire of many workers to join a union, private-sector unionism is in decline. As Stephen Greenhouse wrote last week, the campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks are particularly noteworthy because they were far less expensive than traditional campaigns, and so they have the potential to even a playing field that is heavily tilted toward employers. With a Supreme Court liable to decide through the Ouija board of originalism that any successful unionizing tactic is unconstitutional, organizers will need every edge they can get.

Amazon’s defeat is also notable for another reason: the victory of a diverse group of workers against a mighty corporation that has presented itself as racially egalitarian. Last year, for example, Amazon announced that it would be “recognizing Juneteenth with a curated mix of internal and external programs designed to honor and educate about the history of the date.”

As Will Evans wrote for The Atlantic last year, conditions for Amazon warehouse workers are notoriously exploitative: low pay; long shifts; few breaks, even to go to the bathroom; and a high injury rate. Such conditions reflect the corporation’s leverage over its own workforce—without the protections of a union, it is difficult for employees to secure better working conditions. Amazon would contribute much more to the cause of racial equality by ending its anti-union campaign than by offering any “mix of internal and external programs” that it could come up with. At the start of the union campaign, Amazon fired one of the lead organizers, a young Black worker named Christian Smalls. In a memo leaked to Vice, company executives described a plan to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement” because he was “not smart or articulate.” Perhaps the flaws and morality of this strategy can be addressed in future corporate diversity trainings or Juneteenth programs.

Historically, American employers have exploited ethnic and linguistic distinctions among workers with lethal effectiveness. In the aftermath of Reconstruction and during the height of American nativism, labor organizations were also compromised by white supremacy and exclusionism. Nevertheless, Booker T. Washington argued in The Atlantic in 1913 that he was “convinced that these organizations can and will become an important means of doing away with the prejudice that now exists in many parts of the country against the Negro laborer,” not out of simple virtue “but because it is to their interest to do so.”

Washington proved prescient: Later in the 20th century, the labor unions of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) in particular were instrumental to the success of the civil-rights movement. And labor organizers at Amazon  embraced the diversity of their workforce as a strength of their campaign. “I speak French, Arabic, English, and three African languages. So that made it a lot easier for me to communicate with immigrant workers inside the building,” the organizer Brima Sylla told Jacobin. “And there are a lot of us here at Amazon—Senegalese, Nigerians, Liberians, Ghanaians, Algerians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, Albanians, Polish, Filipinos, Malaysians, and a lot of Latinos.”

The Amazon unionization campaign illustrates the two-faced nature of corporate branding. As college-educated Americans have trended Democratic, many corporations have utilized an inclusive sheen to sell their products even as they insist on exploitative conditions for their workers, the better to alleviate the guilty consciences of wealthy liberals who might consider taking their money elsewhere. Many conservatives who resent this advertising offer no solution to the exploitation itself. Their complaint is not that corporations are too powerful, but that some are no longer using that power to reinforce right-wing cultural values. If corporate America were persuaded to abandon inclusive and egalitarian messaging in favor of more traditional or religious messages, the right-wing conflict with “woke capital” would end immediately. Conversely, more successful unionization campaigns would only intensify criticism that the unions themselves are “woke.”

“Woke capital” is just a partisan talking point masquerading as structural analysis. It does not truly exist. It is branding. It is superficial. It is merely another means to profit. That profit-motive can be bent to serve the public interest, but not when corporations have few checks on their influence. The egalitarian potential of the labor movement, by contrast, is very real. Unions can unite workers across ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic barriers with a common interest in decent wages, safe working conditions, and protection from exploitation. Unions do not erase political disagreements among workers, but they model a world where those disagreements can be resolved in the name of the greater good. Unions are, in short, an untenable solution for a political party or movement whose most successful strategy for winning votes is stoking the fires of culture-war hysteria indefinitely.

Not only the Republican Party and the conservative movement have been shaped by the weakness of organized labor, however; Democrats have also become more amenable to corporate influence since labor’s decline. The failure of the Democratic Party to muster the votes to strengthen organized labor has left it reliant on the corporate entities that exploit the party’s own supporters. Successfully unionizing large employers like Amazon would change the lives of workers, but also revolutionize politics in the United States.

The hope for a more equitable, democratic, and prosperous society lies not with enlightened corporations, but with organized workers. Those who claim to oppose corporate influence without empowering labor are seeking not to curtail corporate power, but merely to wield it for their own ends.