President Joe Biden has a message for Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama: You have the right to organize. In a video statement released on his official Twitter account, Biden explained the National Labor Relations Act in clear, precise terms and condemned strong-arm tactics from employers who oppose unionization:
There is likely no historical precedent for Biden’s statement, which explicitly frames unionization as a material and social good. Unions are good at electing Democratic presidents, but the presidents themselves don’t always reciprocate the effort. Biden’s public defense of the NLRA is more robust than anything his old boss, Barack Obama, said about collective-bargaining rights during his entire eight years in power.
The Bessemer workers could use the boost, too. As they vote on whether to organize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, they’ve run afoul of the intimidation tactics Biden criticized in his video. Since the RWDSU publicly announced its organizing drive last year, Amazon has lobbied workers hard to get them to reject a union. Amazon’s anti-union campaign is as manipulative as these campaigns usually tend to be; the company even went to the National Labor Relations Board to try to force workers to vote in person amid a pandemic. The NLRB shot the company down. (In a previous statement to Intelligencer, Amazon insisted that it merely wanted to be sure that it got “as many of our employees as possible to vote and we’re disappointed by the decision by the NLRB not to provide the most fair and effective format to achieve maximum employee participation.”)
Amazon’s campaign has also strayed at times into potentially unlawful territory. As Vice reported in February, Amazon recently bombarded workers with mailings and texts urging them to vote no by today, March 1 — over three weeks before the election is legally set to end. Amazon has also urged workers to mail in their “no”’ ballots at a strange new mailbox installed on the Bessemer property by the U.S. Postal Service. Workers told Vice that they felt intimidated, even pressured, by the tactic, which could violate the very law Biden explained in his new video. Employers can’t coerce or interfere with workers who are exercising their legal rights; in this case, by voting on a union.
In a statement, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, thanked Biden for the video and added, “As President Biden points out, the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is by organizing into unions. And that is why so many working women and men are fighting for a union at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama.”
Though Biden didn’t single out Amazon by name, the president’s decision to explain the NLRA to workers could influence more than the Bessemer election. No organizing drive can succeed if workers fail to understand their basic rights under the law. Labor organizers understand this, and a lot of education occurs behind the scenes before a union publicly announces a drive to organize. But thanks to the decline of private-sector unions, the NLRA is esoteric material to millions. Unless a worker has direct experience with the labor movement, they might not know that the NLRA prohibits retaliatory and coercive tactics from their employer or that they have the right to organize on the job, whether they’re leading protests or trying to form a union.
Biden advertised himself as a pro-union president, and the labor movement has high expectations for his presidency, so his silence on the Bessemer drive had been a source of major concern. The election will have dramatic ramifications not just for this individual warehouse but for Amazon, which has vehemently resisted all attempts to unionize its low-wage workforce, and potentially for private-sector unions as a category. If RWDSU wins its election, the proverbial floodgates could open. Other Amazon warehouses could unionize. Workers who aren’t employed by Amazon might look at Bessemer and realize, maybe for the first time, that their jobs could be better and their conditions more tolerable. That is, as Biden once said of the Affordable Care Act, a big fucking deal.