In her book Private Government, the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that the modern workplace resembles a dictatorship. Absent meaningful government oversight or a robust unionized workforce, a boss can control what an employee wears and with whom they speak and when they get free time. Should a worker object to the regime, they can leave, but they’re really only exchanging one dictatorship for another. A benevolent dictator is still a dictator, and his subjects are not free.
For proof, there is Amazon. Shifts are long inside its warehouses. In Bessemer, Alabama, where workers recently voted in a do-over union campaign, they say they barely have time to use the bathroom. Facilities are designed to maximize corporate profits; when the pandemic struck, workers often couldn’t practice safe social distancing. The corporation’s mistreatment extends to its drivers. Though they typically work for third-party contractors, Amazon’s emphasis on speedy delivery forces them into unsustainable schedules. They’re under so much pressure to deliver the nation’s packages that they too struggle to use the bathroom as needed. The company has tried to deny it, but journalists and workers reported that drivers sometimes have to pee in bottles because they have no other choice.
In public, however, the corporation is eager to tout its progressive bona fides, and it does this most conspicuously through social-justice causes. After the murder of George Floyd, Amazon released a statement decrying “the inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people” in the U.S. On its website, it lists generic “immigration reform” among its corporate positions and celebrates Pride Month as a company.
Now workers are telling a different story. Union drives in Bessemer and Staten Island show a face that Amazon has been eager to hide from the public. When Chris Smalls organized a small protest to call attention to the company’s inadequate COVID safety measures, Amazon fired him and then strategized how best to smear him. Workers involved with both union drives have endured captive-audience meetings, surveillance, and constant pressure to reject the one tactic that would democratize their workplace. “They don’t care about Black lives,” Darryl Richardson, a worker in Bessemer, told me last year. “They’ve got flyers and pictures of Martin Luther King and Black history in the hallways. They’re just trying to make it seem like they do care because the majority of the plant is Black.”
In truth, the company’s commitment to racial justice varies, wildly, based on its overriding interest in maintaining power over its workers. Earlier this month, the Intercept reported that Amazon was planning to ban certain words — including plantation, slave, and union — from a new internal messaging app.
The gap between Amazon’s public persona and the way it wields power in private is large. But Starbucks is little better. Like Amazon, the coffee chain hastened to release a statement supporting Black Lives Matter in 2020. It has bragged, often, of its commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. And to further prove that it is a good, even liberal, employer, it offers workers a handful of material benefits, like tuition reimbursement for an online degree at Arizona State University.
Starbucks also briefly banned workers from wearing BLM shirts before later making its own, corporate version, and it has repeatedly fired workers who are involved with a national campaign to unionize the chain, store by store. “I think this is Starbucks’ way of making a statement of what could potentially happen if we were to vote yes for the union,” one fired worker, Sharon Gilman, told Vice News. If the fired workers can prove they are the victims of illegal retaliation, the National Labor Relations Board will order their reinstatement. Until and unless that happens, these workers suffer the consequences of exile: cut off from their co-workers, suffering potential poverty.
This is not what conservatives mean when they complain about woke businesses. When Senator Josh Hawley attacks “woke capitalism,” he isn’t thinking of workers but rather himself and his cronies. He doesn’t oppose corporate hypocrisy; he opposes worker power. The authoritarian bent of the GOP complements, rather than checks, the dictatorship of the corporation.
Anderson writes that “social norms” may enforce some corporate accountability, but in the U.S. those norms tend to favor employers. Union density is low, especially in the private sector, and workers are no longer accustomed to democracy on the job. Though a Democratic-aligned National Labor Relations Board may take steps to hold Amazon’s power at bay, the board can only do so much. Absent the PRO Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize a union, employers have broad powers. They can bring their full might to bear against workers, who must slay Goliath for a measure of freedom.
Union drives aren’t often portrayed in this way: as pro-democracy movements within an authoritarian setting. But when they’re viewed as such, the revolutionary qualities of entities like the Amazon Labor Union become clear, and their true importance — not just to workers’ rights but to democracy itself — becomes easier to understand. Underneath the progressive branding, Amazon has always been a typical American corporation swollen to mammoth proportions. As argued by critics like antitrust scholar Lina Khan, now the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Amazon exercises a monopolistic power over workers and consumers alike. While the pandemic delivered record profits for Amazon, worker injuries “increased by 20 percent from 2020 to 2021,” the Strategic Organizing Center reports, based on data Amazon submitted to OSHA. These injuries weren’t inevitable. “In 2021, the serious injury rate at Amazon warehouses was 6.8 per 100 workers — more than double the rate at non-Amazon warehouses (3.3 per 100),” the report adds. While Amazon expressed solidarity with the oppressed in public, in private it broke workers down until they revolted.
If workers have finally killed the woke corporation, so be it. America is better off without these fictions in our midst. With the woke corporation gone, other possibilities can thrive. Even a robust regime is not without cracks. Apply enough pressure over time and a dictatorship can end.