As I’m writing the book The Journey to a New America and through my research becoming more familiar with these often unspoken elements of history, I’m also beginning to see history repeating itself in the events happening even as I felt the stories I was telling were over.
One of those stories which are unfolding right now is happening in the unlikely state of Alabama, as the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) seems to be getting closer every day to winning a historic uphill battle against one of the most consistently anti-union companies in modern America – Amazon. The battle to unionize the Amazon workers of Alabama seems uncertain, but this may very well lead to a nationwide paradigm shift.
All over the country, it’s like Amazon workers are waking up to the realization there’s a very real possibility of them being represented by a large and powerful union if they’re willing to ask. Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union representatives say their phones have been ringing much more than usual since the story hit the news. Amazon workers all over the country are reaching out to the RWDSU to see if they can help them right for better compensation and working conditions.
This idea is like an epidemic of realization for Amazon workers, and I don’t doubt that when, and not if, RWDSU finds success in unionizing an Amazon plant, this epidemic will begin to jump into new hosts, like Walmart, the company poster child for being anti-union big retail in America even before Amazon flooded the new online markets of the 21st century. And when the first Amazon or Walmart locations find themselves represented by a union, there’s no doubt demand for a national union will emerge. As this reaches a fever pitch, I hope that a few old American paradigms become untenable: the excuse that “workers don’t really want unions” and “unions don’t help” because when the Walmart worker doing your job across the county line makes 50% more than you per hour because of their union status, you’re going to want to either transfer or start a union in your county as well.
It’s not that there are no unions in America today, but there are few that have really been able to break into many household industries except for automobiles, owing to the successful unionization efforts of the United Auto Workers in the early 1930s. At the time it had been customary for US Presidents to intervene and stop attempts at high-profile unions, like the UAW, from forming. It’s important to remember for context it was more than a decade before that when President Harding bombed the West Virginia mountains to break a strike at the cost of the lives of a great many striking coal miners.
So even FDR’s hands-off approach here was credited as if he gave his blessing in the union’s formation. Not much more was needed then. After all, this era was the climax of the socialist groundswell America experienced in the early 1900s. They knew how to start a union, to say the least.
The paradigm is perhaps the opposite now. We are at the beginning of a socialist groundswell in America, and our power is building but unstable. We have yet to win a definitive battle, but over the last few years it’s felt like time and time again, victory might soon be at hand. In that respect, this fledgling spark of a union revival could use a lot more outside support than the UAW did in the 1930s. If his words are to be believed, Joe Biden is one of the most outspoken pro-union Presidents in American history, even though his record doesn’t reflect this. But, to the American people, it does seem to have truthiness, even though so much of Biden’s platform seems more dubious.
Biden ran on comparisons to FDR, although the lifelong fiscal conservative had little substance to back it up. However, to his credit, since the Alabama Union drive began, he did deliver a speech showing union membership in a positive light. He wasn’t so bold as to mention Amazon but to those in the know that was clearly the context that had prompted the speech.
It’s honestly great that this moment is more union forward than FDR initially was, but through the influence of people like Sidney Hillman, FDR changed a lot over his long term as a US President. If you’re going to compare yourself to FDR, at least have the decency to be more of a 1944 FDR rather than aiming for a somewhat progressive leader in 1933, one still within the norms of the decade.
If someone like Eugene Debs was president at this time, he would be doing a lot more than mentioning that unions are cool in a speech. Debs would speak Amazon’s name directly. He would be in Alabama letting those workers know they had their president’s support in their decision because he would be a real pro-union president. This is probably true of Bernie as well, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he plans to do so over the next month or so.
This contrast is perhaps Biden’s greatest failing to me, or at least what most makes him feel like a fake progressive; he’s constantly unwilling to really utilize the bully pulpit to push for the changes he claims to support. Radical change needs radical support, and Biden just isn’t willing to be seen as a radical President.
It’s hard to say though because Bernie has been so busy over the last few years. A bill called the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act is nearly a carbon copy of the Workplace Democracy Act Bernie pushed to pass eight times over his career and as a part of his 2020 platform. If this were to become law, it would fulfill perhaps more of Bernie’s campaign promises than Biden’s, which should be an example to us all in how to effectively wield power no matter your place in the hierarchy.
Even though this amendment to the National Labor Relations Act seems to bear Bernie’s fingerprints, it was proposed by Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott and has been working its way through the meat grinder of law since 2019. This is actually the second time since its introduction that it has passed the House; it may not stand better chances in the Senate now than it did under Trump with the narrowest of majorities. The Democrats would have trouble getting it past a filibuster, and there’s no guarantee that all of the Senate Democrats would vote for it.
While it isn’t Bernie’s bill, it might even be a bit more expansive than Bernie’s proposal in 2018. Everyone seems to agree the two bills were based on one another, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Bernie handed his idea off to the relatively more conservative Bobby Scott. This is a tactic he’s used many times with legislation he thought would be less likely to pass if people thought of it as a “Bernie bill.”
Biden has indicated he would sign the bill if it passed, but people like Bobby Scott and Bernie Sanders are the bill’s more vocal supporters by far. This would indicate Biden is an early FDR at best, and it’s not clear if Bernie can play the role Hillman did, but supporting the first serious amendment to the NLRA they passed together would be a good start.
Whether or not Biden is poised to live up to New Deal rhetoric, with bills like this, Medicare for All, a huge overhaul of voting rights, and more, perhaps the House of Representatives is willing to treat this like a fifth FDR term.
Long term, I think the deciding factor in whether the administration can follow through on these efforts will hinge around the Senate filibuster. Rules have changed since Bernie’s Obama era attempt, and eight-hour speeches are no longer required. Further, Democrats are unwilling to overrule Republican filibusters, even though Republicans would never offer them the same kindness.
Biden wants us to return to the talking filibuster, and while this would likely help, as none of these Republicans have the grit of 2010 Bernie, it’s an unnecessary half measure. As long as there is any balance between the two parties, Republicans will always hold an edge in the Senate. Maybe not a majority, but their numbers falling below 41 seems unlikely, and if Democrats stand by current norms regarding the filibuster, it would take 60-61 Democrats to break filibuster even if the party voted as a cohesive block, something conservative Democrats in the Senate aren’t always willing to concede to.
I think the math is clear; with the current norms, no serious change is possible in Congress without some kind of filibuster reform.
Another paradigm shift I think we’ll see in 2021 is the further expansion of acceptance of government support. It wasn’t what we hoped it would be, as I’ve made clear by now, but it does break new ground in significant ways that will undoubtedly have a similar effect to the increases to unemployment and stimulus checks that did last year. A new $300 per month per child check to parents approved for the next year was passed as part of the 2021 COVID-19 Relief Bill. This may not be a permanent change, but for the next nine months, American families for the first time will experience a program that’s fairly common in other developed European countries.
I can’t imagine people will want to easily give that up in 2022, even if the pandemic is completely over by then because it’s common-sense benefit parents needed long before a virus crashed the economy with a little help from the folks on the Hill.
Taken together, the cumulative COVID-19 relief packages have still represented the government wealth transfer to the wealthy oligarchs that are common in any of our crises (see 2008, when banks were too big to fail but your household wasn’t), but it also represented the greatest modern government attack on poverty in recent history. It wasn’t enough, by far, but it did clear the low bar set by the disaster that post-Reagan neoliberalism has been for the poor and middle class.
And despite what conservatives like Biden often said, even after giving normal people billions in aid, the sky didn’t come falling around us. It helped us in concrete material ways that many aren’t going to soon forget. History will tell us if this is a part of the death moan of neoliberalism as it proves itself publicly invalid.
Will this be enough for the Big Other to finally admit that neoliberalism is at fault and that we must find a 21st-century alternative?
In another example of history repeating, things in Nevada are suddenly reminding people more and more of Burlington, Vermont. In 2016, Bernie campaigned extensively against Hillary Clinton in Nevada and seeded a solid foundation for a grassroots movement to grow upon. In 2016, this kept him neck and neck with his political rival in the Nevada primary. After doubling down on building a movement there in 2020, he swept the state even in a race full of liberal competition.
While Bernie lost that primary too (though, not in Nevada) his influence would cause a much more meaningful change later that same year when Nevada voters chose to replace the liberal Democratic leadership with one made up entirely of DSA Democrats. While they control the leadership positions for the state party, there are many other liberals in the party, and the national vestiges of the party still provide a lot of funding to the Nevada state chapter. Or, at least, they did.
Shortly after the new socialist leadership took office in Nevada, all the liberals resigned at once, with the national party paying their severance and likely organizing the move to spite the new leadership. To add insult to injury, in the months between losing their elections and having to leave office, the former leaders of the party transferred all the state chapter’s funds directly into the accounts of the National party.
This is a bit shocking, but not entirely surprising. Behind the scenes in the 2020 primary, many Democratic operatives said they’d rather see Trump win than allow Bernie and the progressive wing to take over their party. Biden ran not for the soul of the nation, but control of the future of the Democratic Party. This was contrary of course to their public messaging; not very “vote blue no matter who.”
While the right-wing is often compared to a death cult, reflect that the Democrats would have given us another four years of Trump rather than lose their power to Bernie and America’s growing electoral left wing. I have a hard time not seeing that as a death sentence to many Americans considering how useless he proved himself to be in a crisis.
The Nevada results remind me of Bernie’s first two terms as Mayor of Burlington, wherein two terms he organized a movement to sweep the Board of Aldermen in a single election because they were obstructing him in his first term. Perhaps the greatest victory of Bernie’s two runs for President was the way he disseminated his grassroots movement and spent time stoking the flames of revolution all over the country. Those fires may not have burned brightly enough for him, but in Alabama and Nevada they are catching on, two states where before 2016 you’d have never expected to hear major socialist victories or even liberal ones.
From here on out, it will be up to us to pump the bellows, because it’s highly unlikely we will see him running again in 2024.