Decades ago, I dated a white woman in Michigan who I knew from the get-go would be the source of the most exciting experiences of my life. Relax, I’m not going to share the activities that made spending time with her such a delight, except to say she had an amazing talent for accents and dialects. One of her routines was to talk as if she grew up in the inner city of Detroit.
The woman took great offense when I suggested the shtick could be perceived as racist. Turns out three of her good friends were Black, and they routinely parodied her distinct Michigan twang. Making fun of each other was part of their camaraderie.
For the record, the woman had three more Black friends than I did.
The woman doesn’t have a racist bone in her body (we’re still close) but in today’s world she’d be tarred and feathered as one if a video of her routine surfaced. The cancel culture is quick to label someone “racist” for a comment deemed inappropriate. Those who are quick to accuse others of racism are often guilty of unconscious racial bias themselves, a function of their own elitism. As the saying goes, it takes one to know one.
The political support and media coverage of the drive to unionize Amazon’s mostly Black workers in Bessemer, Alabama is a case in point.
For Exhibit A, let’s visit Ground Zero of the cancel culture and review this story by New York Times reporters Karen Wiese and Michael Corkery, headlined “Contentious Union Vote at Amazon Heads to a Count.” What’s notable about this piece is that not one Amazon worker is quoted in the story, and the people who are quoted are all lily white. The omission of Black persons is significant given that Bessemer is more than 70 percent Black and political and union leaders tied their organizing drive to the BLM movement.
“Obviously, we want to win,” the Times quotes Senator Bernie Sanders as saying.
When I think Bernie Sanders, I think millionaire politician with three homes who spouts “democratic socialism” ideals in Congress and on television. The Amazon warehouse workers obviously didn’t perceive Sanders as one of them because they rejected unionization by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
Wiese and Corkery also quoted Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, as saying she visited Bessemer in March and felt “overwhelming” local support for the union.
With the advantage of hindsight, we know that Nelson’s feelings aren’t very in tune with reality. It might also behoove Nelson to focus her efforts on promoting diversity in an industry where she has some influence. Only 11 percent of flight attendants are Black or African American ancestry. Some of the overwhelmingly white flight attendants in Nelson’s union obviously could benefit from some racial sensitivity training, given the Delta flight attendants who doubted that a Harvard-educated doctor working at Mass General really had an MD degree.
If Wiese and Corkery couldn’t be bothered to interview residents in Bessemer, they might consider posting their email addresses so readers from the area can reach them and share more insightful information than Nelson’s “feelings.” Here’s what Times reader “Laura,” who said she owns a couple of bars Amazon’s Alabama workers frequent, posted accompanying the publication’s story about Alabama warehouse workers rejecting a union.
“The overall feeling re the unionization vote was that Amazon would close the plant (and pull out of construction of a new distribution hub nearby) if the union passed. Obviously people will vote to not unionize if the choice is between keeping their jobs and being jobless but in a union.”
On a hunch, I looked up the educational backgrounds of Wiese and Corkery. As I suspected, elite institutions: Wiese graduated from Yale and UC Berkeley and Corkery from Brown.
The Times, and for that matter most, if not all, of the corporate owned media overlooked an important detail about the Bessemer plant. According to the Socialist Alternative Amazon got $50 million in Alabama tax subsidies to build the Bessemer plant, despite being a state that taxes poor people at a higher rate than the top one percent or earners. Jefferson County contributed $3.3 million to build the roads that Amazon demanded, despite the company’s willingness to accept less from more affluent communities.
What’s obscene is that Bessemer must reimburse Amazon for a portion of its warehouse capital investment in quarterly payments spread over 10 years based on how much of a one percent occupational tax it collects from its employees. Simply put, Amazon gets a kickback on the monies it pays its Alabama workers. The company’s business model strikes me as being eerily similar to the mob’s.
Amazon especially targets economically distressed minority regions because it knows these communities don’t have the resources or experience to negotiate on an equal footing with Amazon’s sophisticated site location people. NPR did an excellent deep dive as to how Amazon exploited mostly Black communities in and around Chicago.
David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, got away with an incident I regard as racial bias. Leaked notes from an internal meeting of Amazon’s leadership revealed that Zopolsky hatched a plan to discredit Staten Island activist warehouse supervisor Christian Smalls, calling him “not smart or articulate” and wanting to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” I watched Smalls on a podcast and found him very articulate. As best I can determine, Zapolsky never met Smalls and just assumed he wasn’t articulate.
Smalls firing sparked charges of racism from the to-be-expected cast of political characters, but nothing came of them.
Wouldn’t you know it? Zapolsky is a graduate of Columbia and UC Berkeley.
Even if Amazon’s Alabama workers were prone to wanting to unionize, hooking up with the likes of Stuart Applebaum, the head of the retail union, would have been dangerous. Applebaum has been bashing Amazon for years and played a role in Amazon’s decision to nix its plans to open a second headquarters in New York City. The night before Amazon announced it was pulling out, it met with Applebaum who demanded the company adhere to certain ground rules for how the company would respond to union organizing attempts. Appelbaum told reporters the meeting went well, indicating that his perceptions aren’t much better than Sara Nelson’s of the flight attendants union.
Appelbaum endorsed Joe Biden’s candidacy and sits on the DNC’s executive committee. That no doubt played a role in President Biden publicly supporting the Alabama union drive. Michigan Rep. Andy Levin, who also lent support for the union drive, has questionable union creds. He has yet to lend an ounce of support for nurse anesthetists at a faltering hospital in his home district that was nailed with more than 30 NLRB violations after spending more than $2 million on union busting consultants.
Political and union leaders, as well as the corporate media, have peddled a narrative that the Alabama warehouse workers were either too dumb, or too scared, to vote in favor of unionizing. I argue they understood full well they were being used as political pawns and appreciated that adding another layer of poor representation in their lives wouldn’t serve them well.
The tragedy of the Alabama warehouse vote is that it will allow Amazon to do business as usual, notably exploiting black communities. The public knows and has shown it doesn’t care about how Amazon treats its workers if it means same-day or overnight deliveries at a low cost, with a pretty good streaming service thrown in. The election was a missed opportunity to call attention to the finer points of how CEO Jeff Bezos built his company on the backs of his own workers.
If Congress was really serious about improving the lives of Black and working-class people, it would move to establish a nationwide commission in partnership with state attorney generals to examine all of the tax and other subsidies Amazon received to build its warehouses and determine whether the company fulfilled all its promised jobs and other commitments. I suspect an army of attorneys could identify billions in possible reparations.
That would be letting Bezos off easy. In some civilizations gone by, the public would simply roll out the guillotine.