The Woke Corporation is dead. Good.
Photo: Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
In his book private government, philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that the modern workplace resembles a dictatorship. In the absence of meaningful government oversight or a robust unionized workforce, a boss can control what an employee wears and who they talk to and when they have free time. If a worker opposes the regime, he can leave, but he is really just exchanging one dictatorship for another. A benevolent dictator remains a dictator and his subjects are not free.
As proof, there is Amazon. Work shifts are long inside its warehouses. In Bessemer, Alabama, where workers recently voted in a union overhaul campaign, they say they barely have time to use the bathroom. The facilities are designed to maximize business profits; when the pandemic hit, workers often couldn’t practice safe social distancing. The company’s mistreatment extends to its drivers. Although they usually work for third-party contractors, Amazon’s emphasis on fast delivery forces them to work unsustainable schedules. They are under so much pressure to deliver packages from the country that they too find it difficult to use the bathroom when needed. The company tried to deny it, but journalists and workers reported that drivers sometimes had to pee in bottles because they had no other choice.
Publicly, however, the company is eager to tout its progressive bona fide, and it does so very visibly through social justice causes. Following the murder of George Floyd, Amazon issued a statement denouncing “the unfair and brutal treatment of black people” in the United States. On its website, it lists generic “immigration reform” among its corporate stances and celebrates corporate pride month.
Now the workers are telling a different story. Labor campaigns in Bessemer and Staten Island show a face that Amazon has been quick to hide from the public. When Chris Smalls staged a small protest to draw attention to the company’s inadequate COVID safety measures, Amazon fired him, then hatched a strategy to smear him the best they could. Workers involved in both labor campaigns endured meetings with a captive audience, scrutiny and constant pressure to reject the only tactic that would democratize their workplace. “They don’t care about black lives,” Darryl Richardson, a worker at Bessemer, told me last year. “They have flyers and pictures of Martin Luther King and black history in the hallways. They’re just trying to look like they care because the majority of the plant is black.
In truth, the company’s commitment to racial justice varies wildly depending 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 planting, toiland union — from a new internal messaging application.
The gap between Amazon’s public persona and how it wields power in private is significant. But Starbucks isn’t much better. Like Amazon, the coffeehouse chain was quick to release a statement supporting Black Lives Matter in 2020. It often bragged about its commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. And to further prove that it’s 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 creating its own corporate version, and it has repeatedly fired workers involved in a national campaign to unionize the chain, store by store. “I think that’s Starbucks’ way of making a statement about what could happen if we vote yes for the union,” fired worker Sharon Gilman told Vice News. If the dismissed workers can prove that they suffered unlawful reprisals, the National Labor Relations Board will order their reinstatement. Until that happens, these workers suffer the consequences of exile: cut off from their colleagues, suffering from potential poverty.
That is not what the Conservatives mean when they complain about woke corporations. When Senator Josh Hawley Attacks”woke up capitalism», he does not think of the workers but rather of himself and his acolytes. He doesn’t object to corporate hypocrisy; it opposes workers’ power. The authoritarian bent of the GOP complements, rather than hinders, the dictatorship of business.
Anderson writes that “social norms” may impose some responsibility on companies, but in the United States these norms tend to favor employers. Union membership is low, especially in the private sector, and workers are no longer used to workplace democracy. While a Democratic-aligned National Labor Relations Board can take steps to keep Amazon’s power at bay, the board can’t do much. In the absence of the PRO law, which would make it easier for workers to organize a union, employers have broad powers. They can use all their might against the workers, who must kill Goliath for a measure of freedom.
Union campaigns are not often described in this way: as pro-democracy movements in an authoritarian setting. But when seen as such, the groundbreaking qualities of entities like the Amazon Labor Union become evident, and their true importance — not just for workers’ rights, but for democracy itself — becomes easier to understand. . Under progressive branding, Amazon has always been a typical American corporation bloated to gigantic proportions. As critics like antitrust scholar Lina Khan, now chair of the Federal Trade Commission, have argued, Amazon wields monopoly power over workers and consumers. While the pandemic has generated record profits for Amazon, worker injuries “increased 20% from 2020 to 2021,” reports the Strategic Organizing Center, based on data Amazon submitted to OSHA. These injuries were not inevitable. “In 2021, the serious injury rate in Amazon warehouses was 6.8 per 100 workers, more than double the rate in non-Amazon warehouses (3.3 per 100),” the report adds. While Amazon has expressed solidarity with the oppressed in public, in private it has broken workers down until they revolt.
If the workers finally killed the awakened company, so be it. America is better off without these fictions among us. With the demise of enlightened society, other possibilities may flourish. Even a robust diet is not without cracks. Apply enough pressure over time and a dictatorship can end.