On 24 February, Vice reported that McDonald’s has, for years, spied on activists and employees engaged in labor organizing and the Fight for $15 campaign. Internal McDonald’s corporate documents obtained by Vice confirmed that the company has been concerned with gathering “strategic intelligence” on workers involved in efforts to secure higher wages, better working conditions and a union. This includes using data collection software to monitor employees and their networks through social media and “a team of intelligence analysts in the Chicago and London offices”.
This comes after years of reporting on similar efforts by Amazon to prevent the unionization of their own employees. Job postings for intelligence analysts to monitor and report on “labor organizing threats”; social media monitoring; interactive “heat mapping” tools to anticipate and pre-empt strikes or union drives; Pinkerton operatives; and, most recently, coordinated efforts with county officials to change the traffic lights outside Amazon’s facility in Bessemer, Alabama to prevent organizers from speaking to workers during shift changes – all have been deployed to secure the company’s bottom line.
As Vice points out, surveillance against labor organizers is nothing new. What’s new is the use of technology to aid in these efforts, which may also be in violation of federal labor law.
The surveillance and intimidation of workers is a feature, not a bug, and one that has come to define American capitalism at home and abroad. As Vox noted last June, “the creation of urban police forces was largely spurred by a desire to contain union activism and protest.” While police in southern cities are largely a vestigial outgrowth of slave patrols, in northern cities like Chicago, elite businessmen pushed for the development of municipal police forces to suppress labor organizing around demands like an eight-hour workday. The concept of policing as “public safety” came later.
There is no evidence to suggest government involvement in the surveillance of workers at either Amazon or McDonald’s. Yet the failure on the part of past administrations to condemn these egregious labor violations – or condemn the yawning wealth gap between megacorporations and the underpaid workers whose labor they depend on – amount to tacit approval of business-as-usual by any means necessary.
This Sunday, Biden broke this awful trend by releasing a surprisingly strong statement in support of unions. While he stopped short of calling out Amazon by name, his video address was directed at “workers in Alabama” and represents the strongest pro-union statement of any president in modern US history.
“You should remember that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that unions are allowed to exist, it said we should encourage unions,” Biden said. “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice.”
Under an economic system that enriches CEOs by underpaying workers for the value of their time and pocketing the profits, there is a direct connection between the dystopian anti-labor tactics used by the likes of McDonald’s and Amazon and the $1.3tn transfer of wealth to the country’s 664 billionaires over the course of the pandemic. Bezos’s path to becoming the world’s first trillionaire is precisely because of his successful efforts at preventing unions from taking hold in his private empire.
As Marx put it: capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.
Biden now has a choice to make: Amazon or unions. He can’t fight for both.
On the campaign trail, Biden sent conflicting messages by cultivating the image of a blue-collar union man and simultaneously promising a room full of corporate donors that under his presidency “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing will fundamentally change.”
Biden adopted a $15 minimum wage as one of his few concessions to the left, in an effort to win over Bernie Sanders supporters, and later changed his tone by saying he didn’t believe the provision would last in the most recent Covid-19 stimulus package. The statement amounted to a shrugging off of one among a number of campaign promises that look less likely to be fulfilled by the day. Democrats are now dishonestly pointing the blame at a single and little-known Senate parliamentarian, though Kamala Harris could easily overrule the decision and lift nearly a million people out of poverty.
We can and should give credit to Biden for his recent statement on unions while also recognizing that words alone are not enough. Biden has the power to immediately pass a federal $15 minimum wage, raise corporate taxes, call on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate companies like McDonald’s and Amazon which unlawfully spy on their employees, and take a trip to Bessemer to show support for the facility’s 5,800 workers.
This is a David-versus-Goliath fight and the stakes are simply too high to stop short of executive action. Until he proves otherwise, we need to remember Biden’s message to corporate America: nothing will fundamentally change.