[Column] Amazon and Samsung, and the road that lies ahead for today’s unions

Posted on : 2022-04-20 17:40 KST Modified on : 2022-04-20 17:40 KST
What is clear is that workers who are unable to band together will invariably face inhumane working conditions and inequality
Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, and other current and former Amazon warehouse workers celebrate winning a vote to unionize the company on April 1. (EPA/Yonhap News)
Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, and other current and former Amazon warehouse workers celebrate winning a vote to unionize the company on April 1. (EPA/Yonhap News)
Jae Jeong-im
Jae Jeong-im

By Jae Jeong-im, dean of Semyung University Graduate School of Journalism

“In my 25 years writing about labor, the union victory at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island is by far the biggest, beating-the-odds David versus Goliath unionization win I’ve seen.”

Steven Greenhouse, a former labor reporter for the New York Times, tweeted this message after a vote to form a union went through at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, on April 1. Amazon has stubbornly sought to remain “union-free” ever since the company’s founding in 1994, spending US$5 billion last year in consulting fees to thwart the unionization drive. On the other side, former and current Amazon warehouse workers including Chris Smalls were able to win a “majority vote, majority support” consensus after conducting a campaign targeted at 8,000 or so Amazon workers with US$140 million raised through a crowdfunding campaign.

Smalls and others spoke of the need to unionize at barbecues held in large tents set up in parking lots, and countered the company’s interference with their own social media offensive. Smalls, a high school graduate who used to be a rapper, was promptly fired in 2020 after speaking up about Amazon’s failure to implement proper disease control measures for warehouse workers despite the rapid spread of COVID-19. As the leader of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), he is now involved in efforts to form a nationwide union for warehouse workers

As America’s second-largest employer after Walmart, Amazon is still in the midst of running an anti-union campaign targeted at the company’s 1.1 million employees. Some similarities can be found here with the history of Samsung, Korea’s largest conglomerate.

Samsung maintained a no-union policy under founder Lee Byung-chul, and it wasn’t until Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Jae-yong was brought to trial in 2020 on charges of interfering with state affairs that the company decided to abandon this policy. In a country where the three fundamental labor rights are guaranteed by the Constitution, Samsung’s policy was unconstitutional in and of itself.

Workers who sought to form a union were even subject to shadowing, surveillance, and dismissal. There was no labor union to represent the workers who contracted cancer or leukemia due to toxic substances used in production processes. It was not until documents proving the company’s systematic suppression of unions were uncovered during the state interference investigation and those responsible faced prosecution that Samsung finally put the brakes on union-free management. Perhaps because the company was essentially forced into recognizing unions, collective bargaining has proved choppy even in recent times.

“This is the biggest labor victory in the last 30 years. [. . .] We are seeing the beginnings of a revival of American labor organization in America,” said Robert Reich, the UC Berkeley professor who served as secretary of labor during Bill Clinton, in an interview with MSNBC on April 2. The unionization rate in the US surpassed 30% in the 1950s before falling to 20.1% in 1983 and 10.3% in 2021. In Korea, the rate declined to just over 10% after reaching 19.8% in 1989, and stood at 14.2% in 2020.

In his book “Saving Capitalism,” Reich claims the US has become one of the most unequal developed nations due to the weakening of forces to counter those in power, including unions. Big capital is able to leverage the power of plutocracy to manipulate taxation and other economic systems in their favor, while the unions and civic groups who could fight this have become too weak to stop them. In contrast, Reich argues there is far less inequality and poverty in countries such as Sweden and Germany that have high unionization rates and active worker participation systems. According to the World Inequality Report, as of 2021 Korea sits alongside the US as having one of the highest inequality rates in the world based on the concentration of income among the wealthy.

It is hard to be optimistic that Amazon will serve as the catalyst for a union revival in the US, or that the Samsung Electronics union will lend weight to the labor movement in Korea. There is a difference in the level of cohesion between unions in the 20th century, when manufacturing was the majority employer and a “job for life” was taken for granted, and those today, where laborers are fragmented into groups such as regular and irregular workers, special employment and platform workers. However, what is clear is the fact that workers who are unable to band together will invariably face inhumane working conditions and inequality.

Amazon is a great symbol of this. While warehouse employees work 10-12 hours a day under the control of an algorithm that doesn’t even afford them proper bathroom breaks for a paycheck that is barely above minimum wage, the CEO rakes in a salary of 260 billion won. Both in and outside Korea, unions such as the ALU are fighting a fierce battle to improve labor conditions, while Samsung’s union may be able to reduce inequality by joining forces with irregular and subcontracted workers.

At a time when ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) is becoming an important benchmark for evaluating companies, businesses should keep in mind that success is impossible if they turn their back on unions, their most important stakeholder. We will not see developing companies and sustainable societies in the 21st century until unions expand and embrace a wider range of members, and CEOs begin to view unions as genuine partners.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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