Unions take PROAct campaign to Amazon and Sen. Mark Warner’s door
Hundreds gathered outside of Amazon's HQ2 to call on Sen. Mark Warner to co-sponsor the PROAct. He is one of three Democrat holdouts not standing with labor unions. He continues to take corporate donations from Amazon. | Our Revolution via Twitter

ARLINGTON, Va. (PAI)—With the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act stalled in the Senate by three Democratic holdouts, union members and their allies took their campaign for the pro-worker rewrite of labor law to two top targets: The Virginia construction site for the Headquarters II of virulently anti-worker Amazon and one of the three holdouts, Sen. Mark Warner.

In a June 12 demonstration which attracted a sizable crowd to downtown Arlington’s Crystal City high-rise office complex, the group emphasized how workers’ rights—and Amazon workers’ and everyone else’s protections and incomes—would benefit if the 50-50 Senate passes the bill. The Democratic-run House approved it in March, almost party-line.

“For 40 years, workers’ wages have declined and income for the elites has increased,” Ginny Diamond, president of the Northern Virginia Labor Federation and one of the lineup of union speakers, told the crowd.

“We have so much income inequality and racial inequality that we’ve gone backwards by 100 years.” Passing the PROAct can start to reverse that, she said.,

Before senators can vote, Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said all 48 Democrats and both independents must back it. Then he’ll bring it up, despite a looming GOP filibuster. Democratic President Joe Biden strongly and repeatedly backs the PROAct. Warner claims it would hurt, not help, gig economy workers. He’s one of the three holdouts.

Hence the demonstration, which attracted members and speakers from the Communications Workers, the Electrical Workers (IBEW), Diamond’s Northern Virginia Labor Federation, the West Virginia Education Association, and a new group of Uber and Lyft drivers.

The protest was near “the headquarters of global greed,” meaning Amazon, declared Joe Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders-founded movement which organized the event. It also plans a nationwide PROAct call-in on June 16.

While the wealth of Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, has grown to $180 billion and counting, his warehouse employees “work nonstop, get few breaks, have to piss into water bottles” while still toiling “and work in unsafe conditions,” Geevarghese said.

“This is unacceptable,” not just at Amazon, “but at other low-wage companies,” such as Walmart and McDonald’s.

Though Geevarghese did not say so, since the demonstration was outdoors, unsafe Amazon conditions include exposure to the coronavirus pandemic. By Amazon’s reluctantly released, now-outdated count, more than 20,000 of its workers have tested positive for the modern-day plague.

That exposure was one reason the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union responded to workers’ requests for a recognition vote at Amazon’s big warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. After a virulent anti-union campaign featuring enormous company pressure, divide-and-conquer tactics, and potential labor law-breaking, Amazon beat RWDSU. But other Amazon workers threatened by the virus are contacting unions elsewhere.

CWA Legislative Director Shane Larson linked curbing Amazon’s greed to protections workers would get from the firm if the PROAct passes. But just getting that vote depends on gaining Warner and Arizona’s two Democratic senators as sponsors. “Even Joe Manchin gets it,” Larson said, referring to the most conservative Democrat’s support of the PROAct.

“Labor law has been destroyed for 80 years,” he added. “And they”—bosses—“benefit.”

Nevertheless, as a country, “We learned some very important lessons from the pandemic: Workers’ voices matter,” said Larson. But still, those “essential” workers “struggle to pay the bills every day.” That’s because, like at Amazon, they’re saddled with rock-bottom pay.

Give them the right to organize without bosses’ interference, labor law-breaking, harassment, threats, union-busting, and illegal firing with no real penalties, and the story would be quite different, at Amazon and nationwide, he said.

But thanks to the filibuster threat and a parliamentarian’s rule in the Senate, “The U.S. Congress even failed to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage,” Larson said, drawing boos for the lawmakers. “Meanwhile, big CEOs are making out like bandits in this pandemic—and they’re not even paying taxes.”

Passing the PROAct, too, may depend on abolishing the filibuster, the racist relic Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will use to stop that legislation, and everything else.

And while Larson didn’t say so, in the same briefing where Manchin said he supports the PROAct—with Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts beaming alongside—the West Virginian reiterated he will not alter the filibuster, too. His vote would preserve the filibuster.

Warner, however, is listening to CEOs, especially those, like Bezos, in the vanguard of the new “gig economy.” Warner says, right now, that the PROAct would hurt those workers, an argument made—falsely—by some freelance writers, too.

“Gig workers don’t have a right to a minimum wage. Gig workers don’t have fundamental protections for health and safety. Gig workers don’t have the right to organize,” Geevarghese retorted.

And that hurts those gig workers, both he and the Uber-Lyft driver, Daniel Russell, of newly organized D.C.-area Rideshare Workers United, said.

“I do not get paid enough. I do not set my rates. I do not negotiate my own contract,” Russell explained. That counters what Warner believes. “Now I have to work longer hours for less pay…. They can fire me for standing up for my rights, and that is not right. That’s why we need the PROAct.”

Organizing—via politics—also has direct benefits on wages, Don Slaiman, political coordinator for IBEW Local 26, pointed out.

Slaiman explained Amazon tried to win Arlington County approval to use Davis-Bacon Virginian prevailing wage rates to pay construction workers erecting its new building. Virginia is a lower-wage so-called “right-to-work” state.

But the county board said “no,” and it had leverage due to county and state tax breaks for the Amazon project. County commissioners mandated Amazon use the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia rates since Arlington is in that DMV area. Those rates are considerably higher.

The PROAct, “would eliminate right-to-work states,” along with allowing common-site picketing—a construction union goal—and other changes which make the PROAct “the biggest changes to labor law since the Wagner Act in 1935,” the original, pro-worker, National Labor Relations Act, Slaiman said.

“There’s only one way we can rebalance the power of workers versus corporations, and that’s to pass the PROAct.”


JUNE 16, 2021



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.