To say the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the future of our nation’s economy is a major understatement. While the United States is finally “out of the full-blown explosive pandemic phase,” according to Anthony Fauci, the two years of suffering and hardship showed Americans and the rest of the world what the United States stands for as a nation.
For many of us, the pandemic is a health crisis that exposed our political, class, and racial divisions and offers us a greater understanding and acceptance of the term “essential worker.” While everyone may have some degree of risk from COVID-19, the risk is not shared equally. Frontline essential workers are employees who must report to job sites where they face the increased risk of contracting, spreading, and dying from COVID-19. In other words, working from home is not an option.
These are typically jobs associated with public transportation, food and beverage service industries, grocery store workers, security, healthcare, the warehousing industry, and more. These low-wage service workers were vital in providing critical services that allowed our communities to remain functional during pandemic shutdowns. They are undervalued, underappreciated, and overrepresented by Black and Hispanic workers. A recent report released by the Urban Institute notes that based on data from 2018, representing 152.7 million workers, 31% of Hispanic workers and 33% of Black workers were in essential jobs that required them to work in person and in close proximity to other workers. By contrast, 26% of white workers had similar jobs.
For many of us, the events from the last two years changed how we do things personally and professionally through the virtual and online options we now possess. The height of the pandemic pushed many Americans to redirect their shopping and buying habits from the traditional brick-and-mortar stores to online purchasing. While the movement toward e-commerce was well underway before COVID-19, the pandemic significantly accelerated the shift.
Even with the nation entering a more controlled phase of the pandemic, the future for U.S. retailers will continue to see an increase in online purchasing and further contraction of the department store industry. As we become a society dependent on online shopping, the need for a reliable system for the nationwide distribution of products comes with it. This will require a network of frontline workers who are not only “essential” during a major health crisis but whose productivity will always be “essential” in keeping up with the increased demands from e-commerce. The work of a person’s hands has value, and that value should always be recognized, appreciated, protected, and rightfully compensated, which was why the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) was formed. While the pandemic may have illustrated to the public the true value of the working class, it also empowered more workers to demand better treatment and safety protection.
One of those workers was Chris Smalls. The fired Amazon worker and former rapper accomplished something that has never occurred in the history of Amazon. Smalls, joined by his best friend, Derrick Palmer, launched an independent worker-led organization that took on one of America’s most powerful companies—and won. Workers at Amazon’s JFK8 in Staten Island, New York, decisively voted to join the newly formed Amazon Labor Union (ALU). Smalls’ wrongful termination triggered the drive to unionize for allegedly breaking safety guidelines when he organized a protest over what workers claim were inadequate COVID-19 protection measures. It is not only a historic victory for a grassroots movement led by Black workers, but it represents a significant victory for the future of the American labor movement.
“At the end of the day, having workers organize the workers, I feel like that was really the game-changer because I don’t think Amazon ever expected that to happen,” says Derrick Palmer, the vice president for ALU and a worker at the JFK8 warehouse.
After seeing how the death of George Floyd triggered the passions and energy behind the fight for police accountability, we can only hope that “the greatest worker health crisis in recent history” will ignite similar passions in a renewed battle for worker rights. Workers from more than 100 Amazon warehouses throughout the United States have already contacted ALU for help in organizing their facilities, Smalls said, as have workers from Walmart, Target, and Dollar General. The momentum may be picking up with several Starbucks stores having already voted to unionize. While the ALU victory is still fresh, union leaders understand the challenges lying ahead and are preparing for the “real fight,” winning a collective bargaining agreement against the second-largest private employer in the nation. The ALU has already achieved the impossible; why stop now?
David W. Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization, TRB: The Reconciled Body, and author of the book God Bless Our Divided America. He can be reached at www.davidwmarshallauthor.com.