Raising the Floor in the Race to the Bottom

In a rare bit of good news: Amazon announced Tuesday that on November 1st the company will start paying all of its employees a minimum of $15 an hour. Vermont Senator and likely 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, who has used Amazon owner Jeff Bezos as his corporate punching bag over the last couple years, said in a statement that:

What Mr. Bezos has done today is not only enormously important for Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of employees, it could well be, and I think it will be, a shot heard around the world.

When it comes to organized labor, a topic I have made my major preoccupation, this is the best-case scenario in the short-term. After all the (mostly victorious) teacher’s strikes that I wrote about in the first half of the year, I posited: “[Workers organizing] may have started on the national scale with teachers from West Virginia and Oklahoma and Kentucky, but eventually, like an avalanche, or a tidal wave, workers from Wal-Mart and Amazon will descend upon a city near you. Workers from Comcast, and Verizon, and Nissan factories, will be together in lines holding picket signs. With the most optimistic intentions, this vision is what the next five years will look like in the United States.”

The surprising part isn’t that Amazon promised to gradually increase wages to $15 an hour (over months, or years), it’s that they are going straight to it, almost immediately. Being that the current unemployment rate is at 3.9% — a generational low — this will force other retailers, especially those who require seasonal work, to raise wages to compete for the same labor. If given the choice between grinding it out in the Amazon warehouses for $15 an hour, or going elsewhere for $11 or $12, the math is quite simple.

Perhaps even more encouraging is that Jeff Bezos said Amazon will start lobbying for an increase to the federal minimum wage, which for the last decade has been set at $7.25. And why wouldn’t they? Setting aside the idea that this is good publicity for Amazon, you figure it isn’t something Bezos would have done if he didn’t believe it was in his best interests. With Bernie Sanders breathing down his neck, introducing legislation for The Bezos Act — which would have required Amazon, rather than taxpayers, to fit the bill for the government assistance his employees receive — Bezos ran the numbers and correctly figured he would save more money by raising wages than having to lobby against the bill and, if he lost, be forced to pay government assistance to thousands of his workers.

The next domino to fall will be Wal-Mart, whose intention to increase wages to $11 an hour now look embarrassing in contrast. An extra $4 an hour doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of a year it can make all the difference in a working class household. It’s $160 extra dollars per week, and an additional $8,000 and change (before taxes) per year. I can assure you that Jeff Bezos, who is worth $160 billion, or the Walton family, which is collectively worth $140 billion, won’t miss those nickels and dimes.

This is an undeniable victory for organized labor, and there is serious potential that it will in fact change the fabric of the country. For the last 40 years the middle and working classes have been decimated by free trade deals and corporate tax cuts, which have both outsourced good-paying American jobs overseas and funneled the labor share of the profits almost entirely away from the workers and into the pockets of the top one percent. From the Ronald Reagan Presidency all the way through Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, organized labor has absorbed hit after hit. Blow after blow.

By Amazon raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour, it at least sways the pendulum a couple degrees in the favor of the workers — not nearly far enough, but it’s a start. The floor has been raised in the race to the bottom, and if it can be done at Amazon it can be done anywhere.

And finally, this can’t be classified as anything other than a win for Bernie Sanders as he gears up for what looks like another run in 2020. The corporate media likes to ask how Bernie is ever going to get anything done if he ever makes it into office, or how he plans on paying for anything, but he is putting some legitimate numbers on the board. The “radical” agenda he proposed in 2016, which advocated for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and implementing a Medicare For All healthcare system, doesn’t seem all that radical anymore. Based on Amazon raising its wages and saying it will lobby to raise the federal minimum wage, along with Medicare For All being polling extremely well with both Republicans and Democrats, one can easily see just how mainstream those “radical” ideas have become.

Will Sanders get the credit for this that he deserves? Around establishment circles, absolutely not. Hillary Clinton — who herself refused to endorse a $15 minimum wage when she campaigned in 2016 — made sure to praise Amazon and Jeff Bezos, calling it a “bold, impressive step,” but failed to thank the man who literally made it one of the pillars of his campaign two years ago in the Democratic Primary. I expect nothing less from Hillary, so it’s whatever.

It all comes back to the workers, and over the last 12 months we have seen what workers can accomplish when they come together. Teachers in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Virginia and West Virginia all won their strikes; Disneyland employees, with the backing of Bernie Sanders, got their minimum wage increased to $15 an hour; and now Amazon, who employs hundreds of thousands of workers, finally broke through. My great vision of having all sorts of workers, from all sort of industries, coming together to get a better deal is moving in the right direction.

We are still a ways away from Medicare For All, or universal college, but we can’t discount even for a second the impact this Amazon decision will have moving forward. The American Labor Movement has been in hibernation for too long, but I have a hard time believing this great awakening could have taken place if Donald Trump wasn’t President. Even if it’s been in spite of him, rather than because of him, some good has come during his time in office.

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