A fun Union Roundup fact as the Merry Month of May gets underway: Did you know that our September “Labor Day” was likely started as a “safer” alternative to “International Workers’ Day,” which falls on that “May Day” — the 1st of the month — that just passed?
As National Geographic tells it, May Day, “now observed in countries across the world, …actually originated in the U.S. on May 1, 1886, in what came to be known as the Haymarket Riot.” Originally sparked by demands for an eight-hour day (think of that coming to pass in Hollywood!), the rioting went on ‘til May 4, when a bomb erupted, killing both policemen and protestors. To this day, no one is sure whose bomb it was.
After May 1 was adopted by French Socialists as a day of commemoration for workers everywhere, fear of Haymarket’s tolls and troublemaking remaining overly fresh in the minds of those organizing the still-nascent American labor movement was itself fresh in the minds of various industrial barons — and President Grover Cleveland. Again, per NG, “historian Charles Tilly writes that U.S. President Grover Cleveland feared May Day ‘would become a memorial to the Haymarket radicals.’ He pressed state legislatures to select the September date instead. By 1894, about half of U.S. states had adopted Labor Day.”
So if you had a picnic this past Sunday, it’s doubtful it was because you were thinking of the likes of [IWW leader] Big Bill Haywood as you passed around the bologna sandwiches.
And indeed, in what might be deemed a historical slap in the face to those workers who originally prompted September’s alternative to May, modern-day employees at a second Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, have just as of yesterday voted down a chance to become the second organized warehouse in the massively growing on-and-offline state of digital Amazonia.
As The Verge reported, the “LDJ5 facility in Staten Island, New York has voted against organizing with the Amazon Labor Union at a count of 618 nos to 380 yeses.” This is in contrast to their fellow warehouse workers at the island’s JFK8 facility, which became the first such facility to become unionized with a precedent-setting vote last month.
But based on this latest result, was that act of defiance more of an anomaly than a precedent?
The Verge article notes that “the fight to unionize LDJ5 will likely not end here. At another Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union successfully lobbied the NLRB (which oversees the votes) to hold another election, alleging that Amazon had interfered. While the votes tallied in the redo signaled a loss for the union, a high number of contested ballots means nothing is final yet. The RWDSU has already submitted a complaint accusing Amazon of interfering in the second Bessemer vote.”
Which is exactly the same thing Amazon is accusing the ALU — Amazon Labor Union — of doing in its one so-far successful vote, as the behemoth retailer seeks to have that election re-done as well.
It may be worth noting that the workers in Bessemer have the support of the RWDSU, a union affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers, and thus, the same AFL-CIO with which most film biz locals are allied.
RWDSU’s opposition is said to have been partly responsible for Amazon pulling out of a proposed headquarters construction project in Queens a couple of years prior, though there was a whole coalition that opposed that particular Bezos building.
But speaking of “coalitions,” the lone successful local on Staten Island, the ALU, is so far not part of one, remaining unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO. As surmised in previous columns, this brings up the question of what kind of larger pressures might be brought to bear on Amazon, should, for example, the ALU be decertified at the one warehouse they’re in now, or even if they should call for a strike.
What contradictions might arise for all those AFL-CIO-connected film and TV workers, who keep supplying the “content” fueling so much of Amazon’s online presence and growth? Well, certainly those contradictions would be at a different level if the ALU was perceived as a standalone union during any kind of labor crunch or action.
None of these increasingly complex labor alliances have been tested yet, and who knows if they ever will.
But it does seem certain that one thing that society’s owners and managers no longer have to worry about, as did their late 19th and early 20th century counterparts, is the idea of a widespread general workers strike. Employees, after all, are siloed off from each other even within the same company, so the prospects of more widespread organizing would seem remote, regardless of how digitally interdependent the world has grown.
So the verdict is still out on whether Staten Island’s one unionized warehouse stays a novelty, or yet sparks a grudgingly developed trend.
See you in a week, when we’re back mulling even more trends and tea leaves.
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”