News & Commentary

June 16, 2021

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the launch of a $1.5 million funding program designed to ensure that women workers are equipped to exercise their rights at work. The initiative, administered by the Department’s Women’s Bureau and called Fostering Access, Rights, and Equity (FARE), will make the grants available to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and is intended to help women workers “understand and exercise their rights and benefits in the workplace” by “develop[ing] partnerships with community-based organizations and other non-profits to conduct outreach to women workers.” The initiative is, at least in part, a response to the inequities illuminated by the pandemic, according to Women’s Bureau Director Wendy Chun-Hoon, who explained in the Department’s press release that the pandemic “exposed the current system’s failure to protect or serve women workers adequately, especially low-paid women and workers of color.” Indeed, the widespread economic dislocation of the last 15 months has hit women workers especially hard. Women, nearly half of the American labor force, are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs, and continue to face discrimination in the workplace and earn substantially less than men performing similar work. Women are paid only 82 cents for every dollar made by similarly situated males, and the pay disparity is even higher for black and Latina women. In the aggregate, gender discrimination deprives women workers of nearly a trillion dollars annually, though the gender wage gap is smaller for unionized women. You can learn more about FARE grants, and how to apply, by clicking here.

The New York Times published a long article yesterday amplifying “the human cost of Amazon’s employment machine.” The report, based on interviews with nearly 200 current and former Amazon warehouse workers, details the company’s obsession with productivity and efficiency and its dystopic reliance on systems of robotics, metrics, and algorithms to constantly monitor and track virtually every aspect of an employee’s workday. The report explains that Amazon founder and megabillionaire Jeff Bezos viewed a stable, disgruntled workforce as a threat, and steered the company to deliberately create an employment machine designed to discourage hourly workers from sticking around for long, in order to ensure a constant stream of new laborers. Amazon has been hiring hundreds of thousands of workers annually in recent years, but employees have been quitting almost as fast as they’ve been hired. Even before the pandemic, the company’s turnover rate for hourly workers was about 150 percent every year — nearly double that of its competitors. Some Amazon executives worry that there won’t not be enough workers to sustain the company’s sprawling e-commerce machine — Amazon fulfillment centers in some towns have entirely exhausted the local reserves of labor and have been forced to bus in reinforcements from surrounding areas. In 2019, for example, Amazon hired more than 770,000 hourly staffers, but the overall company personnel grew by only 150,000 — in other words, more than half a million workers left the company that year. The Times article closes by noting that Bezos, in his final months at the helm of the Amazon empire, took a break from overseeing construction of his $500 million dollar superyacht to proclaim that the company must chart a new path and become “Earth’s best employer.” Many are skeptical of these declarations, and Amazon has so far implemented only limited changes.

In international news, socialist Pedro Castillo claimed victory on Tuesday in the Peruvian presidential election, which occurred on June 6, narrowly defeating his opponent Keiko Fujimori, the right-wing daughter of an imprisoned neoliberal autocrat, who, alleging fraud, has refused to concede (the Organization of American States and other international observers have accredited the election as clean and fair). Though the results of last week’s run-off election have not yet been officially certified, Castillo declared victory on his Twitter account yesterday, publishing a picture of himself, arms raised, featuring the title “presidente” and his campaign slogan: “No más pobres en un pais rico” (No more poor people in a rich country). The election comes amid a moment of economic despair in the South American Andean nation — poverty has risen ten percent during the pandemic in what was already a highly unequal country — and has deeply polarized the nation’s rich and poor. 88 percent of residents in Peru’s richest neighborhood, for example, San Isidro, voted for Fujimori, while in Peru’s poorest region, Huancavelica, 85 percent supported Castillo. The country’s rural regions have been electrified by Castillo, while the business interests and the wealthy urban districts have overwhelming backed Fujimori, who largely based her campaign on anti-communist scaremongering. According to the still-uncertified final tally, Castillo clinched 50.1% of the total vote, compared to 49.9% for Fujimori, separated by fewer than 50,000 votes. Castillo, a schoolteacher, labor activist, socialist, and the son of illiterate, indigenous peasant farmers, rose to prominence in 2017 as the leader of a nationwide strike of thousands of teachers. His political party, Free Peru, is a self-described “left-wing socialist organization” that embraces Marxist-Leninist theory, and on the campaign trail Castillo articulated progressive policy plans, including redrafting the constitution to nationalize major industries, increasing spending on social services, public health, and education, and hiking taxes on business. According to Jacobin, Castillo will “face a major uphill battle in promoting his reformist agenda,” and in recent weeks he has attempted to distance himself from some of his more radical campaign promises, even reaffirming his respect for a market economy. Nonetheless, Peru’s currency fell further on Tuesday, and has slid more than eight percent so far this year, as the nation’s business elites, sensing an impending program of wealth redistribution, rush to withdraw their money from the country, forcing some banks to import dollar bills to meet the demand. Castillo’s victory may portend a wave of leftist momentum in South America, with progressive candidates gaining steam in the upcoming presidential elections in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, scheduled for this year and next.

Workers around the country have continued to stand up, organize, and fight to join unions. 165 staffers at the New York office of Oxford University Press, for example, followed in the footsteps of Duke University Press employees, who unionized last month, and announced this morning on Twitter that they have joined The NewsGuild. The union received the support of the overwhelming majority of workers. Workers at software company Mapbox revealed yesterday that nearly two-thirds of the company’s more than 200 U.S. employees have signed cards to join the Communication Workers of America, continuing the trend of unionization in the tech industry. On Monday, the staff at Du Nord Craft Spirits, the country’s first black-owned distillery, located in Minneapolis, formed a union, which was voluntarily recognized by management.

Finally, 103 years ago today, on June 16, 1918, socialist leader, presidential candidate, and co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World Eugene V. Debs delivered his famous “Canton Speech” in Canton, Ohio, which earned him a 10-year prison sentence on charges of sedition. In the speech, Debs pronounced his opposition to the First World War and urged resistance to the military draft, declaring that “wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder” and that “the master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” Debs blasted the “Junkers of Wall Street” and “the two old capitalist parties — the Republican Party and the Democratic Party,” whose “patriotic duty never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches,” and implored his fellow workers to “join the socialist party,” because “you were not created to work and produce and impoverish yourself to enrich an idle exploiter” and “as long as you are apathetic, unorganized, and content . . . you will get just enough for your slavish toil to keep you in working order, and you will be looked down upon with scorn and contempt by the very parasites that luxuriate out of your sweat and unpaid labor.”  Debs concluded the famous speech by affirming that “the sun of capitalism is setting; the sun of socialism is rising,” and vowing that “we are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and recreate them as free and humanizing institutions.” You can find the entire speech here.

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