Is there any chance we could come up with another name for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union? I was thinking something a bit more eye-popping, along the lines of the “Anti-Big Tech Censorship Shark Fin League.” This is in part because one suspects that the name change would keep the story of the union currently fighting against Amazon for collective bargaining rights in Alabama in the headlines. But it is also because, as far as I can tell, it is the only chance these workers have of bringing Marco Rubio around to their cause.
For those readers who do not have especially strong views on the rights of shark fishermen outside of U.S. Atlantic coastal waters, I should point out that last December the senior senator from Florida blocked legislation that would have banned the somewhat cruel practice known as “finning,” in which live sharks are hauled aboard ships and have their appendages sliced off before being tossed over the side. It is not entirely clear what Rubio’s reasons were. (Given his strong anti-Beijing views, one might have expected him to join his colleagues in support on the grounds that shark fin soup is a popular Chinese delicacy.) But motivation aside, it is comforting to know exactly where he stands on this crucial issue, and that the Senate has at least one reliable defender of finners’ rights.
What we don’t know is what, if anything, Rubio has to say about the push for unionization at Amazon. Months after his colleague Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his support for workers in Alabama, Rubio has yet to broach the subject, despite years of talk about the crucial role once played by unions in safeguarding the rights of American workers and even signing statements like this one declaring that free markets “offer no guarantee that the gains will reach all participants.”
It is not as if Rubio has had nothing to say at all about Amazon in recent weeks. Like his fellow Senate Republicans Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who have also been making vague pro-worker noise in recent years, he has spoken relentlessly about the need for conservatives to unite against “Big Tech” and censorship. As I write this, Hawley is proposing an amendment that would “restore competition in digital markets by imposing a presumptive prohibition on all mergers and acquisitions by companies that operate market dominant online platforms,” which in practice means preventing Amazon, Google, and Facebook from acquiring other companies.
This is not necessarily a bad idea, but it’s worth asking why these resolutions are only ever drawn up in response to things like Amazon’s decision to kick right-wing social media sites off its web services platform. Is Amazon bad because its labor record is atrocious and because it has more power than any private entity should be allowed to wield in a free society? Or is it because tech CEOs have become this year’s George Soros, the billionaire that people who generally approve of billionaires are allowed to hate? Somehow the calls for oversight hearings and the enforcement of antitrust laws and the prose poems about the common good and a hundred other gestures that are presented to us as evidence of some kind of impending “realignment” in American politics always seem to stop short of a meaningful break with GOP orthodoxy.
This should be a no brainer: an opportunity for a half dozen or so Republican senators to join with progressive Democrats against a common enemy, and in favor of the American working class — in a red state, no less. It is certainly the kind of scenario out of which one would expect a hypothetical realignment scenario to emerge, or, at the very least, the kind of thing you can imagine savvy politicians exploiting in the short term for rhetorical reasons.
Why the radio silence? As far as I can tell it is because whatever theoretical commitments Rubio and his allies in the Senate might have to “dignified work,” they were never meant to translate into anything as radical as actual support for collective bargaining in the Deep South, where so-called “right-to-work” legislation (a failed version of which Hawley supported in his home state of Missouri) has been on the books for more than half a century. Instead the idea seems to be that if only nice red billionaires were in charge, the kind who don’t ban Parler or cancel book contracts, they would pay their employees fairly and give them better working conditions out of the goodness of their hearts, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
One union battle in Alabama is not, of course, the be-all end-all of American labor relations, nor does the absence of Republican support automatically mean that there can never be such a thing as “common-good conservatism.” But I do think it’s slightly more important today than the rights of foreign fishermen to chop up sharks and sell them to us were in the waning days of December, when Rubio was roused to decisive action.
Maybe Amazon should get into the shark business.