We're All Mice Trying to Chew Through a Trillion Dollar Tree
You are in the same fight we are.
Human beings are not good at comprehending large numbers. When their scale exceeds anything we have ever experienced, it becomes difficult to truly reckon with them. This is true not just when it comes to counting stars in the universe, but in earthly matters as well. We all know that a million dollars is a lot of money. A billion dollars, though, is a lot more money. If a million was the price of a single bottle of water in the cheapest convenience store, a billion would be the price of a lavish meal for your whole family at the nicest restaurant in town. And a trillion? That would be the difference between buying the meal, and buying the restaurant.
There are five companies in America worth more than a trillion dollars. All are tech companies, though “tech” in this context has grown to encompass almost all of the functions of day to day life. On Monday, under the hot sun on the far west side of Manhattan, my union, the Writers Guild of America was picketing one of those five companies—Amazon (market cap: $1.36 trillion). The screenwriters have been on strike against Amazon and the other companies that make up the AMPTP, the coalition of studios that control the entertainment industry, for two and a half months. It shows no sign of ending soon. When the picket line outside of the corporate offices ended, some people traveled over to Staten Island, to join a gathering of warehouse workers in the Amazon Labor Union, who won their union vote in April of 2022, and are still not anywhere close to getting a contract.
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Yesterday, the National Labor Relations issued a formal complaint against Amazon, charging them with committing an unfair labor practice by refusing to sit down and bargain with the ALU, as required by law. No shit. It has been clear for a long time that the company has absolutely no intention of doing what the law says they must do, regarding their one and only unionized warehouse. Amazon intends to pay a limitless team of lawyers to engage in an infinite process of slow-walking and legal maneuvering until, it hopes, a Republican administration takes over the White House and appoints anti-labor people to control the NLRB. Or, they hope to drag the union into the Federal Courts and find a Republican judge to crush them, or, if necessary, they simply hope to delay any progress for so long that most of the workers in the warehouse who voted on the union trickle away to other jobs and the company can try to run a decertification campaign to wipe out the union based on the very ironic argument that the union hasn’t accomplished anything for the workers. Ha ha. Either way, the company is quite willing to spend any amount of money and piss upon the spirit of the law in order to prevent their employees at one single warehouse from getting a collective bargaining agreement—something they are absolutely entitled to by American law and, more generally, by universal human rights.
This intransigence sounds familiar to WGA members. The AMPTP has not been negotiating with the WGA since the strike began. Earlier this week, anonymous AMPTP insiders made the mistake of boastfully telling a reporter that “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” which they described as “a cruel but necessary evil.” After it became clear that the publication of this quote had galvanized rather than scared the screenwriters, the AMPTP hastened to say that “These anonymous people are not speaking on behalf of the AMPTP.” Sure. Too late, fuckers. You showed your true face. We all see you.
If you consider, on the one hand, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and on the other hand, a struggling Amazon warehouse worker in Staten Island, you might assume that the two had few common interests. Wrong. From the perspective of a $1.36 trillion company, both the screenwriter and the warehouse worker are just tiny inputs to be controlled. They are each a small mouse trying to chew their way through a redwood tree. Understanding this is not necessarily demoralizing—a trickle of water carved the Grand Canyon, and mice can chew through a redwood tree. If you are one of the workers who is in one way or another employed by one of these gargantuan companies, and you do not believe in the concept of working class solidarity across geographies and job descriptions and organizations, you are a fool. But as you walk the picket line, gnawing on the trunk of that tree that extends up as high as the clouds, you will come to the conclusion: We need a lot more fucking mice.
Corporate power at the trillion-dollar scale is functionally as powerful as, or more powerful than, governments. As the state of California—which is, by itself, one of the richest economies on earth—considered passing a bill that would require Google (market cap: $1.51 trillion) and Facebook (market cap: a mere $793 billion) to pay a small fee for the news content that they have been publishing for free for decades, the companies threatened to entirely stop publishing news in the state. The fact that such an action would effectively stop tens of millions of people from consuming much news at all is not a reason to give in to those companies; it is a reason to bring them to heel. The threat itself is a big flashing warning of how dangerous this level of corporate power is. These mega-companies invest a great deal of money in PR to maintain a positive image, but sometimes the mask slips. Sometimes they casually threaten to push thousands of people into homelessness or sever an entire state’s access to journalism as a bargaining tool. These moments hint at the implications of letting corporations get so big and indispensable that even the government is powerless to tell them no.
On the surface, this sort of corporate intransigence can seem irrational. The WGA has repeatedly pointed out that meeting all of its demands would only cost the studios a tiny percentage of their profits. At the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, the contrast is even more absurd—the company is almost certainly spending more money fighting the union than it would cost them to pay for any monetary gains a union contract would win for the workers at a single warehouse. What are these companies afraid of? They are not afraid of the cost of any single union contract. They are afraid it will spread. That is what they see as an existential threat: a work force that is widely unionized, rather than unionized in tiny and containable little pockets. To prevent that, they will wage total war in each case, like deranged American red-baiters sending the military off to bombard any little country that took an interest in communism. You cannot have a trillion dollar company with a work force that cannot be easily manipulated. That is what this is all about.
Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants’ union (and a subject of my upcoming book), often repeats this Mother Jones quote when she gives a speech: “The capitalists say there is no need of labor organizing but the fact that they themselves are continually organizing shows their real beliefs.” Trillion dollar corporations are the most highly organized things on earth. Their real vulnerability is not government regulation—political protection is just another investment for them, and in America that investment is very effective. The lone true vulnerability to this sort of enormous corporate power is labor power. They don’t operate without workers. (Although they would love to, and that is what the underlying battle over AI is really about.) It can feel a little ridiculous, to the knot of sweaty people walking a picket line, looking up at the sheer glass facade of the Amazon headquarters, or the blank and chilling walls of the endless fulfillment center, to imagine that we are responsible for controlling an institution big and ubiquitous enough to build these monuments to capitalism. But we know that is true. How do we know? Because the companies know. That is why they themselves are continually organizing against us. If they didn’t fear us, they would have given us what we want a long time ago.
The people who write the shows that Amazon produces are organized, and the workers who ship the goods out of one single Amazon warehouse are organized. The people who write the shows that Apple produces are organized, and the workers at a small handful of Apple retail stores are organized. Tiny, tiny mice, on opposite sides of such a big tree. The actors who star in the shows that these companies produce are organized, and today, it looks like their union is going on strike. More mice around the tree. It is not enough, but it is something.
I write about organized labor because it is at the center of everything that will make or break the future of America. It is wrongly perceived as a niche topic. That is what the companies would like you to think. Only six percent of private sector workers have a union, and if you are not part of those lucky few, America would have you believe that “labor” is an alien concept to you, safe to ignore. Meanwhile, the trillion dollar companies are organizing and growing, organizing and growing. No matter who you are, or where you live, or what you do, the question of whether the Amazon Labor Union can successfully win a contract and go on to organize dozens more warehouses is of vital material importance to you and the future of your country. No matter what your job is, or how much you despise the wanton elites of Hollywood, the outcome of the writers and the actors strike matters to you. And if you are the richest and most famous Hollywood actor, ensconced comfortably in a mansion, I am here to tell you that you should be doing everything that you can possibly do to see to it that more low-paid retail workers selling iPhones at Apple stores are able to unionize. We are all mice around the tree. Some of us are touched by a current battle, but this battle is going to continue as long as you are alive. Presenting you with the illusion that these battles are isolated, or that the organizing of people very different than you is of no consequence for you, is a central goal of capital’s project to expand its own sphere of power until it covers everything. It is a very exciting time to be a union member right now. We need millions and millions more of us. And no one will make that happen except for us. That is my job, and your job, and everyone’s job. Don’t forget it.
The more mice, the quicker the meal.
I am very happy to tell you that I just received a grant from the Omidyar Network’s “Reporters in Residence” program that will support my labor reporting for the next six months. This year has been my longest time working as a full time freelancer, and the experience has showed me how ruthless the cost/ benefit analysis is for doing reporting—in many cases, the time it takes simply does not pay off with enough money to pay the bills. This grant should help alleviate that and allow me to do more labor feature reporting for the rest of the year, which I am grateful for. I’m planning to continue writing for a variety of fine publications, but I also hope to do some more labor reporting published right here, on How Things Work. The benefits of becoming a subscriber, therefore, are only growing more enticing. If you enjoy what you read here—or if you are just idly wondering what you, the average person, can do to participate in the class war that grips our nation ever more tightly in its ruthless grasp—please consider becoming a paid subscriber. The ability of independent media to support itself is important. Thank you.