Congressman Andy Levin says a new era for the labor movement has only just begun 

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. Andy Levin: “I’m kind of the union organizer in Congress.” - COURTESY OF ANDY LEVIN
  • Courtesy of Andy Levin
  • U.S. Rep. Andy Levin: “I’m kind of the union organizer in Congress.”

Is the labor movement having a moment? It certainly seems so. Hell, during her recent bombshell interview with Oprah, Meghan Markle gave an unexpected shout-out to the union at her “old job” as a Hollywood actress when she said she felt like she got more protection from the Screen Actors Guild than she does from her time as a member of the British royal family.

But it also feels like, more often than not, it can be one step forward and one step back for unions — like in 2019, when 48,000 General Motors UAW workers went on strike for better wages and job security. It was the largest American auto industry labor action in more than a decade — but at the same time it was happening, the UAW’s own leaders were being investigated for corruption, including embezzling union money, wire fraud, and money laundering. The UAW is now under federal oversight.

The recent attempt by workers at a massive Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, to organize may have been a watershed, however. There, members of the warehouse’s nearly 6,000-strong workforce, mostly Black women, were taking on one of the largest corporations in the world — and one of the few to actually profit from the COVID-19 pandemic, posting a staggering $100 billion in sales last quarter thanks to all the online shopping people have been doing. The company has dramatically expanded its footprint, including new facilities at Detroit’s former Michigan State Fairgrounds and the former Pontiac Silverdome.

It was the first unionization attempt in the juggernaut’s 25-year history. And unionizing Amazon, the second-largest private employer in the nation, could kickstart a decades-long decline in union membership, which fell to about 11% of the eligible workforce in 2020, down from its peak of 35% in 1954. Despite the steep decline in membership, most Americans (55%) hold a favorable view of unions, versus 33% who hold an unfavorable view, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. That majority has held for the past three decades, yet in that same time, corporate power — and union-busting tactics — has only grown: productivity has soared, as has CEO pay, while wages for most workers have stagnated.

While the workers at the Bessemer facility are paid a starting wage of $15 an hour with benefits, well above Alabama’s paltry minimum wage of $7.25, they complained of grueling conditions, including walking many miles per day, having their every movement tracked by computers, being given unrealistic performance quotas, and not having enough time to use the bathroom. The company appeared to be sweating, even persuading the city to change the timing of a nearby traffic light so organizers had less time to talk to workers, and allegedly hiring off-duty police officers to intimidate them. Its @AmazonNews Twitter account snarkily responded to charges that its drivers’ productivity goals were so unrealistic that they have resorted to urinating in bottles in order to meet them. “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” it wrote. “If that were true, nobody would work for us.” Workers then responded by posting photos of their pee bottles on social media.

It’s hard to imagine a more high-profile corporate meltdown in recent memory. How could the workers possibly lose?

The organizing effort drew attention from the national and international press, as well as from leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who visited the workers to rally in the days leading up to their vote. So did U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat representing Michigan’s 9th District, who visited Bessemer twice to talk with workers there.

In the end, though, the effort did fail, with 1,798 workers voting to oppose unionization and only 738 voting in support.

But Levin says it’s likely this isn’t the last we’ll hear from unionization efforts at Amazon. He would know. “I’m kind of the union organizer in Congress,” Levin tells Metro Times. “I’ve largely devoted my life to this.”

Levin has been involved in the labor movement since his days as an undergrad at Massachusetts’ Williams College in the 1970s. While there, workers at the company that had made the caps and gowns that the college used for its graduates for a century went on strike over a labor dispute. Even though he was only a sophomore at the time, Levin says he was tapped by the company’s union rep to help out with the cause. “Probably because I was a usual suspect,” he says with a chuckle, adding that he had a reputation from his involvement in the anti-apartheid, anti-nuclear, and peace movements.

As a fan of what he calls “creative non-violent direct action,” Levin got an idea: He penned a letter saying that if the school used caps and gowns from a company that was violating its workers’ rights, the undersigned threatened to go their commencement “disrobed.” A majority of the senior class signed on.

“It sort of was ambiguous, like, ‘Are you saying you’re going to just not wear your cap and gown, or are you saying you’re going to go streaking?’” Levin says. It appeared to work; the college said it wouldn’t use the company, though it didn’t acknowledge Levin’s threat of streaking seniors.

When Levin graduated a few years later, Ronald Reagan was elected President, “and I’ve considered that, like, a disaster for the world, which it was,” he says. A new era of union-busting had begun, and union membership plummeted while the chasm of inequality between the workers and capitalists widened.

“I figured in order to create a just and beautiful future for our country, we need workers to lead it — working people,” Levin says.

His first job out of school was with the Service Employees International Union, where he helped organize nursing-home workers with Beverly Enterprises, then the largest nursing-home company in the world. Levin says he sees plenty of parallels with Amazon. For one, Levin arrived in Grand Haven in 1983, just after a union drive at the Shorehaven nursing home had also failed, in which the company promised it would address the concerns of its workers — again, mostly women, working as nurses, aides, cafeteria workers, and laundresses — without a union. “My first career was helping workers win after they lost,” he says.

Of course, Shorehaven was much smaller than Amazon’s Bessemer facility. That played to the workers’ benefit. “It’s a small town, so people all know each other,” Levin says. They talked. About two years later, when none of the things the company promised had happened, the workers “just felt like they had made a big mistake,” he says. The next vote, the union effort won big.

For a time, Levin says he wanted to study Eastern philosophy and Asian languages. But later, while at Harvard Law School, he was back to working on pro-union efforts. There, he served as president of the Harvard Labor Law Project, which encouraged students not to join union-busting law firms. By his third year of law school, he became a contractor for the U.S. Department of Labor, and then a staff attorney for President Bill Clinton’s labor law reform commission. After that, he spent more than a decade working as the assistant director of organizing at the largest federation of unions in the country, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), where he created and directed the Voice@Work campaign in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. That was the last big labor reform push, which would have overhauled America’s labor laws to allow employees to more easily join unions.

The effort fizzled under President Barack Obama in 2009. All the while, corporations grew more powerful. By now, a majority of states have passed so-called “right-to-work” laws, including Michigan’s, signed by former Governor Rick Snyder in 2012, which prohibit unions and employers from requiring workers to pay union dues, and has only weakened union power.

In 2018, Levin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, taking the seat of his retired father, U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin. Earlier this year, Levin and other Congressional Democrats introduced the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Levin says the legislation — which cleared the House in March, just before the Amazon vote, and now heads to the Senate, where the Democrats have a narrow majority — is the biggest move for labor rights since 1935. That’s when the National Labor Relations Act passed, the foundational statute of U.S. labor law that guarantees the right of private-sector employees to organize, and ushered in the era of the highest union membership and a strong middle class.

“None of them are nearly as big, broad, significant as the PRO Act,” Levin says of past efforts.

He believes that if the PRO Act were in place, the situation in Alabama would likely have turned out differently. For example, the bill contains an amendment authored by Levin that allows workers to conduct their elections offsite, free from employer coercion, and would penalize an employer for interfering in union elections. When he visited Bessemer, Levin learned of the company’s union-busting tactics, which he described in a Twitter thread as “a suffocating, all-encompassing cloud of anti-union propaganda that surrounds workers every minute they are on the clock.”

Amazon reportedly barraged its workers with anti-union text messages, placed anti-union posters in its bathrooms, and made employees attend mandatory sessions in which consultants persuaded them not to vote for a union. The company also reportedly lied to its employees, telling them that they had to vote by March 1, when in reality the deadline was March 29. And about 500 ballots cast were challenged behind closed doors by both Amazon and the union, the majority reportedly by Amazon. “So it wasn’t really even as lopsided as they say,” Levin says.

This PRO Act would strengthen other employee rights, including broadening the definitions of employees, supervisors, and employers to cover “gig” workers and independent contractors; permitting labor organizations to encourage participation of union members in strikes initiated by employees represented by a different labor organization; eliminating “right-to-work” laws; protecting workers who participate in strikes; and establishing penalties against companies that interfere with elections.

Levin says that the effort at Amazon is important because the techno-dystopia pioneered by the company is likely a sign of where labor is heading — unless workers stand up for themselves now.

“What I really learned from going to Bessemer was probably two things,” Levin says. “One, what Amazon is doing to the future of work in this country, which means it shows how important it is for workers to be able to form unions at Amazon and elsewhere, because only with workers having a voice and a seat at the table can they make sure that their work is human. And number two, just how indivisible this campaign is from Black Lives Matter and the larger movement for equality and economic equality in this country.”

Levin points out that the arc of the labor movement has coincided with major technological shifts in production. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 followed the early 20th-century innovation of mass, mechanized manufacturing. “And that, in turn, led to the passage of the largest period of unionization in our history, by a million miles,” he says.

In the past few decades, corporations like Amazon have become more sophisticated and savvy, atomizing their workforces by physically separating workers from each other or reducing their benefits by reclassifying them as “gig” workers or independent contractors — what Levin calls “a death by a thousand cuts that have kept the working class from being able to get together.”

For example, burnout at the Bessemer facility is high, with an estimated annual turnover of 100%. It’s hard to commiserate with your coworkers about working conditions when your coworkers don’t stick around long enough for you to get to know them.

“And not only did they turn over, but at your job, you’re totally isolated,” Levin says. “You’re just in a workstation with boxes coming at you on conveyors, and robots. The supervision of you is mostly done by surveillance cameras, tracking devices that measure your movement. You only have a certain amount of time to complete your tasks in a week, and if you have more than that, you can be fired — and you can be fired without a human being involved. It’s like a science-fiction book.”

But this story is far from over, he says.

“That’s the biggest thing people get wrong about this,” Levin says. “It’s not even mostly that workers often lose the first time. … It’s more than that. What these people did was set off a whole new moment in American history. I really think that.”

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