Earlier this month Elon Musk surpassed Jeff Bezos for the title of wealthiest being on planet earth, as rising stock values swelled his net worth to $182 billion. Bezos topped out at a paltrier amount, a mere $181 billion. But that was mid-March. Who knows the status of this horse race now?
One fact we do know is that last Thursday the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled against Musk’s anti-union behavior, citing Tesla for violating labor laws by retaliating against employees who supported unionization and by posting a tweet that threatened workers with a loss of stock options should they unionize.
As a result of this ruling, the NLRB ordered Musk to re-hire and issue back-pay to an employee who had been fired as retaliation for his support of unionization and also to delete a 2018 tweet in which he wrote: “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?” The NLRB judged the tweet to be “coercively threatening,” given that Musk has over ten million followers.
Additionally, Tesla will have to revise its anti-democratic and silencing company policy that forbids employees from speaking to the media, as the NLRB forcefully reminded the company that prevailing labor law in America generally “protects employees when they speak with the media about working conditions, labor disputes, or other terms and conditions of employment.”
Bezos, for his part, has also been no slouch in his efforts to maintain authoritarian control over Amazon’s workplaces and to thwart unionizing efforts. In 2019, Amazon fired a Rashad Long, a warehouse worker in Staten Island, New York, for speaking out against working conditions and trying to organize a union. As I write, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama are engaged in a union organizing drive, with voting by workers continuing through the end of March. Amazon has wall-papered bathrooms with anti-union propaganda. Amazon is so opposed to unionization that, according to reporting by Vox last fall, the company is developing special surveillance software precisely so it can track unionizing efforts in its workplaces.
While Bezos and Musk may owe a debt of gratitude to U.S. capitalism for their success in accumulating obscene wealth, it’s clear they feel no such gratitude for or allegiance to U.S. democracy. Rather, they seek to deny democracy and basic rights to their workers, making clear how capitalism and growing economic inequality are simply not compatible with democracy. Both Bezos and Musk seem to believe that they ought to make the rules, decide the laws, in whatever domain they own. For them, the rights of ownership supersede the democratic rights of their employees.
Musk has made his distaste for democracy crystal clear, supporting the overthrow of democratically-elected leaders in other nations when it serves his corporate interests. Musk evidenced this stance last July when he tweeted against a second COVID relief package, arguing that a “government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people.”
He then received a response from another user, stating, “You know what wasn’t in the best interest of people? The U.S. government organizing a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia so you could obtain the lithium there.”
The tweeter was referring to the fact that the U.S. government aided right-wing forces to remove the democratically-elected President Evo Morales Ayma in order to secure affordable lithium supplies for U.S. battery-makers such as Tesla.
Musk’s classy and revealing response?
“We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”
Such a statement sure doesn’t make Musk sound like a lover of democracy.
This context makes clear why exactly Biden’s recent voicing of support for organizing efforts by Amazon workers in Alabama is of such critical importance.
As I wrote in an earlier piece for PoliticusUsa, this support for workers by an American president is an unprecedented show of support for democracy and perhaps an unprecedented salvo against the powers corporate America yields.
In U.S. political culture, workers’ rights simply don’t receive a great deal of attention and certainly aren’t highlighted as central to cultivating a genuinely democratic society. On the whole, most people, even most workers, are resigned to the fact that when they enter their workplaces, they leave any expectation of democracy at the door.
So when Biden released a video earlier this month encouraging workers to take part in deciding whether they unionize or not and endorsing the importance of unions in “leveling the playing field” and expanding the benefits democracy, it was a big deal because he was striking at the heart of corporate America and billionaires like Musk and Bezos, who, despite having untold wealth and power, still insist on disempowering their employees and controlling wages.
Biden explained quite clearly how the kind of autocratic control corporate bosses like Musk and Bezos seek severely undermines not just workers’ lives but democracy as well:
“Unions put power in the hands of workers, they level the playing field, they give you a stronger voice, for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, but especially Black and Brown workers.”
Just as voter suppression efforts seek to silence Americans, efforts to thwart workers seeking to unionize silences vast numbers of Americans as well, denying them democracy in the workplaces where they spend a lion’s share of their waking hours each week.
Rarely, if ever, have we seen a president stand up so fiercely for unions, for democracy, in the face of corporate power.
Indeed, as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein observed, “This is new, nothing like it before. Politicians always give great speeches at union conventions and avoid union organizing campaigns because of possibility of failure. But Biden broke this norm.”
We see the world of wealth and power billionaires like Musk and Bezos are fighting to sustain at the expense of democracy for all and in place of sharing the wealth workers collectively produce.
Biden has thrown down the gauntlet, showing he will fight against corporate autocracy and for workers’ democracy and welfare.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.