At the end of March, US Representative Mark Pocan got into a pissing match with Amazon about restroom breaks and availability for workers—a contentious issue in the Alabama union-organizing drive the corporation eventually thwarted. After Pocan criticized Amazon, the company attacked the former Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair, claiming his facts were wrong. Actually, it was Amazon that was wrong, and it had to apologize. Pocan immediately refocused attention on working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses. That’s typical of how the Wisconsin Democrat—a dues-paying member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades who recently spearheaded an effort to form a House labor caucus—fights for worker rights. I interviewed Pocan about battling Amazon and working to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021.
JN: How does your union membership inform your service in Congress?
MP: About half of my colleagues in Congress are millionaires. I am not. And I think coming from a working-class background growing up, and being myself someone who did the work in my business and with my hands and did the printing and everything else, I appreciate and understand the actions that the federal government can take and how they affect workers.
JN: You often take on corporate power. Were you surprised that Amazon was so aggressive in attacking you—and the union cause?
MP: For them to argue about whether or not some of their workers have to urinate in bottles because of the schedules they’re put on, to fight on a point like that—which could so easily be disproven—was really a huge miscalculation. It shows the arrogance of corporations that get too big.
After a week of them getting pummeled by both their workers in the warehouses as well as their drivers—showing pictures of bottles with their urine, talking about the fact that they can’t take bathroom breaks, talking about the conditions—they finally had to cave. But rather than caving to their employees and admitting they have to improve the working conditions, they decided to apologize to the policy-maker, which again showed the tone-deafness of a giant megacorporation.
Really, in many ways, it’s a sign of the future. If you’re going to have a continued consolidation of industries, you’re going to have continued Amazon-like behavior unless there’s the appropriate pushback.
JN: You did push back, and they did apologize. But one of the things that struck me was that their apology to you was very self-serving.
MP: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It was like, “We tried to do a gotcha, but hey, here’s all these other industries where people pee in their bottles, so we guess even though we lied, it wasn’t that bad of a lie because apparently a lot of employers are crappy.” I don’t know if that is exactly going to go down as the apology of the century.
We tried to push back by saying, “Look, you acknowledge it. That’s a positive step, but now do something about it. Don’t apologize to me, the policy-maker. Apologize to your employees. Fix the conditions.”
JN: The Amazon fight involved an effort to unionize a huge facility in a “right to work” state—a very tough setting. One of the things that you’ve focused a lot on is the PRO Act and the role that it might play in making it easier to organize all over the country.
MP: If you look at the 1950s, when you had the highest rates of unionization, you had one of the lowest rates of income inequality. Since then, union membership has decreased from around 33 percent of the workforce to around 10 percent. What’s the impact? Over the past 40 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute, income growth for the top 1 percent has been five times as fast as for the bottom 90 percent of households. So clearly their efforts were successful in taking away workers’ voices, which allowed them to shift more money to the very top and not to the average worker.
The PRO Act tries to address multiple attacks over the years that have made it harder for workers to have a voice. It addresses them all. So whether it be allowing workers to have the right to organize, holding employers accountable for violating workers’ rights, and then making sure that you can have a free, fair, and safe union election, that’s at the essential core of what the PRO Act is about.