Bezos fears united workers. As discussed in Capitalism, his share value and shareholders business model depends on extracting as much wealth from workers as possible. Long hours, low pay, and layoffs are some ways they do this. When executives at Amazon get compensated with shares, they not only feel pressure from investors but their own self-interest to negotiate in their favor — not the people doing the work. The workers that generates the wealth. Amazon’s business model explicitly relies on underpaid workers. Bezos admitted this directly.
This past summer and holiday season saw workers organizing all over the country. Warehouse worker demanding paid time off (PTO), a basic, simple idea that they can spend what little time you have, not on the clock. Amazon fears this. It has a plan to stop this — especially if workers aren’t united.
Amazon crafts talking points for managers. Animated propaganda movies to dissuade collective action and unions. Mandatory anti-dissent “job training”. Outright threats to fire workers. When job loss means homelessness or starvation, bosses work you harder, work you longer, work you for less, and work you till you break. Amazon coerced outraged workers to step around a deceased coworker in Etna, Ohio.
Amazon’s union busting video share a dystopian nightmare. Whole Worker, a collective of Whole Foods workers organizing leaked the video to the press. Amazon warns workers to tattle on those that dare mention the dangers of… a “living wage”? Bosses like that can get wrecked!
For warehouse workers, no less human than their white collar counterparts, Amazon usually refuses to meet workers as they demand basic benefits afforded to other employees just miles away. Amazon tiers benefits to divide the working class against itself. Software developers and managers enjoy considerably more perks and, for a long time, haven’t pursued collective action.
Although Amazon claims it does not offer free lunches, anyone who has visited a South Lake Union restaurant on a weekday can find managers buying lunches for their team (“This meal’s on Uncle Jeff”). These workers benefit from a distributed team model (the “two-pizza team”) that allows them to avoid scrutiny and direct surveillance, as long as they are meeting their predefined metrics. For warehouse workers, mass surveillance keeps tabs on even their bathroom breaks. Amazon deliberately intensifies worker disparities.
This does not mean white collar workers face any less resistance to collective bargaining efforts. Amazon’s distributed engineering model gives no official venue for employees to collectively discuss work. During quarterly meetings, employees once could stand at a microphone and pose questions to executive leadership. However, the model changed. Questions must be submitted in writing ahead of time. Only selected questions will be answered. This undermines any employee attempts to voice their grievances publicly, be it about fellow workers, the environment, ICE collaboration, and more.
One way tech workers are organizing is against exploitation of the environment and ICE. Amazon employees balked at the sale of machine learning technology to oil and gas companies to improve their ability to extract fossil fuel from underground deposits and wells. Jeff Bezos issued a decree in response, claiming AWS will “work very hard to make sure that as they transition that they have the best tools possible,” while at the same time selling tools that help extract as much oil and gas as possible. Fossil fuel extraction left in the hands of a few executives who have incredible financial incentive, via stock grants, to protect any stream of revenue no matter how dubious.
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, thankfully, has not relented in their demands on this front. But the internal debate shows how senior leadership are losing the trust of employees. There are even threats to fire employees for organizing on this front, a move sure to degrade trust in leadership further.
When Amazon fired workers organizing a better future, fellow workers banded together to demand that they were rehired. Workers won. Amazon knows it must weigh their wealth extraction against making martyrs out of workers. Work stoppages. Strikes. Even brief hands down can work. When workers put their hands in their pockets, the capitalist class gets slapped.
Amazon’s core ethos is “delight the customer,” no matter the cost, is at ends with our world. With its monopolization, it is perhaps the most powerful economic engine in human history. That engine can crush labor whim. Its decisions signal the ill-deeds of capitalist institutions. Amazon’s conquest of politicians, industries, labor, and practically everything means either the workers put their foot down or nothing can stand up to it.