by Murray Cooper
Amazon has grown dramatically during the pandemic. It has added 425,000 new employees, plus an additional 500,000 drivers on contract. It has raked in over 21 billion dollars in profit. It has extended its online retail empire with well over 100 new distribution centers around the world. And it has strengthened its cloud computing and data services by increasing sales from 35 to 45 billion dollars a year. Amazon customers now include Google, Facebook, and other major Internet companies, as well as over 6,500 state agencies, including the CIA, ICE, the Pentagon, and numerous police departments.
All this growth has enhanced Amazon’s status as both a powerful retail behemoth and an essential structural component of American capitalism—the “backbone” of the entire digital economy.
But while Amazon has increased its power, people around the world have begun to resist. Massive protests by workers and small businesses in India have held Amazon’s market penetration in check. UNI Global Union, an international union alliance with over 16 million members, has helped coordinate a series of strikes and labor protests throughout Europe. In the United States, worker and community coalitions have formed in Queens to halt corporate expansion, in Seattle to demand that Amazon pay its fair share of taxes, and in Chicago. Minnesota, and Southern California to support workers demanding humane working conditions.
Although Amazon was able to beat back a unionization drive in Bessemer, Alabama, the struggle there continues, with the retail workers’ union protesting massive corporate surveillance and intimidation.
One of the most vital groups in this growing movement has been Amazonians United, an informal union that started in Chicago in 2019 and now has members in numerous cities. It started when warehouse workers in a Chicago delivery center initiated protests to gain access to water and air conditioning. After succeeding in these protests, they had the leverage to successfully demand that all Amazon part-time workers receive paid time off. These victories were won by such methods as petition drives, walking off the job, sit-ins in managers’ offices, and organizing a caravan of community supporters to block Amazon delivery trucks.
Workers in Amazonians United provide a good sense of their hopes and motivations in a recent book, The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, published by Pluto Press. One worker says, “Management constantly tries to individualize and atomize us, to keep us weak, divided, and at each other’s throats. We counter these efforts. . . by getting more organized, extending solidarity to co-workers who are mistreated, explaining that we share common interests as opposed to management’s interests.” Another worker says, “We don’t need to have a collective bargaining agreement to be a union. We don’t need to file for a union election with the NLRB to be a union. We are a true union of workers, by workers, and for workers. We exercise our power to get what we need, and it works.”
Another significant protest group is Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. Prior to its formation, Amazon had shown little interest in its toxic environmental impact, either in regard to global warming or in regard to the toxic pollution its diesel trucks spewed out in the poor and minority communities where many delivery centers are located. But in 2018 the workers in AECJ began agitating for Amazon to reduce its carbon footprint. They wrote petitions, spoke up at stockholder meetings, and organized a mass walkout to support Global Climate Strike in 2019. About 8,000 Amazon employees signed a letter demanding that CEO Jeff Bezos drastically cut Amazon’s carbon emissions. To forestall the protest, Bezos issued a largely non-specific pledge to cut net carbon emissions to net zero by 2040. But during the following year Amazon actually increased its carbon output by14%, going from 44 million to over 50 million metric tons. So, the protests continued, with AECJ organizing sick-outs to protest Amazon’s role in perpetuating environmental racism, its inadequate safety precautions for warehouse workers during the pandemic, and the need for paid time off for all Amazon workers to vote.
Amazon has responded by continuing its PR climate pledge effort and retaliating against the AECJ. The PR efforts include announced plans for thousands of electric delivery trucks and a promise to convert to totally renewable energy resources by 2025. Amazon has also endorsed the dubious idea of carbon offsets, buying thousands of acres in the Appalachians and promising to prohibit any logging there. (Logging companies will then just go to an area outside the “protected” zone.) Amazon has not allowed any of the technical workers in AECJ to participate in this work. Instead, it fired two of the key organizers, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, for attempting to organize an online conference with Naomi Klein and other climate activists about the need for technical and warehouse workers to work together and have each other’s back in their complementary struggles. Recently an NLRB review board ruled that the firing of these two workers was illegal.
Coordination between technical and warehouse workers needs to continue and be even more extensive. Amazon management tries to control every movement and every minute of the work life, as workers pick, sort, package, and deliver commodities. Only a united movement of all workers will be able to dismantle this oppressive system and allow Amazon workers to democratically control the conditions of their work, in coordination with other workers and community groups.
The movement must address all the intersecting economic, racial, and gender divisions that keep workers apart. Currently, women primarily do the picking and packing, while men generally operate the forklifts and drive the delivery trucks. Tech workers are predominantly white males, while warehouse workers are disproportionately Hispanic and African American.
And, of course, there is a tremendous economic disparity, with the median tech worker earning about 110,000 dollars a year, and the median warehouse or delivery worker struggling to get by on less than 28,000 dollars a year. At its most extreme, the disparity is even more monstrous: Jeff Bezos has used his CEO position to amass about 177 billion dollars, while a warehouse worker in India attempts to stay alive on about 40 dollars a week.
There is nothing inherent in the nature of technology to cause such extreme social divisions. Scholars like Lewis Mumford, David Noble, and Harry Braverman have emphasized that technology is a social product, not an inevitable, autonomous process. As Noble showed in Forces of Production, many workers and some technicians resisted the military-driven numerical control methods for automating machine tools in the early postwar period. But corporations chose to use numerical control because other, equally efficient methods left too much control in the hands of the workers.
As Amazon imposes its stultifying, dehumanizing methods on its own workers, we need to remember this: that corporations may try to impose their dominance, but workers do not need to acquiesce without a fight. With brave workers like those in Amazonians United and Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, that fight has a chance of winning some very significant battles.
These victories may take the form of better pay and working conditions or limitations on Amazon’s corporate authority. But only a decisive change in power will fully achieve what we want—a world in which workers democratically manage the economy and end both the exploitation of labor and the degradation of the environment.
Solidarity with the Amazon workers!