Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is finally stepping down from that job and moving into the role of executive “chair.” This position will allow the wealthiest man in the modern history of the world to have “the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions,” as he wrote in a letter to employees Tuesday.
If you ask Bezos, he’d sum up his run as the CEO of Amazon mostly in terms of the things Amazon sold and the way they sold them. “We pioneered customer reviews, 1-click, personalized recommendations, Prime’s insanely-fast shopping, Just Walk Out shopping, the Climate Pledge, Kindle, Alexa, marketplace, infrastructure cloud computing, career choice, and much more,” Bezos wrote in the letter.
It is undoubtedly true that Bezos is responsible for profound changes in the way people live and consume. Amazon has wormed its way so deeply into our lives that it is now an integral part of our infrastructure; there is practically no way to avoid it if you use the internet or participate in the economy.
But in another, equally profound way, Bezos is nothing new at all. He is part of that oldest of American traditions: the robber baron. Like all titans of capital, Bezos accumulated vast, unaccountable wealth on the backs of his workers, and managed to take not only the lion’s share of benefits but the credit as well—replete with union-busting tactics updated for the modern age.
Just on Tuesday, the company settled for $61.7 million after a Federal Trade Commission investigation revealed that it wasn’t giving Flex drivers the full amount of customers’ tips, as it had promised both drivers and customers. Amazon has also obscured the meaning of the word “employee” in its Delivery Service Partner program, creating a convoluted system instead that allows them to control most aspects of the worker’s job without liability for accidents or being beholden to its own standards.
Even for employees, the company’s turnover rate is so ridiculous that for many it’s more like a temp job than a permanent position. There’s the hazard pay given and then taken away from workers during the pandemic, even though the hazard is still very much there and Amazon is still making the kind of money that would make Rockefeller cry ($7.2 billion in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone, more than double what it made in Q4 2019). There were the deaths and injuries at the warehouses, even before the pandemic, the dystopian time off task (TOT) rules, and the convenient firing and disciplining of workers after they speak out about labor practices at Amazon.
Amazon implemented a $15 per hour minimum wage in 2018, after years of pressure to do so, and now touts both its own minimum wage and its call for an increase in the federal minimum wage as part of its campaign to seem like a nicer tech behemoth. But as Oxfam said in a report last year on the obscene wealth reaped by billionaires during the pandemic, Bezos could have personally given every one of Amazon’s workers a six-figure bonus and end up just as rich as he was before the pandemic started.
“You cannot have individual citizens so rich that they can literally have their own space program,” Adrienne Williams, a former Amazon delivery service partner in California, told me in an interview last summer. “If you have someone who owns all the resources, he owns the people.”
Amazon workers’ attempts to organize themselves to have a say in those conditions—rather than leaving it up to Amazon’s crisis PR efforts—have been stymied at every turn by the company’s vast legal and technological resources. There has never been a successful union formed in the entire history of the company, and there’s a good reason for that: A few months ago, Vice (where, full disclosure, I work as a regular freelancer) reported that the company used Pinkertons—yes, those Pinkertons—to spy on Amazon workers and monitor their organizing activity.
Bezos and Amazon may have made the world easier but they also made it worse, particularly for workers in the dying communities Amazon swooped into under the guise of being a savior. But there’s at least some reason not to be totally pessimistic about the future. This month, roughly 6,000 workers at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama will vote on whether or not to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), and become the first U.S. union organized in the history of the company. RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum told the Washington Post Tuesday that more than 3,000 workers have signed cards, though, true to the high turnover, some of those workers have since left the company.
Not that Amazon isn’t trying its hardest to fight it. The Post reported Tuesday that workers at the Bessemer warehouse are being bombarded with anti-union propaganda even in the bathroom. “They got right in your face when you’re using the stall,” one pro-union worker told the Post.
Bezos isn’t going far, and he’s leaving the top role in the hands of charter school-boosting successor Andy Jassy, so if you were hoping for some top-down positive change you’re going to be waiting a long time. More than the chair-swapping going on in the company’s leadership, the Bessemer election presents an opportunity to usher in a new era at Amazon, one where employees at one of the largest companies on Earth finally have a voice.
All of the genius ideas in the world could have been devised in the Amazon C-suite, and they still couldn’t have made Amazon into what it is today without workers. There couldn’t be a more proper sendoff for Jeff Bezos than for the people who built Amazon to begin to seize their fair share of its wealth.