Workers Strike and Promote Boycotts on Amazon Prime Day

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File

A clerk reaches to a shelf to pick an item for a customer order at the Amazon Prime warehouse in New York. 

On that most sacred of retail discount days, Prime Day, Amazon’s profits continued to soar—but not without its employees attempting to improve their working conditions, and a host of groups calling attention to how far Amazon is willing to go to retain its market dominance. 

On Prime Day—which was this past Tuesday and so extensively covered by the media that Amazon reaped a further fortune in free advertising—the company made roughly $3 billion in sales and added more Prime members to its lists than on any previous day. But even as Prime members—who pay $119 each year for the membership that includes shipping fees, streaming services, and other benefits—were chasing deals, thousands of Amazon workers across Europe were striking, and activists in several countries launched a consumer boycott. Other groups used Prime Day to demonstrate against the company’s sale of racist products.

Amazon facilities across Spain, Germany, and Poland saw workers on strike for better conditions, pay, and health benefits (the specific demands depended on the country). The strikes were coordinated by European labor unions. 

“The message is clear—while the online giant gets rich, it is saving money on the health of its workers,” Stefanie Nutzenberger, German trade union Verdi spokesperson, said in a statement.

In the United States, of course, Amazon resists unionization; there were no worker strikes. But there were calls for boycotts of the retail giant’s products on Prime Day, in solidarity with the European workers.

These boycotts were largely encouraged and spread through social media. Tweets urged consumers to also refrain from shopping at any Amazon subsidiary, like Whole Foods or Audible.

Other groups across the U.S., using the hashtag #PrimedForHate, demonstrated against Amazon on Prime Day because it sells white supremacist propaganda. The Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) recently released a report about Amazon’s sale of Nazi, white nationalist, and other racist merchandise; Amazon also provides a book publishing platform as well as web hosting for hate groups. According to the report, “the breadth of Amazon’s business, combined with its weak and inadequately enforced policies, provides a number of channels through which hate groups can generate revenue, propagate their ideas, and grow their movements.” ACRE has started a petition to demand that Amazon remove such products, and on Prime Day, the organization mobilized advocacy groups across the country to collect signatures and increase awareness about Amazon’s practices.

Activists in Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia, where Amazon is rumored to be setting up its second headquarters, canvassed outside of local Whole Foods stores. The group, made up of members of Our Revolution, Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America, and various Virginia-based local organizations, passed out leaflets which read “This Prime Day, Tell Amazon to Box Up Racism,” and spoke with customers about Amazon’s sale of products like baby onesies with fiery crosses.

“Some people were shocked to know that Amazon was selling this stuff,” said Alex Howe, who was one of the demonstrators. He noted that most people received the leaflets positively, and many signed the petition urging Amazon to discontinue selling white supremacist material.

Outside the Javits Convention Center in New York, where Amazon Web Services was hosting a conference, activists built a display of boxes, reversing the Amazon smile into an angry frown.

Howe is also active in Metro D.C. DSA’s campaignagainst Amazon’s second headquarters coming to the region. The group has opposed state and local governments’ providing huge tax subsidies to Amazon to lure the company to the area. (Local governments have provided little information about what they might have promised the company.)

In a November 2016 report which is still relevant today—and perhaps more so, given Amazon’s continuous growth—Stacy Mitchell and Olivia LaVecchia at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance detailed how Amazon has impacted labor in the U.S.  “There’s nothing innovative about the company’s labor model,” they wrote. “At Amazon, the future of work looks much like the distant past, with workers paid a piece rate and shouldering all the costs of their work, just as they did in 19th-century sweatshops.”

The study documents how, contrary to assertions that Amazon is a job creator, the company has actually helped eliminate jobs, due to the shuttering of brick-and-mortar stores that could not compete with the online behemoth. Amazon’s jobs also pay less than comparable work, and are often temporary.

Grueling reports of what it’s like to work in an Amazon warehouse, where 80 percent of Amazon’s workers are employed, have peppered the news over the past several years. Timed bathroom breaks and dangerous heat top the list of brutal conditions. The most notable account of such abuse was the Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call’s 2011 investigation of a Lehigh Valley Amazon warehouse, where managers placed paramedics outside the facility because workers so frequently became ill due to the heat inside the building. (The warehouse eventually installed air conditioning—eight months after the story ran.) 

But though they may have air conditioning, few Amazon warehouse workers have been heard enthusing about their jobs. 

On Monday, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont held a town hall through Free Speech TV called “CEOs vs. Workers.” Past and current employees from Amazon, Walmart, Disney, McDonald’s, and American Airlines participated and told of their experiences at work. (Invitations were also extended to the CEOs of these companies, but none showed.)

Seth King was an employee at Amazon for just two months, which isn’t surprising since he described the Amazon model as “a revolving door of bodies they’re just throwing at the [warehouse] floor.” Working in the windowless warehouse was an “isolating” experience, King said, where employees were not allowed to speak to one another, and would be written up if they were seen interacting with anyone else. Though he couldn’t interact with his fellow workers, there was always someone watching him. “You’re tracked every second of the day,” he explained, citing the demanding, “unattainable” goals that each worker had to meet.

King ultimately left the job because it was affecting his mental health.

After King finished sharing his story, Sanders said, (to great effect), “And this is a company owned by a person whose wealth increases $275 million every single day.” Indeed, Bloomberg recently reported that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and founder, is now the richest man in modern history. His wealth now comes to $150 billion.

In 2016, Fortune, partnering with SurveyMonkey, published a survey that found that Americans across the political spectrum ranked Amazon as one of the “most loved” companies in the U.S. Liberals gave Amazon the top spot, and conservatives placed it only second to Disney. 

By contrast, liberals designated Walmart as the number one company that was “worst for America.” (Conservatives placed Walmart high on the worst list, but big banks higher.)

If the dislike for Walmart is rooted in its history of quashing competition, paying employees so little that many rely on food stamps, and driving down wages all along its supply chain (so much so that it played a decisive role in shuttering American factories in favor of Chinese ones), it’s curious why Americans admire Amazon so much (though perhaps this has changed in the past two years). Or maybe it’s not curious. For one thing, Walmart’s underpaid store workers are plainly visible, while Amazon’s warehouse workers, like the warehouses themselves, are out of sight and, accordingly, out of mind. As well, as Mitchell and LaVecchia write in their ILSR report, “Amazon’s bet is that as long as consumers are enjoying one-click ordering and same-day delivery, we won’t pay much attention to the company’s creeping grip.”

That does seem to be the case, considering that almost half of all dollars spent online go to Amazon, and that Prime membership claims over 100 million members globally. 

It’s hard not to feel conflicted about Amazon. They have almost everything in stock (though that does include that Nazi paraphernalia) and everything—as they buy in bulk and can underprice any competitor—is so cheap. It all gets to your door so quickly—you don’t even have to leave your house! 

But all that comes at a price—one that’s easy for Amazon to hide behind the low price of whatever’s in that box with the cheeky grin.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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