How Amazon Crushes Unions…Can Amazon be Stopped?…Do We Care?

From a New York Times story by David Streitfeld headlined “How Amazon Crushes Unions”:

Amazon is facing the largest and most viable U.S. labor challenge in its history: a union vote at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

Nearly 6,000 workers have until March 29 to decide whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. A labor victory could energize workers in other U.S. communities, where Amazon has more than 800 warehouses employing more than 500,000 people.

“This is happening in the toughest state, with the toughest company, at the toughest moment,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “If the union can prevail given those three facts, it will send a message that Amazon is organizable everywhere.”

Over the last two decades, as the internet retailer mushroomed from a virtual bookstore into a $1.5 trillion behemoth, it has forcefully — and successfully — resisted employee efforts to organize. Some workers in recent years agitated for change in Staten Island, Chicago, Sacramento and Minnesota, but the impact was negligible.

But the most recent campaign is gaining momentum, and received a shot in the arm last month, when President Biden weighed in.

“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” he said in a video posted on Twitter that never mentioned Amazon but referred to “workers in Alabama” deciding whether to organize a union. “You know, every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice.”

Leading up to the Bessemer vote, The Times did a reporting deep dive on a similar effort at an Amazon warehouse in Chester, Va., in 2014 and 2015, where a union tried to organize about 30 facilities technicians.

The reporting offers one of the fullest pictures of what encourages Amazon workers to open the door to a union — and what techniques the company uses to slam the door and nail it shut. Some of those tactics have been used in Alabama, too….
From a book review in The Washington Monthly by Daniel Block headlined “Can Amazon Be Stopped?”

About two and a half years ago, as media speculation about where Amazon would locate its second headquarters reached a fever pitch, The Onion, a satirical website, decided to make its own projection. “‘You Are All Inside Amazon’s Second Headquarters,’ Jeff Bezos Announces to Horrified Americans as Massive Dome Envelops Nation,” the site declared. The story described a world in which Amazon divided the United States into segments of its supply chain. “The entire state of Texas will be replaced with a 269,000-square-mile facility used exclusively to house cardboard boxes, tape, and inflatable packaging materials,” the authors wrote. “A large swath of the Midwest will soon be razed to make way for a single enormous Amazon Fulfillment Center.”

It was, of course, a joke. But based on reporting from the veteran ProPublica journalist Alec MacGillis, it’s a joke with more than just a ring of truth. In Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One–Click America, MacGillis argues that Amazon’s dramatic expansion is Exhibit A for America’s economic unraveling. Armed with stark statistics and moving anecdotes, MacGillis illustrates how the retail giant pushes regional stores out of business. He shows how the company extracts tax incentives from desperate local governments in exchange for poor-paying warehouse jobs. Amazon has “segmented the country into different sorts of places, each with their assigned rank, income, and purpose,” he writes. It has altered “the landscape of opportunity in America—the options that lay before people, what they could aspire to do with their lives.”…

The distribution of Amazon’s newfound wealth, however, has been deeply uneven. The company is hiring warehouse workers across America, but these low-paying jobs require famously long shifts, involve strenuous and monotonous work, and offer little autonomy. Meanwhile, Amazon is also expanding its Seattle and Washington, D.C., offices—adding well-paid, white-collar jobs in elaborately sculpted buildings with rooftop dog parks, onsite botanical gardens, and discounted child care….

Massive retailers with low prices, like Amazon, are not just a poor replacement for local employers. They are part of why local employers shut down. Inexpensive products are nice for customers, but they drive community stores straight out of business. And Amazon has tools beyond low pricing that it uses to squeeze competitors. The company is the main, and for many small businesses the only, way to sell products online. It capitalizes on this by forcing vendors on its platform to hand over a hefty percentage of their profits—usually 15 percent—for every sale, a transaction fee that MacGillis compares to a tax. Amazon also manufactures goods itself, often copying its vendors’ most popular products based on its privileged look at their sales data. Free of the same fee (the company doesn’t tax itself), Amazon sells these knockoffs at a lower price than the originals, driving the real creators into insolvency. As a result, money that would have gone to small businesses instead winds up with Amazon….

Democrats have unified control of the government, and progressives are increasingly concerned about concentrated economic power. The U.S. House of Representatives, multiple state attorneys general, and the Department of Justice are all investigating anticompetitive practices by Amazon. The latter two are already suing Facebook and Google.

But the Democratic Party does not have the best recent track record when it comes to curbing corporate power. Democrats dominate Seattle’s government, and they ultimately killed a law that mildly inconvenienced Amazon. The Obama administration did virtually nothing to stop the mergers, acquisitions, and other actions that fueled retail consolidation and helped give rise to Big Tech. As MacGillis points out, many of Obama’s officials went on to prominent, powerful roles in major tech companies. Jay Carney, one of the former president’s press secretaries, now heads public policy for Amazon….

It is still too soon to say whether Joe Biden will take the aggressive antitrust positions favored by progressive activists or the lenient approach of the president he served beside. His first Federal Trade Commission nominee, Lina Khan, is an antitrust expert who advocates for curbing the power of large corporations. Her selection was a promising sign. So was choosing the Big Tech critic Tim Wu to work on technology and competition policy at the National Economic Council.

But the most important positions are yet to be filled, and progressives are worried that his early choices will soon be counterbalanced by monopoly-friendly personnel. Should Biden ultimately opt to follow Obama’s path, it might be because he simply does not recognize the economic damage oligopolistic companies have caused. If so, he would do well to read MacGillis’s book. But it is also possible that Biden and his team are aware, but their interest in fighting back will be tempered by fund-raising concerns, a belief that challenging monopolists would be too risky for the economy, or simply a desire to tackle other priorities.

If that is the case, the administration should consider the political consequences of continuing on our current path. The steady draining of wealth and opportunity from large parts of America is part of why many onetime Democratic strongholds, like Michigan, are now swing states, and why many onetime swing states, like Missouri, are now Republican strongholds. Well-educated liberals will not move to these places unless there are economic opportunities. The remaining white, non-college-educated residents will continue to feel economically embittered.

With thin congressional majorities, competition policy may be one of the few tools Biden can really wield to restructure America’s political economy. He must use it.
From a book review in the Washington Post by James Kwak headlined “We’re aware of Amazon’s sins. But do we care?”

Workers who are flagged by an algorithm for possible firing if they lag in productivity. Massive tax breaks to attract enormous data centers supplied by power lines paid for by ordinary families. Small businesses squeezed by a 15 percent commission on sales to their longtime customers and undercut by a middleman that uses their own data to compete with them.

These are some of the often-decried ways that Amazon has reshaped America. But what if this is what we really want?

That’s the question threaded into “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America,” a ground-level tour of the United States of Amazon by journalist Alec MacGillis. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Each chapter provides a different perspective on the impact that the Seattle-based behemoth has had on American society. Together, they show how the transformation of shopping has rippled upstream, changing the experience of working, the relationships between companies and their customers, the management of information, and ultimately the distribution of wealth between winners and losers in the new economy….

In MacGillis’s portrait, Amazon could be following Henry Ford’s example by using some of its tens of billions of dollars in profit to increase its workers’ buying power and shore up the middle class. Instead, the company’s sole focus is enabling its customers to buy stuff cheaply and get it fast — and make money for its shareholders along the way….

Seattle politics are perhaps an apt metaphor for our society. After years of journalistic exposés, we know how Amazon treats its workers, how it squeezes its sellers, how it devastates small businesses, and how it extorts money out of state and local governments (and let’s not even start talking about privacy). We know that our elected officials play along. We aren’t happy about it, yet we keep on buying. What does that say about us?

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