The Amazon Octopus Revealed

ACORN International Amazon WalMart

             Manchester        In the modern world and economy, it’s hard to escape Amazon.  Of course, on many levels, we all know this as part of our daily life.  Their gray vans have become ubiquitous if you live in a city, and their eighteen wheelers are as common as Walmart’s when you are moving on US highways.  Amazon Prime and next day delivery define much of modern consumer commerce, and there are few of us with any truth who can deny accessing the service at some point.  Sitting through a series of plenary panels in Manchester, it was impossible to escape the feeling that we live in their world.

            The summit on Amazon and its reach was organized by UNI, the global union federation, and directed by its Make Amazon Pay campaigners.  Listening to one panel after another, it was hard to disagree with an offhand comment by Kim Van Sparrentak, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, when she said she tried not to use it, but may have without realizing it.

            In the Walmart campaign years ago, some people would swear that they had never shopped at Walmart and never been in one of their stores.  There was a time that might have been true, since that company’s assault on retail and grocery was an invasion that started in the countryside and gradually gained on the cities. It would be harder for many people in the room at the Mechanics Institute, especially after the pandemic, to say the same of Amazon and its tentacles in so much of the world’s economy. Brian Callaci, the chief economist at Open Markets Institute in the United States, and an expert on American antitrust laws, underlined that problem as part of what his profession speaks of as a “virtuous circle” no matter the pain we feel.  US anti-trust law pretends to try to stop monopolies from growing in particular industries, but when a tech company becomes so big and profitable, the law hasn’t caught up.  The company’s resources can allow it to buy totally unrelated companies in other fields, which can later allow it to dominate additional sectors.  His example was Amazon buying Fitbit, which gave it yet more data that it could store on AWS, where it dominates the supposedly unrelated data cloud operations that are central to commerce and government, and then later integrate all of that with what it knows about customer purchase through its website and apps, and then have enough information and money to go into healthcare.

That’s monopoly-like power allowing them to entrench and spread, while denying these were related businesses, even as they enabled the building of a sweeping empire.  How do you boycott something like that, which is both seen and unseen?  It’s not as easy as saying you will avoid Prime and its delivery operation.

            The point of this campaign became more and more obvious as the day stretched on.  Not paying much attention, I had initially seen this campaign as a union effort to support and encourage direct worker organizing.  True to that premise, the first workshop featured some leaders and organizers in the trenches, including ACORN India’s own Dharmendra Kumar reporting on the work in Delhi. Unfortunately, the work today organizing workers, especially in the US, has been encouraging and courageous, but not especially successful.  One sister spoke inspiring of the two elections in Bessemer, Alabama, both of which were lost.  One brother spoke of actions by Palmdale, California drivers, but they have now been on strike over one-hundred days and are in court.  The union victory in Staten Island is now languishing with the independent local mired in internal conflict and the company staying in court, rather than bargaining. The victory in Delhi won five weeks in severance and related pay for Amazon warehouse workers who were laid off by their subcontractor.

            This is a long road, so is the path to making Amazon pay, where it is now clear to me the strategy is to make them bleed in a hundred ways in a thousand places.  In this strategy, there are some efforts by local legislators, Europeans parliaments, and union themselves in other countries that may extract enough and reach enough scale to make a difference, so we’ll share more of their work to keep spirits up and focus forward.