Jeff Bezos may become the world’s first trillionaire. The Amazon founder’s net worth grew by an average of 34 percent over the last five years, and according to a recent analysis, he is on track to reach trillionaire status by 2026.
The nauseating news arrived amid a pandemic that has thrown millions out of work and sent unemployment skyrocketing to rates rivaling those of the Great Depression. Bezos has long been the richest man on the planet, but the fact that he continues to pile up interminable mounds of money, Scrooge McDuck style, during such an intense economic downturn, exposes anew the depravities of our economic system. For one person to be so obscenely wealthy while so many people are barely hanging on is not just disturbing and immoral, it is an attack on democratic principles and the ability for everyone to live a dignified life.
Amazon, which employs nearly 1 million people worldwide, is the second-largest private employer in the United States. While the company brags about the way it treats its employees — a $15 minimum wage, “comprehensive health care,” paid time off — Amazon workers tell a much different story. From tech workers to warehouse workers, Jeff Bezos’s employees have been ringing alarm bells about both their working conditions and the company’s wider practices.
In Amazon’s “fulfillment centers,” employees are on their feet for their entire shift, finding, grabbing, and moving items that eventually make their way to customers. A worker can expect to walk twelve miles per shift, and it’s not uncommon for people to collapse or get sick from heat or exhaustion. The company “suggests” that workers only use the bathroom during designated breaks, which has led some to resort to urinating into bottles and others to wear diapers during their shift. Because these warehouses are massive — ranging from four hundred thousand to 1 million square feet — walking to the bathroom ends up being a fair amount of “time off task,” which Amazon tracks automatically. Too much time off task can result in termination, even if that time was just used to go to the bathroom. And because so many workers are temporary employees, hoping to be made permanent, they face significant pressure to stay as productive as humanly possible.
For white-collar workers, conditions are less physically dangerous, but they can be equally deflating. A 2015 New York Times report quotes a former book marketing worker whose “enduring image,” the Times wrote, “was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. ‘You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,’ he said. ‘Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.’” Others reported going through traumatic events like cancer or miscarriages (or even happy ones like becoming a parent) and being pushed out. A human resources executive recalled being forced to put a woman who had just had a stillborn child on a performance improvement plan.
Perhaps not surprisingly, median tenure at Amazon is only one year, and turnover at the warehouses exceeds 100 percent. This constant churn makes organizing difficult — workers don’t stick around long enough to form the relationships necessary to build lasting organizations, let alone to have union elections. And the Amazon workers who have spoken out about their conditions and tried to organize have been hit with retaliation and oftentimes fired. Earlier this spring, New York Amazon worker Chris Smalls was booted after he organized a work stoppage at a warehouse on Staten Island, protesting the lack of hazard pay and protective equipment during the COVID pandemic. (Amazon denies that Smalls was terminated for his organizing.) User experience designers who spoke out against conditions at Amazon warehouses in solidarity with their lower-paid colleagues have also been shown the door.
Although retaliation for organizing is illegal, it’s difficult to prove and the consequences are negiligible, so it remains rampant in the United States. When workers see their colleagues lose their jobs for speaking out, they’re less likely to stick their necks out to organize — especially when unemployment is sky-high. That’s why bosses do what they do, and it’s one of the reasons Jeff Bezos is the richest boss around.
Despite these odds, groupings of Amazon workers have come together, both as Amazonians United and Amazon Workers International, and formed coalitions with other low-wage workers — recognizing that organizing at the point of production is the only way to claw back Bezos’s wealth and power. They will need support from existing unions and the organized left (up to and including getting a job at Amazon itself). Forming a union or even fighting for demands is difficult under the best circumstances, but these workers are up against one of the most powerful men in the world.
Jeff Bezos’s empire spans far beyond Amazon: he owns Whole Foods and the Washington Post, along with scores of other online retailers and social media companies. He boasts investments in Airbnb, Uber, Google, and Business Insider, among others. His reach is already massive, which means his workforce is, too — and the accumulation of the unpaid wages of these workers are what made him so obscenely rich.
Just imagine if Bezos’s wealth, rather than being used to buy the priciest house ever sold in California, went to funding universal health care, housing, childcare, and so much more for millions of workers. Just imagine if Bezos was knocked from his plutocratic pedestal, and unionized Amazon workers became the anchor of an economy that had no use for billionaries, much less trillionaries.
Now that would be something worth celebrating.