For Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos, the COVID-19 pandemic has been great for business, leading to record profits and an increased market share. Perhaps more significantly, the pandemic has accelerated the reshuffling of transnational corporate power with enormous consequences for the future of work, labor, and the global economy.
Amazon’s immense power and influence over the world’s economy — a phenomenon we have described as “Amazon capitalism” — was already rising rapidly. However, the pandemic has ushered in the latest iteration of capitalist crisis and further propelled Amazon’s rise as the world’s most powerful corporation. By mid-2020, the corporation’s market cap had increased to $1.58 trillion (surpassing Microsoft) as demand for its delivery and cloud services surged.
While the global COVID-19 body count neared one million deaths, the demand for home-delivered e-commerce peaked — as did the personal fortune of Jeff Bezos, who became the first person in world history to amass a net worth of over $200 billion. As millions of workers were laid off during the pandemic, Amazon engaged in a “hiring frenzy,” taking on nearly four hundred thousand more “essential workers” since 2019, bringing Amazon’s (directly employed) workforce to over one million workers.
If you also consider Amazon’s massive fleet of low-paid, contracted, nonunion delivery drivers, the company’s workforce is far bigger. Indeed, Amazon is poised to overtake Walmart as the world’s largest private employer.
A Laboratory of Racialized Exploitation
Along with instant, one-click consumerism, Amazon has helped to normalize the constant digital surveillance of workers. Amazon owns the largest database on warehousing in the world, where all human activity is closely monitored; workers’ bodies, movements, and “human inefficiencies” become the raw material for the deepening of anti-worker technologies of labor control, including robotics and other technological innovations.
A fundamental aspect behind Amazon’s labor practices that is rarely discussed is the large-scale exploitation of thousands of hyper-surveilled warehouse and delivery workers that labor hard to make Amazon’s “free shipping” possible. In the United States, these workers are disproportionately black and Latino, and throughout the globe, many are immigrants or temporary migrant workers.
In this system, workers of color and immigrants, usually without college degrees, remain concentrated in the most labor-intensive, precarious, dangerous, low-wage, and surveillance-driven jobs across Amazon’s vast logistics supply chain. Although these warehouse workers and delivery drivers are mostly men, a significant and growing number are women.
Meanwhile, a mostly white male executive class reaps the profit. Amazon’s algorithmic tools of labor control have been developed and refined via the mass surveillance and exploitation of workers, with implications going far beyond just Amazon. Amazon’s agenda-setting labor practices are rapidly influencing how workers are treated by other corporations and industries.
Even before the pandemic, research found that Amazon warehouse workers suffer very high rates of injury and turnover, even compared to industry standards, due to the corporation’s “extreme high churn” labor system, whereby workers are continually used up and replaced. Along with warehouse workers, delivery drivers are also kept under electronic surveillance and experience extreme pressure to deliver goods quickly, putting these workers at high risk for workplace accidents and injuries.
Now, with the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the corporation’s slow and uneven efforts to ramp up workplace protections, tens of thousands of Amazon’s warehouse and contracted delivery workers have already been exposed to this deadly virus at work.
While the corporation has estimated that just under twenty thousand frontline US Amazon and Whole Foods employees were infected with COVID-19 between March 1 and September 19, the actual number is probably far higher: many workers were not tested, and the figure excludes contracted prime delivery drivers, who now deliver the majority of Amazon’s prime packages. But of course, these workers “don’t count” so far as Amazon is concerned.
On October 13–14, Amazon workers and their community allies around the world are once again protesting the corporation’s unsafe and exploitative labor practices through strikes, walkouts, demonstrations, and even consumer boycotts. They do so to put pressure on the corporation to treat and pay its so-called essential workers better.
Amazon is heavily promoting this year’s annual Prime Day sales event, likely to be the biggest ever. In fact, 67 percent of surveyed Americans plan to shop more on Amazon’s two-day Prime Day — Amazon’s biggest annual consumer sales event — than on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Undoubtedly, this year’s Prime Day will be the biggest online shopping event in history, and a logistical nightmare for the corporation and its workers, making it a perfect target for coordinated worker actions and resistance.
For years, European Amazon warehouse workers have targeted Prime Day for worker actions in Spain, Poland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. This has included wildcat strikes, workplace actions, and protests. In April 2020, a French union worker filed a complaint against Amazon for endangering workers during the pandemic, prompting the closure of six Amazon facilities for over a month.
Such victories by workers are part of a growing international wave of Amazon warehouse worker organizing that continues to spread and become more visible, especially in Europe and the United States. Efforts to unite Amazon warehouse workers across nations is also growing through various organizations and networks, such as Amazon Workers International.
A Site of Resistance
Resistance among Amazon’s frontline warehouse and package delivery workers has been spreading quickly across the United States, especially during the pandemic. Amazonians United is an autonomous worker-based movement fighting for workers’ rights, better working conditions, and the democratization of the workplace. Chicago-based DCH1 Amazonians United has organized their workplace and has already won clean drinking water, paid time off (PTO), increased COVID-19 safety measures, among other improvements in their working conditions.
In Southern California, Amazon workers at the LGB3 Fulfillment Center in Eastvale and the DLA8 Delivery Station in Hawthorne, CA protested, signed petitions, and filed legal complaints against Amazon’s endangerment of workers’ and public health. One week before Prime Day, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health supported workers’ claims, citing Amazon for violating laws and failing to adequately protect workers from COVID-19.
Chris Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse worker from New Jersey, was fired by Amazon in March for organizing workers at the JFK8 warehouse over unsafe working conditions related to COVID-19. After his firing, Smalls founded the Congress of Essential Workers (TCOEW), a network of essential workers fighting for the elimination of billionaires and protecting the working class. Smalls, along with TCOEW’s allies coordinated numerous protests at Bezos’s lavish mansions in Washington, DC and Beverly Hills, California. Smalls and his allies are calling on all Prime members to “boycott the company especially on Prime week this year.”
Sheheryar Kaoosji, the executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, is also coordinating actions during the Prime week mobilization against Amazon: “This Prime Day is extremely important,” Kaoosji notes:
The COVID-19 pandemic has sickened thousands of workers, and Amazon’s sales and profits have soared while its workers and the public have suffered. Across the nation, Athena member organizations are bringing workers and communities together to hold Amazon accountable for its practices with actions online and in person in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and beyond.
As activists and workers around the world have already shown — and will do so again on this year’s Prime Days — Amazon is a key site for coalition-building among activists across movements, nations, and cities.
A Strategic Target
Amazon’s rise in corporate power represents and propels many of the destructive forces inherent in contemporary capitalism, from the exploitation and dehumanization of workers to corporate welfare and tax avoidance, from extreme wealth inequality to nativism, racism, and sexism, and from an obsessive mass consumer culture to the erosion of privacy and increased surveillance of workers, consumers, and communities. It exemplifies monopolistic business practices, the public subsidization of corporations, and the corporate assault on public health and the ecological integrity of the Earth.
As Amazon continues to grow in power around the world, it remains a strategic target for workers and communities to challenge capitalism and demand greater economic, health, racial, immigrant, and environmental justice.