The ancient proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is often quoted when strategic partnerships are made with someone unsavory to fight a common enemy. But the word ‘friend’ in this context does not have the positive connotations of generally shared values. The word ‘ally’ is better but is not as catchy.
Donald Trump has been waging war on Jeff Bezos for a multiplicity of reasons. Part of it is likely because Bezos owns the Washington Post that Trump sees as being hostile to him, and part of it may be simple envy because unlike him, Bezos is much richer and did not inherit his wealth. This dislike of Bezos may have persuaded some who despise Trump to view Bezos as an ally. But he is no ally of progressives because the Amazon company that Bezos created is a rapacious predatory entity that abuses its employees and uses its market power to destroy competitors. It has managed to avoid a great deal of negative publicity by staying out of ugly political spats and emphasizing its ability to delver goods quickly to its customers who seem to place a great premium on getting stuff the next day even if there is no real reason for the urgency.
But the Bessemer unionization fight has ripped the mask off the ugly face of Amazon as it has decided to get down and dirty in its attacks on union organizers and the people who are supporting them. Bezos seems to have decided to adopt the Trump playbook of using social media to attack its enemies. In writing about Amazon’s awful working conditions, Alex N. Press says that Amazon’s public relations flacks seem to have got rattled by the wide support the unionization drive has garnered and the resulting negative exposure that its abusive practices have received, and they are blundering.
Amazon, a company whose warehouse workers have in the past year told me about seizures, injuries, and heat-induced fainting spells in their facilities and which pushed many of its hundreds of thousands of US employees to the breaking point during the pandemic by refusing to communicate with them about coronavirus outbreaks, much less shut down infected facilities for cleanings, can’t stop insisting that it’s a great place to work. It’s not the only company that kills its workers through negligence, but it is one of them, and it has decided to openly mock the idea that its workers suffer.
Now, anyone who writes about Amazon knows, for starters, that the company regularly lies to journalists and the public alike. Given its money and power, that is often an effective strategy, and the company’s PR team, led by none other than Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, has reason to be confident in its ability to manipulate the public. Witness, for example, how journalists almost uniformly compare Amazon’s $15 starting wage — which was only adopted after Senator Bernie Sanders turned up his criticism of the company — to the wages at fast-food chains, rather than the pay at other warehouses. Amazon pays below the prevailing wage in its industry and has been shown to lower wages at nearby warehouses, yet writers too often swallow the company’s words hook, line, and sinker, propagating the idea that wages at Amazon’s warehouses are higher, not lower, than they need to be.
Amazon got to where it is by its ruthless pursuit of profit. The company will say anything that it thinks will help clear obstacles to that goal from its path. This latest PR blitz is just the latest example, but there is now one key difference: Amazon’s workers have started getting organized, and that means they and their duly chosen representatives can counter the company’s lies.
Ken Klippenstein writes that the hostile Amazon tweets of its critics came at the instigation of Bezos but their tone was so harsh that some in the company thought that their account had been hacked.
AFTER AMAZON’S PUBLIC relations account sent a number of tweets taunting public officials, staffers were so concerned about the “unnecessarily antagonistic” tone that a security engineer filed a suspicious activity report, believing that the company’s social media account had been hacked, according to internal company documents obtained by The Intercept.
According to Recode, the suspicious tweets in fact came at the behest of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who had recently conveyed disappointment to Amazon officials that the company was not pushing back against criticisms that he considered misleading.
But company personnel think Amazon’s aggressive actions on Twitter are “embarrassing.” “A lot of folks thought the account was compromised due to those rants,” one Amazon employee told The Intercept.
On Thursday, The Intercept published internal Amazon documents contradicting Amazon’s response to Pocan by showing that not only was management well aware that its employees were urinating in bottles, but that they were also defecating in bags. Current and former Amazon employees told The Intercept that this practice reflected the grueling working conditions, particularly delivery quotas.
Amazon has even made the preposterous claim that it has done more for workers than Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Now the company has been forced to apologize to congressperson Mark Pocan for ridiculing his claim that Amazon drivers had been forced to urinate in bottles because they are under such strict time constraints. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had tweeted an internal memo from an Amazon official that had confirmed the truth of Pocan’s claim and that drivers not only urinated into bottles but defecated into bags.
Amazon has apologized to the congressman Mark Pocan, admitting to scoring an “own goal” in its initial denial of his suggestion its drivers were sometimes forced to urinate in bottles during delivery rounds.
Its admission came a week after the Wisconsin Democrat criticised working conditions for Amazon staff, saying in a tweet: “Paying workers $15 [an hour] doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust and make workers urinate in water bottles.”
Amazon responded: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”
It subsequently walked back that comment.
“This was an own goal, we’re unhappy about it, and we owe an apology to Representative Pocan,” Amazon said in its blogpost, adding that its previous response only referred to staff at warehouses and fulfilment centers.
In response, Pocan tweeted: “Sigh. This is not about me, this is about your workers who you don’t treat with enough respect or dignity.”
Amazon said urinating in bottles was an industry-wide problem and shared links to news articles about drivers for other delivery companies who have had to do so.
“Regardless of the fact that this is industry-wide, we would like to solve it,” the company said. “We don’t yet know how, but will look for solutions.”
They don’t know how to solve this problem? A massive global company that has successfully dealt with the immense logistical challenges of delivering practically anything to anyone anywhere in a short time has not been able to solve the problem of how to enable its employees to use bathrooms in a timely manner?
They damn well know how to solve it. They just don’t care to do anything that cuts into their profits.
Alec McGillis has written about the effect of Amazon’s dominance and was interviewed on Fresh Air on March 31, 2021. He says that it used to be thought that robots and AI would eliminate mindless repetitive jobs and that as a result, people’s jobs would require more creativity. But in the case of Amazon, automation has led to jobs becoming actually more robotic since people are now doing simple robotic tasks that, ironically, robots are not good at, such as picking up a box, over and over again.
Then there is the pernicious issue of a major newspaper being owned by a company that has such predatory practices. As McGillis says:
The Washington Post has benefited greatly from the investment by Bezos, and I’m very happy for my former colleagues there who simply have more resources now to do their jobs. There is a fundamental awkwardness that comes with one of the richest men in the world, the founder of this enormous, powerful company, owning the newspaper. The newspaper has done quite a good job of covering various aspects of Amazon. They have a very good reporter based in Seattle who covers the company. They occasionally do tough stories about various aspects of the company, whether it’s the counterfeit goods on the site or other things.
Bezos has gone to great lengths to woo the political establishment, such as buying an enormous mansion in the city, to serve as a kind of salon to entertain the movers and shakers. McGillis says that this is where the ownership of the newspaper by Bezos has resulted in poor coverage.
What the newspaper has been in an awkward position to cover is the whole scale of the takeover of Washington by Amazon. That is a huge story that has not yet really been covered by the paper. One can’t help but think that if a different company had acquired as much influence and scale and presence in Washington, that the local newspaper would have been writing about this in a big way. That you haven’t really seen yet in the Post. All of my former colleagues there assure me that there’s no calls coming from Seattle telling them not to do this or that story, and I believe them. It’s a more existential problem than that. It’s really tricky for the paper to tell in a big way what is happening with the Amazon takeover of Washington.
To my mind, there is no question that Amazon is a monopoly and has to be broken up. And so must other entities that have got too big like Facebook, Google, and the big Wall Street banks. There has to be an anti-trust blitz so that no remaining company is considered too big or too big to fail.