Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
During Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting on Thursday, May 24, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was confronted by protesters from Working Washington, a coalition which includes community groups, unions and members of Occupy Seattle. As police evicted demonstrators, Bezos told shareholders that nine out of Amazon’s ten best-selling products were either digital content or digital platforms like the Kindle.
Bezos was making a point: the physical world is being phased out of Amazon’s business plan.
The Occupy movement and the protests it has galvanized seem to represent Amazon’s polar opposite. They succeeded where blogging and online activity had faltered, precisely because they were operating in the physical world. But Bezos and his antagonists have more in common than he might think: both have changed the national landscape by coming up with new ways to deliver “products” that had been around for a long time—books and music for Amazon and jobs, opportunity and economic justice for the movement.
In their first direct confrontation, Bezos seemed to yield. Was that because, as an innovator, Bezos recognized a new and powerful idea? Or was he just making a tactical retreat until he’s in a better position to fight back?
Amazon has received intense and well-deserved criticism for working conditions in its warehouses, where temperatures can reportedly rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The people working inside them are underpaid, overworked, subject to firing without cause and deprived of employee benefits. Amazon gets away with this because it uses a variety of legal tricks, like demanding that its employees call themselves “independent contractors.”
Amazon has also taken heat for its membership in ALEC—the American Legislative Executive Council—a corporate-funded group that backs right-wing politicians. ALEC also drafts and promotes laws like those that effectively disenfranchised large numbers of minority voters, the “Stand Your Ground” legislation that has resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin and a number of other people, and the anti-union laws brought to national attention by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
If nothing else, Bezos offered symbolic gestures of conciliation today. He announced that Amazon would spend $52 million to install air conditioning in its warehouses and that it was leaving ALEC “because of positions they’ve taken not related to our business.”
In an even more telling sign of the impact of the protests, the normally loquacious Bezos left without taking questions from reporters.
Bezos did not announce that employees in Amazon’s warehouses would receive the benefits they’re due under state and national law, or that Amazon would stop forcing them to declare themselves independent contractors.
And Amazon was behind the curve in withdrawing from ALEC, lagging well behind companies such as KFC, Taco Bell, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Intuit, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods. Most of these companies left ALEC more than a month ago, when revelations about its role in “Stand Your Ground” gave renewed momentum to demands that corporations leave it.
But then, ALEC has treated Amazon very well. It has defended the “Amazon loophole” that allows online sellers to avoid charging sales taxes the way other businesses do. This unfair advantage has given Amazon a lot more clout against neighborhood bookstores and retail book chains—clout it has used to drive many of them out of business.