As workers make bold demands for environmental justice, employers are chiming in, too—but mostly for their own benefit.
On September 20, 2019, an estimated 3000 tech workers in Seattle marched off the job for the Global Climate Strike. Faced with escalating activity by a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, Jeff Bezos announced, just a day before the walkout, that Amazon would be cofounding the Climate Pledge, a plan for corporations to take the lead in enacting carbon reduction in the face of government inaction.
With the corporation committing to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce all carbon emissions by 2040 by “stimulating investment in the development of low carbon products and services,” the pledge could be considered a kind of private Green New Deal.
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice’s ability to force Bezos’s hand is a major step forward for the climate and labor movements. But it also raises a question about these movements’ horizons. Setting carbon targets is just the first step in a process that ultimately will require radically transforming investment priorities. Short of that, not only will workers continue to be exploited and communities immiserated, but as a society we will lack the leverage needed to enforce these targets.
In fact, situating Amazon’s climate pledge within its overall business plans reveals ambitions for our transit system—the United States’ largest source of climate emissions—that prioritize corporate profits over the needs of working people and a livable climate.
Consider its vision for infrastructure and transportation. Part of the pledge includes the purchase of 100,000 electric vehicles for Amazon’s delivery fleet—a curious commitment, on the surface at least, for a company that has leaned on third-party contractors for the expensive and complicated “last mile” of delivering packages from warehouses to customers’ door. But look closer and it will become clear that these electric cars are less climate-conscious than downright monopolistic: They will help the company control the entire supply chain.
Until the 2008 Great Recession, Amazon restricted its control of the supply chain to the fulfillment centers where goods were stored and assembled for customers’ orders. Due to laws that only taxed transactions in states where e-commerce firms held property, Amazon skirted taxes for nearly two decades by locating its fulfillment centers in states with relatively low population density but in proximity to large markets such as Nevada, Arizona, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
With the end of this tax loophole and the opportunity to take advantage of cheap real estate following 2008, Amazon dramatically expanded its network to locate warehouses closer to dense urban markets so as to capture new customers with faster delivery and lower costs. Even so, last-mile delivery was largely controlled through contracts with UPS, USPS, and FedEx, whose extensive last-mile infrastructure and massive fleet of delivery vans allowed for cheaper delivery.
As time passed, Amazon experimented with new ways to gain complete control over e-commerce from start to finish. In the past two years, it has built a suite of delivery centers in cities that act as local transportation hubs for last-mile delivery. As of October 2019, Amazon had over 154 of these facilities in the United States, with 72 percent built in the last year. Amazon’s investment patterns indicate that hundreds more will open in the near future.
Amazon has also started to experiment with new ways of finding delivery labor, including the use of Uber-like “flex” drivers, subcontracted upstart logistics companies, and now, their own delivery drivers. Instead of complementing companies with unionized workforces like USPS and UPS, Amazon is replacing them with nonunion drivers who work for lower wages in dangerous conditions with precarious terms of employment.
For Amazon, this expansion comes at a cost. Where USPS packages cost the company $2–per package, Amazon’s own delivery network costs $9–10 a package. The company loses money on each item it ships. For now, it can absorb the burden: Buoyed by the profits of the company’s cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services, Amazon can justify operating at a loss if it means increasing market share and shifting consumer habits. But in the longer term, it will have no interest in sustaining these costs or passing them on to consumers who refuse to pay higher prices.
Amazon is instead betting on lowering the cost per item delivered through innovation. In this context, Amazon’s announcement to buy 100,000 electric vehicles from Rivian makes sense. Rivian, a venture capital-backed “automobile technology” company receiving investment from Amazon and Ford alike, manufactures not only electric but also autonomous vehicles. The hand has been played: Amazon’s long-term strategy is to automate the supply chain. Bezos’s private Green New Deal stacks all the chips in his favor.
The automation and electrification of the supply chain won’t stop at self-driving cars, though. It will require a vast reorganization of the city itself—and don’t think for a moment that Bezos doesn’t know it.
Like the automobile, rubber, and oil companies of old that played a part in dismantling the vast trolley network of urban America, Amazon is aiming to integrate its business into the very fabric of the urban environment. Other corporations share this vision: one premised on individual car ownership, networks of self-driving auto and truck fleets, and full electrification of the transit system. And as venture capitalists, tech firms like Google, Amazon, Lyft and Uber, and large car manufacturers such as Ford, GM, Toyota, and Tesla all pour money into a convoluted web of ownership, the auto industry and its tech allies have little desire to see transportation infrastructure move toward alternatives like mass transit.
To this end, corporations are mobilizing politically. In Amazon’s hometown, 18 of the region’s largest employers created Challenge Seattle to address crises around housing and transit, as well as education, employment, and other issues. Partly funded by Amazon, the think tank’s main projects around transportation have focused on developing “smart transit systems” and commissioning reports on the feasibility of autonomous vehicle trials.
Challenge Seattle once was innocuous enough on the periphery, but with Amazon pouring a record $1.5 million into local city council races, the company’s increasing meddling in local politics reveals an interest in influencing urban policy. And while “sustainable transit” policies carry a veneer of environmentalism, make no mistake: They fly in the face of a genuine Green New Deal that would prioritize the mass transit and dense housing working people need.
A private, corporate Green New Deal thus fails to address our interlocking housing, transit, climate, and economic crises. Absent workers’ influence, these technologies will weaken their bargaining power, leaving workers to compete for what jobs remain and ironically forcing them to work longer hours to make ends meet. Meanwhile, elites will continue to concentrate wealth and acquire even more influence over our futures, dictating what and how things get built. Their horizon portends autonomous vehicles and rocket ships while the earth burns and life perishes.
Another urban horizon is possible. But it requires moving beyond holding capitalists accountable on carbon emissions and disrupting their plans for transportation investments. In fact, we must shift investments away from their control altogether and into channels that meet social need. We must build power to move more of the economy under public control.
Activists and progressive lawmakers are starting to move in this direction. Last month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, building on recent tenant gains in New York City. Ocasio-Cortez’s original resolution that popularized a Green New Deal also included making investments in public transportation, reinforcing growing protests worldwide over the defunding of mass transit.
That Green New Deal advocates foreground affected communities not simply as constituents but also as activists is a testament to the vision of this blossoming movement. Until now, the focus has been on tenants, riders, transit workers, nurses, and teachers. But as tech and logistics companies become implicated in the contest over urban infrastructure, their workers have a role to play in this movement, too. As the people who build and run the technologies, servers, data centers, warehouses and trucks on which these companies rely, and who would suffer in the future that their employers are investing in, tech and logistics workers are uniquely positioned to withdraw their labor and shift investment priorities for the common good.
This is why Amazon Employees for Climate Justice matters. It’s not only organizing within the company’s headquarters but also supporting communities and workers across its logistics infrastructure. This solidarity can lend striking warehouse workers leverage, especially now that Amazon’s expanded fulfillment and delivery network limits the damage workers in any one warehouse can inflict. Coordination between the engineers designing this network and the workers operating it can help overcome this constraint.
If workers do manage to build solidarity throughout the supply chain, they can turn strikes into a weapon—not just for themselves, but for the entire working and middle classes (that’s at least four-fifths of the United States). In recent years, teachers around the country have been striking to win broader social demands, from better wages and health care for West Virginia public-sector workers to affordable housing for Chicago residents. From this perspective, tech and logistics workers have an infrastructure to win, one for the public to control.
Consider the following scenario. Organized tech and warehouse workers, together with truck drivers, dockworkers and the communities from which all these workers come, coordinate decisive disruptions of the tech and logistics infrastructure, bringing it under their control. This infrastructure could be used to deliver goods not on the basis of profit but social need, be it in cases of climate disaster or even supplies for schools and hospitals more generally.
Moreover, under collective ownership, online platforms would not simply facilitate convenient transactions for the few; masses of people could communicate and fulfill requests, each according to their need.
Here autonomous vehicles no longer would be a means for making workers compete for ever fewer jobs at worse wages. Under workers’ control, this sort of automation would free up people’s time, allowing them to dedicate their labor toward more personally meaningful, socially useful and environmentally regenerative activities—for instance, toward repurposing the tech and logistics infrastructure in service of more livable cities.
We stand at a crossroads. We can settle on a private Green New Deal that may keep some cities afloat by throwing workers off the boat. Or, by leveraging the position of organized workers in the supply chain through coordinated strikes, we can program an alternative future of dense, public housing connected by transit systems owned, designed and managed by the people who operate them. The utopia that Bezos claims can be realized in outer space is quite possible on earth. It would just require being freed of his—and Amazon’s—control.
Editor’s note: a previous version of this story overstated how much Amazon contributed to Challenge Seattle, and characterized the think tank’s mandate too narrowly. It has been corrected.