After years of dominating American capitalism by grinding workers into the dust, Amazon is on a hot losing streak, and it’s absolutely invigorating to watch. If the Amazon Labor Union had only organized workers in a blowout vote on Staten Island, it would’ve been enough. And if Amazon had only spent $4.3 million fighting them just to fail, it would’ve been enough. But, dayenu! A judge also just threw out the company’s motion to dismiss a case of race- and gender-based discrimination filed by a corporate worker, too!
Except it’s not actually enough.
Until a few weeks ago, the last time I bought anything on Amazon was in 2017. Then my vet told me that I had to get special diagnostic strips to monitor the sugar content of my cat’s urine (long story). When I asked her if I could just buy them at my local pharmacy, she sent me a link to Amazon, where I could get them delivered in two days for $16. I clicked. Immediately, I felt the anger and guilt that comes with trying to be a person of conscience in a culture of pathological convenience. And I felt foolish for imagining that ethical consumerism can do anything other than temporarily assuage those feelings. The fact that The New York Times uses Amazon Web Services—something it’s disclosed while also publishing exposés about Amazon’s atrocious labor practices—doesn’t stop me from reading the paper of record. Zephyr Teachout calls it the “too big to boycott” trap in her most recent book, Break ’Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money. Beyond being futile, she writes, symbolically avoiding mega-corporations is also masturbatory: “The ‘vote with your feet’ model has a lot of appeal, in that it allows people to import virtuousness into their lives without the struggle of organizing and building a coalition.”
Chris Smalls, who was fired by Amazon following his organizing efforts in Staten Island, has done that hard work. That includes appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show to speak to the masses of old white people mainlining the signature Fox blend of racism and Reaganomics, a move that was seen as controversial by some on the left. Charlotte Newman—the head of Underrepresented Founder Startup Business Development at AWS—tried to do the work when she sent memos and e-mails to corporate leadership outlining the steps Amazon could take to address the discrimination she faced as a Black woman in the workplace. No one ever responded to her, but David Zapolsky, the same executive who’s presumably lived to regret calling Smalls “not smart or articulate,” sent an e-mail to Amazon employees inviting them to call his cell phone and tell him how it feels to be Black in America. Derp.
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Even though she’s now suing the company, Newman told me, she doesn’t recommend a boycott. “There’s this idea—could an organization be so corrupt that people shouldn’t seek employment or work with it? But I don’t see Amazon through that lens. Given the size of the company and gridlock in Congress, I don’t think we’ll see a space where Amazon ceases to exist. The more likely change that we’ll see is if consumers ask more of the company. Amazon is customer-obsessed, and I think if customers start to ask more questions about Amazon’s practices, that would move the needle more than anything.”
Walking away isn’t an option for Newman either. The first in her family to attend an Ivy League school, she told me how proud her parents were when she got a job offer from Amazon. She loved working in public service for people like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, but she also felt selfish for not pursuing a career that would better support her family. So, encouraged by management, she took the job even though it was lower-level than the one she had applied for, learning only later about the dramatic pay disparity between her and her white peers with similar qualifications. As soon as she assumed the role, she encountered shocking levels of discrimination, which left her wondering how she could spend her weekends marching for Black lives and then keep her head down during the week: “I’ve tried to keep working through the comments, low[er] pay [than white peers], being promoted slower, through the harassment. But who am I if I don’t say anything?” In essence: how to be a person of conscience at Amazon? After exhausting the internal remedies, she finally sought counsel and filed a 63-page federal complaint that details Amazon’s total disregard for equity in favor of showboating social media posts.
“What Chris [Smalls] has done sends a signal that the balance of power isn’t what we thought it was,” Newman told me. “This idea that employees just have to always fall in line; it isn’t possible to win if you go up against Amazon—I think it sends a signal to those of us at the corporate level: Perhaps we can use our voices and do so to win.”
Maybe that’s also the lesson for anyone who wants to consume responsibly: Engage more. Sure, shop locally and support small businesses, but don’t just feel bad when you buy from Amazon. Make it count by kicking in twice as much to the Amazon Labor Union, and let Amazon know why. Buy Amazon stock and get behind the efforts led by New York City Comptroller Brad Lander to use shareholder power to make changes to the board. Demand of anyone running for office that they support legislation to claw back taxpayer subsidies, like the bill Assembly member Ron Kim is proposing in New York.
None of this is necessarily going to make you feel good. Just less compromised, and possibly more effective.
In a society where monopoly power is omnipresent, it can feel like everything and nothing is enough. And it’s made worse when we’re asked to put aside our moral outrage for the convenience of next-day delivery, while Jeff Bezos inconveniences the masses to accommodate his yacht. Still, we don’t get to abandon the field. We have to stay and fight, no matter how confused or conflicted we feel.
Editor’s note: Alexis Grenell has worked on campaigns for both Brad Lander and Zephyr Teachout.