It’s a common tale in progressive circles: a successful company does something you don’t like… so you personally boycott that company. You would be hard-pressed to find a social justice warrior who has entirely positive thoughts about using Uber, eating at Chik-fil-A, or signing up for Facebook.
Amazon is rapidly becoming a bigger target for such progressive ire, perhaps most visibly in Bernie Sanders’ recent effort with the “Stop BEZOS Act” that resulted in Amazon announcing a higher minimum wage for its workers.
A recent article from Fast Company by Cale Guthrie Weissman discussed some of the unique societal costs that Amazon’s success is inflicting on workers, and encouraged people to cancel their Prime memberships in response. Some of those negatives include unlivable wages, alleged poor working conditions, and the destruction of small-businesses that can’t compete with Amazon. The New York Times podcast The Daily, also recently produced an episode about the human toll associated with instant delivery.
The chorus is growing for changes at Amazon, but instead of sending your spite to Jeff Bezos in the form of cancelling your Prime subscription, you should instead help Amazon’s rank-and-file employees organize a union.
Most great change does not come from just being against something, but rather for a viable alternative. A small portion of Amazon’s customer base discontinuing their $9/month Prime membership might make it into a few news feeds, but it won’t actually change the systemic problems that are a byproduct of Amazon’s success. Unionizing Amazon’s workforce will have significant, positive impact for workers and the downstream economic effects of Amazon’s business model.
Let’s be clear that Amazon workers organizing a union is not a new idea. Several pieces have been written on the subject and Amazon itself is pretty clearly not warm to the notion. Amazon is not unique in that mindset, most major corporations that don’t already have a labor-management environment are not anxiously trying to acquire one.
Organized labor in the United States is seen as standing in the way of capitalist success, despite the fact that Germany has built a robust, diverse economy in the West with one of the most extensive labor rights structures in Europe. But Amazon itself is not forging a business model that prioritizes the largest profit margin (i.e. capitalist success), instead it’s trying to become so ubiquitous that you simply cannot avoid using it. Amazon is profitable to be sure, but you’ll see more headlines about its expanding revenue — which is a different measure than its profit. Amazon attracts customers with competitive prices by keeping its margins on products low; because it’s so large it can afford to scale in that way… while Mom & Pop shops simply cannot do the same to compete.
If Amazon is required to provide better working conditions, pay higher wages, and pursue growth with a little more consciousness of the associated human costs…we all benefit, but it will mean slightly higher prices for Amazon products and thus a little more competitive edge for small-businesses. It might also slow the onslaught that automation is inflicting on the workforce.
You can, therefore, actually strengthen small-businesses by improving conditions for Amazon workers, and avoid deep societal impacts of Amazon’s success by encouraging its workers to unionize.
Organizing the Change
Creating a new union is a sensitive endeavor. Amazon, as noted earlier, is not keen on the idea and trains its management to spot union-organizing activity. The current U.S. government is also no friend of organized labor, with President Trump even taking the time to publicly chastise unions… and heckle Amazon in what is surely a master strategy the rest of us just don’t understand.
That’s good for progressives though. Organizing a union takes time and many steps, and building a good union at Amazon would stretch into the next Presidential term — and possibly a new administration.
The first step though is for rank-and-file workers at Amazon, and more specifically those employed at its warehouse and distribution centers, to begin talking with each other about the prospect of unionizing and to seek guidance from a local labor group.
Anyone who would rather cancel their Prime membership and lose out on its genuinely competitive benefits should, instead, see if they have an Amazon worker in their social network and send them a link to information about organizing a union. For one thing: you’re not likely to scuttle Amazon’s success with a progressives-only (conservatives don’t boycott financial success in favor of workers), partially-adopted Prime boycott. For another, your goal should not be to scuttle Amazon’s success! Your goal should be to work toward better pay and working conditions for its workforce, a thriving small-business economy for all of us, and a future where more companies are effectively persuaded to do right by their communities.
Petulant boycotts distributed among ideological camps don’t usually create systemic change. Uber is about to launch an historic IPO, Chik-fil-A is hardly struggling under the weight of recent social stigmas, and Facebook looks poised to survive the dispersed epiphany that it’s a waste of time and agent of chaos. Meanwhile, root-causing a problem and building new solutions from the ground up changes things all the time.
You have to ask yourself: when you go to bed tonight would you rather feel like you were one more needle in the back of Jeff Bezos, or one more brick building a strong foundation for a better future?