SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon flourished over its first two decades with little opposition and less scrutiny. A new coalition and a report unveiled Tuesday make clear that era is over.
The coalition, Athena, comprises three dozen grassroots groups involved in issues like digital surveillance, antitrust and working conditions in warehouses. The goal is to encourage and unify the resistance to Amazon that is beginning to form.
The report, from the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research group that focuses on social and economic issues in Southern California, delves into the largely unexplored topic of what Amazon is costing the communities where it has warehouses. The short answer: a lot.
While the simultaneous arrival of Athena and the report are a coincidence, they are linked by their attempts to understand and ultimately influence Amazon’s push into almost every aspect of modern life. The internet conglomerate hired 97,000 employees over the summer, nearly the total employment of Google. The report is bluntly titled “Too Big to Govern.”
“This is a company functioning at a scale that was previously left to government,” said Tom Perriello of the Open Society Foundations. Founded by billionaire George Soros, Open Society is providing some of the seed funding for Athena. The coalition is raising $15 million to cover its first three years.
“It has incredible impact,” Perriello said of Amazon. “Who could possibly shape its future and direction?”
Amazon, like Facebook, Apple and Google, has drawn the attention of Washington regulators, state attorneys general and at least a few politicians in the past year. The central question being asked about all of the companies: When does a tech platform become too big and powerful, ultimately hurting the society it once dazzled?
In Amazon’s case, the situation is particularly complicated. Its aspirations long ago exceeded online retail to encompass fresh groceries, devices that connect your home to the internet, front-door and neighborhood surveillance, professional services like plumbing and contracting, health care, government procurement, internet infrastructure and Hollywood entertainment. Just about everything, really.
Amazon declined to comment for this article.
Athena springs out of several unexpectedly successful grassroots efforts to rein in Amazon’s power.
Last fall, the retailer was forced to begin paying a $15 hourly minimum wage nationwide. In February, it abandoned plans to establish a new headquarters in New York after opponents mobilized against Amazon and the politicians who had approved the deal. This month, an attempt to stack the City Council in Seattle, the company’s hometown, with members more acceptable to Amazon backfired with voters.
These setbacks could be attributed to many factors, but one of them was the influence of labor and immigrant organizations. Now some of those groups are joining together under Athena.
“We’re learning from what makes Amazon back down, and looking to replicate that as much as possible with as many people as possible,” said Dania Rajendra, the Athena director.
Athena will be run from New York, but the real work will be done out in the field where most of the member organizations are. They include the Awood Center, a Minneapolis nonprofit that has organized Amazon workers from East Africa; Warehouse Workers for Justice, which is based in Chicago; and Fight for the Future, a group that focuses on digital issues, in Massachusetts.
In a separate move on Monday, Fight for the Future and other groups called on Congress to investigate Amazon’s surveillance products, including the Ring front-door monitor and Rekognition facial tracking software. The products threaten “our privacy and civil liberties, especially in brown and black communities,” the groups said.
The effort against Amazon will not be easy, said Lauren Jacobs of the Partnership for Working Families, a coalition member in Oakland. Amazon is projected to have $238 billion in sales this year with 750,000 employees.
“This is a David and Goliath story,” she said. “David took what he had and turned it into a winning strategy. We’re taking what we have — the voices of the members of our various organizations, our collective knowledge and experience and deep understanding of the economy around Big Tech, and the experience we’ve had with making this company shift its behavior — and trying to build a more humane economy.”
Athena’s $15 million budget is modest for the scale of change it hopes to bring about. “This is grassroots democracy,” said Barry Lynn of Open Markets Institute, a Washington think tank and coalition member focused on antitrust issues. “There’s no money in it. Just people.”
Perriello of the Open Society Foundations said updating protest movements for the digital era was an interesting challenge.
“Uncertainty is now baked into the model,” he said. “You don’t know where the fight is going to be two months from now or two years from now. So you need the ability to organize citizens of very different political stripes across geographies and across demographics, where traditionally you had to organize in place.”
The name Athena is associated with democracy, freedom and wisdom. But it has another advantage for the coalition.
“We didn’t want to have Amazon in the name — People Against Amazon or whatever — because part of the strategy is to offer a better vision for how the economy could work,” said Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit in Maine that opposes corporate concentration and advocates local community development. “To be for something, not just against.”
Sheheryar Kaoosji of another coalition member, the Warehouse Worker Resource Center in Ontario, east of Los Angeles, said Athena was not planning a boycott of Amazon but was more interested in trying to sway it — including its employees and customers.
“Half the households in America have an Amazon Prime account,” Kaoosji said. “That gives them a huge amount of power to change the company.”
His group is dedicated to improving conditions in what is sometimes called “the goods movement sector.”
The resource center is in California’s Inland Empire, where the work is done to process those packages that appear on porches in Santa Monica and Newport Beach as if by magic.
Amazon workers and Amazon customers exist in two different worlds, the Economic Roundtable said. The report calculates that a little more than half of Amazon warehouse workers in Southern California live in substandard housing. And for every $1 in wages, they receive 24 cents in public assistance.
“Every day, ships, trucks, trains and airplanes bring an estimated 21,500 diesel truckloads of merchandise to 21 Amazon warehouses in the four-county region,” the Economic Roundtable report said. It calculated that Amazon trucks last year created $642 million in “uncompensated public costs” for noise, road wear, accidents and harmful emissions.
Almost as an aside, the report indicated how adept Amazon, with a stock market value of nearly $900 billion, is at getting funding from California and local communities. This included $25 million from the California Film Commission to subsidize six productions, including the third season of “Sneaky Pete,” an Amazon crime drama, and $1.2 million from the California Office of Business and Economic Development toward an office building in Irvine for programmers.
The report noted on its title page that it was underwritten by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents more than 800,000 members of 300 unions. The Economic Roundtable said that did not affect the results.
Among the report’s suggestions: that Amazon raise its minimum wage to $20 an hour, that it require its logistics subcontractors to do the same, that it provide child care at its warehouses and that it build affordable housing in its logistics communities.
The report draws on California Public Records Act requests filed with communities with Amazon facilities. Many of them nevertheless came up empty. The report noted that very little of Amazon’s business was known to anyone but Amazon. Communities are in the dark.
“Our conclusion is that it’s time for Amazon to come of age and pay its own way,” said Daniel Flaming, a co-author of the report. “This means paying its full costs to the communities that host it and the workers who create its profits.”
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