Amazon is becoming the face of US inequality

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In the days leading up to the Bessemer union vote, Amazon is throwing punches. They just don’t target workers.

As the Alabama warehouse votes whether or not to unionize, Amazon is facing mounting pressure from progressive lawmakers – and on Friday the company took the offensive, calling out Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren ( D-MA) for their criticism of the company’s policies. Predictable tweets caused more tweets, turning into days of jousting between progressives and a corporate PR account. During the weekend, Recoding broke the news that Bezos had personally encouraged the call because he was concerned that his company would be too passive in the face of mounting pressure. Whatever the risks, Bezos clearly sees this fight as a winner.

Democrats too. It’s rare to see so much national involvement in a union action, but President Biden stepped in earlier this month and expressed his support in veiled but unmistakable terms. Amazon is a useful foil for a party trying to recapture working-class voters, and Amazon’s loose tweets could spark a much bigger fight. While Democrats are responding to the economic fallout from the pandemic, Amazon is an ideal opponent, making billions while the rest of the economy is collapsing. The pandemic has only added to that inequality by shutting down personal retail while Amazon’s e-commerce business flourished. The company is the perfect villain for a party eager to tell a story about economic justice – and while the Bessemer elections will be counted and done in a few days, the battle between Amazon and the Democrats may not be.

Much of the fight against Bessemer so far has stemmed from Biden’s special commitment to unions as a political force. Biden wants to be seen as enthusiastically pro-labor (a rare quality for a post-Clinton Democrat), and this is the most significant labor effort in years for reasons we’ll detail here. So the Bessemer fight has Biden stand up for the little guy, suggesting his work council will crack down on any Amazon irregularities. It raises Biden as a different kind of Democrat with more to offer to the working class. It’s not just the right thing to do; it is also good policy.

But that political calculus goes far beyond Bessemer’s struggle. Biden wants to be seen as a bold, progressive president who tackles deep-seated inequality. A public feud with Amazon makes it clear he’s trying, even if more ambitious efforts like the $ 15 minimum wage (Amazon’s preferred remedy) are lost along the way. And since insults to Amazon is easier than turning back decades of economic damage, the feud gives Biden an easy way to show he’s trying. All he has to do is label Amazon as the face of the problem – the vanguard of everything wrong with the US economy.

This month, A new book tells the same story on a larger scale. Written by ProPublica‘s Alec MacGillis, Fulfillment is not so much about Amazon’s business as it is about the social disruption that has come about, linking Amazon’s rise to power with the struggles of a carton packer in Dayton or a small office retailer in El Paso. Many of the characters in the book aren’t even officially Amazon employees, but work for contractors or sell in the company’s marketplace. Still, the general message is clear: Amazon is getting rich and powerful through the work of these people as they rush to stay alive.

In the introduction, MacGillis explicitly advocates Amazon as a poster child of this new style of American business. As he describes it, the idea for his book came about when he realized that Amazon was “an ideal framework for understanding the country and what it was becoming.”

[Amazon] served as the ultimate lens on the dividing lines of the land because it was just about everywhere … It had segmented the land into different kinds of places, each with their assigned rank, income and purpose. It had changed not only the national landscape itself, but the landscape of opportunity in America – the options that lay before people, what they could aspire to with their lives.

That economic divide is, of course, much older than Amazon. The landscape of American opportunity has always been skewed, and the latest tectonics date back at least 50 years. Amazon has been at the forefront of many of those changes – most notably the shift to e-commerce, third-party fulfillment networks, and massively scalable online interactions. But Amazon didn’t cause those shifts; it just positioned itself to take advantage of them. MacGillis recognizes this in the way he describes the company: a lens, rather than the whole picture in itself.

While Democrats rush to connect with the working class and rural voters, that lens can be a powerful political force. For decades, the party has struggled to describe the shattering divide in the US economy that has pushed wealth into the big cities and caused the rest of the country to decline. Since 2016, many voters on the wrong side of that divide have left the party for Trump, a trend Biden is eager to reverse. Neither side has a meaningful plan to undo the structural damage, but Biden hopes a wave of federal money will soften the blow, starting with the trillion dollar aid package and continue with trillions more in infrastructure spending planned for this spring.

Democrats hope to label those bills a contemporary New Deal, save the country from economic ruin, and unify it politically. Portraying Amazon as the face of that ruin – and using a public argument with the company as proof that the party is taking it seriously – is just a good message.

A feud between Democrats and Amazon would also unbalance the Republicans, splitting the party between its populist rhetoric and pro-business policies. Since Trump, Bezos has been a rhetorical foil to Fox News, but Amazon benefited enormously of Trump’s tax cut and quadrupled in value during Trump’s four years in office. Even now, Republicans involved in the Sanders-Amazon feud have found themselves in the awkward position of defending a company they have attacked for the past four years.

Amazon has enough resources to defend itself. The company is still hugely profitable, the second largest employer in the United States (to Wal-Mart) and the second largest federal lobbyist (after FacebookIt will have ample opportunity to soften the blow of any new policy and is better equipped to face the changes than almost any other company on the planet. Congress’s efforts to change Section 230 have focused on Google and Facebook rather than Amazon’s product liability issues, and aside from the Pentagon’s contract, government work is still a relatively small part of the company’s operations. After decades of incredible growth, only so much can go wrong.

But political pressure will still change Amazon in profound and unpredictable ways. Facebook found itself in this position in 2016 – suddenly blamed for Trump’s election, Brexit and the deteriorating state of liberal democracy around the world. Five years later, every new project meets with hostility, and ambitious politicians around the world view the company as a prize waiting to be withdrawn. Most companies would try to avoid that fate. After this weekend’s dust buildup, Amazon seems to be leaning in.