Amazon’s announcement last week that it would boost the wages of its lowest paid workers to $15 an hour in time for this year’s holiday rush, was not a generous gift from its owner Jeff Bezos, reportedly the wealthiest man on earth. It was also not, as some would like us to believe, a miracle wrought by the intervention of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. It was a strategic concession on the part of Amazon in the face of its own public relations needs, competitive pressures from its near-peers, pressure from transnational cooperation among its unionized European workforce, and to a minor degree the STOP BEZOS bill introduced by Sanders which proposes to tax large corporations for the amount their employees use in federal aid programs.
In the absence of some vast upheaval, like a new president and scores of new congressmen and senators it’s hard to imagine how such legislation could make its way through the House and Senate. After all, Amazon, Walmart, McDonalds and other low-wage employers make it rain money on hundreds of congressmen and senators of both parties – actually thousands of politicians if you count state and local ones plus their favorite churches, charities and a galaxy of nonprofits. While the Sanders bill can serve to spark useful discussion, it’s in no danger of actually becoming law any time soon.
In fact, Amazon has several of its own reasons for giving up the wage increase right now. The biggest is that in the next few weeks the marketing colossus will announce the location of its next US company town – I mean corporate headquarters. Amazon desperately needs to be seen as a more benevolent corporate overlord, at least compared to its near-peers, and being the first to concede to a $15 minimum hourly wage will help do that. Walmart declared earlier this year that it would soon raise its minimum wage to $11, and Target says it intends to raise the pay of all new hired workers to $12 in the near future.
The claim of outfits like Business Insider that the wage hike will give Amazon a labor market advantage over competitors like Walmart, Target, Macy’s, or J.C. Penney though seems a bit shaky because except for the Whole Foods chain which Amazon owns, they don’t draw from the same labor markets geographically. Target, Walmart and the rest have to maintain hundreds or thousands of brick and mortar stores near population centers, while Amazon’s direct-to-customer model allowed it to locate a large number of its facilities in low wage places away from metropolitan areas, where it can pick its workforce. Target, Macy’s and the rest have never employed thousands, maybe tens of thousands of nomadic older workers living in mobile homes and trailer campgrounds, as Amazon famously does. The exception to this is of course Whole Foods, which as a supermarket must have stores close to its customer base, and must compete in a crowded market where Walmart is currently getting almost a dollar out of every three bucks Americans spend on groceries.
The most direct external pressure exerted
A final important factor in Amazon’s wage concession seems to have been increasing strike activity among its European workers. Unlike the US, where repressive laws make it extremely difficult to organize unions and where workers for the time being seem to be too fearful to strike, European workers are more likely to belong to unions, and still possess a vigorous strike tradition. On last year’s Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving Amazon workers in Germany and Italy walked off the job for higher wages and benefits. They followed up this year with coordinated walkouts and work-to-rule protests in Germany, Italy, Spain and even Poland, where the US has imposed some, but not as many legal restrictions modeled upon those in the US, all occurring on Amazon Prime Day, the company’s made-up sales-boosting holiday.
These European strikes and job actions are not the feeble and token affairs that Fight For 15 and some other US outfits have justifiably been criticized for, in which tiny handfuls of workers hold press conferences with churches and community organizations outside of workplaces, and little or nothing in the way of home visits or shop floor organizing takes place. They are full fledged work stoppages involving hundreds of workers per location. A Washington Post article pegs the number taking part in Prime Day strikes at around 1,800, but then the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos. Corporate press in the states are pretty disciplined about not reporting strikes here, let alone those abroad, so it would be interesting to see what numbers appear in German, Spanish, Polish or Italian accounts. Amazon execs certainly do know, and they know as well that international cooperation among workers spells the beginning of the end of their world.
Undeniably, Amazon’s concession will make a difference in the lives of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of Amazon workers in the US and the UK, and it will certainly contribute to public pressure on Amazon’s rivals and other low-wage employers across the board. They can afford it. It’s a minor but significant victory for Amazon’s workers and the working class in general. Senator Sanders can claim a minor but significant part in that victory. But it’s still early.
Some workers are claiming that Amazon is giving with one hand and taking with the other, that the wage concession is accompanied by cuts in stock and other benefits which will actually lower the compensation for some workers. Amazon execs know this is will be a long struggle. They’re ready. Are we?
For Black Agenda Report, I’m Bruce Dixon. Please be aware that corporate social media including Google are suppressing Black Agenda Report in their search results to protect the public against news, commentary and analysis from the black left on the specious and nonsensical ground that we might be influenced by the Russians. Facebook has retained propagandists from the Atlantic Council for similar reasons and in pursuit of similar ends. Thus the only way to ensure you’re getting fresh news, commentary and analysis from the black left is to visit our web site at www.blackagendareport.com and hit the subscribe button to receive our free weekly email newsletter containing links to all our new audio and print content each and every week. Email is the original social media, and the marketers call it dark social media because the corporate owners of the internet cannot trace or block it.
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Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.