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 Faced With The Bezos’ Divorce The Left Should Be Saying: “We’re Coming for What’s Ours!”

Since it was announced on Twitter that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos would be getting a divorce the media has been brimming with speculation over the event. Will they go to court? How long will the case take? Was it infidelity? How will this impact Amazon shares? And what stupid comment is Trump tweeting about now? But by far, the big question on everyone’s minds is who will win out in the settlement? Will the richest man in the world hang onto his billions or will his wife of 25 years become the world’s richest woman overnight? Instead, I say the cash should be doled out to a more deserving candidate, those that provided for the Bezos’ fortune in the first place: American workers.

Amazon positions itself as a 21st century, people-friendly company where Jeff Bezos, found towards the bottom of an employee pyramid shown to newly hired, “sees himself as the least important person in the company”, whereas associates, located “at the very top”, are considered to be the company’s most valued assets. Yet, despite Amazon’s claim that it “provides a safe and positive workplace for thousands of people”, the company has come under fire for its deplorable work conditions that hark back to the days of early industrial capitalism. A column in the Guardian details how the Amazon fulfillment centers operate away from the public eye.

“It doesn’t take long before you’ve see blown backs, boxes falling on people’s heads, carpal tunnel in your coworkers’ wrists, and balky knees that never get better. You’ve seen workers compensation claims repeatedly denied and efforts to address safety issues given low priority. You’ve seen sexism, racism, and ageism in a promotion culture tainted with favoritism. You’ve seen write-ups unfairly distributed and used to manipulate workers. You’ve seen an emotionally toxic culture, where the stress of meeting productivity targets leads managers to treat workers like things, to be pushed harder and faster without regard for the emotional or personal cost. You’ve arrived home exhausted, too worn out to spend time with your kids or friends. And you’ve noticed that the wealth we produce is being accumulated by our boss – the modern world’s richest man – while our wages barely keep us afloat. Amazon’s much-touted new minimum wage of $15 is not enough to propel hundreds of thousands of us into the middle class.”

Amazon workers labor in an atmosphere of Orwellian fear, kept under the impression that they could lose their job at any moment for taking too much time away from the job and directed as if they were “an extension of the machine”. By manipulating their precarity, Amazon is able to force their employees to work harder under such unbearable conditions. The working day is regulated by a system of digital trackers, such as Amazon’s newly patented electronic wristbands, that pinpoint everywhere an associate goes to ensure that company time is not being wasted. They are each given a “rate” that encourages them to work harder and faster than before. In a UK fulfillment center, author and undercover investigator James Bloodworth found that Amazon employees turned to a “toilet bottle” system for fear that they would be found wasting time making the 10-minute walk to the nearest bathroom.

In general, an Amazon associate brings home poverty wages, a measly $28,000 (median) per year. While thousands of Amazon’s 575,000 employees are on food stamps (as high as 1 in 3 employees in Arizona), reported profits reached as high as $3.03 billion in 2017. According to Bloodworth, warehouses are operated “like a prison” with “airport-style security scanners” located at the entrances where workers are checked and patted down to ensure they don’t steal. Surely, they, if anyone, deserve to have a slice of the divorce settlement.

Outside of the confines of the fulfillment centers, Amazon has helped contribute to cooptation and the erosion of the commons that we as a democratic society benefit from every day. The United States Postal Service, one of the most successful institutions of our American republic, has been pushed to running deficits in the wake of a 2006 law passed by a Republican-dominated government that requires the USPS to pre-fund the health benefits of its retirees until the year 2056 in an attempt to ‘prove’ its unviability and justify its privatization. More than a decade later, the market hounds began pushing for privatization of the USPS in order to fix this manufactured contradiction, with Trump officially proposing the motion this past summer.

Amazon’s role in this began in 2013 when the company swooped in to take advantage of the cash-strapped Postal Service by signing an agreement granting Amazon a reduced fee for its products as well as a commitment on the part of USPS to deliver their products on Sunday when UPS and FedEx are inactive. Nowadays, Amazon uses the USPS for bulk delivery of almost 40% of its products, making up $7 billion of the USPS’ $19.5 billion revenues. While the Postal Services figures are up, yet still in the red, the Amazon deal has put in place, not a life-saving measure, but one of dependency, where the corporation has embedded itself into operations of the USPS. Amazon’s interests now lie in saving on transaction costs by flooding the Postal Service with its products and any change in delivery prices now threatens the fragile deal between the two. Stuck between a multinational company and an anti-government administration, the USPS has gone from an undeniably viable service, to financially vulnerable, to submissive to the corporate drive for profit.

We could witness this dynamic when in early 2018, Trump announced that he would call for an investigation of the USPS deal with Amazon to which Amazon, Walmart, Target and other online retailers launched the “Package Coalition” to defend their interests in relation to the operations of the USPS. Chairman of the Package Coalition, John McHugh, stated in a subtle threat to rival interests in Washington that “All of our members provide solid financial footing to the Postal Service. The last thing you want to talk about is disrupting one of the few bright spots of the Postal Service.” McHugh also responded to statements made by Trump arguing that the USPS should double the rate it charges Amazon saying that the USPS-Amazon deal is “beneficial”  for both parties involved.

This dependency has been internalized at the USPS where supervisors and workers alike all understand any changes in policy to possibly endanger the fragile deal with Amazon

“I’ve heard that from my supervisors [that] if we upset Amazon, they’ll pull out, and we need their help,” stated a rural carrier for the Postal Service. “I feel like I work for Amazon. I feel like my life depends on Amazon.”

Workplaces at the USPS are now understaffed, enduring long shifts, and struggling to manage the flood of Amazon packages. Cases in which employees work 12-hour shifts or even weeks on end without a day off are not uncommon.

“I don’t know if the tendency to overwork the employees [happened] before Amazon, but the Postal Service just refuses to treat their employees like humans, and we deliver Amazon packages until we drop dead.”

Finally, aside from Amazon providing its services to its customer base, the company has a net-negative effect on American society. For all of the benefits that Amazon drains from the public coffers, they pay absolutely nothing in federal income taxes. In fact, the company was most recently shopping around for more tax breaks, having cities around the country compete for a deal that would grant them the right to house the latest Amazon headquarters. One city has even proposed changing their name to “Amazon”. For support in spreading the gospel of Amazon, Bezos resorted to the Washington Post, of which he is the chief stockholder, as a public mouthpiece for advertising the supposed benefits that the new HQ2 would bring cities and has even supported politicians, such as Larry Hogan, that promised the company billions in economic incentives. It goes without saying that all of these proposals political elites have been offering were being done using public taxpayer money that could have gone to providing for our children’s schools, our degrading infrastructure, Medicare, public support for university tuition, or even economic relief for unemployed and underemployed workers.

There is something sinister beneath the abundance of products, quick delivery times, and fancy tech services at Amazon. While many middle-class Americans have fawned over the increased luxury the company has provided them in their lives, right before our very eyes a new monster has begun to take its place in the halls of corporate power. Instead of being allured by the celebrity gossip involved in the Bezos divorce, we should remember that any money MacKenzie will be awarded in the case will have been won at the expense of society at large. Only in the most perverted economic system would one individual be permitted to be in possession of wealth to the tune of $69 billion (her expected settlement payout) all while mistreating workers, co-opting public institutions for their benefit, and looting society’s resources meant for public use. We need to reposition our political priorities towards those who actively harm our society on a scale much larger than any migrant ever could. We need to pursue a more aggressive policy in reigning in the power of large monopolies such as Amazon, and if they fight back, break them up or nationalize them outright. It’s time we as a people stand up and tell the Bezos’ of the world, “we’re here, and we’ve come for what’s ours!”

Patrick Sawyer is masters student at the Higher School of Economics where he is doing research on protests and social movements

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