Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced Oct. 2 that the retail giant would pay all its workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour beginning Nov. 1. Activists working to raise the minimum wages across the United States credited their ongoing movement with forcing Amazon to up compensation for its workers.
Activists have been fighting for higher minimum wages around the Puget Sound region for years. In 2013, voters in the city of SeaTac passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage for airport employees and other workers at hotels, restaurants and parking lots in or near the airport. The Seattle City Council followed suit in 2014, establishing a higher minimum wage, which would gradually increase to $15 over the course of a few years. In 2016, Washington voters approved a minimum wage that is set to reach $13.50 an hour by 2020.
Amazon’s decision comes on the heels of the Tax Amazon movement, an effort to set an employee hours tax on large businesses in Seattle. Amazon halted construction on a new office building in the city after the Seattle City Council passed the tax. The corporation then funded a campaign to repeal the tax on the ballot before the Seattle City Council reversed its decision.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant, one of just two councilmembers to vote against the repeal of the employee hours tax, said that Amazon’s announcement is a victory for the 15 Now movement and workers across the world.
Aaron Burkhalter: What was your reaction when you heard that Amazon would be offering $15 an hour to its employees?
Kshama Sawant: Well, my reaction is that it is a huge victory for the movement around the country, including Seattle, but also Amazon warehouse workers themselves, who have exposed the exploitative conditions that Amazon imposes on warehouse workers, and also credit to the 15 Now movement that we launched here and went nationwide. And also credit to Seattle’s Tax Amazon movement, which, while it’s had a setback and repeal by politicians, it has clearly brought Amazon’s bullying and threatening tactics to the light of day. All of that propelled Bernie Sanders to propose the Stop BEZOS Act. Clearly, Amazon wants in some way to mitigate their image. So I would say it’s important to recognize this as a victory for social movements and not incorrectly view this as largess from a billionaire.
AB: Jeff Bezos said this decision is about the company wanting to lead. Bernie Sanders said he hoped it would be “a shot heard round the world.” How do you view the decision?
KS: First of all, I view this not as something that Amazon and Bezos did independently. It’s the concession that they’ve been forced to make due to the strength of social movements. Our conclusion has to be that when we fight, we can win. Look how stunningly wrong those seven councilmembers who repealed the Amazon tax have been proven. They got scared because of Amazon’s bullying and they capitulated, but ordinary people did not. We kept fighting and really we’re starting to see the results. And I have no doubt in my mind that this provides added protection for us to fight for a federal $15 minimum wage, fight to have workers — warehouse workers — get unionized and also for cities to continue fighting to tax business to fund affordable housing. But none of this will happen if we just sit on our laurels. We have to continue fighting. To Bernie Sanders’ point, I totally agree that this is going to be a shot heard around the world because, let’s remember, Amazon is the second-largest corporation in the world. Its warehouse workers are facing deplorable conditions, not only in the United States but in other countries as well. This also shows why working people movements should be linked across cities, states and nations, because victories for working people can be contagious internationally.
AB: This comes on the heels of the announcement that Jeff Bezos is donating $2 billion for homelessness and education efforts, but also after Amazon helped to see the employee hours tax repealed. What do you make of these two public efforts following a campaign that effectively ended the employee hours tax?
KS: It’s very clear to me — it’s not ambiguous in any way — that Amazon and Jeff Bezos announcing the $2 billion in philanthropy and the $15 minimum wage are concessions that our movement has wrenched from them. And Bezos is doing this because he has been fully exposed for the bullying tactics he has used against a city that is fighting against inequality and the deeply squalid conditions in his warehouses. That’s why we have to really draw from this the lesson that this is the consequence of us having fought and that the councilmembers who repealed the tax were completely on the wrong side of history and had the completely wrong analysis. I would also say for people to be able to put corporate philanthropy in context — let’s face it — Bezos makes the same amount of money in 10 seconds that it takes his workers to make in a year. Let’s keep that in perspective and understand that whatever he has said he is going to give in corporate philanthropy is just going to wash his image and is a tiny, tiny fraction of the wealth he owns. And that’s why, while this is a huge victory for our movement, we cannot stop here. The whole country and entire world is so unequal under capitalism that it is important to keep fighting.
AB: People in Seattle and all over the world have been boycotting Amazon for some time. How should people regard Amazon even now? Should buyers feel better about supporting Amazon or should they continue to be leery of them?
KS: I genuinely appreciate all the people who use their lifestyle choices to indicate where their heart is, where their moral positions are. And that’s really important, but at the same time we should keep in mind that we’re not talking about Amazon as one bad apple in a basket of good apples. Amazon is representative of what happens under this global system of capitalism where you have a few hundred people in the world, mostly white men, owning gigantic amounts of wealth and the rest of us — billions of people — being subjected to varying levels of misery even though we work every single day. And so, we will not be able to win reforms under capitalism let alone bring about systemic change based on consumption choices, because half the world does not even have the ability to make those choices. And furthermore in the case of a corporation like Amazon, not only should we remember that it’s not just one bad apple, all corporations are bad. Look at the workers in Walmart being exploited. Look at the way workers in the fossil fuel sector are being exploited by big oil, not to mention the climate change crisis that they have perpetuated. So ultimately it cannot be based on consumption or the lifestyle choices of a few thousand people who are able to make those choices but rather on organizing and fighting. …The size of Amazon, the economic reach that it has, is so huge that half households in the U.S. are Prime subscribers. So unless a significant proportion of those people really decide that this what they’re going to get involved in, I don’t think consumption choices exactly point towards a real winning struggle. What we need is struggles on the street, in city hall against corporate politicians, and in the workplace through unions.
AB: Tell me a little bit about your thoughts on how you relate a decision made by a single business to the state requiring that employers pay a living wage.
KS: In terms of how the outcomes have occurred, I would say it’s exactly the same, those two. The Amazon announcement that workers will earn $15 an hour is as much a product of ordinary people’s and workers’ movements putting pressure on the powers that be as the $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle. It’s not like politicians gave it to us. No, unfortunately every city councilmember was fighting against the $15 an hour minimum wage, but they were forced to unanimously vote for it because we built a fighting movement from below, launching the 15 Now movement, which has now gone nationwide and is winning victories in other cities. In that sense, I think every progressive victory that we win is a result of ordinary people fighting for it, not because somebody wanted to give it to you. I do think that this does provide more potential for winning a $15 federal minimum wage, although I don’t believe that it is automatically going to happen. It’s still going to require us to fight.
This interview originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.
Check out the full Oct. 10 - 16 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.