This crisis has laid all of the inequities of American society bare for anyone who was blissfully unaware of the depth of how racially and socioeconomically unequal we are. Amazon is a symptom of one of our bigger problems: how unprotected most workers are. While we all enjoy the convenience of Amazon delivering food, games or less vital things to us, recently their employees have started to fight back with stories of an indifferent corporation putting their lives at risk for profit during a pandemic.
At the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, workers walked out to demand safe conditions. In response, instead of improving conditions and recognizing workers’ demands, Amazon higher-ups fired organizers and anyone else who has been involved in standing up for the employees on the ground who get us all of our goods. In a leaked memo, Amazon executives were even revealed to have a communication strategy and are currently running a PR campaign to dismiss legitimate criticism of their workplace practices.
In the leaked conversation between executives at Amazon, they were ready to utilize racial dog whistles to frame one of the organizers of the walkout, who is a young Black man, as “inarticulate and unintelligent” — a go-to and longstanding stereotype for anti-Black racists.
Amazon isn’t going to stop and improve conditions for their workers, respect their workers’ rights or safeguard the health of their customers through public embarrassment alone. Hell, you’re probably perusing Amazon while reading this! Understandably so, as experts predict that “stay at home” measures here in Washington and across the country will have to persist well into May in order to stop the rapid spread of COVID-19. What will send a clear message to Amazon is if Democratic incumbents and challengers in Washington state renounce any future campaign contributions from Amazon and contribute an equal amount of money to workers’ rights groups and food-bank providers.
The Washington State Democratic Party advertises itself as the pro-union and pro-worker party and it has stood for pro-worker policies in the past; now it needs to stand for what’s right and necessary.
Recently, my colleagues and I of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Working Families Party called on local officials to hold Amazon accountable and stand with their workers. [The letter is below.] We are still calling on local officials to do that, and I believe that it is well past due for elected officials and candidates for office to step up and let their money speak for their values.
I was a regional field director for the Washington State Democrats 2016 Coordinated Campaign and, currently, am a precinct committee officer for the Democrats in the 47th Legislative District, and I know that our values exclude racism, union-busting and unaccountable capitalism. Amazon, lording over our region, has a continuous record of suppressing worker organizing and turning a blind eye to racism.
Already in the 2020 campaign cycle, Amazon has donated thousands to state and city incumbents and challengers. The political power of Amazon should not be dismissed. Remember when Amazon, with the elected officials it purchased, shot down a tax on itself that would have addressed the housing crisis — that they’ve continued to make worse! Money talks but doesn’t listen. Recently, the Democratic majority in our state Legislature has been tepid when it comes to taxing Amazon; suffice to say, it’s a non-starter for Amazon-backed Republicans as well.
Workers have been standing up for us every day. They go to work at grocery stores, fulfillment centers and hardware stores, to jobs with little security and often little pay. So-called “progressives” in our Democratic Party can, at the very least, match the workers’ sacrifices by renouncing Amazon’s influence and making a stand with those who are the most vulnerable and the most essential to our new normal.
To the naysayers and the cynics, you can brush this off and disregard my call as the demands of a naïve, leftist community college professor and activist but, as activist and singer Pete Seeger echoed from activist and poet Florence Reece, “Which side are you on?” WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Cliff Cawthon is an educator and community activist who contributes to several publications. When he isn’t enjoying films and literature, he advocates for racial, economic and housing justice. He graduated from the University of Manchester in Human Rights-Political Science.
Read more in the Apr. 22-28, 2020 issue.