On July 5, exactly 27 years after starting what would become the world’s largest online retailer, Jeff Bezos stepped down as the CEO of Amazon, though he will continue to have major influence as the executive chair of Amazon’s board of directors. Andy Jassy, who joined Amazon in 1997 when it had just over 600 employees, will now lead the e-commerce giant’s more than 1.29 million employees.
Although the leadership change is a first for the company, labor rights activists are not holding hope that replacing the billionaire with a multi-millionaire will yield much change for workers at Amazon.
“Bezos created a pretty reflexive anti-union culture,” said David Groves of the Washington State Labor Council. “Jassy will obviously have the opportunity to try to change that culture when he takes over. We don’t have any expectation that he will.”
The change in leadership is so minor for labor organizing that representatives from the Teamsters, the union that recently vowed to build worker power at Amazon, had to look up who was taking over.
“This guy’s been around Bezos for a long time,” said Iain Gold, director of strategic research and campaigns at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ national office, of Jassy. “I hope there would be change, but I don’t expect it.”
Randy Korgan, the Teamsters’ national director for Amazon, added that he also wouldn’t expect the passing of the baton to bring about changes to an institution “built to operate in a certain way for so long.” To Korgan, Bezos is not especially anti-union, but rather “run-of-the-mill” and of a “generation of CEOs” driven by individual greed — “I don’t know what motivates people to want to have 15 yachts,” he said.
The poor working conditions at Amazon are well documented. Amazon warehouse workers incur 5.9 serious injuries per 100 people, according to a study by the Strategic Organizing Center that analyzed data reported from 2017 to 2020. That’s almost 80% higher than the rest of the industry. The rate of injury was so high, Washington State’s Department of Labor and Injuries upped Amazon’s workers’ compensation premium rates by 15% starting Jan. 1, 2021. Before that, Amazon fulfillment centers used to be grouped with other warehouses when calculating premium rates, which brought up the rates of an entire category that was otherwise on a downward trend for injuries.
The Teamsters, which represent more than a million U.S. workers, see their union as a natural fit for Amazon employees, since they have protected workers in the warehouse and delivery industries for over 100 years. For example, Korgan said, the milkmen of the early 20th century were Teamsters.
But it won’t be easy. Leonard Smith, director of organizing and strategic campaigns at Teamsters Local Union No. 117 in Tukwila, said, “There’s nothing like Amazon.”
“It’s not just anti-union,” Smith said. “It’s anti-worker, anti-person.”
The culture of any company is set largely by the CEO, according to Groves from the labor council. He likens the CEO of a company to a coach on a sports team.
“The organization takes on the personality traits of its leader,” Groves said. “If you have a leader who doesn’t care about workers, then the rest of the company’s not gonna care about workers.”
Earlier this year, Amazon workers attempted to unionize their warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, through an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. The Teamsters plan to forgo this process, as it favors the employer. Though the Alabama labor push was the largest in the company’s history and caught the nation’s attention, in March, the workers overwhelmingly voted against a union.
Leading up to the election, Amazon had time to employ anti-union tactics. One unionized warehouse would likely have a domino effect for the openly anti-union company, according to labor activists. A month after workers collected enough authorization cards to begin an election process, Amazon requested that Jefferson County increase the length of green light traffic signals near the Bessemer fulfillment center. In a video by More Perfect Union, union members are shown standing on street corners and engaging with the passing traffic. The union organizers and Amazon employees claim lengthening the green lights were an effort to obstruct these conversations.
According to Korgan, anti-union tactics are expected from Amazon. It’s a part of the culture of the company that Korgan said was “kind of disgusting.”
In a letter to Amazon shareholders following the efforts at the Bessemer fulfillment center, Bezos said that Amazon needs to “do a better job” for their employees.
For labor activists, Bezos’ words in this final letter to shareholders do not appear to foreshadow a more cooperative approach, as Jassy assumes leadership and the Teamsters begin their national campaign to build worker power at Amazon. Jassy is no “richest man in the world,” but at a net worth of roughly $500 million from his 24 years of quiet compliance in the infamously anti-union e-commerce giant, he does not appear a likely hero for the working class. While not hopeful, the Teamsters remain open-minded.
“I’m sure [Jassy] knows who we are,” Korgan said. “Our phone’s sitting right here. Give us a call, man; let’s work it out. We can help you out, buddy.”
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the July 21-27, 2021 issue.