Later On

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As Amazon Rises, So Does the Opposition

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David Streitfeld reports in the NY Times:

A million years ago, Stacy Mitchell was in her office, talking about why Amazon is bad for America.

“If you relentlessly squeeze workers and suppliers, if you undermine every community’s local businesses, if you capture all of this surplus under the guise of efficiency and channel those gains to a small number of people, you end up with a system that is very vulnerable,” said Ms. Mitchell, an antitrust reformer and monopoly critic. “That is what we’ve been doing, systematically and as a matter of public policy.”

That was early March. Within days, much of the United States and Europe would enter lockdown. Unemployment soared, the health care system faltered and the economy collapsed. Shipping food, supplies and entertainment, Amazon became the pipeline — and sometimes the lifeline — for millions of housebound families. It was deemed essential.

The retailer immediately moved to deepen its dominance, hiring 100,000 new workers. Its stock market valuation jumped by hundreds of billions of dollars, while other retailers cratered. Wall Street analysts agreed: Amazon would own the future.

In the grim present, however, Amazon workers were suddenly visible in a way they had never been before. Warehouse employees raised urgent questions about how safe they were from the coronavirus. Wildcat strikes were staged at several warehouses. While the number of workers involved was small, it was still the largest labor revolt in Amazon’s history.

“Amazon has never been more powerful, but the consequences of its power have never been more visible,” Ms. Mitchell said on Thursday. “It’s laid bare.”

As much as anyone, she gets the credit for that.

Ms. Mitchell is 47, a historian by training, low-key by inclination. She is officially the co-director of a small nonprofit, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has been working since the early 1970s to defend communities against concentrated economic power. But her real role is the strategist of the demise of Amazon as we know it.

In 2016, she published a 79-page report, written with Olivia LaVecchia, called “Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip Is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities.” A few months later, the law student Lina Khan published “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in the Yale Law Journal. Together, the two works provided a road map for a new, more critical approach to the e-commerce colossus.

“I’m not trying to take away anyone’s diaper delivery,” Ms. Mitchell said. “But no corporation is above the law.”

Ms. Mitchell has testified before Congress, is a polite but persistent presence on Twitter, and is a frequent tutor to journalists new to the monopoly beat. She had a starring role in “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos,” a documentary by PBS’s “Frontline” that is one of the most incisive examinations of the company and its founder. And last winter, Ms. Mitchell was a driving force in creating Athena, a coalition of nearly 50 labor, small business and social justice groups that aims to reform and possibly break up Amazon.

The company declined to make a senior executive available for this article, but in the past it has noted that it has only a small share of global commerce, that it faces formidable competitors, and that its “customer obsession” has lowered prices. “Amazonians are working around the clock to get necessary supplies delivered directly to the doorsteps of people who need them,” chief executive Jeff Bezos wrote in a letter to shareholders published Thursday, which also detailed steps taken to protect workers from the virus and temporarily increase pay.

Athena has kept the pressure on, publicizing Amazon employee walkouts, holding press calls on topics like “Is Amazon a Danger to Public Health?” and giving a platform to workers. Never before has Amazon faced this kind of organized, sustained and national opposition.

All of this makes Ms. Mitchell’s tiny two-room office in Portland, Maine — a desk, a few bookshelves piled high and a poster that says “Strike while it’s hot” — a headquarters of the budding Amazon resistance.

One of Athena’s larger goals is to end what it describes as a system in which Amazon competes with other companies to make and sell goods, and then dictates the terms by which those competitors find their customers on Amazon’s platform and controls how they ship their wares to market. From the Athena perspective, it’s as if Amazon has installed little tollbooths everywhere, a tax on using the internet. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 9:09 pm

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