By David Streitfeld
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 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,” Mitchell said Thursday. “It’s laid bare.”
As much as anyone, she gets the credit for that. 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.
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’ “Frontline” that is one of the most incisive examinations of the company and its founder. And last winter, 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 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 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.
Changing that would probably require an antitrust victory. In the short term, Mitchell has tried to encourage Athena to focus more on pressuring public officials and not only on demanding that Amazon take actions like reinstating fired workers or shutting down warehouses.
“If you do nothing but make demands, it reinforces the existing power structure,” she said. “Who put the corporations in charge? It’s our country.
“If we don’t regulate Amazon,” she added, “we are effectively allowing it to regulate us.”
Delighting Shoppers in a Dysfunctional Time
Modern life was stressful even before people were confined to their homes. Amazon, at least for its customers, is not stressful. The retailer captured an estimated 40% of the online shopping market by prioritizing efficiency. Before Bezos established the “Everything Store,” it was routine to wait weeks to get something by mail order. Amazon shaved that down to a week, then two days, then, starting last year, one day.
About half the households in the U.S. are enrolled in Amazon’s Prime membership program. The faster the world deteriorates, the more appealing the company is. The arrival of the coronavirus, which makes it both risky and an ordeal to go to the store, has only sped up this process.
The challenge for Mitchell and her colleagues at Athena is to make the Amazon buying experience a little less simple than Amazon wants it to be — to remind shoppers that there are real-world consequences when they tap Amazon’s yellow checkout button.
“The company has tried for years to brand their operation as internet magic,” said Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of Action Center on Race & the Economy, a Chicago-based member of the Athena coalition. “Look for what you need, click and it’s there in front of you. What we’re learning is that there are an awful lot of people who aren’t always treated too well who make that happen.”
The welfare of Amazon’s warehouse workers, previously a subject of irregular scrutiny, has taken on new urgency during the pandemic. If you have hundreds of thousands of workers, it is hard to keep them 6 feet apart. There have been reports of the coronavirus in more than 50 Amazon warehouses, and 15 state attorneys general have said the company’s sick leave policies are inadequate. After a French court ruled Amazon had failed to adequately protect its workers, the company suspended operations at its warehouses in the country.
Amazon, which announced Monday that it would hire 75,000 more workers, has pushed back aggressively. In his letter to shareholders, Bezos wrote that the company was “consulting closely with medical experts and health authorities” and that as a result it had made “over 150 significant process changes in our operations network and Whole Foods Market stores.” It is experimenting with the use of disinfectant fog and has started checking workers’ temperatures as they enter warehouses.
It is also cracking down on dissent. On April 12, two Amazon employees who had been outspoken about the company’s climate change policies and, more recently, warehouse conditions said they had been fired. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, both user experience designers, said their dismissals came hours after their organization, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, sent out an invitation to a virtual meeting during which interested employees could hear directly from Amazon warehouse workers.
“If Amazon is actually keeping people safe, why are they so afraid for us to hear from people in warehouses?” Cunningham said. “They are trying to silence us from talking to the media, but they are also trying to silence us internally.”
Amazon said in a statement that the employees had violated “internal policies.” It declined to say what those policies were.
As the pandemic has intensified, Mitchell has been working 14-hour days, sending updates to the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, holding daily strategy conversations with Athena staff members and advising small-business groups who want to protest Amazon’s power.
In late March, she wrote on Twitter in disbelief about a “relief fund” Amazon had established for its contract drivers, who ordinarily get no benefits. The company’s initial announcement said, “The fund relies primarily on individual donations from individuals and support from Amazon.com.”
Mitchell wrote: “I can’t even process this … Amazon — you know, the one run by the richest man, the one whose sales have shot up during a pandemic — is doing an online fundraiser.”
Nearly 100,000 people reacted to her message. Amazon quickly tweaked the language of the solicitation, saying it did not actually expect people to contribute, although they could do so if they wanted.
“Something that should be their obligation — to provide benefits to its workers so they can meet their needs in a disaster — is just beyond them,” Mitchell said. “So they take a charitable approach, giving a bit of money and then ask other people to pay.”
Amazon, which seeded the fund with $25 million, did not answer a question about how much members of the public had contributed. Bezos, whose worth Bloomberg has recently estimated at $145 billion, has since donated $100 million to a food bank consortium.
Another revelatory moment for the Athena team came after Amazon fired Christian Smalls, a Staten Island, New York, warehouse worker who had been active in demanding coronavirus protections. Amazon said he was terminated for “putting the health and safety of others at risk,” not for organizing.
Firing workers for labor organizing is illegal, and there was a quick backlash. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, called the firing “disgraceful” as well as “immoral and inhumane.”
‘Many Worthwhile Efforts Seem Like a Fool’s Errand’
Mitchell’s first political memory involves nuclear annihilation — not uncommon for children in the early 1980s. Despite the looming mushroom cloud, she grew up to be an optimist, studying history at Macalester College in Minnesota and learning that progress often looks impossible until it is not.
Robin D.G. Kelley’s “Hammer and Hoe,” a history of a small band of radical organizers in Alabama in the 1930s, helped set her on the path to challenging the corporate establishment. Kelley’s subjects were African Americans trying to secure economic and racial reforms against a state and citizens that were violently opposed.
“At the end of the day, it didn’t look like the organizers achieved much,” Mitchell said. “But they laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement. They built a foundation for change. Many worthwhile efforts seem like a fool’s errand for a long time.”
Mitchell began her career as a research assistant at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in 1998. The organization, which has about 20 staff members, mostly in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., has an annual budget of about $2 million, some of which comes from the public but mostly from foundations.
One crucial early backer of the Amazon work was the Nathan Cummings Foundation, whose founder made his fortune with food products company Sara Lee and which describes itself as “rooted in the Jewish tradition of social justice.” Other supporters include the Ford Foundation, the George Soros-led Open Society Foundations and the Economic Security Project, whose co-chairman is the Facebook co-founder and now critic Chris Hughes.
For many years, Mitchell focused on Walmart, including writing a book about mega-retailers in 2006 called “Big Box Swindle.” Some of her work was hands-on, like when Walmart announced a new supercenter in the tiny Maine town of Damariscotta.
A few townspeople wanted to oppose the store but did not quite know how. “We were so out of our depth,” one of them, Jenny Mayher, said. “Walmart had a very successful strategy of dividing communities. It would say that people who didn’t want their stores were privileged rich people, while the working people needed jobs and an affordable place to get diapers.”
The Walmart opponents contacted Mitchell, who gave a presentation at the local library arguing that both tax revenue and the quality of local jobs would decline. “Stacy armed us with exactly the information we needed to have fact-based argument,” Mayher said. “She has an ability to be wonky without taking the humanity out of it.”
In early 2006, Damariscotta voters changed the town zoning, blocking the supercenter. Walmart declined to comment on Mitchell.
Walmart was a challenge. Amazon is a bigger one. Walmart dominates groceries, but the company is not a platform-controlling gatekeeper for multitudes of smaller businesses in the same way that Amazon is. And Walmart’s demographics differ from those of Amazon, which has become an essential feature of a certain optimized urban lifestyle.
“People love e-commerce technology,” said Michael Zucker, director of Change to Win, a federation of labor unions that is allied with the Athena coalition. “The frictionless ability to order something reliably with very little risk is a very popular product. The question is, ‘Do you want just one company to have that?’ ”
During the last big crisis, the 2008 crash, it seemed for a time that a better, more equitable world might result. Reforms were made, and laws were changed — but few of those responsible were punished. While the world recovered it did not necessarily improve.
The same could happen with the coronavirus pandemic. But Mitchell is eternally optimistic.
“Things that were inconceivable a few years ago are now being discussed,” she said. “The antitrust argument against Amazon is much more alive than the antitrust argument against Walmart ever was. There’s a sense that we have to fix inequality or it will be the country’s undoing. I’d hate to give up on this moment.”