Should we boycott Am*zon?

The limits of “ethical copping” in the face of "evil selling"

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Blackbird Spyplane has a reputation for being the internet’s most kind-vibed dope-joints newsletter, BUT as longtime readers know, we do have one “public enemy”: Am*zon, whose cursed core mission (“make life on earth wacker, sell ppl cheap junk, try to colonize & pollute outer space”) stands in direct opposition to our blessed core mission (“make life on earth doper, put ppl onto fire s**t, smoke loud with the aliens”)…

After reading endless stories about Am*zon doing all manner of heinous s**t — stealing drivers’ tips; grinding down warehouse workers w/ impossible quotas; shine-blocking unions; collabing with 12; setting fire to kilotons of unopened, unsold merchandise ‘cause apparently that’s cheaper than storing it??; etc., etc. — Erin and I swore to never link to Am*zon in this newsletter, which is an easy policy to maintain because Am*zon sells approx. ~zero dope joints and we aren’t “Wirec*tter,” baby!!

So why are we talking about them at all? Because one of the things we hear over and over in messages from you, the virtuous angels of Spy Nation, is the question of what it means to “cop jawns ethically” — and no company embodies unethical jawns-purveying circa 2021 as powerfully as Am*zon, with its multifarious, far-reaching TENTACLES (no disrespect to octopuses, who we would also be honored to smoke loud with 🐙🥦)

Over the past couple months we’ve been learning a bunch of fascinating, funny & gnarly s**t about how Am*zon operates from Primer — an excellent new podcast from Jacobin staff writer & Blackbird SpyFriend Alex Press that dives deep into a different “key element of the Am*zon empire” every episode.

So the other day we hit up Alex to talk about how the forces of light can “beat Am*zon” — and whether the notion of “consuming nobly” might in fact be a TRAP that the Jeff B*zoses of the world want to bait us into !?

Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve been a labor reporter for years. What’s something you’ve learned about Am*zon while making the pod that shocked you?

Alex Press: “People know that working at Am*zon is a job that sucks in the same way they know any job sucks — they know it’s not something anybody does because they’re passionate about it. But something that really hit me hard talking to workers there day in, day out is the immense frustration, alienation and despair of this work. People tend to focus on the extreme stuff — like workers peeing in bottles and sustaining serious injuries — but the day-to-day stuff, the alienation and physical suffering and how that reshapes a person, that all really got through to me doing the show.

“You’ll see it if there’s a walkout: People carry banners that say WE ARE NOT ROBOTS. We got 15 minutes of audio from a worker that he taped at a warehouse, and as he rounds the corner onto the warehouse floor, there’s just this wall of noise, like a freight train. There are no people speaking, and listening to it, you can feel how you truly are like a robot doing that job, mediating your entire day through this electronic scanner in your hand that just beeps at you to go faster. At lunch time there’s Covid protocols in place, so in the break room no one’s near you, no one’s talking, meaning the one person that talks to you all day might be a manager who tells you to go faster.”

Blackbird Spyplane: Bleak s**t.

Alex Press: “And you’re packing goods that mean nothing! The joke I hear a lot among workers is that they’re ‘packing dildos all day,’ meaning they can’t even pretend it’s meaningful labor.”

Blackbird Spyplane: Erin & I canceled our Pr*me a couple years ago, in part because that encourages us to buy things from stores in the neighborhood that we want to help keep around, and in part because that way we’re not giving dough to a company that does so much cursed s**t. From your perspective, how meaningful is a consumer boycott?

Alex Press: “Well, I don’t want to discourage people from acting nobly. Obviously, we all function as consumers and want to do things that are in keeping with our ethics, but at the end of the day, it’s a drop in the bucket.

“The first thing to point out is that Am*zon is so much more than its retail arm — take Am*zon Web Services (AWS), which has become the backbone of the internet. I’ll be on a Zoom call, reporting on Am*zon while relying on AWS. That’s what’s so insidious about the company: it’s trying to get into the marrow of society, to mediate our lives and become infrastructure, and with AWS it is infrastructure.

“But to your question, I recently spoke to Am*zon workers at a warehouse in Poland, and asked about people who feel conflicted about using Am*zon. They said, If you really feel guilty or conflicted, find the organizing at the company that’s happening near you and support it. Now in Poland they have unions, so they said, ‘Donate to a strike fund,’ but here in the U.S. there are probably facilities in your area with workers who are raising demands, who could use your help in some way. Really what I’m trying to get at is that we can’t just act as consumers — that’s how Am*zon wants us to act.”

Blackbird Spyplane: Since we are “the Tom Joad of the mf Jawns Game” we get reader questions all the time from ppl raising the subject of how to cop ethically — it’s something we care about & wrestle with ourselves, but we’ve realized that it might not be the most pressing question if the goal is to bring about a more equitable world…

Alex Press: “That sense of identification among Americans as being consumers-only is so insidious and so entrenched in how we think about ourselves, so yeah, it’s really important for people to think differently — it’s not about what you’re purchasing and what you’re not. That said, sure, cancel your Prime if you want, it doesn’t hurt.”

Blackbird Spyplane: The obvious appeal of seeing ourselves as consumers is that it’s easier: We get to feel good while smashing the coppiolo on “the correct” jawns from “the correct” places. Whereas it seems like a lot of work to figure out how Am*zon workers near me are trying to make their lives better and how to help them…

Alex Press: “Yeah, it is really hard to find information on what to actually do with this discontent we feel. That’s part of what a truly organized left in this country would offer: It would be more visible to us how to help workers. Like, when there was a Communist Party in America, they made it very clear where working-class action was happening and how to plug into it. Today a group like DSA is doing some of that work, but there’s a long way to go.”

Blackbird Spyplane: You wrote an article at Jacobin about how Am*zon is essentially creating company towns, during which u wondered if Am*zon would become clearly and widely regarded as an “enemy” in those towns, and if so, “if a culture of resistance and organization” might follow. You’re talking about workers, but is there any consumer role in creating that kind of “culture of resistance?”

Alex Press: “That’s part of the work that can happen at the level of media. Because part of what makes Am*zon so difficult to turn into an enemy is that we don’t even see the workers — it’s magic, you click on something and an item shows up! So yeah, demonizing Am*zon, as it deserves to be demonized, helps in that respect: It can help workers not to feel so alienated.”

Blackbird Spyplane: People on the TL were clowning heavily on the B*zos “space mission” the other day — I wasn’t sure whether that reflects the prevailing public opinion on him at this point, or just the mood among people I follow…

Alex Press: “There’s a survey from a few years ago, where people were polled about their faith in institutions. Among Democrats, Am*zon was the single-most trusted institution, and for Republicans I think Am*zon was third, after the military and local police. I think that perception has started to change in last few years, though, because workers are starting to organize and they won’t be shut up.

“That’s the thing worth underlining: if attitudes are changing, it’s the result of the organizing that’s happened at the warehouses. Especially during the pandemic. Workers were already trying to organize before, but there was this dual effect to the pandemic. On one hand, this Wall Street analyst called it a growth hormone for Am*zon, something out of B*zos’s wildest dreams. They added hundreds of thousands of employees to their workforce in just a few months.

“But the flipside of that growth is a growth in resistance. Your Twitter feed is outraged at Am*zon because last year workers were suddenly walking off the job, mostly because of Covid safety concerns — they were the ones who could speak with authority, and their voices broke through. And you can see that it ushered in a new moment, because Am*zon executives felt they had to respond to it.”

Chris Smalls, an Am*zon worker on Staten Island who got AXED and SMEARED by the company after agitating for better conditions at the warehouse during the Covid outbreak. Photo by Lucas Jackson

Blackbird Spyplane: We write a lot in this newsletter about small makers trying to bring cool s**t into the world. Something about Am*zon that gets less attention is how the company can hurt small makers who sell through them. Can you talk a bit about that?

Alex Press: “Yeah, Am*zon will use all the data they get from small competitors selling things on Am*zon to undercut them, or they’ll use their data on what sells best and what doesn’t to straight up copy other people’s products. So there are lots of small businesses that hate Am*zon, but feel they have no option but to sell through the site. As a labor writer that’s not my focus, but I interviewed Alec MacGillis for Primer — he wrote a great new book about Am*zon called Fulfillment, and he gets into that.”

Blackbird Spyplane: Am*zon’s bread and butter is swagless mass-produced jawns. Is there any risk of Am*zon selling cool shit as it grows, or is that definitionally impossible?

Alex Press: “Ha ha, yeah on a philosophical level, I guess routing any items through an anti-social enterprise makes them uncool, because anti-social enterprises are uncool. B*zos wants us to live inside his empire, living a life controlled by algorithms, and that is not cool.

Blackbird Spyplane: It’s wack & corny !! All right, so when you talk to people involved in agitating against Am*zon, what recourse do they say we have? What is the path toward diminishing the power of this wack & corny company?

Alex Press: ”So there’s a couple different levels. You might say, ‘This company is too powerful, no one can do anything about it.’ But in fact, there’s an entire network of people trying to do something about it right now, and that’s exciting. Whenever there’s exploitation, there’s resistance, so people have been picking fights and winning — it could be small things, like workers have won Paid Time Off during the pandemic, they’ve won things as basic as drinking water at warehouses, which, believe it or not, some didn’t have.”

Blackbird Spyplane: SMH, I shoulda known Am*zon is anti-hydration, too…

Alex Press: “Efforts like that build: The more people organizing in a workplace, the more they can demand, so one big step in that process would be formalized unions. The workers who were trying to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama, got a lot of attention, but there are other efforts across the country, too, and recently the Teamsters committed a lot of resources to an Am*zon division — and the Teamsters are no joke.

“Even unionizing a white-collar industry helps, like journalists who organize a newsroom — that ultimately strengthens workers’ rights at Am*zon, too, because it’s about helping to rebuild the workers’ movement in this country. And at the political level there’s things like the PRO Act, this reform bill that’s making its way through congress, which would radically remake what it looks like for workers to win a union. Beyond that there’s efforts in the anti-trust movement to break up Am*zon into different parts...

“So it’s important to think about this holistically. There’s a lot of fronts to fight them on, and people are fighting, because they rightfully see Am*zon as an existential threat. The company’s trying to bring more and more of our lives under their umbrella — but as they do, it also brings us together to fight against them.”

Alex Press is on Twitter here and you can find Primer, her podcast about Am*zon, here, and on Patreon here. 2 groups you can check out are Athena and Amazonians United.

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