Things are moving fast, which is weird because we are in a major economic slowdown. The consolidation of power, however, has picked up the pace, and we will now see tech platforms leverage the unprecedented power we have handed them over the past decade. We are a long way down the road from “Don’t be evil.” Even though it was Google that coined and then abandoned that powerful maxim, it is the conduct of another tech giant that is of grave and immediate concern.
On Monday, Tim Bray rage quit from his position as VP and Distinguished Engineer from Amazon Web Services. His blog post makes clear that the departure was brought about by Amazon’s increasingly hostile work environment. He cites the company’s unwillingness to pursue a climate agenda in the year before coronavirus, and then its firing of anyone who has raised workers’ rights in the COVID-19 era. Bray also notes that all the individuals fired are either women or people of color.
Let’s also be clear that the allegations by Tim Bray and the people he mentions, like Chris Smalls, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, are undisputed. There is no public argument that I have seen which even suggests that Amazon whistleblowers and organizers are being disingenuous. These people are seeking hazard pay, expanded sick leave and more child care for Amazon warehouse workers.
The demands are certainly reasonable under the current circumstances. Firstly, Amazon is helping keep a lot of people at home during lockdown and that means Amazon is helping save lives. In order to reduce risks for the rest of us, the warehouse workers INCREASE the amount of risk to which they are exposed. We owe them for that. Amazon owes them for that.
But let’s break down what is happening just a bit more. The question is not whether Amazon can be shamed into making concessions to labor. The question is whether labor CAN EVEN TALK ABOUT WORKPLACE DEFICIENCIES. It’s one thing to have a conversation and disagree. It is quite another to just fire anyone who even raises the subject. Make no mistake, such action is specifically intended to serve as an example to others.
What about violations of workplace safety laws? The New York Attorney General’s office is investigating the firing of Smalls, but you have to take a moment and think about leverage.
Does Amazon really have to obey the law?
What happens if Amazon breaks the law? Does it get fined? Any fine that any regulatory authority could levy would be simple for the multi-trillion dollar behemoth to pay. Fines are meaningless. But follow the thought experiment just a little further.
What if Amazon decided NOT to pay a fine? Would Trump send the Feds to arrest Bezos? Because the only leverage the US has left against Amazon is the number of bullets. And when you’re making that kind of calculation, things are really bad. And I will go just one step further. Don’t you think that Amazon and/or Bezos has some sort of security team that provides protection from any sort of ‘hostile’ action, regardless of whether that hostile action carries the imprimatur of government approval?
Don’t answer that.
So, we come back to Tim Bray, who now appears as the white knight, taking up the cause of disenfranchised workers. Will this move the needle? Maybe a little, but by all indications, Bezos has a very tight inner circle and this guy was not part of it. Plus, there’s no leverage. We need Amazon more than ever right now, and I just don’t see the press, or congress, or even Trump himself having the stomach to bite the hand that’s feeding us.
What they’re all thinking is, “we’ll address this stuff when things get back to normal.” Except that’s not going to happen. Talk about closing the barn door after the horse has left the stable! In this case, the horse has not only left the stable, he’s down the road with a couple trillion dollars plus granular data and behavioral models for every human being living in the United States.
We’d all better hope that horse understands that old saying: “Don’t be evil.”