Boycotting Amazon Won’t Work

It will take real collective action — not just canceling your Prime subscription — to force the company to change its labor practices

Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Atlantic recently released a damning report on Amazon that linked the breakneck pace in the company’s fulfillment centers to an epidemic of workplace injuries. Strict quotas enforced through an unforgiving disciplinary regime explain why Amazon has a rate of serious injury more than double the industry average, according to the Atlantic. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit coalition of labor unions and worker advocate groups, labeled Amazon part of its 2019 “Dirty Dozen,” with six workplace deaths in seven months.

The Atlantic investigation is only the latest in a long series of exposés to shine light on the role the e-commerce giant’s abysmal labor practices play in its ruthless pursuit of ever-greater speed and efficiency. The past few years have seen a litany of horror stories, from workers in the United Kingdom urinating in bottles to the macabre tale of Billy Foister, who lay dead on the floor of an Amazon warehouse in Ohio for 20 minutes without aid while co-workers were forced to continue working around him.

Almost immediately after the Atlantic story was published, Twitter users began sharing it along with the hashtag #BoycottAmazon. But while it’s understandable that people are outraged by the story and feel the desire to do something about it, it’s highly doubtful that this particular tactic will be effective.

For starters, Amazon is so large and diversified that it’s almost impossible to truly boycott it. The very platform that protesters are using to call for the boycott, Twitter, pays nearly $16 million monthly to Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Since 2016, AWS has accounted for a large and growing share of Amazon’s profits. Put it this way: In the United States, Prime subscriptions run around $120 annually. If 100,000 subscribers simultaneously cancelled their memberships, the loss would be equivalent to 0.0005% of AWS’ annual revenue.

Putting aside the challenges peculiar to Amazon, consumer boycotts, in general, are rarely effective. When they are successful, such as the anti-sweatshop movement’s campaign against Nike, the impact is most often temporary. As soon as the heat was off, the company quietly returned to its old ways while hiding its exploitation behind “woke” branding.

According to a paper by Philippe Delacote of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, boycotts have to meet a number of criteria in order to have an effect, while there are several nearly universal factors that undermine them.

For one, the consumers who would have the greatest impact — those most reliant on the product or service — are the least likely to participate. Say there’s a person who lives in a remote area with few stores, so they get everything they need off Amazon. The loss of that customer would be more impactful than average, but the opportunity cost to them would also be great.

Delacote also observes that “the share of the boycotting group’s demand in total demand is crucial.” It’s hard to imagine even the most coordinated boycott ever coming close to achieving a large enough share of Amazon’s demand to have a discernible effect.

Consider the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Roughly three-quarters of the bus riders in the city were Black. Galvanized by their shared experience of racial injustice, Black riders were able to put a hurt on the bus system in a way that’s not really possible with Amazon.

But the bigger takeaway from the Montgomery Bus Boycott is that it succeeded through well-organized collective action. Black cab drivers offered extremely low fares in solidarity. Carpools were arranged. Activists replaced the worn-out shoes of those forced to walk to work.

The fatal flaw with boycotting Amazon is that it’s an individual response to a collective issue.

In a recent column in the Indianapolis Star titled “We must all examine our role in Amazon warehouse death,” author James Briggs embodies this mentality perfectly. He devotes as much time to soul-searching and self-flagellation as he does to examining the systemic issues involved:

It’s natural to want to shake our fists at Amazon, the governments and the systems that should be protecting workers from allegedly brutal conditions. But, if we’re being honest, doing so also forces us to reflect on Amazon’s growing omnipresence in our lives — and question our own culpability.

Every time we proceed to checkout, we’re setting another deadline for a worker to possibly forsake their well being in order to robotically process our order in a matter of seconds, or else face discipline.

Rather than effecting a change in the company’s policies and improving the welfare of its workers, boycotts merely relieve the consumer of their guilt. They’re no longer part of the problem but neither are they part of the solution.

Under capitalism, people feel more empowered as consumers than they do in any other role. In America’s hyperconsumerist culture, the repertoire of resistance is so impoverished that, for many, all political activity is reduced to “voting with your dollars.”

It’s interesting to note that not everyone tweeting out the #BoycottAmazon hashtag is concerned about its working conditions. Some are just complaining about its customer service or some other trivial issue.

The same course of action is taken whether you’re upset that the company’s quotas are crippling its workers or you’re mad that those same practices didn’t get your headphones to you fast enough.

While people can’t really be faulted for responding to injustice in the only way they know how, there is the usual hazard involved in any type of slacktivism. They feel satisfied as if they’ve done something, but they really haven’t.

That anger that might otherwise be channeled into something productive is dissipated. If you feel like you’ve “done your part,” why do anything else?

Time and again, movements premised on “ethical consumption” have failed. Widespread media coverage of the reality that coffee and chocolate are produced in conditions of virtual slavery gave rise to the so-called fair trade movement. But study after study has shown that fair trade produces little benefit for exporters in the developing world and even less for farmers themselves.

The amount of power Americans wield as consumers is limited. To fight against Amazon, it is vital to contest the company’s grip on the levers of power.

Only a strong union can guarantee the safety and livelihood of Amazon employees, but the company’s aggressive union-busting is abetted by policies and politicians at every level that are hostile to workers’ rights. The current head of the National Labor Relations Board is corporate lawyer John Ring. His firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius represented Amazon in its 2013 attempt to block the formation of a small union in Delaware.

The Supreme Court’s Janus decision struck a blow against unions’ exclusive right to collectively bargain, and conservative legislators are continuing to push the attack in Congress, proposing a national right-to-work law.

Amazon is merely the most visible face of a larger problem: rampant exploitation enabled by a state that is entirely captured by the wealthy.

It’s hard to overstate Amazon’s capacity to bend governments to its will. Hoping to entice the company into placing its second headquarters in the state, Indiana helped minimize Amazon’s culpability for the workplace death of Phillip Terry. The competition for HQ2 set off a race to the bottom, as North American cities vied with one another for who could offer the lowest taxes and highest subsidies.

There are signs of hope. In February, Amazon canceled its plans to build HQ2 in Queens after pushback from New Yorkers, who argued that the harm brought by the campus would outweigh the benefits. More recently, the city council in Amazon’s home base of Seattle retained its progressive majority despite the company’s best efforts to buy the election by spending $1.5 million on pro-business candidates.

Ultimately, Amazon is merely the most visible face of a larger problem: rampant exploitation enabled by a state that is entirely captured by the wealthy. A response equal to the size of the task is needed.

We need more politicians in office like Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant and Sen. Bernie Sanders to hold Amazon’s feet to the fire while creating a policy environment favorable to unions. At the same time, there has to be a durable movement from below. Fortunately, one is taking shape in the form of the Athena coalition, comprising some three dozen labor and progressive activist groups.

Other positive developments at the grassroots level include mass immigrant rights protests against Amazon over its involvement with ICE. Within the framework of a collective pushback, there is also space for people to employ their power as consumers. But to do so effectively, such actions need to be coordinated with those of Amazon workers, such as the Prime Day boycotts that accompanied a work stoppage in Minnesota earlier this summer.

It’s good that people feel the natural urge to want to take action, but the fight against Amazon is a long-term political project, and while canceling your Prime subscription may assuage your personal guilt, it doesn’t do much else.

Journalist, socialist, activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD

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