Jeff Bezos turned 58 years old yesterday, January 12. The Amazon founder was tanned and relaxed on his birthday, having recently returned from a New Year’s jaunt on a yacht in St. Bart’s. His net worth today stands at $188 billion, making him one of the richest people on the planet.
There was a birthday party for Jeff in Manhattan, which he did not attend. It was held in front of the brick-and-mortar Amazon Books store on 34th Street, directly beneath the towering face of the Empire State Building, which rises up to the sky across the street. It was already dark at 5:30 p.m., when a small group of revelers gathered on the sidewalk there, each bundled in winter coats. The store’s door frame is gold, and the warm lights inside cast an almost gaudy look. Just to the right of the entrance was a homeless person, completely covered in blankets and surrounded by shopping bags. No trace of face nor flesh could be seen — just a mute pile on the concrete. It was 36 degrees.
Slowly, a couple dozen people — the mix of retired and young leftists familiar to anyone who has attended meetings of a radical political group — formed into a loose circle in front of the store. (In this case, the group in question was the Workers Assembly Against Racism, reliable attendees at New York City protests.) They hoisted picket signs and began a chant: “Workers, yes! Bezos, no! Union busting has got to go!” It took a few minutes for them to get warmed up; early on, a few people had chanted, “Workers, yes! Unions, no!” Soon enough, everyone had gotten the hang of it.
Six or seven uniformed city police officers, and several more in plainclothes, stood around looking bored. There was a police van, and a police SUV, and a couple of unmarked police cars parked along 34th Street to monitor the proceedings. The cops were most intent on enforcing their great passion during protests: Keeping That Sidewalk Clear. “Move em over! Stay clear! Other side of this line!” barked a supervisor. A few people would shuffle a few steps in one direction, and public order was restored.
A picket line materialized. It was not a union picket line, per se, but it was a picket line in sympathy with the many unions currently trying to organize Amazon workers. An older man shouted into a microphone about the Amazon union efforts in Alabama, and in Chicago, and in Staten Island, just a ferry ride away from where we all stood. He spoke of the National Labor Relations Board, and of Amazon’s union busting, and of the nuances of collecting union cards. He was remarkably well informed, by the standards of people who harangue passersby on public streets. The marchers waved signs reading “Organize Amazon and Whole Foods With Class Struggle” and “Victory to Bessemer, AL Amazon Unionization Drive - Internationalist Group.” I do not know to what extent the workers in Bessemer keep their focus on the Internationalist Group, but in these struggles, any sympathy is appreciated.
At least one Amazon worker from Staten Island took a turn on the microphone, leading a chant that culminated in “Fuck 12,” a reference to the police. The cops tried not to let any reaction to this cross their faces, which was made more difficult by the fact that none of them were wearing masks. Occasionally, passersby stopped for a minute to gape. “Support the union? What union?” one asked, not unreasonably. At one point, a delivery man on a bike towing multiple carts zoomed down the sidewalk past the protest, talking the whole time: “Organize this shit! I need my union as part of this shit!”
In the window of the Amazon store, a cheerful sign read, “More Belly Laughs- More Inner Peace.” In the middle of the circular picket line, a pair of people held a big banner with a cartoon drawing of Jeff Bezos riding a rocket labeled: “Union or Bust.” The rocket on the banner looked like a bullet, whereas Bezos’s actual rocket looks much more like a penis.
The entire time, you could look straight up in the sky at the Empire State Building and think to yourself about how Jeff Bezos could buy that whole building, and not even notice the difference in his bank account.
It looked warm inside the Amazon store. None of the employees in there are unionized. Nor are any of the employees at the warehouse on Staten Island, or at any of the other hundreds and hundreds of Amazon warehouses all across the country. Amazon is spending whatever it takes to keep it that way. That is Amazon’s commitment to you.
Out there on the sidewalk, it felt very cold. Jeff Bezos never did show up to his birthday party. And the homeless person secured under the blankets, right on the edge of the protest, never stirred all night. Not even a glance.
In 2022, earning the world’s attention will take a little more action.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.