Jeff Bezos Is Very Afraid of Bernie Sanders. The $15 Wage Victory Is Proof.

Micah Uetricht October 4, 2018

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos participates in an event hosted by the Air Force Association September 19, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Last month, Bloomberg colum­nist Noah Smith argued that Sanders’s recent agi­ta­tion against Ama­zon and its CEO Jeff Bezos, specif­i­cal­ly his Stop BEZOS Act,” seems to be much more about grand­stand­ing and point­ing fin­gers than about actu­al solu­tions to help vul­ner­a­ble Amer­i­can workers.”

The inter­net nev­er for­gets, and after Amazon’s announce­ment on Wednes­day that it would raise its work­ers’ start­ing wages across the board to $15 — affect­ing over 250,000 employ­ees plus 100,000 sea­son­al work­ers — peo­ple were also hap­py to note that Smith had been proven extreme­ly wrong.

The raise comes after Sanders has waged a cam­paign of pub­licly sham­ing Bezos and Ama­zon. Bezos is the world’s rich­est man, worth $165 bil­lion. Bezos might become a tril­lion­aire in our life­times. The city of Flint still doesn’t have clean drink­ing water and Jeff Bezos might not be both­ered to pick up a bil­lion dol­lars if he found it lying in the street.

So Sanders has called him out repeat­ed­ly, from the Stop BEZOS Act to his recent CEOs vs. Work­ers” town hall. The sham­ing worked, as Bezos him­self basi­cal­ly acknowl­edged when he stat­ed on the occa­sion of the announce­ment, We lis­tened to our crit­ics.” Ama­zon still isn’t union — the thing Bezos like­ly dreads most — but he caved on a major wage demand. He was forced to give up his mon­ey to his workers.

Sanders has not waged this cam­paign alone, of course. Work­ers have agi­tat­ed and orga­nized around this issue for years. With­out the Fight for $15, we wouldn’t even be talk­ing about a $15 min­i­mum wage as a real­is­tic demand, much less win­ning it in cities and states and at cor­po­ra­tions around the coun­try; with­out the agi­ta­tion of ware­house work­ers employed by or (often improp­er­ly) sub­con­tract­ed by com­pa­nies like Ama­zon and Wal­mart, Bernie would not be talk­ing about these issues. As Jere­my Cor­byn tweet­ed ear­li­er today, Ama­zon didn’t gift this, work­ers organ­ised for it.”

But the news mer­its reflect­ing on Smith’s point about the util­i­ty of fig­ures like Bernie Sanders grand­stand­ing and point­ing fin­gers” at the ultra­rich — and how that grand­stand­ing and fin­ger-point­ing, when car­ried out in rela­tion­ship with the work­ing-class move­ment, can be suc­cess­ful­ly used by social­ists to win real vic­to­ries even when we are just a small minor­i­ty with lit­tle for­mal power.

Smith pro­posed oth­er options for Ama­zon crit­ics like Sanders to help the company’s work­ers, some of which are good (rais­ing the min­i­mum wage), some of which aren’t (boost­ing the Earned Income Tax Cred­it). But that approach isn’t what got the goods here.

Think about the steps that brought us to this point. As part of his fight against Ama­zon, Sanders intro­duced a bill called the Stop BEZOS Act.” That is, a sit­ting US sen­a­tor intro­duced a bill that tar­get­ed the world’s rich­est man in its very name.

Sanders said, here is a very rich man. This man’s name is Jeff Bezos. Bezos is going about his busi­ness, doing his rich man thing, tak­ing untold bajil­lions that he nev­er toiled to earn. Sanders intro­duced leg­is­la­tion whose title com­mu­ni­cat­ed, we need to stop Jeff Bezos from doing this.”

Smith seems queasy about class-strug­gle rhetoric. I under­stand the sen­ti­ment. I’m from the Mid­west — I real­ly hate con­flict. I’d much pre­fer that we could con­vince a bil­lion­aire like Bezos through rea­son­able con­ver­sa­tion that his hoard­ed Scrooge McDuck-sized piles of gold are hurt­ing lots of peo­ple: Don’t you think you should prob­a­bly just hand that mon­ey right on over to us?” But rich peo­ple like their mon­ey and don’t want to give it to us. We can’t just ask for it nicely.

What mat­tered in Sanders’s pro­posed leg­is­la­tion was not so much its con­tent, which you could quib­ble with. The bill tar­get­ed com­pa­nies like Ama­zon for pay­ing work­ers so lit­tle that they qual­i­fied for pub­lic ben­e­fits, right­ful­ly argu­ing against the gov­ern­ment sub­si­diz­ing their low wages but also per­haps fur­ther stig­ma­tiz­ing ben­e­fits users. But what mat­tered was the direct­ness with which the bill and the rest of Sanders’s near-dai­ly crit­i­cism tar­get­ed Bezos.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we won’t be able to name and shame our way to social­ism. We need to build a work­ing-class move­ment who can not only iden­ti­fy their boss­es and the oth­er filthy rich peo­ple that run our soci­ety and scream out you suck” at them from the moun­tain­tops but shut off those boss­es’ prof­its by tak­ing action like strik­ing. We need a mass move­ment against Brett Kavanaugh and cli­mate change and mass incar­cer­a­tion and all the oth­er evils we’re afflict­ed by. There’s no sub­sti­tute for it.

But that’s anoth­er thing that’s so impor­tant to note about Sanders. He didn’t just use his bul­ly pul­pit to wage one-man class strug­gle against Bezos — a lone, brave social­ist against a lone greedy bil­lion­aire. Sanders has an activist ori­en­ta­tion to his posi­tion in the Sen­ate and to the work­ers’ move­ment that is chomp­ing at the bit to raise hell at Ama­zon. With­out the loom­ing threat of work­ers dis­rupt­ing busi­ness as usu­al at Ama­zon, Bernie’s ful­mi­nat­ing about Bezos wouldn’t have much teeth to it. But because he has that con­nec­tion, and because his rhetoric is so direct, Sanders is able to punch well above his weight when going after Bezos.

Sanders is the only social­ist cur­rent­ly in Con­gress. He won’t find many cospon­sors for a Social­ism in Our Time Act” in the near future. But this hasn’t stopped him not only from con­vinc­ing Bezos to pay $15 but from help­ing affect mas­sive soci­ety-wide shifts in pub­lic per­cep­tions of issues like Medicare for All and free col­lege for all.

Sanders’s two biggest issues in his 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign were Medicare for All and free col­lege for all. What do Amer­i­cans think about those issues in 2018? A recent Reuters poll found that a whop­ping 84.5 per­cent of Democ­rats and even 51.9 per­cent of Repub­li­cans back Medicare for All. Free col­lege found sim­i­lar num­bers: 78.9 per­cent of Democ­rats and 41.1 per­cent of Repub­li­cans were in favor.

Who would have thought three years ago that we would have not just a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans, but a major­i­ty of Repub­li­cans telling poll­sters they back Medicare for All, with sup­port for free col­lege not far behind? These two issues have gone from leg­isla­tive pipe dreams to what should be lit­mus tests for Democ­rats. If mas­sive majori­ties of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers back Medicare for All and free col­lege for all, how could any elect­ed Demo­c­rat jus­ti­fy not cam­paign­ing hard on these issues?

Again, Sanders hasn’t waged these fights alone. On health care for all, for exam­ple, health work­ers’ unions and activist groups like Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed and Physi­cians for a Nation­al Health Pro­gram have been fight­ing for a long time. But he did take this movement’s demands and talk about them end­less­ly and direct­ly from his mas­sive nation­al plat­form as sen­a­tor and pres­i­den­tial candidate.

He argued that we don’t have Medicare for All or high­er wages for Ama­zon work­ers because there are rich peo­ple who ben­e­fit from us not hav­ing them. He argued this on a nation­al plat­form to mil­lions of peo­ple. This com­bi­na­tion of activist demands trum­pet­ed from a nation­al plat­form allowed both groups to become greater than the sum of their parts. And to play his role prop­er­ly here, he point­ed the fin­ger direct­ly at the world’s fore­most plunderer.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists,” Smith writes at the end of his col­umn, have focused a lot on optics and on high-pro­file denun­ci­a­tions of the rich.” He’s cor­rect, we have. Wednesday’s announce­ment from Ama­zon shows pre­cise­ly why denounce­ments of the rich — prefer­ably by name, on a very large nation­al pub­lic plat­form by a pub­lic fig­ure, and in con­cert with a work­ing-class move­ment — are a very good idea.

This sto­ry was first pub­lished on Jacobin.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times and is a for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor and edi­to­r­i­al intern at the mag­a­zine. He is man­ag­ing edi­tor at Jacobin, the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty, and has writ­ten for the Nation, the Chica­go Read­er, VICE News, the Guardian and else­where. He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.
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