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As Amazon Rises, So Does the Opposition

PORTLAND, Maine — A million years ago, Stacy Mitchell was in her office, talking about why Amazon is bad for America.

“If you relentlessly squeeze workers and suppliers, if you undermine every community’s local businesses, if you capture all of this surplus under the guise of efficiency and channel those gains to a small number of people, you end up with a system that is very vulnerable,” said Ms. Mitchell, an antitrust reformer and monopoly critic. “That is what we’ve been doing, systematically and as a matter of public policy.”

That was early March. Within days, much of the United States and Europe would enter lockdown. Unemployment soared, the health care system faltered and the economy collapsed. Shipping food, supplies and entertainment, Amazon became the pipeline — and sometimes the lifeline — for millions of housebound families. It was deemed essential.

The retailer immediately moved to deepen its dominance, hiring 100,000 new workers. Its stock market valuation jumped by hundreds of billions of dollars, while other retailers cratered. Wall Street analysts agreed: Amazon would own the future.

In the grim present, however, Amazon workers were suddenly visible in a way they had never been before. Warehouse employees raised urgent questions about how safe they were from the coronavirus. Wildcat strikes were staged at several warehouses. While the number of workers involved was small, it was still the largest labor revolt in Amazon’s history.

“Amazon has never been more powerful, but the consequences of its power have never been more visible,” Ms. Mitchell said on Thursday. “It’s laid bare.”

As much as anyone, she gets the credit for that.

Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

Ms. Mitchell is 47, a historian by training, low-key by inclination. She is officially the co-director of a small nonprofit, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has been working since the early 1970s to defend communities against concentrated economic power. But her real role is the strategist of the demise of Amazon as we know it.

In 2016, she published a 79-page report, written with Olivia LaVecchia, called “Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip Is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities.” A few months later, the law student Lina Khan published “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in the Yale Law Journal. Together, the two works provided a road map for a new, more critical approach to the e-commerce colossus.

“I’m not trying to take away anyone’s diaper delivery,” Ms. Mitchell said. “But no corporation is above the law.”

Ms. Mitchell has testified before Congress, is a polite but persistent presence on Twitter, and is a frequent tutor to journalists new to the monopoly beat. She had a starring role in “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos,” a documentary by PBS’s “Frontline” that is one of the most incisive examinations of the company and its founder. And last winter, Ms. Mitchell was a driving force in creating Athena, a coalition of nearly 50 labor, small business and social justice groups that aims to reform and possibly break up Amazon.

The company declined to make a senior executive available for this article, but in the past it has noted that it has only a small share of global commerce, that it faces formidable competitors, and that its “customer obsession” has lowered prices. “Amazonians are working around the clock to get necessary supplies delivered directly to the doorsteps of people who need them,” chief executive Jeff Bezos wrote in a letter to shareholders published Thursday, which also detailed steps taken to protect workers from the virus and temporarily increase pay.

Athena has kept the pressure on, publicizing Amazon employee walkouts, holding press calls on topics like “Is Amazon a Danger to Public Health?” and giving a platform to workers. Never before has Amazon faced this kind of organized, sustained and national opposition.

All of this makes Ms. Mitchell’s tiny two-room office in Portland, Maine — a desk, a few bookshelves piled high and a poster that says “Strike while it’s hot” — a headquarters of the budding Amazon resistance.

One of Athena’s larger goals is to end what it describes as a system in which Amazon competes with other companies to make and sell goods, and then dictates the terms by which those competitors find their customers on Amazon’s platform and controls how they ship their wares to market. From the Athena perspective, it’s as if Amazon has installed little tollbooths everywhere, a tax on using the internet.

Changing that would probably require an antitrust victory. In the short term, Ms. Mitchell has tried to encourage Athena to focus more on pressuring public officials and not only on demanding that Amazon take actions like reinstating fired workers or shutting down warehouses.

“If you do nothing but make demands, it reinforces the existing power structure. Who put the corporations in charge? It’s our country,” she said, adding, “If we don’t regulate Amazon, we are effectively allowing it to regulate us.”

Modern life was stressful even before everyone was confined to their homes. The San Francisco Bay Area, to take a semi-random example, may be the birthplace of so much marvelous technology, but it has become an increasingly hellish place to live.

A brief list: traffic-choked roads; unfindable and unaffordable housing; homeless people filling the regional BART subway, unable to take refuge elsewhere; exorbitant property taxes thanks to special ballot measures that promise to fix things but do not, leaving bonds behind that must be paid back.

Amazon, at least for its customers, is not stressful. The retailer captured an estimated 40 percent of the online shopping market by prioritizing efficiency. Before Mr. Bezos established the “Everything Store,” it was routine to wait weeks to get something by mail-order. Amazon shaved that down to a week, then two days, then, starting last year, one day.

About half the households in America are enrolled in Amazon’s Prime membership program. The faster the world deteriorates, the more appealing the company is. The arrival of the coronavirus, which makes it both risky and an ordeal to go to the store, has only sped up this process.

The challenge for Ms. Mitchell and her colleagues at Athena is to make the Amazon buying experience a little less simple than Amazon wants it to be — to remind shoppers that there are real-world consequences when they tap Amazon’s yellow checkout button.

“The company has tried for years to brand their operation as internet magic,” said Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of Action Center on Race and the Economy, a Chicago-based member of the Athena coalition. “Look for what you need, click and it’s there in front of you. What we’re learning is that there are an awful lot of people who aren’t always treated too well who make that happen.”

The welfare of Amazon’s warehouse workers, previously a subject of irregular scrutiny, has taken on new urgency during the pandemic. If you have hundreds of thousands of workers, it is hard to keep them six feet apart. There have been reports of the coronavirus in more than 50 Amazon warehouses, and 15 state attorneys general have said the company’s sick leave policies are inadequate. After a French court ruled Amazon had failed to adequately protect its workers, the company suspended operations at its warehouses in the country.

Amazon, which announced on Monday that it would hire an additional 75,000 workers, has pushed back aggressively. In his letter to shareholders, Mr. Bezos wrote that the company was “consulting closely with medical experts and health authorities,” and that as a result it had made “over 150 significant process changes in our operations network and Whole Foods Market stores.” It is experimenting with the use of disinfectant fog and has started checking workers’ temperatures as they enter warehouses.

It is also cracking down on dissent. On April 12, two Amazon employees who had been outspoken about the company’s climate change policies and, more recently, warehouse conditions said they had been fired. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, both user experience designers, said their dismissals came hours after their organization, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, sent out an invitation to a virtual meeting during which interested employees could hear directly from Amazon warehouse workers.

“If Amazon is actually keeping people safe, why are they so afraid for us to hear from people in warehouses?” Ms. Cunningham said. “They are trying to silence us from talking to the media, but they are also trying to silence us internally.”

Amazon said in a statement that the employees had violated “internal policies.” It declined to say what those policies were.

As the pandemic has intensified, Ms. Mitchell has been working 14-hour days, sending updates to the House Judiciary’s subcommittee on antitrust, holding daily strategy conversations with Athena staff members and advising small business groups who want to protest Amazon’s power.

In late March, she wrote on Twitter in disbelief about a “relief fund” Amazon had established for its contract drivers, who ordinarily get no benefits. The company’s initial announcement said, “The fund relies primarily on individual donations from individuals and support from”

Ms. Mitchell wrote: “I can’t even process this… Amazon — you know, the one run by the richest man, the one whose sales have shot up during a pandemic — is doing an online fundraiser.”

Nearly 100,000 people reacted to her message. Amazon quickly tweaked the language of the solicitation, saying it did not actually expect people to contribute, although they could do so if they wanted.

“Something that should be their obligation — to provide benefits to its workers so they can meet their needs in a disaster — is just beyond them,” Ms. Mitchell said. “So they take a charitable approach, giving a bit of money, and then ask other people to pay.”

Amazon, which seeded the fund with $25 million, did not answer a question about how much members of the public had contributed. Mr. Bezos, whose worth Bloomberg has recently estimated at $145 billion, has since donated $100 million to a food bank consortium.

Another revelatory moment for the Athena team came after Amazon fired Christian Smalls, a Staten Island warehouse worker who had been active in demanding coronavirus protections. Amazon said he was terminated for “putting the health and safety of others at risk,” not for organizing.

Firing workers for labor organizing is illegal, and there was a quick backlash. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, called the firing “disgraceful” as well as “immoral and inhumane.”

A bigger uproar came when Vice News obtained notes that David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, took during a meeting of Amazon’s top executives, including Mr. Bezos. Mr. Zapolsky discussed how Mr. Smalls could be portrayed as “not smart or articulate” to weaken the organizing movement.

The notes revealed an Amazon that seemed more interested in getting good press for itself — and in setting up any protesters as fall guys — than in protecting workers. Five U.S. senators wrote a letter to Mr. Bezos, saying, “The right to organize is a bedrock of our economy.” Amazon said in a statement that “leaders across Amazon are meeting every day to consider the evolving situation.”

Ms. Mitchell saw it as yet another indication of how Amazon feels it is responsible to no one. “The executive team, which is mostly white men, trashes a black man who works for them, and no one in the meeting seems to think it is a problem,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Amazon always operates without any expectation of having to answer to anyone.”

Amazon released a statement in which Mr. Zapolsky said he had let his emotions “get the better of me.” The company said the lawyer did not know Mr. Smalls was black.

Ms. Mitchell’s first political memory involves nuclear annihilation — not uncommon for children in the early 1980s. Despite the looming mushroom cloud, she grew up to be an optimist, studying history at Macalester College in Minnesota, and learning that progress often looks impossible until it is not.

Robin D.G. Kelley’s “Hammer and Hoe,” a now-classic history of a small band of radical organizers in Alabama in the 1930s, helped set her on the path to challenging the corporate establishment. Mr. Kelley’s subjects were African-Americans trying to secure economic and racial reforms against a state and citizens that were violently opposed.

“At the end of the day, it didn’t look like the organizers achieved much,” Ms. Mitchell said. “But they laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement. They built a foundation for change. Many worthwhile efforts seem like a fool’s errand for a long time.”

Her husband, Jake Halpert, was a freelance developer of e-commerce websites until that business dried up. Now he works on utility company websites. “In a world where everyone else is obsessed with economies of scale,” he said, “Stacy has always had this insight that there’s a real advantage and resilience to being small.”

This is easier to do in Portland than some other places. Ms. Mitchell can do much of her shopping while walking to work. The building where she has her office is practically a shrine to small businesses; its tenants include therapists, consultants, Get Nailed Beauty Lounge and Peachy Potions Holistic Beauty.

Ms. Mitchell began her career as a research assistant at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in 1998. The organization, which currently has about 20 staffers, mostly in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., has an annual budget of about $2 million, some of which comes from the public but mostly from foundations. One crucial early backer of the Amazon work was the Nathan Cummings Foundation, whose founder made his fortune with the food products company Sara Lee, and which describes itself as “rooted in the Jewish tradition of social justice.” Other supporters include the Ford Foundation, the George Soros-led Open Society Foundations and the Economic Security Project, whose co-chairman is the Facebook co-founder and now critic Chris Hughes.

For many years, Ms. Mitchell focused on Walmart, including writing a book about mega-retailers in 2006 called “Big Box Swindle.” Some of her work was hands-on, like when Walmart announced a new supercenter in the tiny Maine town of Damariscotta.

A few townspeople wanted to oppose the store but did not quite know how. “We were so out of our depth,” one of them, Jenny Mayher, said. “Walmart had a very successful strategy of dividing communities. It would say that people who didn’t want their stores were privileged rich people, while the working people needed jobs and an affordable place to get diapers.”

The Walmart opponents contacted Ms. Mitchell, who gave a presentation at the local library arguing that both tax revenue and the quality of local jobs would decline. “Stacy armed us with exactly the information we needed to have fact-based argument,” Ms. Mayher said. “She has an ability to be wonky without taking the humanity out of it.”

In early 2006, Damariscotta voters changed the town zoning, blocking the supercenter. Walmart declined to comment on Ms. Mitchell.

Walmart was a challenge. Amazon is a bigger one. Walmart dominates groceries, but the company is not a platform-controlling gatekeeper for multitudes of smaller businesses in the same way that Amazon is. And Walmart’s demographics differ from those of Amazon, which has become an essential feature of a certain optimized urban lifestyle.

“People love e-commerce technology,” said Michael Zucker, director of Change to Win, a federation of labor unions that is allied with the Athena coalition. “The frictionless ability to order something reliably with very little risk is a very popular product. The question is, do you want just one company to have that?”

It’s probably not a coincidence that this center of Amazon resistance is about as far away as you can get from the actual company. Seattle is 2,500 miles distant, and Maine is one of the few states without a major Amazon warehouse. (There is a Whole Foods, however, a few blocks from Ms. Mitchell’s office.)

“We’re very independent-minded people here in Maine,” said Ms. Mayher, the Walmart foe. “We’ll farm in five inches of topsoil on top of granite, and we’ll like it.”


Credit…Ryan David Brown for The New York Times

Credit…Ryan David Brown for The New York Times

On top of a bookcase in Ms. Mitchell’s office is a New York Times clipping from 1938. This passage is marked: “The power of great organizations to levy what are in effect taxes are commonplace. It may sometimes be exercised benevolently, but, nevertheless, it is a dictatorial power subject to no public responsibility, which is the antithesis of our democratic tradition.”

The writer was Thurman Arnold, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assistant attorney general in charge of antitrust, during an economic convulsion much like the one the country is experiencing today.

“We are in an F.D.R. moment, and as far as I can see there’s no F.D.R.,” Ms. Mitchell said.

During the last big crisis, the 2008 crash, it seemed for a time that a better, more equitable world might result. Reforms were made and laws were changed — but few of those responsible were punished. While the world recovered it did not necessarily improve.

The same could happen with the coronavirus pandemic. But Ms. Mitchell is eternally optimistic.

“Things that were inconceivable a few years ago are now being discussed,” she said. “The antitrust argument against Amazon is much more alive than the antitrust argument against Walmart ever was. There’s a sense that we have to fix inequality or it will be the country’s undoing. I’d hate to give up on this moment.”

Kate Conger contributed reporting from San Francisco.

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