Pressuring Bosses Is Good. Policy Change Is Better.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

A worker moves an item from a cart to the line for boxing at the Amazon fulfillment center in Aurora, Colorado.

After years of bad press about Amazon’s treatment of its workers, the company announced Tuesday that it is raising its employees’ wages to $15 an hour, effective next month. The new wage will cover all employees, including temporary and seasonal workers. It’s clear that the company succumbed to public pressure from worker movements as well as criticism from progressive politicians, particularly Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The announcement comes amid growing agitation for higher wages and better working conditions. This week, the Fight for $15 is coordinating protests and strikes among fast food workers seeking better pay and union representation. Just last week, airport workers at the three New York-area airports won a $19 minimum wage—which will be the highest targeted minimum wage in the country—after years of union pressure. 

Amazon has been a common target of criticism for its workplace policies, for both its office and warehouse workers. Workers at Amazon encouraged boycotts (and European workers went on strike) during the most recent Amazon Prime Day, when Amazon releases a flurry of one-day deals. Though these boycotts were likely too small to hit Amazon’s bottom line, they did foster negative press. Then, last week, a union-busting instructional video produced for managers of (Amazon-owned) Whole Foods leaked; the video encourages management to look for unionization “warning signs,” like an employee mentioning the term “living wage” or workers congregating together in the break room.

In July, Sanders hosted a town hall in which workers from a number of powerful companies, including Amazon, shared their stories about life at work. Seth King, a former Amazon warehouse worker, said that speaking to other employees was prohibited and that the “isolating” experience affected his mental health. Sanders has frequently pointed to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s extraordinary wealth compared to Amazon workers meager earnings. (Bezos, whose wealth recently reached $150 billion, has become the richest person in modern history.)

Last month, Sanders introduced legislation that would tax companies with more than 500 employees to reimburse taxpayers for the public assistance like food stamps and Medicaid that the company’s workers are compelled to rely on. (The legislation adhered closely to a bill introduced in the house last summer by Representative Ro Khanna of California.) Sanders’ bill was generally panned as unworkable: even the left-leaning, worker-friendly Center on Budget and Policy Priorities commented that “the legislation likely won’t meet [its] goal, and it would have a series of adverse unintended consequences.”

However, others suggested that the act wasn’t meantto be actual policy—it would never pass—but was simply a way to put pressure on large, exploitative companies—especially Amazon. After all, Sanders’s bill is called the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act … the Stop BEZOS Act. 

“It’s a message bill whose main point is to highlight Sanders’s criticisms of Amazon’s labor practices. Whatever you think of the merits of the legislation, you have to admit that introducing such a provocative bill earned Sanders a lot more attention than he would have received for simply reiterating his support for a higher minimum wage and a more generous EITC,” Matt Yglesias wrote at Vox.

By that standard, and the standard of pressuring Amazon to raise its wages, the bill must be viewed as a stunning success. 

While pressuring individual companies to make these changes is certainly necessary, policy change would ensure that workers mustn’t rely on the whims of their bosses to be paid enough to afford basic necessities. 

We’ve seen local and state initiatives to adopt higher minimum wages than the federal minimum of $7.25, often aiming for the $15 wage (a target that has surely been popularized by the Fight for $15). But even where state and city policymakers may have failed to raise the wage, grassroots groups have fought to get a living wage on the ballot.

Coordinated by a group called The Fairness Project (TFP), ballot initiative campaigns across the country to raise the minimum wage have been successful in Arizona, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maine, Washington, and Massachusetts. Wage increases will be on the ballot in Arkansas and Missouri this November. In the past two years, about nine million workers have seen their pay raised by minimum wage hikes brought about by TFP ballot initiatives. (Amazon’s decision will affect 250,000 full-time, part-time, and temporary employees and an additional 100,000 seasonal workers.) 

"Individual companies doing the right thing is good, but it’s no substitute for policy change that impacts all workers. With politicians missing in action, voters are banding together to raise the minimum wage themselves state by state,” Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of TFP, said in a statement. 

As for getting closer to that $15 wage—wages in the District of Columbia, California, Massachusetts, and New York will gradually rise to at least $15 in the next several years. Many cities have also moved to raise the minimum wage above the federal minimum; San Francisco and Seattle have instituted $15 minimum wages.

But progressives aren’t the only ones talking about policy change. In a press release, Amazon stated that the company would begin lobbying Congress for an increase in the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25. “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead,” Bezos said in a statement. 

Bezos also retweeted and responded to Sanders. (Yes, really.)

Amazon’s executives “want to lead” and “hope others will join in.” 

After enough bad publicity, the corporate playbook recommends trotting out the social responsibility ploy. Amazon is now shaming the government to raise the minimum wage? 

What’s next? Domino’s Pizza filling in pot holes when cities don’t?

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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