Chris Smalls: “Now is the time” to confront corporate oligarchy

Amazon worker turned organiser Chris Smalls has continued to pressure Jeff Bezos’ Goliath empire Amazon by leading protests across the US.

It has become quite clear now that the benefits of the pandemic have befallen the very wealthy. It’s hard to find a more apt symbol than the recently launched luxury Louis Vuitton PPE face shield selling at $961 to demonstrate the divide. Touting the face shields’ capacity to insulate the wearer from covid and climate change, an Asian fashion magazine commends its practicality by explaining that it ‘protects the wearer from spittle, shared air and UV rays.’ This is a more palatable compromise for the wealthy who haven’t yet rushed to New Zealand or to their expensive mega yachts. But those who cannot fully seclude themselves by either working from home or shielding from others must confront daily insecurity.

Often assembled under a falsely endearing umbrella term, ‘essential workers’  must face the daily financial and viral insecurities delivered by the systems handling of the pandemic. Unfortunately for those deemed ‘essential workers’ goodwill, respect and applause aimed their way cannot be converted into money, wealth or value at this point. Their current options, which haven’t changed much since mid March have been to either protest or acquiesce to ‘market forces’.

Chris Smalls is continuing to protest Amazon’s labour conditions and non-existent safety measures.

The heavy mediatisation behind the March protest movement ebbs and flows with the 24h media cycle but the protests continue. Chris Smalls continues to lead protests outside all of the houses Jeff Bezos owns, and organised another Sunday 4th October in LA with local Extinction Rebellion, Union for Teachers, Sunrise and backed by the People’s Party. In a recent Jimmy Dore channel appearance Smalls states that the main objective of the protests is the Wealth Tax, citing Bezos’s billions in recent financial gains contrasted by the evictions and unemployment crisis in the USA:

“It’s time to fight back against the oligarchs of this country and Bezos is the top of the food chain, richest man in the world, and the working class people are struggling out here, and the workers have been exploited, small businesses have been exploited (…) these billionaires could absolutely provide (…) relief.”

Smalls’ movement isn’t simply around the notion of a ‘wealth tax’, the list of demands have become more comprehensive and encompass all large companies that often have benefited from Federal liquidity during the pandemic. Amazon recently showed how ‘essential workers’ have contracted coronavirus 20,000 times and that is without including delivery riders who are at perilous risk. Smalls recounts on Jimmy Dore show how “ever since I got fired, 6 months later we are still going through the same thing. (…) We have workers still coming to me on the daily with horrific stories and they are afraid to still speak up against the company.” He continues, “essential workers were deemed it by local officials and government but it’s not the reality of the situation. We don’t have sick leave, child care and amazon is definitely not taking care of their associates right now.”

As a result, Smalls is calling for a US general strike on US election day.

The coronavirus has unmasked our system’s priorities with a natural ‘stress test’. The Institute for Policy Studies recently showed a 32% increase of a massive $970bn billionaire bonanza which is directly linked to Central Bank and fiscal priorities. As the darlings of the tech world and the stock market — Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk both respectively doubled and tripled their wealth since mid March as seen in Forbes’s annual Global Billionaire Survey.

The switch to ‘remote everything‘ pushed an already frothy stock market to incredible juggernaut valuations. Tech stocks, which comprise of over half of the Nasdaq 100’s top valued companies, give the US market a heavy dependence on a small number of internet and software companies. Those stocks skyrocketed during the pandemic as everyone locked-down meanwhile, tens of millions fell into unemployment at the fastest speed ever recorded mirroring the 1930s. Moreover billionaires sold some of their stocks into this roaring market bounce while promised PPE and safety measures to ‘essential workers’ hasn’t materialized. Given the glaring inequalities and inconsistencies of this system, it is now that movements for better working conditions and higher contributions from the monopoly capitalists must be supported. For example, Robert Reich’s tweet suggests Amazon could give 100k to each of its workers and return to the capitalization it had before the pandemic.

The IPS study highlights the inequality stating that American billionaires tax obligations decreased 79% as a percentage of their wealth between 1980 – 2018. Furthermore, as Federal Reserve data shows, the US government’s corporate tax income has come down consistently from 2015 levels to a low entering into 2020. This was only seen before in the middle of previous financial crises.

Since mid march, we have seen the stock market rampant and totally dislodged from the ‘real economy’. We are also seeing a boon for the data economy based stocks, and the only way in which politicians engage with this is through surface value discussions of platform taxation while legal battles are raging causing debates about EU reactions to US platforms and their data. European leaders should press ahead to forbid European flows of data to the USA. A July 2020 ECJ ruling on a case brought by Austrian privacy activist Max Shrems, struck down the ‘Privacy Shield’ agreement between the EU and the USA.

A European order directed at Facebook to stop sharing user data followed and made headlines when Facebook made their empty threat to leave the EU entirely. This is an empty threat because Facebook makes, on average, $13.21 from every European user. What it shows however, is how sensitive US companies are to Data transfer regulations in the EU. Jonathan Kewley, co-head of technology at law firm Clifford Chance stated that “What we are seeing here looks suspiciously like a privacy trade war, where Europe is saying their data standards can be trusted, but those in the U.S. cannot.” Indeed imposing privacy as a top EU value should form the basis for which Europe differentiates itself from other global players.

The major shift in our time is that the digital assets have vastly overtaken the value of physical ones. We currently inhabit the adjustment period which will often be drought with tension. If you compare the major companies by market cap over the past twenty years there has been an undeniable shift from oil/energy and banks to the data economy. The post-COVID world has cemented the position of these data companies which have centralised and capitalised on our internet usage. Today, the knowledge driven economy accounts for 84% of the main markets assets. At a deeper level, this shifts the concept of work in the economy, but it pits the ‘worker’ and the ‘user’ against each other as the data continues to be accumulated by monopoly capitalism.

Source: ‘A Visual History of the Largest Companies by Market Cap (1999-Today)

The issue with workers rights is that it’s a messy affair with many months of unpleasant negotiations. Often it takes energy, community and savings to stomach a long and painful renegotiation of rights. But today besides the now millions of unemployed there is a sense of dread at the prospect of automation seen as a threat management could turn to upon seeing worker agitation.

Yet against this type of financial and economic pressure Chris Smalls and a group of iron willed tech workers have continued to pressure Amazon by leading protests outside Jeff Bezos’ newly bought $16m New York house. The second largest employer in the US with 800,000 employees Amazon recently tapped into the millions of US jobless for 100,000 ‘associates’ as they anticipate a bumper Christmas period for e-commerce. This expansion comes off the back of many brick-and-mortar stores closed due to forced shutdowns and federal loans not being received.

The announcement of the on Amazon’s blog was couched in language sensitive to safety and worker conditions showing that Smalls’ movement has clearly had an effect on the company. However, Smalls suggests that beyond the PR the realities are more sobering. pointing to a tangible gulf between Amazon marketing and actual safety measures, stating that “I have workers contact me all the time. They’re not protected still.“ . The protest movement should serve to remind people that ‘essential workers‘ and low wage workers are disproportionately exposed to the virus while serving non essential workers and being exploited by large billion dollar companies. Indeed, Amazon exploits their workers and also exposes their families and elderly to catching and ultimately dying from coronavirus especially during the winter months.

The movement decided to set a new comprehensive list of demands;

    1. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation supplies are provided at all times for all employees by the company.
    2. Employees who test positive for COVID-19 are to be placed on paid leave at 100% pay until test results are confirmed negative.
    3. Buildings or locations that have more than one positive case in a week are shut down, professionally sanitized, and remain closed for a minimum of 14 days. During this time, all impacted employees will receive 100% pay.
    4. Hazard pay of a $2 hourly increase and sick time pay is to be provided for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
    5. Transparency must be maintained through daily communication with all employees regarding confirmed COVID cases within their facility.
    6. All employees who were terminated during the COVID-19 pandemic for refusing to work in unsafe conditions must be reinstated.
    7. Next of kin or families of employees who lost their lives during the pandemic will receive an additional $200,000 directly from the company.
    8. All hourly associates are paid a minimum starting wage of $30 per hour.
    9. All employees are made shareholders upon employment and receive annual investments with the company.
    10. Free child care and health care are provided by the company for all full-time employees.
    11. All full-time employees receive 1 hour lunches regardless of facility location.
    12. Monthly bonuses are given for productivity/sweat equity and these bonuses are not subject to a wage cap.
    13. Employees must be notified immediately of any logged feedback, write-ups, disciplinary warnings, and employee reviews. At that time, they must also be given an exact copy of the document being logged, either electronically or physically, to keep for their personal records.
    14. Companies must declare a stance of neutrality on unionization by immediately ending all efforts and campaigns that discourage unionization, in all aspects of the workplace, from hiring to training to policies across the board. Workers must be able to unionize freely without interference, obstruction, or intimidation–directly or indirectly.
    15. Network-wide unlimited unpaid time and all employees are retroactively paid for any unpaid time they have used from March until all of the above demands have been met.
    16. In addition to the demands above, we are also calling on legislators to implement a federal wealth tax on the top 3% of earners in the United States. This wealth tax should be used to support and invest in community enrichment such as universal child care, health care, housing, and quality education.

Many of these demands would represent a significant ease of pressures on working families across the country. Of the more outstanding demands are; a $30/h starting wage; a $200,000 payment for any deceased family member or worker; neutrality against unionisation; and that all employees become shareholders upon employment and receive annual stock investment.

Chris Smalls’ movement is really the result of decades of grinding away at the concept of workers rights generally.

The corporate legal gymnastics since the ‘recovery’ of the 2008 financial crisis was facilitated by the government. Today it is normal to think of workers as ‘associates’ and freelancers while mass collecting users’ information. This simply reduces corporate obligations and exempts them of any notion of data privacy. This total destabilization of the employee means following the Walmart model which enabled managers to become tyrants, become ruthlessly anti-union, and erratic worker schedules.

A Moody’s analyst suggests, for the “lesser skilled and educated, [the coronavirus is] going to be a long, long road back.” They add that “the FED can only take us part way.” What is remarkable about the movement is that a fragile job market would normally dissuade people from actively fighting for better pay and job conditions. But instead, the moral indignation and the inhuman demands from the very companies benefiting from lopsided financial incentives are thriving today. To add insult to injury the FED denies the criticism that it is exacerbating inequalities by pointing at the federal government.

Yet despite the largest debt based wealth transfer from the public ever, ushering a huge rise in cases of fraud, Amazon will likely simply try to quell the rise of workers demands and unionisation. A reminder that Amazon isn’t simply a retail goods company was signalled with the addition of the infamous NSA director Keith Alexander to the board. Alexander’s presence indicates the informational-industrial aspect to Amazon’s global presence, which is a reminder that this is an even more symbolic test case of a flagship American company. It is worth reminding that the workers movement is taking on a pillar of US internet and military infrastructure at a time where they feel threatened by the rise of Chinese data infrastructure technologies.

The crisis year of 2020 is a year where for the first time during a recession big business is coming though virtually unscathed.

But the divergences between the real economy and the financial have accelerated. The American Bankruptcy Institute said that U.S Chapter 11 bankruptcies in May ballooned by 48% when compared to last year. Small businesses and service businesses have been hit and affected the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and minorities in US society.

As Time Magazine states inequality has been unequally dealt out. “Low wage workers and their families, disproportionately people of colour, suffer from far higher rates of asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and other COVID-19 co-morbidities; yet they are also far less likely to have health insurance, and far more likely to work in ‘essential’ industries with higher exposure to the virus”. There is a substantial racial and minority organizational energy behind this industrial action which is shaking up traditional models of worker dissent. This has influenced and been influenced by communication media affecting the randomness, speed and intensity of strikes themselves. But the cracks in the system go deep.

The upward redistribution of income, wealth, and power wasn’t inevitable but a choice.

The major finding in the recently released RAND report found that the $50 trillion transfer of wealth happened within the American economy and not between trading partners. Deregulating the financial industry and cutting taxes on billionaires ushered a heavily financialized economy. This in turn enabled CEOs to facilitate mergers and allowed them to acquire vast monopolies of power to dictate prices and wages. The speed of the growth in digital assets and the pervasiveness of financialization has allowed the system to morph into oligarchy at breathtaking speed.

Smalls stumbled into the position of being a leading protest organiser globally taking on the richest man in the world in his continuing pursuit of more wealth, influence and power. Smalls and the movement have expanded as we have seen clearly this past week again. Despite  Amazon’s best efforts to distract and conceal. The position that Amazon represents in the US today and more globally is a type of Techno-Security state. The stakes are high, but that is the time to collect people power.

Smalls states that “now is the time” to confront corporate oligarchy in this post pandemic crisis of imagination which ultimately benefits nobody.

Today, as the flagrant exploitation Amazon’s practices show, the system’s logics are crushing western concepts of human dignity and basic human/worker rights. Given the outrageous inequalities today, some wealthy people are casually asking to be taxed at a higher level. Make no mistake, this movement is important as it is doused in a righteous and moral indignation. Mark Blyth describes Angrynomics, his new book “like the old joke about Bill Gates walking into a bar and everyone — on average — becoming millionaires in a world where the returns are absurdly skewed, you can expect people to get angry about it.“

We cannot expect to be UBI’ed into accepting the status of corporate monopolies in our societies, we must demand their break down into more palatable structures and incorporate more stakeholders in the decision making mechanisms of the broken down corporate entities.

Photo Source: Still from video by Status Coup

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