Last month, Bloomberg reported that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, has accumulated a fortune worth $150 billion. That is the biggest nominal amount in modern history, and extraordinary any way you slice it. Bezos is the world’s lone hectobillionaire. He is worth what the average American family is, nearly two million times over. He has about 50 percent more money than Bill Gates, twice as much as Mark Zuckerberg, 50 times as much as Oprah, and perhaps 100 times as much as President Trump. (Who knows!) He has gotten $50 billion richer in less than a year. He needs to spend roughly $28 million a day just to keep from accumulating more wealth.
In contrast, half of Amazon’s employees make less than $28,446 a year, per the company’s legal filings.* Some workers have complained of getting timed six-minute bathroom breaks. (Amazon said it
Moreover, Amazon itself paid no federal corporate income taxes last year, despite making billions of dollars in profits. It has fought tooth-and-nail against state and local taxes, and has successfully cajoled cities into promising it billions and billions and billions in write-offs and investment incentives in exchange for placing jobs there. (Given that Bezos is a major Amazon shareholder, such tax-dodging redounds directly to his benefit.)
Stripping workers of the right to move among employers is just one way that Amazon and other big businesses are flexing their monopoly and monopsony power—again with Uncle Sam helping companies at the expense of workers. Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce, particularly in markets like book-selling, has given it pricing power to squeeze both the companies it purchases goods from and its own employees. A recent study by The Economist found that Amazon opening a fulfillment center in a given community actually depresses warehouse wages: In counties without an Amazon center, warehouse workers earn an average of $45,000 a year, versus $41,000 a year in counties with an Amazon center. The data also show that in the two-and-a-half years after Amazon opens a new fulfillment center, local warehouse wages fall by 3 percent.
Finally, there is the decline of unions. Since its founding nearly three decades ago, Amazon has again and again sought to prevent the unionization of its workforce, a development that would likely bolster wages and improve working conditions. Amazon has reportedly shut down operations where workers were seeking to organize, fired employees advocating for unionization, hired law firms to counter organizing drives at warehouses around the country, and given managers instructions on how to union-bust. (It has denied retaliating against workplaces seeking collective bargaining.) At the same time, the government, in its regulatory bodies and the courts, has again and again sided against unions and in favor of business.
All of these trends have have shifted income upward, suppressing worker power and helping people higher up on the income ladder turn simple earnings into self-perpetuating, ever-growing wealth. “The period since 1973 has been characterized by falling purchasing power of the minimum wage,” said Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center. “It’s been characterized by a rapid decline in union density and by the falling top tax rate. It’s been characterized by no-poaching agreements among low-wage service employees.” As such, he said, it has been characterized by spiraling wealth and income inequality.
In recent months, the Trump administration has tilted policy to enhance these decade-long trends, rather than to counter them. President Trump himself has hammered Amazon for not paying high enough postage rates, and taken Bezos to task for the Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of his administration. Yet his White House has slashed taxes for corporations and the rich, rather than for middle-income workers, all while preserving loopholes and deductions for investment income. It is now reportedly seeking to give away another $100 billion to investors via a capital-gains tax cut. It has reduced companies’ regulatory burdens and appointed the most pro-business Supreme Court in history. It has declined to push for higher minimum wages, or stronger workplace protections.