It was with immense delight that I heard the news: Led by Chris Smalls, Amazon workers at a New York warehouse overcame their bosses’ scaremongering and voted to form a trades union – the first by Amazon workers on US soil. In my 2020 science fiction novel ANOTHER NOW (Chapter 8), Chris Smalls makes a guest appearance, alongside a fictional character (Akwesi) who plays a major role in organising workers of Amazon-like corporations worldwide. I thought it pertinent to reproduce here, in honour of Chris Smalls and his fearless Amazon colleagues, the relevant extract. Keep going Chris!
Costa began with the story of Chris Smalls, an Amazon employee who dared organise a walkout from the company’s Staten Island facility in protest at working conditions during the pandemic. He shot momentarily to fame when it was revealed that, having fired him, Amazon’s ultra-rich and uber-powerful directors spent a long teleconference planning his character assassination to undermine his cause. But even though a considerable number of public figures spoke out in Chris’s defence and decried Amazon’s tactics, Costa explained, the furore had no effect. Amazon emerged from the 2020 lockdown richer, stronger and more influential than ever. As for Chris, once his five minutes of fame faded, he remained fired and vilified.
“It wasn’t the first time a corporation emerged from a global catastrophe stronger and with a splendid reputation amongst an appreciative public,” Costa said. “At the end of the Second World War, Ford and General Motor were enshrined in American mythology as patriotic corporations that helped defeat the Axis. For decades afterwards, if you claimed as some did that “what’s good for General is good for America”, you’d find plenty of Americans nodding in agreement. Could any corporation best this, you might wonder? Well, Amazon did in 2020.”
During the pandemic, Costa explained, while most companies were shedding jobs, putting thirty million Americans on the dole in a single month, Amazon bucked the trend and appeared to a swathe of Americans as a cross between the Red Cross, delivering essential parcels to confined citizens, and Roosevelt’s New Deal, hiring one hundred thousand extra staff and paying them a couple of extra dollars an hour to boot. Of course, behind the façade, the reality that Chris Smalls protested was grim: in its warehouses, Amazon treated its human workers as fungible, expendable units reducible to their physical capacity to pick-and-pack. Good luck to anyone who protested at unhygienic facilities or a lack of protective equipment or sick pay. That was the ugly reality behind Amazon’s elevation from a near-monopoly to something closer to a state-within-a-state.
“All power to Bezos!” said Thomas. “If this Smalls guy couldn’t hack it at Amazon, he should have left anyway. No one asked him to work there. If you can’t take care of yourself, that’s your own look-out.”
Costa had expected – even hoped for – this reaction. He anticipated that Thomas would see Chris as a weakling whose sacrifice was the unavoidable corollary to Jeff Bezos’s mesmerising will to power. In fact, he sympathised with Thomas’s inability to care about Amazon’s ethics. How could it be otherwise for a young man who, sadness leaking out of him unstoppably, felt as powerless as he did? The boy’s yearning for power compelled him to admire and submit to it wherever he encountered it.
“Maybe so,” said Costa. “But there’s another kind of power – entirely different but equally overwhelming. More powerful than Amazon and Bezos, it turns out. And we can see it in the story of Akwesi and his Bladerunners.”
Costa described their Days of Inaction and the success they had had in securing pay rises for the Amazon workforce, but Thomas remained sceptical.
“Bezos might have thrown them a bone to keep them quiet,” Thomas said, “but I don’t see how a bunch of consumers could ever weaken a megalith like Amazon enough to enable its takeover by the Chris Smalls of this world.”
“Power always rests on the law of large numbers,” Costa replied. “No despot, oligarch or entrepreneur has enough power to rule over millions without their tacit consent. The truth about despotic power lies not in the despot’s weapons, bank accounts or computer servers but in the minds of those the despot controls. As long as the many believe they are powerless they remain so. In that sense, Bezos and Akwesi were not as different as you might think.
The key to assembling immense power,” Costa went on, “is to aggregate the tiny capacities of many, many people. Bezos did this slowly, gradually building up Amazon’s overwhelming appeal as the path of least resistance for countless consumers, vendors and workers. All he needed was that millions learned instinctively to think of Amazon whenever they wanted to buy a book or a gadget or any household item quickly. And, of course, he needed to keep prices low courtesy of an army of workers with no option but to accept robot-like, soul-destroying, low-paid warehouse jobs. Akwesi’s army, by contrast, followed in the tiny footsteps of the Lilliputians who immobilised Gulliver.”
It was hard for the little people to believe they had power, Costa explained. And it was not even enough. It took inspirational leadership to persuade them that they did, and then it took serious organisation combined with smart strategizing for that belief to have any effect. Akwesi’s strategy was to start small but aim high. His Bladerunners’ Days of Inaction required of consumers only tiny sacrifices, but delivered confidence-boosting rewards. Not visiting a website for a day cost them next to nothing but from the very start, thanks to Akwesi’s global reach, it translated into large costs for corporations like Amazon. Immediately, the Lilliputians saw the effect they could have and the Days of Inaction became much sought after opportunities for feeling part of an effective movement. Whereas previous protest movements took effort and commitment on the part of all involved, Akwesi’s innovation, according to Costa, was to offer disheartened folks a chance to make a difference without personally sacrificing that much at all.
And in the same way that Bezos shored up Amazon by broadening its power base, from merely selling stuff over the internet to cornering the market for cloud computing and expanding into artificial intelligence, so Akwesi’s Bladerunners widened their power base by combining the Days of Inaction with the campaigns of Esmeralda’s Crowdshorters and with those of the Solsourcers, the Environs and the rest of the OC Rebels.
“Bezos and Akwesi were equally talented at amassing power,” Costa concluded. “The basic difference was that Bezos used people-power to milk people while Akwesi used it to empower them.”
Thomas had been listening intently. Costa inferred from his silence that he didn’t quite know whether to be impressed or dismissive. Sensing his vacillation, Costa chose a different approach.
“Forget the politics and look at it aesthetically,” he suggested. “The force assembled by Akwesi is more beautiful than the blunt and boring power of an ultra-rich man and his sycophantic henchmen. If you were to put the two forces to music, Bezos’s would sound like Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, Akwesi’s like Beethoven’s Ninth.”
As Thomas and Costa continued their discussion, Eva reflected on her son’s character and the relationship that was taking shape before her. Costa’s musical references were lost on the young man, and he was forced to attempt a different analogy. But had Thomas been familiar with these two musical works, Eva was sure he would have chosen the Valkyries every time. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ required an optimism of the spirit that her son lacked. She felt keenly that it was the absence of a father figure in his life that made him susceptible to absolutist patriarchal power. A Jeff Bezos, a Rupert Murdoch, a Darth Vader, especially a Mephistopheles, would find it easy to enlist Thomas to their enterprise, their boisterous validation of male power promising him what he had lacked all his life in a way that democratic power, however intellectually intriguing and aesthetically pleasing, could not. So, as she discerned faint signs that Costa was, in some small way, fulfilling Thomas’s yearning for a padre padrone, even while he challenged that desire, she found herself holding back the tears.