It looks like Bernie Sanders just helped a few hundred thousand Amazon workers get a raise. Under increasing political pressure over its pay practices, Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce behemoth announced Tuesday that it would increase its companywide minimum wage to $15 an hour starting this year.
Amazon says the move will benefit 250,000 regular employees, as well as 100,000 seasonal workers it plans to hire for the holidays.
This isn’t totally anomalous. A number of major corporations with low-wage workforces have started offering higher pay this year in response to the tight job market. Walmart increased its base wage to $11 an hour, while competitor Target bumped its own to $12, with plans to eventually nudge it to $15.
But in Amazon’s case, politics were very explicitly a factor. The company has long been criticized for the working conditions and pay offered to its army of warehouse associates, and in April, a report by the New Food Economy found that one-third of Amazon employees in Arizona relied on SNAP benefits—aka food stamps—to get by. Last month, Sanders teamed with Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna to introduce the Stop BEZOS Act, which would have placed a 100 percent tax on large businesses for every dollar’s worth of government aid such as SNAP, Medicaid, and public housing vouchers their employees received.
“The taxpayers in this country should not be subsidizing a guy who’s worth $150 billion, whose wealth is increasing by $260 million every single day,” Sanders said of Bezos, currently the world’s richest man, in one interview. “That is insane. He has enough money to pay his workers a living wage. He does not need corporate welfare. And our goal is to see that Bezos pays his workers a living wage.”
Amazon initially pushed back against the campaign, noting, for instance, that the average full-time wage for its fulfillment-center workers was $15 an hour once you considered stock and incentive pay. A good number of left-leaning Washington policy wonks also argued that Sanders’ bill was poorly conceived, since taxing companies that employ Americans who receive Medicaid or SNAP might discourage them from hiring the kinds of low-income parents who tend to rely on those programs, particularly single mothers. But it seems that Amazon didn’t especially want to become the poster child for low-wage work in America.
“We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do and decided we want to lead,” Bezos said in a statement Tuesday. “We’re excited about this change and encourage our competitors and other large employers to join us.” The company added that it would “be working to gain Congressional support for an increase in the federal minimum wage,” which is currently stuck at $7.25 an hour.
Bezos likely gave ground on pay for reasons besides Sanders’ bill. For one, Bezos has been taking his first major steps into the world of philanthropy—and after he announced a $2 billion fund to fight homelessness and create a chain of schools, many of the reactions amounted to: “That’s nice, but why not try paying your workers more first?” More importantly, Amazon may have been especially sensitive to the politics of this issue because conservatives had also started attacking them over it. The company is a favorite target of Donald Trump, largely because Bezos owns the Washington Post. And even before Sanders released his bill, Fox News host Tucker Carlson—who has become the network’s in-house spokesman for reactionary white rage—delivered an angry report skewering Amazon for its treatment of workers, and accusing big tech companies of operating as monopolies.
This system is indefensible. And yet, almost nobody ever complains about it. How come? Well, conservatives like us support the free market and for good reason. The free market works, but there’s nothing free about this market. A lot of these companies operate as monopolies. They hate markets. They use government regulation to crush competition. There’s nothing conservative about that just as there’s nothing conservative about most big corporations. Just the opposite—they’re the backbone of the left.
In short, Amazon was quickly finding itself friendless on both the left and right—which is an extremely dangerous place to be. But its new minimum-wage policy is already winning it some goodwill. “Today I want to give credit where credit is due,” Sanders said in a statement. “And I want to congratulate Mr. Bezos for doing exactly the right thing.”
Here are two takeaways from all this: First, Sanders and Khanna’s bill—whatever its policy flaws may have been (and personally, I really hated it)—worked by upping the pressure on Amazon. That may not be the highest praise for a piece of legislation, and I’m not sure that trying to muscle companies individually through pressure campaigns is always the best way to conduct public policy. But political stunts do sometimes have their place—and when a few companies command massive workforces, focusing sustained pressure on one can make a noticeable difference in a lot of workers’ lives. (Those 250,000 regular employees are equal to roughly the population of Buffalo, New York.) As Khanna put it in a statement Tuesday, “Many in the beltway criticized our bill as impractical. But Amazon’s action shows that our bill can inspire multibillion dollar companies to raise the wages of their workers.”
Second: It seems pretty clear now that, going forward, the fight over the minimum wage is no longer just going to pit corporations versus labor. In many cases, the battle lines are probably going to be between larger businesses like Amazon and Target that have already embraced a higher pay floor and their smaller competitors that might not be as capable of absorbing the higher costs. We’ve reached a point where Jeff Bezos, of all people, might actually become an ally in the Fight for $15.