Activists form national coalition to take on Amazon

Activists form national coalition to take on Amazon
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Thousands of activists from across the country are forming a national coalition to take on Amazon, the tech giant with a market value around $1 trillion and a massive global footprint. 

More than 40 grassroots organizations are participating in the coalition called Athena, which will push for public and corporate policy changes on nearly every issue Amazon touches — labor rights, surveillance, environmental justice, monopoly power, city infrastructure and more.

The coalition, which is hoping to raise $15 million over the next three years and has already received commitments for more than $5 million, intends to harness the organizing acumen of local activists and the political prowess of D.C.-based antitrust organizations to push against Amazon's unprecedented power and reach. 

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"What we’re seeing is that Amazon is monetizing our suffering," Athena's newly appointed executive director Dania Rajendra, a longtime organizer and Athena's only full-time employee, told The Hill in a phone interview. "And we want better than that." 

The wide-ranging group, which has members and supporters in many U.S. states, says it is coming together to create an economy where "everyone can thrive, defend our climate, safeguard our communities from surveillance, and expand our democracy," according to Athena's website

On Monday alone, members of the coalition organized three separate actions, including a protest against working conditions for Amazon workers in Stanton Island attended by hundreds and a demonstration against Amazon's ties to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Los Angeles. 

For years, public scrutiny of Amazon has been escalating as the company reaches further into markets beyond online retail including cloud computing, surveillance technology and artificial intelligence such as its popular digital assistant Alexa. 

In the past year alone, Amazon has faced enormous protests and even walkouts over its treatment of workers at Amazon warehouses, where employees often face high rates of injury and even death. Grassroots activists, in coordination with local politicians, successfully beat back Amazon's plans to build half of its headquarters in New York City earlier this year. 

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Meanwhile, the company has most recently sustained attacks over its subsidiary Ring, a doorbell-camera company that has equipped hundreds of police departments across the country with footage of neighborhoods without obtaining explicit consent from the people who were filmed. And its employees have participated in aggressive internal and public campaigns to push their larger-than-life employer to limit the company's contributions to climate change. 

The coalition is the natural culmination of that widespread and ongoing anger, members of the group told The Hill on Tuesday. 

"This coalition, like Amazon, is sprawling," Tony Perlstein, an organizer with Athena member the Center for Popular Democracy, told The Hill.

The New York Times was the first to report on Athena's launch.  

In a statement on Tuesday, Amazon brushed off the coalition as a group of "self-interested critics" that are "conjuring misinformation."

"Self-interested critics, particularly unions and groups funded by our competitors, have a vested interest in spreading misinformation about Amazon but the facts tell a different story," an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement. She said Amazon has invested $270 billion in the U.S. since 2011 and recently pledged to reach net zero carbon by 2040. 

The spokeswoman pointed out that the group announced its launch ahead of the holidays, a key period for Amazon as customers flock to its online retail platform to buy gifts for loved ones and take advantage of Black Friday deals. "It’s no coincidence to us that this group would emerge now because large shopping events have become an opportunity for our critics, including unions, to raise awareness for their cause — in this case, increased membership dues." 

Athena is planning to put out a set of specific corporate and public policy proscriptions by next year, Rajendra said. Its members will work to bring their concerns to policymakers across the country and on Capitol Hill.

Over the past several months, broad coalitions of state attorneys general have announced separate investigations into two other tech giants — Facebook and Google.

The coalition is not yet calling for an all-out investigation into Amazon, but individual members are reaching out to state attorneys general to make their case. 

"We certainly think that anyone charged with maintaining a fair and competitive economy should be concerned about Amazon's power, and that includes state attorneys general," Stacy Mitchell, a co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and founding member of the coalition, told The Hill. 

For years, Amazon has been one of the most trusted institutions in the U.S., according to polling. But public sentiment has been turning against the country's tech giants since 2016, surveys show, and even Amazon has taken a hit. 

Athena will work to organize protests and educate the public about its concerns that Amazon has become too big and too powerful, in the hopes that it might see changes at individual warehouses, across the company and in the law. The group is hoping to recruit more individuals and companies, and will continue to seek donations from individuals and foundations. 

"The only way we can take on Amazon, one of the largest corporations in the world at this point, is to be working in a coalition of groups around the country," Zachary Lerner, an organizer with New York Communities for Change and member of the coalition, told The Hill. He said he's not intimidated by the task.

"We can’t sit back, we can’t continue with business as normal, while Amazon is capturing all the different markets, trying to control our politicians and everything else," Lerner said. "It's something we have to take on and do."