One of the wealthiest men in the world is thinking of ways to give back. But he’s still taking from the very people who helped him build his fortune.
Earlier this summer, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos ― whose company has bought Whole Foods Market and who has inched closer to overtaking Bill Gates as the richest man on earth — invited his Twitter followers to help him come up with ideas on how he should donate some of his fortune. (The tweet, it turns out, was likely prompted by questions from The New York Times about his charitable endeavors.)
But as Bezos, whose worth now exceeds $80 billion, loosens his pockets, it’s important to put his charitable giving — and the philanthropy of the super-rich — into perspective: Many people worked hard for Bezos to help make him so rich, and he has a record of treating them poorly.
Amazon’s history of dodging taxes, its mistreatment of workers, and its ruthlessness toward even the smallest competitors have been well documented. It put ambulances outside distribution centers rather than install adequate air conditioning. It broke up a union organizing effort by closing the call center and dismissing everyone who worked there. The New York Times documented its punishing work environment in a front-page exposé. The company’s actions, as Forbes put it, hark back to an earlier time when workers were treated as “replaceable cogs in the machine.”
At The Washington Post, where I work, the story is a bit different. Four years ago, Bezos bought the Post and bankrolled its revival. Everyone here — including me — is grateful Bezos moved the Post into a new building and hired dozens of reporters. The Post’s renaissance has been good for the news media and good for American democracy — as our new motto, adopted under Bezos, won’t let anyone forget.
Everyone at the Post wants it to succeed and prosper. But we want our employees to succeed and prosper, too.
Two years ago, however, Bezos slashed retirement benefits. For reasons that remain unclear, he froze a pension plan that was awash in so much money that neither he nor the company would possibly have faced additional liabilities. He also spurned the sort of compromise plan The New York Times Co. had pioneered ― an adjustable pension plan that would have ensured the Post would never encounter a problem funding it. In essence, this innovative approach, developed by the financial services firm Cheiron, would have mitigated the company’s risks by sharing them with employees and continued to grow their annual retirement benefit.
Bezos’ decision on retirement benefits had nothing to do with the balance sheet and, arguably, everything to do with ideology. And it almost overshadowed Bezos’ demand for the right to cancel everyone’s health insurance and his push to take it away from part-time employees.
Only by making sacrifices was the Post’s union able to maintain health insurance for part-timers — whose cost of coverage was about what the Post spent to send its publisher to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
This year, the centerpiece of the Post’s labor negotiations is a proposal that would make it easier to clear out employees regardless of performance or years of service. Bezos wants to cut severance pay, too.
Even worse, he would hold those severance payments hostage by requiring employees to waive all legal claims against the company in order to collect severance — a cynical move taken by some companies and perhaps driven harder by the Post because of its recent settlement of a racial discrimination lawsuit over a wrongful firing.
No wonder Bezos would prefer to turn people’s attention toward philanthropy. It’s nothing new. The Rockefeller family perfected the strategy more than a century ago.
Back in 1915, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was called to testify before the Commission on Industrial Relations about a brutal strike at one of his family’s mines in Colorado. Rockefeller professed ignorance of the strike and the labor conditions there, but he did spend some time detailing the fine work of his philanthropy: Rockefeller money was eradicating hookworm in foreign countries, underwriting the American Academy in Rome, and creating a sanctuary for migratory birds in Louisiana, he said.
John R. Lawson, a leader in the United Mine Workers of America who also testified before the commission, wasn’t having any of it. Lawson expressed his disgust that Rockefeller could claim ignorance of the dangerous working conditions and poverty wages in his mines but speak at length about all the charitable money he had given to the birds.
“This is the skillful attempt that is being made to substitute philanthropy for justice,” Lawson testified. “There is not one of these foundations now spreading their millions over the world in showy generosity that does not draw those millions from some form of industrial injustice.”
Amazon and Bezos haven’t shown anything like the disregard for workers that the Rockefellers did, and no Amazon warehouse workers or journalists have endured anything like the hardships the Colorado miners faced. It should go without saying that charitable giving for medical research and other worthy causes is important and necessary.
But as with other multi-billionaires, Bezos should remember that his vast wealth came in part from labor, and he should do more to share that wealth with workers. As the owner of an institution that’s critical to democracy, he should go out of his way to set a tone of progressive stewardship toward employees in all his businesses.
Instead, Bezos has shown that he views his employees as parts in a high-tech machine, that income inequality is someone else’s problem, and that modern corporations owe little more to their employees than a paycheck.
He seems to be enjoying his newfound acclaim as the Post’s savior while displaying a laissez faire attitude to the financial well-being of its employees — especially those who do not have a famous byline but who make its journalism possible by copy-editing stories, driving circulation trucks, mining social media or selling ads.
Bezos, as a lover and purveyor of books, is no doubt familiar with Honoré de Balzac’s saying that, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” In this case, it’s more like petty theft from the people who work for him. He owes them better.
Fredrick Kunkle is a staff writer on The Washington Post’s Metro desk and co-chair of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild’s bargaining unit at the Post. The views stated here are his own.