Amazon is gearing up to defend itself against a mushrooming battle over the company’s alleged anticompetitive business practices, in arenas spanning Congress, federal agencies and state government.
The commerce giant is expanding its legal team, hiring former federal prosecutors and regulators to fill roles that include defending the company against allegations that it unfairly dominates markets. The company has tweaked its public messaging to downplay its role as the world’s largest online retailer. It has also tried to boost its image in Washington, D.C., spending more on federal lobbying in 2020 than ever before.
Together, those moves can be read as Amazon erecting a shield against stepped-up antitrust scrutiny, said University of Washington tech historian Margaret O’Mara.
Amazon is “deploying their considerable resources and readying for what’s clearly a very different relationship with Washington (D.C.) than tech has usually enjoyed,” O’Mara said.
Amazon has objected to criticisms that it has grown too large. The company operates “a diverse range of businesses” in an “extraordinarily competitive” global retail marketplace, company spokesperson Dan Perlet said in a statement.
President Joe Biden has taken a more strident tone on issues of corporate power than recent Democratic presidents. He issued a statement many interpreted as backing the union drive of Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala. And he has installed prominent Big Tech critics in key positions within federal agencies, signaling the administration could attempt to rein in Amazon’s economic sway.
The company is facing simultaneous challenges in both chambers of Congress, as well as from states. Legislation that would reform some aspects of antitrust enforcement is working its way through the Senate; House antitrust subcommittee members are expected to introduce their own bills in coming months.
Behind the scenes, Amazon has filled its ranks with at least 10 former federal antitrust attorneys and economists, most of whom previously worked in federal government for at least a decade, according to a review of LinkedIn profiles and previous reporting from nonprofit watchdog group The Revolving Door Project.
Six have been with the company since at least 2019, including Nate Sutton, who joined Amazon’s regulatory law team in 2016 after 10 years as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice (DOJ) antitrust division. Lawmakers talked briefly of launching an investigation into Sutton last year, after his congressional testimony about Amazon’s business practices appeared to contradict findings in last year’s House antitrust committee report detailing what it said were anticompetitive business practices by Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook.
The pace of Amazon’s hires accelerated as federal scrutiny of Amazon’s business practices intensified: The company made five high-profile hires with a combined 44 years of experience at the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in a four-month period last year.
Amazon is currently looking to hire more Seattle- and Virginia-based attorneys to “advise the company on a wide variety of cutting edge legal and business risk management issues,” including in the realm of antitrust, according to job listings posted March 19 and Jan. 21. Amazon’s desired “basic qualifications” for the roles include former government service.
The company also has two open positions for economists on the team handling antimonopoly issues. Amazon is “looking for an economist to help develop economic models and evidence to support legal and regulatory matters across all lines of our business,” one listing reads. Preferred qualifications include experience “working in or closely with a regulatory agency” and “in complex business litigation, in particular on antitrust matters.”
Amazon’s teams dealing with antitrust matters have grown more slowly than the company as a whole, Perlet said. The company added nearly 450,000 employees globally last year, mostly at its warehouses, as the pandemic juiced demand for online shopping.
In addition to staffing up internally, Amazon has enlisted outside help to advise it on antitrust matters.
Attorneys from Covington & Burling, a firm whose antitrust practice boasts a deep bench of former FTC and DOJ antitrust employees, represented Jeff Bezos during his testimony to the House antitrust committee last summer. Amazon also tapped prominent antitrust expert and Big Tech critic Fiona Scott Morton to advise the company in the lead-up to that hearing.
In 2020, Amazon spent $18.7 million courting federal officials, more than any other company except Facebook, and more than Amazon has ever spent on lobbying in a single year.
Amazon workers at an Alabama warehouse have voted against unionizing, a significant defeat for a major organizing effort that drew widespread attention as workers faced off against one of the nation’s most powerful employers.
Over half of the 3,215 employees who cast ballots that weren’t contested by either side voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led the effort to unionize employees at the facility in Bessemer, Ala., according to a preliminary tally Friday overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
The board finished counting all unchallenged votes Friday morning, after a days-long count that was announced online via livestream. It counted 1,798 votes against joining the union and 738 votes in favor.
Nearly 6,000 warehouse workers were eligible to cast ballots by mail-in vote starting in February. The union said it intended to challenge the result, which it characterized as the result of intimidation and unfair practices by Amazon during the campaign.
It was the closest Amazon workers anywhere in the U.S. had come to a union. In Bessemer, worker concerns over the company’s handling of COVID-19 workplace safety converged with the racial equity movement to set in motion one of the most closely watched American union drives in recent history.
The loss deals a blow to the RWDSU, which rode a wave of publicity uncommon in labor organizing, fueled by the spotlight that the pandemic has put on the nation’s income and racial disparities. Unionization would have had significant effects on Amazon’s operations, including potentially paving the path for wider worker organization at the behemoth company. Some experts said it reflected weaknesses in U.S. labor law.
Still, labor historians said the very effort marked an inflection point in the relationship between labor and the tech industry, which has grown in profits and influence while the workers who make, package and deliver its products reap disproportionately little of the gains. And it has sharpened public scrutiny of Amazon, known for exacting control of its employees and the pace of their work in its warehouses to meet the quick delivery goals customers have come to expect.