Jay Carney, the former Obama White House press secretary, has worked as Amazon’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs at Amazon since 2015. That factually makes him a paid voice for the company that controls around half of online commerce and which is owned by the world’s richest man, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. All of which is probably why people didn’t take very seriously his “opinion” article in the New York Times on Monday that tried to paint Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as an Amazon supporter.
Twitter users, including a number of tech journalists, pointed out that Carney based his op-ed on an anecdote of Sanders’s support that framed Amazon’s treatment of labor around the only issue on which the democratic socialist and it align: voluntarily paying workers $15 an hour so they can adequately feed themselves.
Sanders, they noted, usually criticizes Amazon on a near-constant basis. That includes a letter from Sanders and other legislators on Monday slamming its refusal to disclose injury rates, which the op-ed appeared designed to mask.
Carney weirdly decided that, instead of accepting that getting a de facto PR statement in the Times might come with some criticism, he needed to respond directly by yelling about how unfairly he was being treated by Brooklyn media hipsters, academics, and all the other scum and villainy on Twitter.
Here’s the relevant section from the beginning of the editorial in which Carney touts the Sanders anecdote without context and quotes the senator as saying, “Please thank Jeff Bezos for me.” He also suggests that Amazon’s decision to raise its minimum wage to $15 implies some broader understanding between the two parties, despite their continued feud:
“Hello, Jay?” The voice on the line was instantly recognizable. “It’s Bernie Sanders.”
Given that Senator Sanders is a frequent critic of Amazon, you might think he was calling to complain about something my company had done — or wasn’t doing. But on this day, in November 2018, his message was different.
“Listen,” he told me, “I just want to congratulate Amazon for raising your minimum wage to $15 an hour. That’s good for your workers. It’s the right thing to do. Please thank Jeff Bezos for me.”
To be sure, Senator Sanders’s appreciation for Amazon and our founder, Mr. Bezos, didn’t last long. He and Senator Elizabeth Warren, both candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, regularly attack the company on the campaign trail, other candidates sometimes echo them. Still, his call at least recognized a reality often forgotten or ignored in debates about the role a company like ours can and should play in the economy.
The remainder of the article is mostly generic talking points about Amazon. Carney took pains to distance the company from other heavily criticized tech firms, writing, “We are not a social media company, a news aggregator or a forum for political advocacy (or disinformation),” (Amazon actually sells a lot of conspiracy theory stuff, btw.) He also touted that the half-million employees who got a raise, said Amazon contributes hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy, and that it plans to invest $700 million in job training.
That’s all bog-standard corporate messaging, the kind of stuff that might rankle some people or roll some eyes but doesn’t cross weird lines and usually doesn’t make people angry. It’s the Times passing off a PR statement as an editorial and Carney’s attempt to appropriate Sanders as somehow sharing Amazon’s economic vision that subjected him to some online sniping.
It’s not a secret that Sanders praised Amazon’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15 for all of its employees in 2018, because Sanders was part of the reason they did it. In early 2018, New Food Economy released data showing that in four states, Amazon was among the top 20 employers whose employees were reliant on food stamps (in Arizona, the figure was one in three). Sanders, who was already waging a political war on the company, in response introduced a bill to tax large employers at 100 percent of the government benefits their workers receive. He literally called it the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, or Stop BEZOS Act, which could be accurately described as a “fuck you.”
The bill was never legislatively plausible, and it didn’t go anywhere withing the machinery of Congress, but it kept the spotlight on Amazon’s labor practices. Sanders and other legislators (including others now running for president, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren) continued to pressure the company for months as it simultaneously endured bad news cycles on everything from terrible treatment of workers left disabled by its high injury rates to leaked anti-union videos. As Wired reported, the October 2018 decision to raise Amazon wages to $15 could also be motivated by economic factors, like improving retention before the busy holiday season or the possibility of recapturing some of the increased wages via its employee-discount program. But pressure from legislators, labor activists, and others clearly played a major role and was widely cited as a big factor in the decision, regardless of whether Amazon had other interests—some of them still closely related, like retaining political capital.
Sanders made no secret of his pleasure at Amazon’s decision, praising Bezos at a press conference and in a statement. That’s because he is a politician, a class whose ambitions generally rely on maximizing PR opportunities like forcing concessions on labor from the world’s richest man and a major U.S. employer. Sanders also used the opportunity to lean hard on Amazon’s newfound support of a $15 minimum wage for the same reason.
Carney and Amazon critics agree on one thing, though: Sanders almost immediately returned to attacking the company on the aforementioned grounds and new ones, like “potentially illegal” anti-union efforts and “profits-at-all-costs culture,” as the senator described them. It was not, as Carney argued in his editorial, a shared recognition of a “reality often forgotten or ignored in debates about the role a company like ours can and should play in the economy,” unless that “role” is the absolute minimal amount of effort involved in getting more of your workers off food stamps. (Not mentioned by Carney is that while Sanders praised Amazon, he emphasized it was because it stopped paying its workers “starvation wages.”)
Sanders believes that Amazon should not exist in its current form and should be broken up, specifically because of his very different view of the role a company like Amazon “can and should play in the economy.” And let’s not forget that at the time of the $15 announcement, Amazon also conveniently left out that it had strings attached like slashes to stock grants and incentive pay, and continues to grow a large fleet of outside contractors that often make less than $15, none of which Sanders or any other politician has praised because it sucks.
In any case, Carney didn’t really take Twitter feedback to his “editorial” well in a series of increasingly incoherent tweets, denying Sanders played a role in their $15 decision, blaming the senator for Congress’s refusal to raise the minimum wage, and insulting reporters, academics, and random Twitter users who happened to wander into the discussion.
“So it’s an ‘ad’ to inform people when companies raise wages, provide comprehensive benefits to hourly workers and spend hundreds of millions in up-skilling?” Carney wrote.
Carney then proceeded to e-yell at Scott Lucas, a BuzzFeed News editor, accusing him of preferring that Amazon’s workers be unemployed and mocking him for supposedly being a Brooklyn hipster.
Carney then corrected himself, noting that the reporter in question lives in Oakland, before launching into a segue about tech company gentrification in Oakland that is frankly impossible to fully decipher but appeared to be suggesting be that Lucas was helping cause it. (Note that Carney is paid to be a spokesperson for Amazon, a tech company; lives in the ultra-gentrified locales of DC and Seattle, the latter of which Amazon helped skyrocket rent in; and is a rich white person, which appears to be the implication about Lucas that Carney was going for.)
(I am guessing his return to tweeting generic corporate talking points later in the evening was either prescheduled or sent out after another Amazon executive successfully tackled him and stole his phone.)
Carney spending his night yelling at people on Twitter seems to mimic an overall trend of rich tech guys getting more defensive under increasing backlash. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently told reporters he planned to be more aggressive about making sure his point of view is “understood,” while Google has reportedly tried to suppress internal employee dissent and stepped up efforts to find and punish leakers who talk with the press.