The Amazon Effect   //   August 11, 2020

How Pramila Jayapal became Amazon’s biggest critic in Congress

Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic Congress member from Washington, is not the most obvious candidate for Amazon’s adversary in Congress. The Seattle-based company sits squarely in her own backyard: Walking the tightrope between protecting employees and attacking the interests of their employer is a delicate act, at best.

Yet at the most recent Big Tech antitrust hearing, the congressperson came out swinging against the tech giant. She pushed Jeff Bezos on questions of Amazon’s use of third-party seller data, citing a Wall Street Journal report that revealed instances where the company had done precisely that, before quoting a former Amazon employee who had described the company’s approach to data as a “candy shop.” (Bezos, for his part, neither confirmed nor denied the report, but said the company had been conducting its own internal investigation.)

Jayapal hasn’t always made Amazon a cornerstone of her political work. First elected to the House of Representatives in 2016, she made a name for herself as a champion for immigration reform. But over the last years, or even months, Jayapal has worked with former Amazon employees to try to change conditions for workers. She’s now known as one of the company’s most powerful critics, with a shift in approach that reflects the change in approach common among many progressives toward the tech titan.

“She’s really smart, and she’s open-minded and learns,” said antitrust expert Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute and the author of “Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.” “I think part of the difference between monopoly power and a lot of other issue areas is that it is a policy area where you really need to learn a lot and understand these businesses.” He praised the work she had done behind the scenes ahead of the hearing. 

As recently as 2018, Jayapal was reluctant to criticize the company directly. When asked by GeekWire whether Amazon paid enough tax locally to account for their footprint, she responded: “That’s a big question. I don’t know.” The year before, she tweeted, Jayapal helped an Amazon worker secure a visa “so she can stay with her husband and keep working at @Amazon 💪🏽.” But this change of approach spoke somewhat to the company’s own evolution, Stoller said. “Amazon grew enormously in the last year or two. It’s gone into so many other sectors, and so many more more businesses are dependent on it, so it would make sense that somebody has a different attitude about Amazon today than they did two years ago,” he said. “Amazon’s a different company than it was two years ago.”

Particularly during the pandemic, Jayapal has been explicitly critical of the company. In an April press release, she urged Bezos to “take care of the health and wellbeing of the employees who are risking their lives to do the work, by providing generous leave policies, additional pay and most importantly, safety in the workplace.” Speaking to the New York Times in May, she said she had a frustrating exchange with top executives of the company some months earlier, in which her concerns were dismissed as irrelevant or unfounded. Now, she told the newspaper, she was prepared to make her feelings public: “I try to have these discussions,” she said, “but I’m at the end of the private line.”

Her book, Use The Power You Have, released in June 2020,  lays out her position with still more clarity: “Today, corporations seem to believe—with some good reason—that they make the rules and they can rig the system to benefit only them,” she wrote, giving the example of Amazon’s $1.1 million bid to rig a pro-Amazon slate in local Seattle elections as the epitome of “the arrogance of corporations.” 

Later in the book, Jayapal addressed the company and others like it more obliquely: “When we look at the mega-corporations that exist today and their control over all aspects of our life, including our health and location data, our shopping preferences, and so much more, we begin to understand that today’s monopolies are more powerful than we can even begin to imagine,” she writes. “Today’s mega-corporations need regulation on every front. In addition to investigating monopolistic and antitrust violations, we also need to go back to regulating corporations much more substantially to prove their benefit to the community.”

But protecting her own community requires careful balancing, not least when so many of her constituents are white-collar Amazon workers who may benefit from its antitrust policies. In a May tweet, she addressed the conflict: “Two things can be true at the same time — a company can be doing tremendous work that is incredibly valued and essential, and it can be treating workers badly.” 

For Stoller, her advocacy suggests a difference in how Amazon employees and executives saw their interests: “It is incredibly courageous that she is highly critical of the hometown company,” he said, citing Rep. Jerry Nadler’s criticism of Facebook and Google as another example. 

But it has led some to worry that she may not be the most natural fit to grapple with the company. “In my line of understanding of how the world works, it’s just hard to imagine a Washington congressperson being the spokesperson against Amazon,” said Paul Rafelson, executive director of the Online Merchants Guild. While he acknowledged that many other Washington-based businesses had been burned by their dealing with Amazon, “I wonder if [she is] the strongest voice. It’s hard to do that when you’ve got so many jobs, when you’ve got one of the biggest tech companies in your backyard, whose employees you represent.”

In the hearings, Jayapal asked Bezos whether Amazon’s use of data was “fair to the mom and pop third-party businesses that are trying to sell on your platform.” As he launched into a defence of what they had been able to offer these sellers, she cut him off: “You might allow third-party sellers onto your platform, but if you’re continuously monitoring the data to make sure that they’re never gonna get big enough that they can compete with you, that is actually the concern that the committee has.” Every business ought to have the right to be an Amazon or an Apple, she said, with these marketplaces regulated such that no company could become a monopoly in this way.

But third-party sellers had concerns far beyond Amazon’s use of data, Raferson said. “I worry that they’re turning the private label issue into a red herring,” he said. While there were indubitably concerns around Amazon’s use of data, a far bigger problem for most sellers was the fact that they had no option but to sell on Amazon, resulting in extremely poor margins. This has been a point of contention raised by other Congresspeople, among them David Cicilline and Jerry Nadler.

“That system of cheating to win and getting a massive commercial advantage has to be challenged,” Raferson said. “I want to hear the big stuff. I want to hear, ‘What are you going to do about this monopoly’s dominance in e-commerce?’ The company has a mindset that it can get away with anything it wants, it’s that big.”