Amazon is like a small country, and now its employees are exercising their right to protest

Amazon’s Day 1 tower on the company’s Seattle headquarters. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Between its corporate offices, fulfillment centers, Whole Foods stores, and other retail operations, Amazon now employs more than 600,000 people worldwide. That’s more than the entire population of Luxembourg.

Similar to the small European country, Amazon is increasingly operating like a sovereign nation. With its sprawling empire of facilities and robust delivery infrastructure — not to mention growing lobbying efforts and connections to seats of power — Amazon is assuming an impressive position of influence. As the company becomes more entwined in political affairs, its employees are exploring the right to protest authority that denizens before them have exercised throughout history.

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos held a private summit with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in February, journalist Luke Savage tweeted, “So I guess Amazon is a country now.” That bit of snark earned more than 3,000 retweets because it struck a chord, affirming the sense that Amazon doesn’t operate like your ordinary corporation.

Bezos may have received that audience because one Canadian city was in the running for Amazon’s second headquarters at the time. Toronto didn’t ultimately win “Amazon HQ2” but three months after Trudeau’s meeting with Bezos, Amazon did announce plans for a new 3,000-person office in Vancouver.

When Amazon finally revealed the winner of its HQ2 contest in November, the company surprised the world by picking two cities to split the project between. Less surprising? The cities themselves. Amazon chose Washington D.C. and New York, the political and financial capitals of the country, to set up 25,000-person strongholds.

Like many new settlers before it, Amazon is rebranding the D.C. suburb in Northern Virginia where it plans to plant its flag. The collection of neighborhoods in the area will be given a new name: National Landing. The D.C. operation puts Amazon in an advantageous position to work more closely with the federal government.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam welcomes Amazon. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon has been steadily increasing its lobbying spending in D.C. since 2015. In 2017, the company spent a record $13 million on lobbying, a 16 percent increases from the previous year. In addition to spending more money in the capital, Amazon is angling to provide $10 billion worth of IT infrastructure to the Department of Defense to migrate the agency’s operations to the cloud.

Amazon isn’t just seeking business from DoD. The company has also been pitching its facial recognition technology to local law enforcement agencies. Police departments in Florida and Oregon are already using the Rekognition software, despite objections from civil rights groups like the ACLU.

More than 450 Amazon employees signed an open letter to Bezos asking him to end the practice. “Companies like ours should not be in the business of facilitating authoritarian surveillance,” wrote an anonymous Amazon employee, verified by the web publisher Medium.

In recent weeks, Amazon employees rallied around a different issue. More than a dozen employees, who are compensated with Amazon stock, used their position as shareholders to file a resolution demanding a plan to deal with climate change. It’s an unorthodox dynamic between employees and tech employers but completely familiar among governments and citizens, where individuals’ partial ownership of the ruling body gives them the authority to demand change.

Amazon declined to comment on the employee resolution but Kara Hurst, the company’s director of worldwide sustainability said in a statement, “We have set a goal to power our global infrastructure with 100 percent renewable energy and are investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency innovations.”

There are plenty of examples of Amazon’s quasi-governmental behavior. The company is building out its delivery and logistics network, a goal with added urgency now that the USPS is considering raising package rates. It’s not difficult to imagine a future in which Amazon competes with USPS, offering delivery as a service to other businesses like it did with its cloud infrastructure.

In many cases, Amazon’s position and influence have allowed it to lead on worker issues. The company has a generous parental leave policy and career development programs for employees. Amazon even implemented its own $15 per hour minimum wage, albeit in response to intense pressure from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Amazon warehouse workers. The company also vowed to lobby Congress to increase the federal minimum wage from its current rate of $7.25 per hour.

What Amazon’s growing political influence means for society is a matter of perspective. The pivotal question is who will provide a check on the company’s power. It’s possible that the federal government will step in, as President Donald Trump (no fan of Amazon) has hinted. But for now, employees appear to be flexing their muscle — and with fierce competition for talent in the tech industry, that could go far.