Jeff Bezos has been accused of many things — but never of thinking small.
The Amazon founder — who’s giving up the title of chief executive officer this year — used his final annual letter to shareholders as CEO to once again take on big topics and make big promises.
The letters have always offered a glimpse into the mind of the tech titan, who tends toward a kind of self-reflective uber ambition and has in the past used his rhetorical platform to nudge others — for instance challenging retailers to a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Bezos, who is transitioning to a role of executive chair, thinks differently and isn’t shy about it.
He can seem untouchable — as corporate star and the world’s richest person with a fortune that Forbes places at $197 billion — but Bezos is clearly reading his reviews and used the letter to address complaints about how the company treats its workers.
And he promised to do better (although his union critics remain skeptical).
The U.S. labor movement was on pins and needles last week as workers at a fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., voted on whether to unionize. The workers voted against unionizing by a large margin but the question about how Amazon treats its workers is not going away.
Amazon hired 500,000 people last year as it staffed up for the pandemic and globally employs 1.3 million, collectively paying them $80 billion plus another $11 billion in benefits and through payroll taxes.
But the vote in Alabama took center stage.
“Does your chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer?” Bezos asked shareholders. “No, he doesn’t. I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees — a vision for their success.”
Bezos rejected reports that characterize Amazon employees as “being desperate souls and treated as robots” and argued that surveys show 94 percent of the company’s fulfillment center workers say they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work.
He also pointed to coaching the company gives employees who are meeting or exceeding expectations and the fact that Amazon does more than “just create jobs for computer scientists.”
“Despite what we’ve accomplished, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for our employees’ success,” Bezo said. “We have always wanted to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company. We won’t change that. It’s what got us here. But I am committing us to an addition. We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.
“In my upcoming role as executive chair, I’m going to focus on new initiatives,” he said. “I’m an inventor. It’s what I enjoy the most and what I do best. It’s where I create the most value. I’m excited to work alongside the large team of passionate people we have in Ops and help invent in this arena of Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.
“On the details, we at Amazon are always flexible, but on matters of vision we are stubborn and relentless,” he said. “We have never failed when we set our minds to something, and we’re not going to fail at this either.”
But Bezos has plenty more convincing to do.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which was involved in the Bessemer push, said: “The impact on Amazon’s reputation by this campaign has been devastating, regardless of the vote result. We have initiated a global debate about the way Amazon treats its employees. Bezos’ admission today demonstrates that what we have been saying about workplace conditions is correct. But his admission won’t change anything, workers need a union — not just another Amazon public relations effort in damage control.”
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