The expansion of the e-commerce giant creates new blue collar opportunities
We tend to hate on big companies, right up until they close up shop and move elsewhere. Then we decry the loss of relatively good paying unskilled jobs.
This is why the unionization effort in Alabama failed so miserably: Amazon actually pays better than local employers, the "mom-and-pop" shops everyone idolizes. National Democrats like Bernie and AOC, who know very little of econ conditions in rural, working class America, are completely oblivious to this fact. It's the power of local/regional econ elites and workers fear. Amazon can actually break up that power a little and offer better jobs. Nat'l Dems need to end their Amazon/Bezos obsession
The problem with privileged people writing about blue collar work is we would find almost any blue collar job hideous. I have no idea how I would hold my life together on $18/hr, and enduring 40 plus hours a week of drudgery to live an austere, paycheck to paycheck life would make me miserable. If I fell into the working class after spending two decades as a professional, I would probably wind up dying a “death if despair” I don’t know if I would kill myself slowly or quickly, but it wouldn’t be pretty.
Yet no country of any size has figured out how to get by without a big working class. I would be interested how the lives of Amazon workers differ from those of unskilled blue collar workers in France or Sweden. It’s pretty clear that Amazon isn’t that much worse than other American warehouses, if it were, they wouldn’t have a work force.
Wage differential. Words for a concept that I’m always trying to explain. My job has a lot of these non-ideal work conditions. It’s physical, exposed to the elements, and involves being away from home for long periods. Hello from 5-weeks in Argentina. The job also requires several specialized skills and judgement.
Anyway, one thing that Matt left out about Amazon are a they actually promote fairly well. We have a friend who lasted through the six months of box moving and was recognized qnd moved up. She now maintains the robots and is a supervisor.
I’m curious as to what will happen when an Amazon fulfillment center finally unionizes.
I think it can’t be overemphasized the extent to which Amazon — and also Uber, Lyft, and the entire “gig economy” sector — was an artifact of the terrible employment numbers of the last 20 years. As Matt correctly notes, Amazon manages to be a notoriously unpleasant place to work even for their 6-figure engineers, and was _remarkably_ unpleasant to their manual laborers. The instant workers could vote with their feet and go elsewhere they did, and I suspect we’re just seeing the start of that phenomenon.
I love Amazon. What with my increasingly bad mobility issues they are a godsend. Cheaper and more convenient is hard to beat. I have read about a lot of issues with Amazon but being quite familiar with very hard work in very dangerous jobs I would say that most of the critiques regarding labor conditions are bullshit. Amazon does not have a get out of jail free card when it comes to working conditions. Those are set by OSHA. Been in a lot of warehouses too and never saw one that wasn't used for storing perishable goods that was air conditioned.
When it comes to the physical difficulty of this labor I will direct your attention to the first picture accompanying this piece. Look at who is in it. There are women, a couple of older guys and some younger workers. If this were the dystopian hell hole of back breaking labor activists describe then most of these people simply would not be there. On the other hand I would be the first to admit the work is certainly mind numbingly boring. But that would describe a lot of work from assembly lines to meat packing and everything in between. And those businesses also have high turnover. If you think the people stocking supermarket shelves every time you go to a store aren't bending and lifting you would be mistaken. Think the work pace displayed above is unusually onerous? Try fast food.
My assessment of the people who write about the horrid job conditions in Amazon and believe those are actually unusual for this sort of work is fairly blunt. They have obviously never done any sort of hard job in their life.
Anecdotally, two of the last three places I've worked in the past 5 years have suddenly found themselves in wage/labor competition with Amazon...one was a restaurant and the other was a factory. Both had starting wages that they were fine with offering until Amazon opened up nearby, offering a higher wage. A lot of the restaurant workers would leave for Amazon and come running back, because, IMO, the culture change and longer shifts were too difficult of an adjustment for them to make. In lots of restaurants, if you are a dependable employee who does a decent job, you can have job security for as long as you want it, for the most part. But the rate of employee return for the factory was much, much lower, and I think it just might be because there are a lot of factory jobs that, frankly, kind of suck, and lots of temp agencies to place you in a new one if you feel like spinning the roulette wheel on a new place that might have better wages or better amenities.
Frankly, as someone who spent 2 years working for amazon, most of the negative things people say straight up baffle me. Like its nothing like my experience, its weird.
". . . lots of bending, lifting, and moving . . ."
This might come as a shock to a few Slow Boring readers, but this is a characteristic of almost all blue collar work. I wonder how these liberal arts grads think the stuff they buy is manufactured, packaged, shipped and retailed? Robots?
The biggest missing piece I see to all of this is how to get labor from being unskilled to skilled. Whether that is through college, trade school, apprenticeships, self study, etc. it seems like that is the most important piece. $18 for unskilled labor is great, but at a standard 40 hour work week, is still under 40k. If your single and age 16-20 making that, you're doing great. If you have a family of four at 40, that's mediocre at best.
Contrast that to a skill trade where you can go from apprentice to master (plumber, electrician, mechanic, etc.) and have your pay grow pretty dramatically as you gain skill and experience.
I work in logistics. One of the top criteria for siting a new warehouse is the availability of labor. And its cost. Labor costs a lot more than the buildings (rent) for instance. Anecdotally, I've never heard a warehouse operator say, "Yay, Amazon is coming here soon, so now wages will fall". In fact, they correctly say the opposite.
People hate excessive hours and weird schedules. Why doesn't Amazon offer more humane hours and shifts? Can there really be that much economic advantage in working a small group of people into misery with 60 hours a week, instead of hiring twice as many people for 30 hours a week?
And this crazy stuff with their working you so hard that you don't have time to pee (yeah, Amazon tried to lie about this, and got busted). Once again: would Bezos really lose that much money if he allowed the managers to relent a little on the slave-driving? Like, so what if people packed only 80% of the orders in a day? If the job were less grinding, you would not have to offer the same wage. And if they had less turn-over as a result, some of that would be recouped in HR costs.
This attitude that we must drive our workers into an early grave seems weirdly short-sighted, like not even economically rational.
This was an especially enjoyable and informative comment thread today. Kudos to everyone involved.
Matt seems to allude to this but I'm going to say it outright. Amazon's fulfillment warehouse have a 150% annual employee turnover - that's so high. Best I can tell Walmart is operating at ~ 50% (NOTE: bit harder to benchmark here with their use of a part time workforce). I suspect Amazon is purposefully running high to minimize unionization efforts. If your employee base is in constant churn - very hard to organize.
I have to imagine at some point they'll churn through the ~ entire potential employee base and hiring will slow and they'll need to change. And this might already be happening. They just bumped starting pay again to $18 / hour. Their new ad campaign is highlighting education reimbursement. We'll see.
This reminded me I have a package coming tonight with seven different products in it, that would've taken trips to multiple different stores, all delivered at no extra cost of a high quality streaming service.
I enjoyed this piece as Matt earnestly engages with this important topic, but he's ultimately beating up on a strawman. The sharp folks in the "Amazon bad" crowd don't think the company is literally driving down wages. Why not engage with the more substantive objections to Amazon labor and warehouse practices? Some of the biggest being:
(1) the fact Amazon's minimum wage of $18/hr is still nowhere near the marginal product of a warehouse worker, given how efficient the warehouses run thanks to the robots and logistics software
(2) the company's model of hitting high turnover goals to burn through tired-out workers
(3) union-busting practices.
Matt even references (2) but doesn't seem to find much wrong with it.