Trickle-Down Inequality

Amazon workers inside a fulfillment center in New Jersey. Photo: Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

Bill Bodani liked his old job. He cleaned slag out at the Sparrows Point steel mill in Maryland, cleared the flues and the broken brick out of the blast furnace. He loved it despite the asbestosis it gave him, writes Alec MacGillis in his new book, Fulfillment. “I enjoyed the people,” Bodani told MacGillis. “They made it enjoyable. The Black, the white. It was a family thing. I don’t care if you knew them for five minutes, they took you in. No matter how bad I got hurt, or how bad things got, there was always a bright side. You had those guys with you.”

Until he didn’t. The mill closed, and Bodani needed a new job. He found one with Amazon, working in a Baltimore-area fulfillment center. He started out at $12 an hour — much less than he’d made at the mill. He’d traded his old friends for a place that would, as MacGillis put it, fire workers “by algorithm.” And Bodani had a problem. He was older, and he needed to use the bathroom more often than did his younger co-workers. When he had used up his breaks, he resorted to an undignified option. He’d piss in a corner of the warehouse, using a forklift as a privacy shield.

MacGillis completed Bodani’s story before the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union announced that it would try to unionize the first Amazon warehouse in the country in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers there reported their own versions of Bodani’s problem. The company regimented their days so strictly that they often didn’t have the time they needed to use the restroom. The union still lost, an election now contested before the National Labor Relations Board. Despite the outcome, the stories stick. Workers said they couldn’t stay six feet apart from each other in the middle of a pandemic, spoke of dirty workstations that never got clean. Amazon, they insisted, was a bad place to work. Why, then, are cities so desperate to bring Amazon home?

In Fulfillment, MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica and the author of 2014’s The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, offers answers. The digital economy has fattened a handful of cities while others, often old industrial hubs, fall behind. There is historical precedent for industries to cluster: “History,” he writes, “is the story of cities with the right confluence of people in close quarters to spin the world forward, whether in classical Athens or Renaissance Florence or industrial-age Glasgow.” That dynamic, however, has “trebled” in recent years, he claims, with innovation the new resource to mine. Amazon and Microsoft swelled Seattle, brought it new wealth, a new class of resident, and a new set of problems. That wealth never reached a number of Seattle’s long-term residents, who could recall an older, more livable version of a vibrant city. What dispersed out from Seattle was not wealth, either, but something else. Inequality trickled down.

MacGillis understands the bargain Amazon offers the public and explores the consequences of that bargain with a sharp, humane eye. He succeeds in telling a story about Amazon from the bottom up — the right way to scrutinize a company that projects a progressive image. Amazon wants us to believe it treats its workers well: It pays them $15 an hour now, a fact it has repeatedly tweeted to its congressional critics. Other companies, even governments, ought to follow Amazon’s stellar example, the company says. MacGillis argues that governments have already been too eager to take Amazon at its word, and that the consequences, for workers and for the places they live, have been catastrophic.

To cities in need of jobs, Amazon can look like a savior. But salvation is an exchange: a soul for a different future. MacGillis argues that this trade is good for Jeff Bezos alone; workers and cities lose out in both a psychological and material sense. Bill Bodani has nothing to offer the new economy but his body. Amazon accepts, and forces him to accept something even more nefarious than a pay cut. To take a job at the mill was to join a community. Young high-school graduates, MacGillis writes, had walked into a union and the welcoming arms of their uncles and fathers. By contrast, the warehouse is a sterile place. Workers are welcomed not with warm introductions but with “a sheet of paper scrawled with AMAZON” and representatives for an Amazon subcontractor. The job itself can be isolating, as Amazon workers themselves have reported; steep quotas and pervasive surveillance offer few opportunities to socialize. This is a useful union-avoidance strategy. It’s also a spiritual blow.

Once cities like Sparrows Point offer up their souls, Amazon gives them a cheap future. Corporations rarely make decisions out of abundant public spirit; Amazon is no exception to the rule. Instead, it eludes taxes. MacGillis calls Amazon’s approach to tax avoidance “a veritable Swiss Army knife, with an implement to wield against every possible government tab,” and the description lines up with reality. Amazon paid no federal income tax for two years before coughing up a paltry $162 million in 2019. It settles upon cities and towns like a locust, chewing up tax breaks totaling $2.7 billion by 2019, according to MacGillis. In 2018, Amazon threatened to cancel a planned expansion in Seattle, its home turf, over an employee-hours tax intended to address the city’s homelessness crisis. The city council passed it, only to reverse itself less than a month later.

In smaller cities, the costs of attracting Amazon can be especially steep. Consider Bessemer, which enticed Amazon with a sweet package deal. The city would reimburse part of Amazon’s capital investment by making quarterly payments over the next ten years based on the number of full-time employees the company had hired, Bham Now reported. Bessemer would additionally agree to cap the trillion-dollar company’s annual business license at $5,000 a year and limit permit fees to $200,000. In return, Amazon promised Bessemer something far more difficult to quantify: hope.

At the time, Bessemer’s mayor, Kenneth Gulley, told the Puget Sound Business Journal that he could understand why people might think it was unrealistic for Amazon to choose a place like his city. “Who would have thought Amazon even knew where Bessemer was? I guess I had to ask myself, ‘Is this real?’ too, when I first heard about it,” Gulley said. The jobs Amazon promised would replace ones Bessemer lost decades ago, when railcar manufacturer Pullman-Standard closed a plant in the 1980s. He added, “Amazon stands to put back in this city what the city lost.” Workers asked: At what cost? That’s not a question many have asked Amazon lately, though on Capitol Hill the mood is beginning to shift. The failure of a recent union drive spurred calls from House Democrats for their colleagues in the Senate to pass the PRO Act, which would have restricted Amazon from indulging in customarily harsh intimidation tactics to quash organized labor.

Such widespread criticism is unusual for Amazon. The company benefits from a phenomenon MacGillis outlines at length in Fulfillment. There exists an open door between the Democratic Party, namely the former Obama administration, and tech companies like Amazon. MacGillis devotes some time to the career of Jay Carney, a reporter who went to work for then-Vice-President Joe Biden and then departed for Amazon’s communications department. Carney is as zealous a defender of Amazon as he ever was of Biden, the quality of a man whose conscience has a price tag. In cataloguing the fecklessness of the Democratic Party, though, MacGillis can be overbroad. “The party had increasingly become the party of the thriving, urbane, middle class,” he writes of the 2016 Democratic National Convention. There is truth here: The party does well with urban and now suburban middle-class voters, and that sets up class tensions with working-class and low-income voters. The party has yet to resolve that tension in a meaningful way. Low-income voters, however, remain Democratic, when the party bothers to engage them. The GOP’s efforts to truly make itself the party of the working class are stymied, always, by its actual politics.

MacGillis is right, though, to warn of dysfunction among Democrats. When Biden won the presidency, after the events in Fulfillment had unfolded, he did so on a platform to the left of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 failure. Biden is emphatically not Bernie Sanders, and even his attempts to expand welfare have run aground on moderate Democrats. The party, in theory, built a coalition of low-income and suburban voters that handed it the White House and then the Senate. Whether Democrats keep that coalition intact may depend on how they address the problems MacGillis presents in Fulfillment.

Like all corporations, Amazon recognizes one responsibility, and that’s to shareholders, not the public. Government, then, must step in on the public’s behalf. The open door between the Democratic Party and Silicon Valley lets in all kinds of horrors. Unless it’s closed and locked, the new economy Amazon represents could devour the country. Inequality will continue to trickle down from Amazon’s headquarters. America’s public failures are Amazon’s private reward. It’s an unfair bargain, and at the end of it lies an intolerable future. Workers deserve better, and so do cities.

America’s Failure Is Amazon’s Success