Life

I shed no tears for Amazon’s white-collar workers — but its blue-collar workers deserve better

Some companies are just hard to work for. Amazon appears to be one of them. I shed no tears for its white-collar workers, but in many cases its blue-collar workers deserve better.

The big online retailer’s corporate culture has been in the news a lot lately after a damning article in the New York Times lambasted the company for unrelenting pace and pressure at its Seattle headquarters. It told stories of ridiculously long hours, of scoldings for midnight emails not immediately answered, of employees undermining each other using an anonymous feedback system, of a brutal annual performance rating system that ends in firing those ranked at the bottom even when the ratings are good, of grown men routinely crying in their offices.

The article smells like a hit piece to me. I wonder what axe the Times or the reporters have to grind. Indeed, people inside Amazon are calling the piece largely bunk, including this employee who tore the article apart piece by piece.

Largely bunk, though, because nobody denies that Amazon is an intensely demanding workplace that wants to attract and keep overachieving A players. Anyone who can’t hack it isn’t coddled — they leave, voluntarily or not.

Plenty of people thrive in such an environment. Plenty of people don’t. And for those who don’t, they all have skills and talents that transfer easily to other companies with cultures that fit them better. Plenty of companies are available for them to choose from. And that’s why I don’t cry for the workers at Amazon headquarters. They have good options.

Inside Amazon's Whitestown, Indiana warehouse. WRTV photo.

Inside Amazon’s Whitestown, Indiana, warehouse. WRTV photo.

But Amazon’s blue-collar workers have far fewer options, and many of those options are poor. Some stories of conditions inside Amazon’s many warehouses enrage me. One warehouse turned off the air conditioning in the summertime and sent the prostrated to the ER. They wouldn’t even open the warehouse doors to vent the heat, to prevent theft. Worries about theft also lead Amazon warehouses to make employees wait for up to 25 unpaid minutes at quitting time to go through a security check. Lawsuits followed. They went all the way to the Supreme Court, which validated the practice, unfortunately.

Even when Amazon warehouse workers avoid dangerous conditions, the warehouse is still far from a joyful place to work. I know someone who worked the last holiday season at the Amazon warehouse in nearby Whitestown, Indiana, and he complained of a deeply intense, almost impossible pace that left his feet aching. But, he added, for anyone who doesn’t like it there, five more people are waiting in line for the job. Few other viable employers are available for these workers.

Low-skill blue-collar workers do have options — they’re just enormously difficult. I think about my dad’s family in West Virginia’s hill country. Coal mining provides most of the employment, and it’s all dangerous work. Worker abuses used to be very common; even during my father’s childhood there, “I owe my soul to the company store” was real. But many in my family found deep courage and took big risks to find a better life. My great grandmother opened a tavern and boardinghouse in a little town where the railroad loaded the coal. It was a bold move for a woman in those years, but my great grandmother had guts (and was a deadly shot). And many of my family moved to northern Indiana in the 1950s to find safer, surer work in construction and manufacturing. That was not done lightly — West Virginians are fiercely dedicated to family togetherness.

Indeed, half my family still lives in West Virginia in or not far from that railroad town, and many of those who choose to work still go down into the dangerous mines. Other jobs are very hard to come by, even though Amazon does have a warehouse up the road in Huntington. This surprises me given how hard those hills are to navigate — this isn’t prime factory or warehouse territory.

I applaud anyone at this end of the worker spectrum who takes good risks to find a better life. But not everybody succeeds, and not everybody can do it. At some point, it becomes necessary to protect blue-collar workers from workplace abuses, simply because some number of them will have no options and can be terribly exploited. It reminds me of turn-of-the-20th-century stories about six day, sixty hour weeks, and about child labor, and about poverty-level wages, because the employers could get away with it. Federal labor law and labor unions ended up solving those problems. I’m no fan of government intervention and I deplore what labor unions have turned into. Yet I do think that working people with limited options deserve some protection, some guarantee of humane working conditions.

White-collar workers are much more likely to have good options; many of them can get another job in the same field near where they live. If any of the abuses in the New York Times article are true, I deplore them. But a software developer or a marketing specialist at Amazon headquarters can quit, and soon find other programming or marketing jobs right there in Seattle. A departing Amazon warehouse worker in Whitestown, however, is much more likely to face long unemployment and an uncertain future.

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14 thoughts on “I shed no tears for Amazon’s white-collar workers — but its blue-collar workers deserve better

  1. Very disheartening to read. It has always seemed to me that capitalism requires as a foundation a judeo-christian society where concern for others and the hope for an afterlife are not uncommon traits. I fear that we may be entering a zone where we get to experience capitalism that has separated from that kind of society.

    Whatever the causes, it is sad that work is becoming that thing that uses people up instead of that thing necessary for human flourishing.

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    • Jim, there have always been stories of capitalists who treated workers like slaves or cattle, rather than people, even at times before Christianity eroded from the most mainstream. There’s always been someone willing to take advantage of another to earn a dollar.

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    • Commenter davisr66 below says that his experience in the warehouse was not terrible, so perhaps my “this is what I heard” viewpoint is not entirely accurate. The documented abuses are egregious, however.

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  2. Jim, I can assure you that while an Amazon fulfillment center isn’t Disney World it is not as terrible as it’s been painted. I’ve worked in three of the four centers in Indianapolis and only the statement about Whitestown at peak is remotely true. I’m sure some FC managers may do some of the things to make warehouse conditions poor, however, I found in my three and a half years at Amazon none of the allegations to be true. It’s a warehouse, it can be unpleasant, but never deplorable. They had very liberal benefits as a whole treat their employees well. It was a hit piece and we shouldn’t be surprised that it came from the New York Times.

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    • Thank you very much for sharing an insider’s perspective, which obviously I lack. I’m glad to hear that the benefits are liberal and that, overall, while it’s hard work it’s not inhuman.

      To be fair and clear, the NYT piece was only about the white-collar experience. The perspectives here on the blue-collar experience are mine alone.

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  3. I’ve known a few white-collar workers at the Whitestown and Plainfield sites. They enjoy the work, but they are the type you mention in this post that prosper in this kind of environment. I would never survive it.

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  4. N.S. Palmer says:

    I have mixed feelings about Amazon, but yes, I think that The New York Times article is likely a hit piece.

    As a former newspaper reporter, I know from personal experience that ethical news media operations have a “wall” between their editorial and financial sides. However, a couple of factors are relevant:

    1. News media are in desperate straits, so the wall has weakened. It’s unlikely to be coincidence that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also owns a big chunk of The Washington Post, which is a NYT competitor. The NYT was also bailed out and is partly owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who makes money on every remittance that illegal immigrants send to Mexico. The NYT news and editorial pages oppose anything that would actually control illegal immigration. Connect the dots.

    2. Even ethical writers and editors, and there are some at the NYT, know who the signs their paychecks. To deny that it has any effect is naive.

    That said, Amazon is a machine. It’s usually an efficient machine, but it’s a machine. If you have any problem that the machine is programmed to handle, it will do so very well. If the problem is at all unusual, you’re effed. That’s from my experience as a book customer.

    I also worked with Amazon’s publishing side when I helped my niece (as of last May, I should say “my niece, M.D.” :-) ) self-publish her book.

    I’d previously been both an author and editor for mainstream book publishers (Random House, Henry Holt, Microsoft Press, etc.), and I was shocked by my Amazon experience. No one at Amazon working on the book was allowed to give me his or her name. I could only talk to “my team,” but I wasn’t allowed to know who anyone was. It was like publishing a book with the Borg Collective. I will say that they did a good job, but it was a very unpleasant and unsettling experience.

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    • Thanks for your interesting perspectives on this, Scott.

      I want to focus in on the Amazon as machine part of your comment. Anything you industrialize ends up affecting workers as the Amazon warehouse experience has: it becomes about doing it faster and cheaper. Such was the case at Ford during the Model T years when the first assembly line was installed. It has the effect of reducing human beings to being parts of a machine. It’s not just Amazon, its anything that moves from craftsmanship to mass production. It’s enormously difficult in a competitive landscape to avoid the temptation to squeeze the workers harder.

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  5. I’m more concerned with how Amazon’s prices have driven mom & pop bookstores out of business, how their “take it or leave it” attitude toward companies they do business with has wreaked havoc with distributors and shipping companies, and their growing power thanks to almost 20 years of data mining. It’s a scary company and I don’t give them money anymore if I can at all help it.

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    • Yeah, they do play hardball. It’s funny, we generally like capitalism in the US until it goes this far. Then we react negatively. I’m not in favor of protecting a mom-and-pop for its own sake, but I also wish there were some way to blunt the effect that enormous companies can have on the small guy.

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  6. N.S. Palmer says:

    The bad effects of market concentration are why we used to have antitrust laws. They led to markets that were slightly less efficient but more decentralized, so that (in theory) one or a few large firms couldn’t dictate terms to everyone else and drive everyone else out of business. Now, we’ve virtually abandoned the idea antitrust and we can see the result.

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