A conversation with Alec MacGillis about his new book on Amazon and the hidden costs of its dominance.
Bill Bodani Jr. spent most of his adult life working at Bethlehem Steel, just outside Baltimore.
Around the year 2000, an injury on the job forced him into early retirement in his mid-50s. Not too long after that, Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt and was finally dissolved in 2003. Bodani’s pension was eventually slashed from $3,000 to $1,600 a month. At 69 years old he was forced to take a job as a forklift driver at an Amazon warehouse, located in the same place the old steel mill used to sit, where he was paid roughly $12 an hour, a steep drop from his previous wage of $35 an hour.
These are the kinds of stories you encounter in Alec MacGillis’s new book about Amazon called Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America. It’s not a book about the inner workings of the company or the peculiarities of its mega-billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos. Instead, it’s a book about what Amazon has done to the country, about the many ways it has transformed our economy and accelerated its most destructive tendencies.
I reached out to MacGillis, who’s also a veteran reporter at ProPublica, to talk about the rise of Amazon and how it’s altered the geography of the country, how Amazon bullies employees and strong-arms local governments, and if he’s encouraged by the recent efforts of Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, to unionize. (The vote was held last Monday, and the results could come as early as this week, but possibly much later.)
This is a conversation about the consequences of Amazon’s dominance, but it’s also a conversation about my complicity and yours. Many of us use Amazon every day, and we’re content to look the other way in exchange for what MacGillis calls “one-click satisfaction.” If nothing else, this exchange is a chance to reflect on what that says about our world and what we might do to improve it. (Amazon hasn’t responded to MacGillis’s book, but the company has consistently defended its working conditions and emphasized its role as a job creator — although it was forced to apologize last week after falsely denying allegations that workers are occasionally made to urinate in bottles.)
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Your book is about how Amazon has essentially altered the geography of the country in terms of both wealth and power. So I’ll start there: Which parts of the country have gained, and which parts have lost?
This book didn’t start as a book about Amazon. It started as a book about our growing regional disparities. We’ve always had richer and poorer places, but the gaps have gotten so much bigger. We used to have wealth and prosperity spread out much more evenly across the country. In the mid-1960s, for instance, the 25 wealthiest cities in the country by median income included Cleveland, Milwaukee, Des Moines, and my favorite, Rockford, Illinois. And then a whole bunch of other Midwestern cities. Today, there are just a handful of non-coastal cities on that list of 25.
As recently as 1980, there were only a few parts of the country — mostly in Appalachia and the Deep South — that had median incomes more than 20 percent below the average, and then you had a small number of places that were 20 percent above the average, like DC and the New York suburbs, for example. But now whole swathes of the country are 20 percent below the average and it includes basically the entire Midwest, while huge strips of the coast are now above the 20 percent above the average.
So the goal was to write about this massive shift. We talk a ton about income inequality, but not enough about regional inequalities. And I settled on Amazon as the perfect frame for this story.
Is Amazon to blame for this, or did larger forces, like globalization, make this redistribution inevitable?
Amazon is both a symptom and a cause. It’s a good frame for the book partly because Amazon is everywhere and everything is in its shadow. So it’s a metaphor in that sense. But then it’s also a cause because regional inequality is tied to the concentration of so many sectors of our economy in certain places and in certain companies.
I like to explain this by pointing to what has happened to media. It used to be that media revenue was spread all around the country — among local newspapers, TV, radio, etc. But now with the shift to digital, we have a situation in which 60 percent of all digital ad revenue is flowing to two tech companies [Facebook and Google], both of which are based in the Bay Area.
The same thing has happened in the retail world, where the money and business activity used to be spread all around the country, but now it flows to a single company that’s based in Seattle, a town that’s now experiencing incredible levels of inequality.
So to your question, would this be happening regardless of Amazon? It’s a big question, and my answer is twofold. Yeah, there are structural changes in the economy that definitely encourage agglomeration and a winner-take-all dynamic. But at the same time, Amazon has absolutely made things worse.
Amazon might say, “We just happen to be the company in this slot right now, but it could have easily been someone else.” But that overlooks the fact that this particular company, with this particular leadership, made specific decisions over the years that have made things worse, with a particularly aggressive pursuit of tax avoidance at all levels, with particularly high-pressured demands on workers at warehouses, with a particular decision to put its second headquarters in the DC area, one of the richest in the country, instead of trying to rebalance things.
There’s a lot going on there, but first I want to be super clear about the way Amazon moves into some of these communities. You describe a two-step process: Amazon upends all of these brick-and-mortar retail businesses and then swoops into the areas where the laid-off employees live and hires them as underpaid bodies in their warehouses.
Is that basically right?
It is. And that’s what’s confounding about the response I got from them, which is, “Well, at least we’re providing jobs in these places. We’re not like Google and Facebook. We actually have a physical presence, and we’re hiring thousands of people in these communities that lack jobs.”
And that’s true to a certain extent. They absolutely are employing people in numbers way beyond the other tech giants. They’re now second only to Walmart, gaining fast for biggest employer in America. But what that overlooks is that there has been this massive wipeout of brick-and-mortar retail. We talk about coal miners getting laid off, but countless more retail workers have been laid off. The professional retail clerk took more losses than any other in recent years.
To put it simply, what you have now are the sort of jobs that once allowed a 55-year-old woman in Elmira, New York, to manage a jewelry counter at a department store being replaced by a warehouse job that pays less, involves much more strenuous working conditions, is far more socially isolating, and that same 55-year-old woman will have a much harder time hacking it.
You called these new Amazon jobs “strenuous” and “socially isolating” just now, but that doesn’t adequately capture it like you do in the book. We’re talking about intensely rote and inhuman work. We’re talking about a company that uses algorithms to track productivity and bathroom breaks.
These are really grueling jobs. There’s a reason why the turnover is so high. And if anything, the jobs have only gotten more rote and more repetitive and more isolated as the robots at the warehouses have gotten more automated. It used to be the iconic Amazon job was the picker who roamed the corridors looking for items, looking for the dildos. And there was a whole literature around that job. You walked so many miles a day that you wore out your shoes. But there was at least some level of autonomy and a bit of a hunt to the enterprise.
Now the warehouses have these incredible robots that zoom around and do a lot of the legwork, and the human pickers are standing in fixed locations for their entire 10-hour shift, pulling things out of the shelves as they come to them. And it’s actually a much more rote kind of activity. And there are other jobs that are even more mechanical, where you have employees essentially standing at one conveyor belt and taking things off of it so they can put them on another belt. Over and over and over again. For basically the entire shift.
Yeah, the core chapter of my book is titled “Dignity.” It’s about a man named Bill Bodani, who had to go work at an Amazon warehouse for half the wage he made at the steel mill in the exact same location. And he doesn’t have enough time to get to the bathroom often. He’s an older man, so he has to go a lot. He uses up his two short breaks over the 10-hour shift and, once in a while, he goes off in the corner with his forklift, tries to get out of view of the cameras, and takes a quick leak. It’s incredibly undignified.
So Amazon only gives warehouse workers two bathroom breaks per 10-hour shift?
Right. The way it generally works is you have a short meal break halfway through your shift, and then you’re allowed two short bathroom breaks. And he just needed more. And it takes so long to get across the floor of these massive warehouses to get to the bathroom. So often, by the time you get there, you’ve all but used it up.
A big part of your book details how Amazon is able to strong-arm local governments, often forcing obscene concessions. What sorts of demands does the company make from local officials?
The company’s demands of local governments are extraordinarily aggressive. It seeks large reductions on its future tax bills, on the property taxes owed for the warehouse or data center, and sometimes also on the payroll taxes owed on the workers.
For one data center outside Columbus, Ohio, it even got the town to give it the land for it essentially for free. And it demands secrecy from the local officials. They agree to call the projects by code names and not reveal Amazon’s identity until the very last second, and to disclose no more than the bare minimum of documentation required by public information requests.
One county official in southwest Ohio apologized to the company when a quote of hers surfaced in a local news report. She assured them that she hadn’t granted the reporter an interview, that it was just something that she had let slip out in a public meeting. And she assured them it wouldn’t happen again.
Why is Amazon consistently able to bend state and local governments to its will, even at the expense of the people who live in these places?
It’s mostly the belief that they have no choice, that this is the only option on the table for their community. So if you’ve had your manufacturing base wiped out in Baltimore or southwest Ohio or wherever it might be, and then along comes this company that’s going to hire 2,000 people at a warehouse, it’s hard to say no.
What’s so confounding is that it’s clear the company’s going to come there anyway. They have to fulfill their promise of one- or two-day delivery. And in order to do that, they have to be in a lot of different places. And so it’s not like Amazon can just decide to not be in Maryland and go to Alabama instead if they’re not absurdly generous with their tax subsidies, because they have to be everywhere.
What I find striking isn’t just the obsequiousness when it came to offering the subsidies to Amazon, but also the obsequiousness when it came to promising secrecy, to the point of apologizing to Amazon when they had to occasionally give information to a reporter who asked.
I want to deal with the elephant in the room, which is the role we’re all playing in Amazon’s dominance.
However destructive Amazon becomes, the one-click satisfaction it offers is probably too enticing for most people to give a shit about anything else. And the human costs of this are purely abstract for most people, just as the iPhone labor camps in China are. But I suppose this is partly what makes global capitalism so powerful: it separates us from the costs of our conveniences. I’m not sure any company in human history has ever distilled this as neatly as Amazon does.
I think that’s exactly right. Amazon has perfected that seamlessness. It’s just pure instant gratification. I’m holding out hope that, coming out of this year, we can jolt ourselves out of this situation we’ve been in. Whatever reservations we may have had about going all-in on the one-click satisfaction went totally out the window during the pandemic. We felt like we had permission to fully embrace it, and not just with Amazon but with other forms of our daily life and consumption.
I hope we can snap out of this on the other side of the pandemic. And I’m not an absolutist. I’m not calling for boycotts. It’s not about just full renunciation. I use Amazon if I have to, if I can’t find what I’m looking for elsewhere.
But the scale of the embrace has driven the enormous growth and power of Amazon, and I think it’s so important for us to re-engage with the physical world around us in the places we live. Both in terms of going back to our local shops and also maybe not zonking out on Netflix so much. Otherwise, there’s not going to be much of a town or city or neighborhood for us to go back to.
Do the recents efforts of Amazon employees — in Alabama especially — to unionize give you much hope?
Well, I won’t try to guess how things will turn out in Alabama. It’s going to be tough because Amazon has set the bar incredibly high in terms of expanding the pool of the electorate, which is something employers often do. They expand the pool beyond the likeliest yes voters, so that it’s tougher to get a majority. So it’ll be tough. But the fact that there is an election at all in Alabama is extraordinary.
I tend to see all this in grand, historic terms. These Amazon warehouses are like the mass workplaces of our time. This is the place you now go if you just need a job at a given time, in a given place. You can probably get a job at Amazon. And it’s not going to pay all that much and it’s going to be really tough work, but it’s just what a lot of people now do, by the hundreds of thousands. And it’ll just keep growing and growing.
And so the question is, can Amazon be the Bethlehem Steel of our time? Those steel jobs were incredibly low-paying and grueling in the early 20th century, but then the conditions greatly improved, largely through unionization, and they were transformed into middle-class careers.
My hope is that the arc of history can turn one more notch, and that these warehouse workers can enjoy their own 1950s moment.