- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
In the wake of the union election at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, a lot of people asked how the company’s workers could have voted against unionizing. A recent article from Harper’s Magazine about the union vote in Bessemer does a lot to answer that question, painting a portrait of the anti-union campaign. The author, Daniel Brook, details how anti-union text messages, surveillance (or at least the appearance of it), and captive-audience meetings were a means of spreading misinformation and solidifying opposition to the union.
But Brook spent a lot of time talking to workers, including strongly anti-union ones, which allows him to show not only how these anti-union methods crystallize but also how broader societal trends pose obstacles to organizing, too. When worker power is as eroded as it is in the United States, it can be hard for people to imagine winning — especially winning against a company as powerful as Amazon. Brook’s article features one worker, Carrington Byers, who previously worked at McDonald’s and a nursing home. For Byers, Amazon represents mobility and support. He tells Brook, “Everybody there is family-based. Out of everywhere I’ve worked, this is the only place where my managers are helping me, guiding me through my ventures that I want to pursue outside of Amazon. This is the only place I’ve ever been where they want you to become somebody.” By contrast, Byers buys into the idea that the union, despite being a place where everyone is called “brother” or “sister,” is not a family but an extractive business.
While Byers benefits from working-class struggles, codified in all sorts of laws and norms, he hasn’t experienced proof that collective action can win better working conditions, much less a better world. He hasn’t seen it; when he looks at society, he doesn’t see proof of it there either. The article casts this as a generational division, as that is how it often played out in Bessemer. Older workers who’d either been in unions themselves or knew people who had were pro-union, whereas younger workers like Byers didn’t believe in their power or the possibilities of winning what we think of as “union benefits.” They could be convinced to oppose the union drive after weeks of Amazon telling them to stick with the company, not to mention the feeling building in the warehouse that, should workers unionize, the warehouse might shutter.
It’s a point that can be lost in punditry that casts all young people as socialists, or pro-union. Young workers are far from unified on this issue; it depends on their location, both geographically and sectorally. What fraction of the class are they? People like Byers can be moved into action (that is, in fact, what organizing is), but it’s very difficult. It’s an important fact to take in, because Amazon is playing a major role in shaping us: “us” being both the literal landscape of the United States — the built environment and the economy — and also working-class people.
In a recent episode of Primer, Alex N. Press spoke to Alec MacGillis, author of Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, a new book about Amazon, about how the company shapes not only our physical but also our political landscape: how it influences elected officials’ actions, takes advantage of US laws, and acts on people as almost a force of nature, moving them from one place to another, injecting prosperity in one city or even one building, only to suck the life out of another. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book shows how Amazon is sorting populations geographically. There’s a scene where you show how Amazon is sorting Ohio into different types of communities. You write that Amazon chose the Columbus area as its location for Amazon Web Services US East, and it picked three towns north of the city for its data centers — Hilliard, Dublin, and New Albany — which were “the right sort of exurban communities to target: wealthy enough to support good schools for employees’ kids, but also sufficiently insecure in their civic infrastructure and identity to be easy marks.” Warehouses, meanwhile, go to other parts of the state. People follow the jobs: they migrate, they commute, and places get left behind.
The landscape is being sorted into what you could call three different kinds of cities. There’s the headquarters cities, like Seattle and now Washington, DC, where the company chooses a city that’s already the wealthiest metro area in the country for a second headquarters, even though it’s going to make that city even more expensive and congested. You’d think they wouldn’t want to be there, but they do, because it has the workforce they want. With DC, it’s the seat of federal power, so they want to be close to that, now that federal intervention is a threat.
Then you have the warehouse towns, in places like Baltimore, where you now have four warehouses. I can’t keep up with it: in the book, I described there being two, with a third one coming in Baltimore, and now we’re about to get a fourth. Three of them are going to be at Sparrows Point, at the former steel mill outside Baltimore. In Ohio, you have something similar. When Amazon first came to Ohio a few years ago, they put the warehouses in the center of the state, but at the southern edge of the Columbus beltway, because that makes those warehouses barely accessible to the poorest parts of the state. Southern and southeastern Ohio are struggling, and the company knows that if it puts its warehouses at that edge of the beltway, it’s about an hour drive for a lot of people. A lot of people are desperate enough in those parts of the state to make that commute every day, whereas the data centers end up in the wealthier exurbs.
So, you’ve ended up with headquarters cities, warehouse towns, and then the data-center exurbs in Northern Virginia and in Severn, Maryland, in Columbus, and in a few other places around the country. Amazon is now so powerful that its decisions about where to put stuff reshapes our economic landscape. A single decision by this one company about where to put a second headquarters has an incredibly outsize effect on our economy.
This is different than the story a lot of people in this country tell about how politics works. The United States is putatively a democracy, and, as the story goes, the public makes demands on elected officials, and they carry out those demands, albeit imperfectly. But that is not what your book shows. Elected officials do not want to be seen as costing their region jobs or harming their constituents’ ability to quickly get Amazon purchases.
There’s a scene in the book where Amazon wants to build new warehouses in Ohio in 2015. Amazon reaches out to JobsOhio, which is a private nonprofit created by then-governor John Kasich to oversee negotiations over tax incentives. Every month, a board called the Ohio Tax Credit Authority approves the incentives negotiated by JobsOhio. In July of 2015, it’s Amazon’s turn to meet with the tax board. The company promises two thousand full-time jobs; in exchange, it wants a fifteen-year tax credit worth $17 million, in addition to a $1.5 million cash grant from the state liquor monopoly profits controlled by JobsOhio. The board approves the credit four-zero. They do it quickly, in the time it would take one to eat lunch. This is how Amazon interacts with the state. It’s the one with power, it demands certain conditions, and those conditions are met.
I went to a couple of those meetings at the Tax Credit Authority, and it was surreal. It was essentially a secret meeting. They sent out the agenda every Friday evening for a Monday morning meeting, as late as they possibly could. You have to get through security checkpoints in this office tower in Columbus. No one even really knows where the meeting is. It’s closely held, barely public. We finally get up there, and everyone knows each other. The lawyers for the companies and the staff for the agency that decides on these tax credits all know each other; they’ve already made the deals on how much they’re going to give the companies. Then the staff gets up in front of the board and says, “We think this is what the company should get. If we don’t give the company this, they said they’re going to go elsewhere.” They always work that into the pitch, and then it gets rubber-stamped.
You have comical recusals, because a lot of people on the board have also worked for the companies. It’s utterly untransparent. What was confounding about this is that the state in these towns and cities is in a much better bargaining position than they realize, because the company really does have to be everywhere. It’s a complete lie when they say that if they don’t get this deal here, they’re going to go to the next state over. They have to be there, because they promise one- and two-day delivery. And yet the communities feel so desperate, or so at the company’s mercy, that they feel like they have to make the deals.
You’re based in Baltimore, and a lot of the book takes place there. You’ve mentioned Sparrows Point, which was the site of one of the world’s largest steel mills, part of Bethlehem Steel. Now that site is called Tradepoint Atlantic, and it has Amazon warehouses. One person you write about, Bill Bodani Jr, worked at the mill and then worked at the Amazon warehouse. He was working at the Sparrows Point complex, and in the early 2000s, an injury forced him to retire. Other factors pushed the company into bankruptcy, and the Sparrows Point plant shut down. Bill’s monthly pension payment was cut from $3,000 to $1,600. Now he’s sixty-nine years old, and he’s back at work as a forklift driver in the Amazon warehouse. He’s on the exact same site, working a very different type of job. He started out making $12 an hour, compared with the $35 an hour at his steel job. He’s embodying the transformation of the US economy.
I couldn’t believe when I met him that there was someone so representative of that shift in working-class jobs in the United States. I was hoping to find someone who had worked at a steel mill and whose grandkid now worked in the Amazon warehouse on that exact same piece of land. Instead, I found him, who in his own life contained that shift.
What was so striking was how deeply he felt the loss of the one kind of work to the other. Thirty years spent in what was the largest steel mill in the world in the late ’50s. Thirty thousand people worked there, with a company town attached to it, with a grid of streets and downtowns — a white downtown, a black downtown, churches. He grew up in that town. His grandfather worked there, his dad worked there, and he himself has held all these different jobs, a lot of them so grueling, so difficult, so dangerous. He had several major injuries; he saw people die. And nonetheless, he found meaning and purpose in that work, and he was deeply proud of it. He felt incredible camaraderie with his coworkers.
Then the mill closes, and he retires early after his latest injury. The mill doesn’t just close; it gets wiped off the face of the earth. It’s so eerie. You go there, and it’s just gone. The GPS in your car still calls out the old streets that are no longer there — B street, C street, D street — all gone. It has been replaced by this metastasizing warehouse park. He gets a job on the exact same piece of land, exactly where the mill was. He starts driving a forklift because he needs some more money after the mill went bankrupt and Wilbur Ross whacked his pension. So he goes back to work.
He makes less than a third of what he made before. He finds the work not only much less well paid but profoundly less meaningful. Before, he was making steel that was going to be used for bridges and buildings around the country. Now he’s moving pallets of stuff off the truck into this warehouse, under incredible pressure from his young supervisors to increase his rate, with not enough time to go to the bathroom. He’s an older guy who has to go to the bathroom quite a lot; he doesn’t have time to walk across a big warehouse to the men’s room. So, a couple times, he has to pull up his forklift and sneak behind it to take a leak — utterly undignified. He barely lasted a couple years. It’s much less dangerous than the old job, but it’s also much less well paid, much less meaningful, and he can’t hack it. He gets some flak for bringing labor literature into the warehouse, and he quits on the spot.
I’m glad you brought up the labor literature, because we haven’t talked about unions. Bill’s fond memories of the steel mill, the camaraderie, are in large part about it being union. At Amazon, there is no union presence. That’s how we get low wages and the immense alienation you’re speaking of; the engineering of bad work is also about the destruction of unions. Bill is not some mute victim of the broader forces of society — he drops by the United Steelworkers office, collects material on the right to organize, and hands it off to a young guy at the warehouse who he’s been training to operate the forklifts. He gets reprimanded for that.
He feels the absence of unions and solidarity in the warehouse, and he knows viscerally that this is one of the big differences between his work at Bethlehem Steel and his work in the warehouse. He sees how workers in the warehouse are completely at the behest of their supervisors, constantly being driven to excessive productivity expectations, which is one reason Amazon has such high turnover. So he stops by the old union hall and picks up basic, rudimentary pro-union literature, and he hands it off to one of the young guys who he figures is receptive. He says, “You guys really got to think about getting a union in here.” That young guy starts talking with another young guy, and you end up with a bit of initial union ferment. A supervisor finds out about it, and the two young guys suddenly vanish; they’re sent home, Bill assumes, on some kind of suspension, even though it was in the middle of the holidays, when they would have wanted all hands on deck. Bill is reprimanded for having brought the literature, and then there’s an altercation about being docked time for another bathroom break. That’s when he decides, “Take this job and shove it,” and he walks out in the middle of the holiday rush.
In all the debates about Bessemer, around organizing and Amazon, I keep coming back to the Bethlehem Steel comparison. In the book, I go into the history of the steel mill and how things were before they built a union. Things were in so many ways similar to the Amazon warehouses: we’re back in the 1910s and 1920s. You had incredibly high productivity demands from plutocratic owners — an owner who had the largest mansion in New York City and an entire peasant village that he built for himself in Western Pennsylvania — echoing Bezos with his $500 million yacht and the other trappings of plutocratic wealth that he’s got from incredibly high productivity expectations, the lack of representation, the crazy hours, the lack of say on the job. It took decades, but the workers got organized. It wasn’t until late 1941 that they got the union in at Bethlehem Steel. And then things dramatically changed: they got much higher pay, much more say on the job, fewer injuries. Once workers had more say, the productivity expectations went down, and you ended up with jobs that were middle-class, that could support a family. It was still a very tough job, grueling, dangerous, but it was a job in which people took great pride and stayed for decades.
Now, at that same piece of land on Sparrows Point, we’re back to square one with warehouses. The question is whether, over time, we can build up that work into something middle-class, career-sustaining. That’s what’s at stake. Those warehouse jobs are the new mass-employment option in the way the mills once were. You used to go down to the mill, you went to the factory, you maybe went to the shopping mall — now you go to the warehouse. The question of what working-class life is going to look like in this country is about these warehouses.
People sometimes fetishize jobs from the past as if they were innately more humane in some way: the camaraderie of the steel job, the work as more livable. But whatever decency existed was a product of worker organization. Jobs have always sucked, and it’s a matter of what workers can wrest from bosses to make them more humane.
I want to ask about what’s happened since Fulfillment was published. It’s impossible to overstate Amazon’s expansion during the pandemic: in the first ten months of 2020, the company added more than 425,000 nonseasonal employees in the United States. Amazon Web Services has continued to rake in profits. Amazon was already infrastructural in this country, and now it’s become further embedded in people’s lives. People relied on it during the pandemic. Where do you see things going?
It’s hard to grasp how much more dominant it’s become in the last year. In a way, we’re kind of reluctant to grasp it, because of our role in that growth. Many of us embraced, with extraordinary alacrity, the one-click approach. A lot of us who might have in the past felt some compunction or guilt about using Amazon or other forms of one-click life felt not only that we could use Amazon, but it felt almost virtuous. The pile of boxes outside the house or in the recycling pile out back became a sign of virtue, a sign that you were being cautious. It was extraordinary watching that happening around me. One couldn’t help but wonder to what extent that embrace was possibly in excess of what was required by public health mandates, and to what extent we were using that as a sort of rationale to go all-in on this consumer approach of the convenience of the seamless Amazon buy. It’s going to be interesting to see whether we pull back from that, moderate those habits, and reengage with the world around us.
While it was, on some level, good for the book that Amazon became more prominent, I found it immensely disheartening and depressing and alarming, because I was so aware of the effect it has had on the landscape, and the atomizing, isolating effect of this way of living. People have asked me, “Do you advocate a boycott?” I say no, but I do hope that there’s a moment where we can moderate and unlearn some of those habits, and start thinking more clearly about what’s behind the click. That is what the book seeks to show: the costs and consequences, not only in the warehouses themselves and the workers being driven so hard, but more broadly, across our landscape; and how so many of these disparities that become unhealthy for our countries, our politics, our cities, are rooted in this one company and its extraordinary dominance.