The New York City subway system has them…those revolving contraptions that look like a cross between a cage and a cheese slicer that wrap you in metal and direct you in only one possible direction…in the case of the subway…out. I confess I’ve always hated them.
At many Amazon warehouses those ugly security gates are the only ways in or out, and to get in, you have to leave behind your phones, keys and belts. Don’t worry. You won’t need them on Planet Amazon, which may be the most economically successful satellite of Planet Earth.
It sure is for the boss, Jeff Bezos. This summer he was reported to be the richest man of modern times, worth, it was estimated, more than $150 billion. And that net worth, Bezos’ and Amazon’s is growing fast. Bezos added some $50 billion last year to move ahead of Microsoft’s Bill Gates on the accumulated wealth list..
For Amazon’s warehouse workers, and there are 125,000 of them in the US alone, and thousands more overseas, wages are more modest — what the company likes to call “competitive.”
According to a warehouse worker advocate in the Seattle area, Amazon not only pays a bit more than many competitors, it offers benefits, including stock options and health insurance. But in Kentucky, a Seattle Times reporter found, Amazon’s $14 an hour was “substantially higher” than the common “$10 an hour for warehouse workers in south-central Kentucky. But it lags far behind the top tier of unionized workers in the area, who may make more than $20 per hour after four years on the job at a Kroger grocery warehouse.”
That might be one reason why Bezos has a reputation as hard-line anti-union. Another is the focus unions bring on working conditions at Amazon. As that Seattle worker advocate put it in an interview with our guest, reporter Nina Shapiro of the Seattle Times: “all warehouse employers try to get workers to do their jobs as quickly as possible. But because of the way Amazon uses technology,” he said, “it’s definitely a whole other level.”
The next level of labor relations at Amazon is predictable, the same company that uses cutting edge technology to monitor and guide its workers is planning to use technology to replace them.
In Seattle, Amazon Go opened this year. It’s a grab and go lunch shop that operates by app and scanner and gets you and your sandwich or salad out the door with no annoying contact with any clerks or cashiers.
It’s enough to make you ask, is Amazon a business or a culture, or a cult? Whatever it is, it is wildly successful at his official mission – customer service, and it’s unstated goal, making pots of money.
But if Amazon is the future, what does that mean for the rest of the world? And is it the future? Or is Amazon simply the perfect summation of the past 40 years’ culture of individualism and acquisition, a culture, which like its avatar, President Donald J. Trump, maybe at the end of its rope?
Nina Shapiro joined the staff of The Seattle Times three years ago after 20 years of writing for Seattle Weekly. She specializes in long-form, deeply reported stories about social issues, and she’s been especially busy since Inauguration Day 2017 chronicling the local implications of some of the new administration’s policies.