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One-Click Shopping Has Brought American Workers to the Brink

In his new book “Fulfillment,” reporter Alec MacGillis chronicles how Amazon came to exemplify American inequality.

Andru Okun

(Photo by Antonio Balasco/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A historic union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama officially came to a close on Monday. Now comes the tallying of votes. The election represents the first large-scale effort to organize an Amazon warehouse and a landmark moment for the labor movement in the U.S. South. If the majority of votes are in favor of unionization, the roughly 6,000 workers of the facility will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

Predictably, Amazon — the country’s second-largest employer — has made considerable attempts to undercut the campaign, including heavily-funding anti-union propaganda, changing traffic light patterns to deter canvassing and even paying workers to quit. Regardless of the outcome, national attention on the drive, along with Amazon’s aggressive anti-union tactics, signal the growing popularity — if not strength — of the U.S. labor movement. 

If American labor is having a moment, reporter Alec MacGillis’ new book Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America could serve as an instructive text. MacGillis carefully lays out some of the country’s worst economic problems and points to their causes, showing that while Amazon isn’t solely responsible for the woes of the working class, it has become a major source. 

Think back to one year ago, when America began buckling under the pressure of the pandemic. In spite of nationwide economic precarity, Amazon’s stock price was rising sharply as it barreled its way toward record-setting sales and its most lucrative year ever. As MacGillis points out in his exposé on the e‑commerce giant, Amazon was flourishing more than ever before at one of the lowest moments for the country as a whole: the fates of the company and the nation had diverged entirely.” 

While people stayed at home and ordered weighted blankets and toilet paper online, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos profited — within a single two-week period in mid-April of 2020, his wealth increased by $25 billion. Jockeying with the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates for the status of the world’s richest man, Bezos has earned a reputation as a tax-dodging techno-libertarian who loves dogs, bananas and outer space. In 2018, he commented on his vast wealth, stating, The only way I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.” 

The space stuff is just an expression of a certain lack of interest in the realities and troubles and cares of the world we all inhabit together,” MacGillis tells In These Times. An award-winning journalist and a senior reporter for ProPublica, MacGillis is wary of presenting himself as a Bezos expert. When asked about the billionaire’s February announcement that he was relinquishing his position as the company’s CEO and transitioning into the role of executive chair, MacGillis says he suspects the significance of the move is overstated. Given Amazon’s global dominance and pandemic profits, it’s unlikely that Bezos’ title change will dramatically alter the course of the company.

Fulfillment didn’t start out as a book about Amazon. MacGillis was initially interested in writing about regional inequality. In 2008, he traveled around the country reporting on that year’s presidential election. The experience brought him to overlooked towns and cities where industries had dried up and economic stagnation had set in. While this inequality can often be chalked up to an urban-rural divide, MacGillis found a divide amongst cities, too, between a handful of winner-take-all metropolises and a much larger number of left-behind rivals.”

In examining how some places could do so well while others languished, he found that the problem could be better understood by looking at the country’s largest online retailer. Along with taking readers through the precipitous rise of Amazon, MacGillis reports on the people and places left behind in a country increasingly divided by staggering inequality and extreme concentrations of wealth. 

The term hyper-prosperity” appears throughout the book, an expression MacGillis employs to describe the turbocharged growth found in the cities benefiting most from high-tech capitalism. He outlines the history of Seattle, from its origins as a rugged 19th-century natural resource outpost to one of the country’s most expensive metropolises, a title earned in part by hosting Amazon headquarters, where some employees work in spherical conservatories (referred to by The Stranger as Bezos balls”). The company occupies more than 35 buildings and over 8 million square feet in Seattle, amounting to what MacGillis calls the largest urban corporate campus in the country.” 

Reporting on Washington D.C. — where Bezos bought a $23 million home, then dropped another $12 million on a renovation that included 25 bathrooms — MacGillis tracks how a steeply-priced real estate market has made the nation’s capital uninhabitable for most low-income and working-class people. The author notes a similar predicament in nearby Arlington, Virginia, where plans are well underway for Amazon’s second headquarters, a $2.5 billion project with a planned architectural centerpiece likened by The Verge to a glass poop emoji covered in trees.”

Writing about displacement, MacGillis describes how America’s most affluent cities are wrangling over how to address serious shortages of affordable housing. Oddly absent from these debates was the broader context,” he writes, that these cities had become so expensive because so much of the country’s growth and prosperity has been clustered in so few places.” In both hard-hit towns and hyper-prosperous cities, the message is clear that life would be better if wealth were more evenly distributed. 

If Fulfillment is any indication of the current state of the country and where it’s headed, things look especially grim for workers outside of America’s exclusive centers of affluence. To illustrate the opposite end of hyper-prosperity, MacGillis provides readers with glimpses into the country’s interior, where areas formerly sustained by manufacturing are now dealing with regional economic collapse — and endemic poverty. In states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, well-paying jobs have been replaced by precarious, low-wage positions at Amazon warehouses. While the company profits from generous government subsidies, reports have shown that many of its workers rely on food stamps to eat. Dangerous working conditions — including robot-punctured cans of bear spray and fatal forklift accidents—add to the company’s dystopian aura, as does its practice of automatically firing workers via an algorithm.

By strategically undercutting retailers throughout the country, Amazon wiped out many of its brick-and-mortar competitors throughout the second-half of the previous decade. As both independent businesses and national retailers disappeared, so too did jobs. At the same time, abandoned malls and strip plazas led to what MacGillis describes as a self-reinforcing” trend. As opportunities for buying goods in a physical space decreased, more people turned to online shopping. This trend accelerated as Covid-19 ravaged the country. For many Americans, Amazon has simply become the cheapest, most accessible option. 

As the pandemic drags on, Amazon’s predominance continues to close in. The one-click mindset has had a massive boost,” says MacGillis. While America’s fixation with convenience has been exacerbated by e‑commerce, the author says this problem is also compounded by end-users who have an overreliance on Amazon’s services. He hopes the book will serve as a wake-up call to the general American consumer, especially the sort of liberal-minded Americans of the upper-middle class.” As he points out, a survey done in 2018 found that Amazon was the most trusted institution in the country among Democrats, ahead of government, universities, unions and the press. For Republicans, it was the third most trusted national institution after military and police.

In upending how we consumed — the ways that we fulfilled ourselves — [Amazon] recast daily life at its most elemental level,” MacGillis writes. Reading Fulfillment, it’s hard not to be struck by descriptions of worker exploitation and economic disparity. Amazon’s ascendancy feels like an indictment of our entire country — and making matters worse is the fact that the company has become absurdly difficult to avoid. With more than 110 active fulfillment centers throughout the country, there’s now an Amazon warehouse within 25 miles of about half the U.S. population. The company owns Goodreads, Audible, Twitch, Zappos and Whole Foods. It recently ordered a fleet of 100,000 vehicles and is developing plans for drone delivery. It also hosts a vast swath of the internet via Amazon Web Services, the world’s largest cloud computing provider.

MacGillis’ reporting led me to pay extra attention to the Amazon-branded packages and envelopes stacked up in front of people’s homes. I remembered how strange it seemed when dark-gray Amazon Prime vans started appearing in the city I live in, New Orleans, then noted how normal they now seem. At a gas station in the suburbs, I spotted an Amazon Hub Locker next to the propane tank exchange. I pulled out my phone, looked at a map, and saw there were at least a dozen identical lockers within a 15-minute drive. 

The union drive in Alabama is a reminder that Amazon’s ubiquity is predicated on exploited labor. While the workers in Bessemer are seeking better working conditions and higher pay, they’re also demanding respect. Their struggle is not limited to the U.S. South or to Amazon warehouses. Workers throughout the country are being overworked and underpaid while wealth is consolidated by a small number of people in a select few places. Fulfillment confirms this fact, and encourages us to ask ourselves how we can collectively work toward building more fair and just systems of work and commerce. 

This book is not a solutions book,” MacGillis says, but it does leave one with the implicit understanding that if you want to deal with huge regional imbalances then you’re probably going to have to deal with the economic concentration itself.”

Andru Okun is a freelance writer and editor living in New Orleans.

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