On the other hand, in American retail, what real choice is there? In his excellent new book, “Fulfillment,” the journalist Alec MacGillis examines American inequality and economic desperation through the lens of Amazon’s growth and rapid domination. The company almost seems to personify economic imbalances. Its founder is the richest man alive; its workers are mainly refugees from an industrial economy decimated by globalization; and while its customer base has become quite broad, it is a favored shopping destination for the wealthy.
Yet MacGillis’s account also makes clear that the problem of Amazon is far bigger than Amazon.
Amazon’s retail competitors are not much better guardians of American labor; a lot of them are obviously worse. Remember that Walmart was destroying local economies long before Amazon came along, and according to an analysis of data from 11 states, more of Walmart’s workers in those states rely on public assistance to make ends meet. Dollar General, the discount chain that is one of America’s fastest-growing retailers, might have just as shameful a record on worker safety and comfort. Workers at Whole Foods, Amazon’s grocery subsidiary, seem to have fared pretty much the same during the pandemic as those at Kroger, Walmart and other food giants.
The larger point is that Amazon is less the cause of American inequality than it is a consequence. Amazon is what you get when a country has systematically devalued workers and labor organizations to the benefit of billionaires. Amazon is what you get when a country has decided to import so many of its physical goods from abroad. And Amazon is what you get when states and cities compete with one another to lavish huge tax breaks upon corporations that pledge to create local jobs, without setting any requirements that they be good, safe, high-paying jobs.
Consider, for instance, how America’s longtime negligence on worker safety opened the door to Amazon’s injurious warehouses. Workers say that the most punishing thing about working at Amazon is the repetitiveness and relentlessness of the work.
“The human body was not designed to do the same motion over and over and over again for hours,” Tyler Hamilton, an Amazon warehouse employee in Shakopee, Minn., told me. “That’s what robots do.”
Yet there is little in American law that prevents companies from treating workers like robots. Deborah Berkowitz, a former chief of staff of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that sets standards for worker safety, told me that injuries in Amazon’s warehouses are mostly ergonomic — the results of “forceful exertions, repetitive motions, twisting, bending and awkward postures,” according to a 2019 report published by a coalition of labor advocates. But OSHA can’t do much about ergonomics. In 2001, the agency was specifically prevented by Congress and President George W. Bush from setting standards on ergonomics. Bush argued the rule would have been too costly to employers.
That wasn’t the only time worker safety was brushed aside by the federal government. David Michaels, who ran OSHA during the Obama administration, told me that the agency’s “basic model doesn’t work.” OSHA, Michaels said, is disastrously underfunded and understaffed, leaving it unable to inspect and enforce standards across the economy. It is also very slow, putting it far behind workplaces that are changing as quickly as Amazon’s. For example, the agency began working on a rule about crystalline silica — a dust produced in the manufacture of glass and other materials that can cause respiratory illnesses — in 1997. The rule was not finalized until 2016.