Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The New York Times article on Amazon's ruthless business practices has me in a state of disquiet and asking why we let our unions die.

This weekend, the New York Times wrote a telling essay about what it's like to work for Amazon. If you haven't read it, you should because everyone is talking about it. When I asked some of my friends and family about the article, I got mixed responses. Some that are in management positions supported Amazon's "shock and awe" culture praising that this is how a company manages to do great things. Supporters on CNBC declared that this is nothing new, saying that what Amazon does could be from any company that wants to disrupt how things are done, e.g., Tesla, Netflix, and Uber.

Excerpts from the article tell of how new employees are told to "forget the 'poor habits' they learned at previous jobs. When you hit the wall from the unrelenting pace, you 'climb the wall.'" Examples of climbing the wall are as follows:

  1. Making daily performance meetings so cutthroat that people leave crying and preparing for them is like preparing for a court hearing.
  2. Amazon warehouses have sophisticated electronic systems to ensure all employees are packing enough boxes every hour. In an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse, workers toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside to take away laborers as they fell.
  3. Marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving.
  4. Criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.
  5. When you're not able to give your absolute all 80 hours a week, it's seen as a major weakness. A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. "I'm sorry, the work is still going to need to get done," the woman said her boss told her.
  6. Another woman with breast cancer was told that she was put on a "performance improvement plan" which is code for "you're about to get fired." The reason: "difficulties in your life have interfered with fulfilling work goals."
  7. A mother of a stillborn child was told by email that her performance would be monitored to make sure her focus stayed on the job.
How could anyone survive in a place like this? I can't think of a person in my social circle who wouldn't be snapped in half by Amazon and be broken and on the floor. Who the hell wants to work this hard?

All of these things and more make me wonder how we got to a place like this in society. Are we living in the Matrix? Why are people selling themselves to companies like this, or is the problem that finding a living wage job has become so difficult that you've got to put yourself through this in order to live the American Dream? Is it possible that to refuse or be physically unable to compete at such a high level means you will live a life of poverty? Is that the new reality?

Honestly, I had no idea what kind of company Amazon was. I feel like I'm culpable for some of this suffering too because, "Yes, I buy and sell stuff on Amazon all the time." But so do you. All of us are culpable. And here's the thing: I don't really see any kind of substitute for Amazon either. So in a way, Jeff Bezos (the Amazon C.E.O.) is the new John D. Rockefeller. My dad used to tell me about Rockefeller, and how he was a ruthless businessman that had his own private army and worked people essentially to death while he made fistfuls of cash. The only thing that was able to stop that kind of rampant capitalism were unions. But unions are basically gone now, and I think we're going to need them in the not so distant future. I really, really do. Let's just hope that this report is an outlier in the world of business and that it is not the norm. 


  1. I'd heard about Amazon's warehouse working conditions and how horrible they were. You're right - why would anyone want to work for a company like that?
    And unions aren't dead. I belong to one at my workplace.

  2. It happens all the time. I mean whenever there is something or some one too good to be true they are. We find wrong things about right places and people and disappointment creeps up all over again. Situations like this one, I just hope that the news are wrong.

  3. Yikes. I usually like to stay happily oblivious, but I thought the days of sweat shops were long gone.

  4. It does sound like a terrible place to work.

  5. When i was a kid I heard about such factory work conditions and it inspired me to get a college education so I could work with my mind instead of my hands and back. I was fortunate; college loans are crippling these days, and many people aren't blessed, like I was, with parents who can afford to send their kids to college.

  6. Unfortunately it is the norm in an environment where decent paying jobs are scarce. Companies do it because they know they can get away with it but let's not romanticize unions. Entrenched unions killed quite a few industries in the United States though admittedly the entitlement that grew in post WW2 American management wasn't much better.

    A better solution is a US Labor department with minimum working guidelines and enough funding so it can proactively address anonymous tips about labor issues. Unfortunately the Congress has shown over time that it can be bought which has gutted the power of the DoL business oversight.

  7. We have a new warehouse nearby, and I've known a few people who worked there. They don't work there anymore.

  8. I heard part of this story on TV recently, but one thing I'm wondering is if that many people are working these long hours, how do they afford the overtime? Some of these things don't even sound legal. I would think that daily performance reviews would take people away from their jobs way too much, which would be unproductive.

    Anyway, I find the whole thing disappointing. Amazon should be a leader on the "great companies to work for" list. Not a sweat shop.

  9. Did you see the rebuttal article? The one that says the claims in this one were overblown? Let me see if I can find it...

    Personally, I think it's the pendulum. A century ago, working conditions were so horrible that unions became necessary. Then the unions got too powerful, and forces fought against them. So, they waned. Only to be needed again as management takes advantage of their weakness.

    Cycle of life.

  10. The expose of Amazon is long overdue. I've heard grumblings for years about how the company treated its workers, and I've long suspected that Jeff Bezos is an asshole who has been getting away with murder. The working conditions at that warehouse sound illegal, but powerful companies get away with illegal practices all the time.

    Should unions be brought back? Absolutely, but bear in mind that they didn't really fade away; instead they were actively destroyed by powerful corporations and the politicians who work for those corps.

    On the bright side, the horrific working conditions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (12 hour days six days a week in dangerous work places, including for child laborers) were finally reformed. The bad news is, it took not only massive unionization but many violent strikes and riots and finally the great Depression, which helped to usher Franklin Roosevelt into the White House, from where he was able to make important labor reforms. Also, countless expensive lawsuits filed by workers or late workers' families reformed dangerous workplaces well before the government began to institute changes.

    Am I optimistic about the future of the workplace in America? Not really. Some of us have good jobs with good people (I'm one of them). But for serious reform, a whole lot of shit is going to have to hit the fan, and history tells us that it must include violence. So I'm not holding my breath.