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Obama Endorses Amazon, But How Good Are Those Jobs?

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Later today, President Obama will be giving a speech on his economic plan from an Amazon warehouse in Tennessee. The location was deliberately selected to highlight "an example of a company that is spurring job growth and keeping our country competitive," according to a White House spokesperson, and coincides with Amazon's announcement yesterday that the company will be creating 5,000 full-time new jobs at distribution centers nationwide.

Amazon says they're creating jobs that offer competitive pay, a comprehensive benefits package, company stock awards, tuition reimbursement, and bonuses—in other words, really good jobs. However, several media outlets are reporting a different story about what it's like to work there.

Salon published an article today unambiguously titled "Amazon Is Everything Wrong With Our New Economy." In it, political writer Alex Seitz-Wald recounts his call to Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California: "His first response to news of Obama's speech was an exasperated, "Oh, Jesus.'"

Lichenstein goes on:

"They're investing in America, that's true. Amazon is growing rapidly, but they're not creating good jobs. They're creating insecure, temporary, attenuated jobs, which are reproducing all the pathologies of a two-tier labor market and a world of inequality — that's what they're creating. And they're a fabulously successful company with a new technology that could create a solid working class, but they chose to instead create something that looks like it's out of the 19th century."

Gawker ran an anonymous first-hand account of life as an Amazon worker yesterday. It contains enough small-minded grousing to call into question the validity of the writer's perspective: He or she complains about not getting paid for hours spent interviewing for the job, the "lame" stretching exercises workers do before their shift, and a "hilarious" sexual harassment video employees are required to watch during training. But the insight into forced overtime and the dispirited mentality of the work force is interesting:

"I have only worked one week now and already we have forced overtime for the unforeseeable future. I have no desire to work more hours but will lose the job if I don't... Some of my co-workers have looked at me like I'm crazy whenever I talk about how shitty this job is and how I am applying for other jobs all the time. Really? Not even a line to blow me off like "well, I just need the money". Its shocking the lack of disgust for their work environment or their lack of wanting to escape from the prison we're all working in."

Though not nearly as articulate or illuminating, the Gawker account echoes the disturbing essay Mac McClelland wrote for Mother Jones last year about her time—her "backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying, dildo-packing time"—as a warehouse worker for an online-shipping company.

As Amazon's e-tail empire grows—and other companies attempt to compete by following their model—the American retail industry is going to be faced with many, many questions about how to structure an increasing number of warehouse jobs. The industry would do well to take into account the perspective of people currently doing this work.
· I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave [Mother Jones]
· Amazon's Massive New Warehouses Will Get You Your Stuff Faster [Racked]