On-Line Business

I don’t really hate Amazon.com. Not really, really hate. But I do suffer something between a twinge and a pang of guilt every time I download an e-book from the Amazon website, or order a new tool or something. Why? Simply from unease about bigness and looming monopoly? Perhaps because I worry about the destruction of local merchants (especially bookstores and bike shops), or the company’s intrusion into publishing as well as book sales? Maybe a concern about its voracious collection of personal data? Or am I just a Luddite afraid of changes wrought by progress?

The Smiling A has been the country’s biggest bookseller for quite some time. According to The Wire, as of this March, its share of all new book unit purchases was 41 percent, and the Atlantic suggests the overall percentage may be even higher, perhaps exceeding 50 percent. For online sales it controls way more than half, perhaps 60 to 65 percent, and that’s online print as well as e-books. And it’s long since been far more than books. A month or so ago the company’s market capitalization surpassed that of the country’s largest retailer, Walmart. No doubt it’s both huge and still growing, and no doubt it has hurt brick and mortar bookstores, even though, independents have been staging something of a comeback in the wake of Borders’ bankruptcy.

As a writer, I’m also quite worried about Amazon’s entry into publishing as well as sales. It’s looking for “content providers” who produce “verbage,” rather than authors who produce literature, and it’s not planning to pay big royalties for the content. On the data collection front, I veer back and forth between amusement and horror at the predictions of what I’ll buy next. It doesn’t take much to tell that someone who buys bike tires may also want inner tubes, but I’m not at all clear how I became a potential purchaser of romance novels.

Like it or not, however, Amazon is here to stay. Most complaints against it sound like the futile laments of buggy makers opposed to Henry Ford. Last month I went to three stores looking for a new lighting fixture for my bathroom. No one had what I wanted in stock, but one big box store could order it for me. About two hundred dollars and I could either pick it up or have it delivered in about a week. Amazon – and no one else on line – had something better. It cost $152.00, there was no charge for shipping, and it arrived in four days. A pretty easy choice, at least until the recent exposé in the New York Times on the company’s labor and employment practices.

Do I now, because of the Times article, put Amazon on my forbidden list, along with BP (for the Gulf oil spill), Denny’s (for its racism), and Wal-Mart (for its unabashed employment rapacity)? Probably not, for reasons I’ll relate below, but the more important question is what the article implicitly suggests about employment practices more generally in the new economy, and what we might do to change them. If Amazon is indeed the marketing wave of the future, does its treatment of its workers foretell an employment trend as well? And might we reverse it?

First the reasons I’ll continue (reluctantly) to buy from Amazon. The Times report focused on white collar workers in Seattle, and described an up or out (“rank and yank”) culture that breeds backstabbing, horrendously long hours, and a generally miserable workplace. That sounds a whole lot like life in big law firms or investment banks. Nothing new there, and just as those staid and old time institutions continue to attract people eager for the potential financial reward, Amazon will continue to find people who want to give it a shot. Plus it still offers the excitement of doing cutting edge original work. The founder, Jeff Bezos, wants to retain as much as he can of “Day 1,” when the company was truly a startup. Long term that’s a pipe dream, of course. Bureaucracy and Human Resources have already set in, but he so far has done a pretty good job at holding off complacency.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Though I’d not want to work there, I’m not too troubled by the long hours and high pressure to perform. Most of the people the Times interviewed after they’d left had landed very nice new jobs. Economically, at least, they hadn’t suffered much. I am, however, very troubled by the apparent lack of concern for employees’ well being. Though Amazon disputes how widespread the practices are, it does not deny most of the specific stories told in the Times.

Perhaps most disturbing is the company’s treatment of women. One former Army captain wanted to come in early and leave early so she could care for her new child, but her colleagues complained and her boss would not support her. Another woman was told explicitly that raising children would likely hold her back because she would be unable to put in the long hours required to move on to a higher position. Still another was refused any accommodation that would allow her to care for her father, who was dying of cancer, and several woman who were going through serious medical problems were put on performance improvement plans to make sure their personal issues did not interfere with work goals.

Then there’s the story of warehouse workers in Pennsylvania, who were forced to work in a building without air conditioning despite hundred degree heat. Until local news reports called attention to the situation, Amazon’s solution was simply to station ambulances in the parking lot to rush the fallen to a nearby hospital. That’s a tale straight from Dickens and the early days of the industrial revolution, when labor was a commodity no different than sand or coal. Get people cheap, wear them out, and replace them with more cheap labor.

Are such labor practices, like Amazon’s online retailing model, really the wave of the future? The answer is both yes and no, and if we ever elect a functioning Congress that can enact reform legislation we don’t have to accept all of the yes. The harsh treatment of the headquarters staff in Seattle is mostly legal, and probably should not be touched by the law. So long as workers are paid the equivalent of minimum wage (including overtime), an employer is pretty much free to demand long hours and free to fire whom it chooses, and that’s not likely to change. Of course a company that behaves like Amazon does have to worry about things like the Times article, which could have an effect on the number of people who want to work there, and that kind of reputational pressure should serve as least something of a restraint.

But disparate treatment of women or other legally protected groups, and failure to accommodate pregnancies or family medical emergencies may well run afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Family Medical Leave Act, and people who suffer from this kind of mistreatment would be well-advised to consult an employment lawyer.

The Pennsylvania warehouse might well have been a violation of OSHA regulations, but unlike the professional staff in Seattle, it raises broader questions about the role of unions in our current economy, and what changes we might want to make in the current law. The National Labor Relations Act ostensibly protects the right to organize, but if a company retaliates against a worker for talking up a union there’s no way for the worker to sue. If the National Labor Relations Board chooses not to act, for the most part that’s the end of the story, and if it does act, it can’t levy any serious penalties; certainly nothing like fines or treble damages. What’s more, in many states unions are hamstrung by so-called right to work laws, which let employees opt out of paying union dues even though they benefit from a contract negotiated by the union. It’s on issues like these where some real reform is in order.

What we need are a new kind of union and new laws that facilitate their formation. Perhaps we should look to Germany, where unions not only bargain for wages but also participate on corporate boards and have a real voice in the overall management of their workplace through so-called “works councils.” Would such a system be a good idea for the U.S? It’s both interesting and (to me) disheartening that when Volkswagen tried to cooperate with the UAW to set up that kind of union arrangement at a new VW plant in Chattanooga Tennessee, the workers narrowly voted it down. Maybe it was more suspicion of the UAW than of the works council idea, or maybe just something about the anti-union South, but for whatever reason the idea did not fly.


So if voluntary change within the current legal framework does not seem very likely, what legal changes might we make? Only One Thing Can Save Us, a recent book by labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan presents several interesting possibilities, not all of them really new. First, he would make union membership a civil right, which would mean that if someone were fired for union organizing he or she would have the same kind of remedies as victims of race or gender or age discrimination. It would give the National Labor Relations Act some real teeth.

Second, he would stop opposing right to work laws. Indeed, he’d make right to work the national rule, but with one catch. He’d also do away with the concept of exclusive representation. Workers would in effect have the right to choose the union that produced the most for them. Something like this arrangement is actually sort of shaping up at the Chattanooga VW plant in the wake of the UAW rejection.

A third idea is to change corporate law to facilitate work councils here in the U.S. Again, VW is working on setting up councils in Chattanooga despite the UAW failure, and it seems to have support even among workers who rejected the union.

Thomas Kochan, who reviewed Geoghegan’s book for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, has suggested that while its points are valid, it doesn’t adequately address social media and other recent developments that have changed the way people organize and mobilize for causes, which is an excellent point. If technology makes organizing easier and more anonymous (hence less likely to lead to retaliation) and we change the antiquated structure of the NLRA and exclusive representation, there may yet be a new dawn for a new kind of organized labor. And maybe, just maybe, it will make Amazon-like abuses something other than the wave of the labor and employment law future.

September 7, 2015


I don’t really hate Amazon.com. Not really, really hate. But I do suffer something between a twinge and a pang of guilt every time I download […]