Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) has hooked millions of Americans with its remarkable skills in fusing product availability, technology and customer experience. The nation’s growing dependence on Amazon ignores, or overpowers, socioeconomic issues surrounding the company that might otherwise be front and center in national conversations. That may be the central message of Alec MacGillis’ critically acclaimed book: “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America.”
MacGillis, a reporter at investigative journalism platform ProPublica and a freelance journalist for other publications, is the first author to defragment the many moving parts that make Amazon such a complex creature and that conflict many consumers who know how the company operates but spend their money on its site anyway.
MacGillis discussed Amazon’s hold on America, how its strategy may determine the future of work and whether consumers who make Amazon part of their daily lives are getting more than they bargained for. The interview was edited for clarity and length. (Note: The interview was conducted before Amazon’s warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama voted decisively to reject unionization).
FREIGHTWAVES: How did you get interested in the project, and how cooperative — or uncooperative — was Amazon?
MacGILLIS: “I started out wanting to write a book about regional inequality in America, and arrived at Amazon secondarily as a good frame to tell that story. It works as a frame because of Amazon’s sheer ubiquity, which makes it a handy thread to take you around what we’re becoming as a country, and because it has itself contributed to regional inequality, which is tied to the growing concentration of our economy in a handful of tech giants.
“I reached out to Amazon in the spring of 2020 and had many discussions with the company in the months following about various aspects of my reporting.”
FREIGHTWAVES: You have said that the vote in Bessemer could be a defining moment in the future of middle-class work in America. What do you mean by that?
MacGILLIS: “With Amazon growing as fast as it is — 400,000 more employees added over the past year — warehouse work is becoming an increasingly dominant form of entry-level, low-skilled labor in the U.S., not unlike the factories or shopping malls of yore. So what that work looks like — how well it’s paid, how much voice workers have on the job — will increasingly define labor in the U.S. for years to come — whether or not warehouse work can be transformed into a sort of job that can sustain a middle-class family existence the way that unionized manufacturing jobs did last century.”
FREIGHTWAVES: There are fewer than 6,000 workers at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse. Given the enormous and growing size of Amazon’s warehouse network and its workforce, why do you believe this vote will move the needle in such a meaningful way?
MacGILLIS: “It’s just one warehouse, but it would set a huge precedent if workers were able to organize an Amazon facility for the first time ever, in the Deep South of all places.”
FREIGHTWAVES: How do you expect Amazon to react should the workers vote in favor of union representation?
MacGILLIS: “I really can’t say. There’s been speculation that the company might shut the warehouse down in retribution to send a warning to workers elsewhere. However, that move would bring such public opprobrium, not least because of the racial demographics of the Bessemer workforce, that it seems unlikely Amazon would go that route.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Over the past 10 years, Amazon has morphed from an online retailer to a logistics company that sells stuff. Based on your research, how will goods delivery, and by extension, commerce be transformed by what Amazon is doing, and what it will do?
MacGILLIS: “It sure seems as if the company’s effect on goods delivery and commerce will grow only larger as time goes on. Its push to build its own delivery network — now including planes, trucks, vans and container ships — and its pressure on third-party sellers to use this network instead of other delivery companies’ suggest an ambition to dominate shipping even beyond its own delivery needs.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Is there an argument to be made that, given its ability to supply mass quantities of jobs that are decent-paying for the skill set, and that offer benefits and opportunities for advancements, Amazon is assuming the role of the “benevolent dictator”?
MacGILLIS: “That is, essentially, the argument that the company offers in defense of the status quo — that these jobs are better than nothing and that they are the best many workers can hope for in this day and age. The question for the country is whether a democracy can sustain such dominance by a corporate ‘dictator,’ benevolent or otherwise.”
FREIGHTWAVES: A consumer would laud Amazon for its wide and affordable selection, user-friendly technology, and solid customer service. However, retailers and logistics companies would say it enters into partnerships only to learn about a business before it ends the partnership and goes into competition with them. Which one is closer to the mark?
MacGILLIS: “Both can be true at the same time. The consumer just isn’t often aware of the second part, of the pressures and costs that lie behind the easy one-click. That is in part what the book aspires to show, what the true cost of the convenience really is for the broader economy and country.”
FREIGHTWAVES: It has been said that Amazon’s ultimate objective is to be the only intermediary between a manufacturer/producer and the end consumer. Do you agree, and is that even a feasible goal?
MacGILLIS: “I’m not sure I’d agree. Amazon has actually been heading in the opposite direction, shifting much more of their retail business to third-party sellers rather than selling wholesale goods directly on the site, since the third-party sales are so much more lucrative for the company.
FREIGHTWAVES: Organizing warehouse workers has been a challenging task for labor unions. In addition, warehouse wages, benefits and working conditions are much improved than 10-20 years ago. This, in theory, would moot the need for labor unions. Given those factors, how do you expect unions to make inroads in organizing?
MacGILLIS: “Organizing Amazon warehouses will be enormously difficult, given the transience of the workforce and the company’s well-honed tactics for discouraging unions. But Amazon warehouse employees are company employees. That’s unlike the company’s delivery drivers, who are mostly still independent contractors. So organizers do at least have that going for them with the warehouses.”
FREIGHTWAVES: If you had to summarize your takeaway of Amazon’s mindset in one sentence, what would it be?
MacGILLIS: “Growth and dominance at all costs, with little regard for the broader effects on society.”