Amazon is a power house in so many ways. They dominate the world of ecommerce. They have built out a worldwide logistics network and a last mile delivery system that positions them as a not just a retailer but as a competitor to FedEx and UPS as well.
Lowering Costs, Raising (Worker) Expectations
They work hard, very, very hard to drive costs out of every aspect of that end-to-end system from buying their own planes to building warehouses (~250 of them) around the country. And for the last mile either setting up subcontractors to run delivery services or they use their own Uber-like Flex service to get that order to your door.
Along the way they have been ruthlessly efficient. Efficient at keeping costs down while demanding high service levels of their subcontractors and employees, as well as being innovative in what and how they deliver an ever growing range of services. But being low person on the totem pole is never easy, particularly in a driven company like Amazon.
Human Costs of Efficiency
Multiple articles in the past few weeks highlighted both the scale and degree of Amazon's activities and their impact on the workers at the end of this complex funnel:
- Amazon Wants Drivers to Assemble Furniture
- Documents Show Amazon Is Aware Drivers Pee in Bottles
- The Woman Who Shattered the Myth of the Free Market (and showed that monopolies keep wages down)
- Amazon beats back unionization efforts
- Amazon to spend $1B to boost pay for 500k operations workers by as much as $3 an hour
Amazon is known to have a bruising corporate work culture. It is one that won't hesitate to drive itself hard to find and "save the pennies" in any process even if it is literally to steal from the people working on the front lines. They use some of the "efficiencies" to avoid the social welfare costs of the society in which they exist but also to pay higher wages than the prevailing wages in the community. And they use that paternalistic message to keep out the union even if the wage is 12% below the national average and the work rules are brutal.
Contradictions of American Commerce
In Amazon's efficiencies and ruthlessness we see all of the contradictions of American commerce. These contradictions are surely not Amazon's alone but are intrinsic to the nature of capitalism. In the end we see an archetypical company that is crazy profitable. We also see workers, who while making sure that we have our widgets in a timely fashion, are peeing in water bottles because they are not allowed enough time to take a break.
This is our America: full of contradictions but ultimately unsustainable because it leads to a world in which, in order to survive, all too many of us are employed in unsustainable work conditions. And unsustainable not just because of the work conditions but because our consumption patterns are made all the simpler with one-click technology.
It's a world in which you are either the lucky recipient of its benefits or the unlucky deliverer of those benefits. As a country, a government and as people, we have to decide if this is the future that we want.