How did Amazon come to be the Death Star of corporate America? A generally successful company that executes billions of transactions a day gets worse press than the Boston School Committee — and that is saying something.
Two recent examples:
The Los Angeles Times aired out the idea that “Nomadland” shouldn’t win an Oscar because it pulled punches in its portrayal of Amazon’s CamperForce program, which offers RV’ers temporary work at holiday time. “Nomadland,” which did win the Oscar for Best Picture, had zero documentary aspirations. It told the intimate story of a middle-aged woman cast into the wilderness of a changing America.
One then might as well ask: Why didn’t director Tom McCarthy mention Globe staffers’ rooftop parking woes in “Spotlight”? Because that’s not what the movie was about.
More recently, screenwriter John Logan, (“Skyfall;” “The Aviator;” “Gladiator”) fretted in a New York Times “guest essay” that Amazon’s takeover of MGM might compromise the artistic integrity of the James Bond movie franchise.
Now, I love Commander Bond as much as anyone. And I love Woody Woodpecker, too, but I don’t lose sleep worrying that the megalopoly NBCUniversal, owned by Comcast, is going to compromise whatever purported integrity might attach to his brand.
Amazon is a publicly-owned company answerable to three constituencies: its customers, its employees, and its shareholders. Maybe you don’t like the cut of founder Jeff Bezos’s jib. Fine. But by almost any objective metric, it’s an excellent company.
Shareholders seem to like Amazon, whose stock has roughly tripled in value during the past four years. (I am one of them.) On the same day that ExxonMobil shareholders bucked management to elect two independent directors to the oil giant’s board, Amazon’s shareholders supported the company’s recommendation to reject proposals on corporate transparency, and on diversity and equity issues. This occurred despite a voluble, nationwide campaign supporting their adoption.
Customers like Amazon, too, though admittedly less than before. With tens of millions Americans homebound, Amazon deliveries soared during the Year of COVID, along with supply chain and fulfillment problems. According to the database company Statista, Amazon used to enjoy customer satisfaction ratings in the mid-80s, out of a perfect 100. In 2020, that rating declined from 83 to 79. For context, that is higher than Walmart (73) and overall Internet retail (78.)
Amazon cannot escape accusations that it underpays and mistreats its employees, charges that are dramatically amplified by Bezos’s embrace of the robber baron lifestyle. (CNN: ”Jeff Bezos’ superyacht is so big it needs its own yacht”.)
Amazon’s fetishization of latter-day Taylorism, the “science” of industrial efficiency, seems inhumane. Three years ago, the Globe published a heart-rending account of an Amazon Flex driver working against the clock to make maybe $23 an hour, while paying for her own gas and vehicle costs (insurance, maintenance, and depreciation.)
1/2 You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.— Amazon News (@amazonnews) March 25, 2021
Amazon’s driving conditions don’t seem to have improved. In a recent flap, the company denied that its drivers have to “pee in bottles” — and then several workers contradicted them. “They didn’t really force you to pee in the bottles,” one told Business Insider. “You just didn’t really have time to go to the bathroom.”
That said, the only objective test of Amazon’s workplace relations came in April, in a unionization election at its huge Bessemer, Ala., facility. The vote garnered national attention, with President Biden feeling the need to make his pro-union sympathies known.
Yet the union lost in a landslide, 1,798 votes to 738. Is it possible that working for Amazon is not the hellscape it has been made out to be?
Yes, I remember how Amazon eviscerated America’s book trade at the beginning of this century, and, yes, I much prefer to use brick-and-mortar merchants when I can. It’s not my favorite company, but I suspect it is not the dark, Satanic mill of common portrayal.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.