Amazon Is Creating Company Towns Across the United States
In more and more of the country Amazon acts like an employer in a company town, sucking up whole communities and shaping public goods and services to fit its profit-making needs.
A thesis: Amazon’s warehouse zones are “the major working-class space of suburban and exurban socialization. So even if you’re building a tenant union or a political party, this is a major social space. It has a broader importance.” This comes courtesy of organizer and geographer Spencer Cox, quoted in the New York Times.
The author of the Times article, labor reporter E. Tammy Kim, follows Cox’s quote with a congruent assertion from socialist Seattle city councilor Kshama Sawant. “If you look at the consciousness of Amazon workers, it’s a guide to where the working class is as a whole,” says Sawant.
If class is a social relation and the working class is made and remade daily, that formation is increasingly happening inside the massive structures that house Amazon’s warehouses, where workers face capital embodied in the whir of machinery and barking managers and the beeps of the scanner in their hands, prodding them to pick up the pace. It is happening in the parking lots outside, where people smoke and linger and chat and dread. Whether Amazon is really the major space of socialization, or merely a major one, is less important than grasping the degree to which Amazon is operating as a near force of nature in working-class life.
The extreme geographic bifurcation of Amazon’s operations complicates the matter: some communities are vacuumed up almost completely by Amazon, while in others, people don’t know anyone who works for the company. Such unevenness is of further importance given that the warehouse worker is neither seen nor heard by the customer; at least at Walmart, you go to a store and you see the workers — you know they exist.
Here’s how it plays out in many communities near one of the warehouses. Amazon’s application process is, often, perfunctory. You apply, you get a job. Doing away with interviews or much conversation at all between potential employer and potential employee enables the company to beef up during “peak,” which consists of the holiday season as well as the time around Prime Day, the company’s holiday that exists to break up the summer lull. During these periods, Amazon’s already immense workforce cannot keep up with surging demand, so the company brings in armies of “seasonal associates,” temporary workers who enlist for quick cash — $15 an hour, Amazon’s starting wage, is below the average for the warehousing industry, but it’s still a hell of a lot more than our $7.25 federal minimum wage. Almost all of these temps are let go when the surge in sales recedes. This process has only intensified over the past year as Amazon, buoyed by increased sales during the pandemic, has gone on a hiring spree almost unprecedented in history, adding nearly five hundred thousand people to its payroll in a matter of months.
The result is that whole communities are absorbed into the warehouse. For an example of what that looks, take this reporting about JFK8, an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, New York, that has been a particular site of ferment:
As dusk settled and trucks rolled by, Tiara Mangroo, a high school student just off her shift, embraced her boyfriend. He worked for Amazon on Staten Island too, as did her father, uncle, cousins and best friend. Keanu Bushell, a college student, worked days, and his father nights, sharing one car that made four daily trips between Brooklyn and JFK8. A mother and daughter organized containers of meals for their middle-of-the-night breaks; others packed Red Bull or Starbucks Frappuccinos in the clear theft-prevention bags that workers carried. Most said they were grateful just to be employed.
These are entire families employed by Amazon. Many of them will be let go within weeks, though many others will quit even sooner, unable to endure the stress and strain of the job. This churn is a concern for the higher-ups at the company, who are increasingly busing people in from farther and farther away to maintain the staffing levels required during peak. As Paul Stroup, who led Amazon corporate teams in analyzing the warehouses, tells the New York Times,“Six to seven people who apply equals one person showing up and actually doing work. . . . You need to have eight, nine, 10 million people apply each year.” As the newspaper notes, that’s about 5 percent of the US workforce.
Look to the other coast and you find a similar dynamic playing out. Zoom in on certain locales and you get glimpses into one possible future: a company town, in which a monopsony employer effectively becomes the governing structure for public goods and services. That this description increasingly applies to Seattle, where Amazon has as much office space as the next forty largest employers combined, has long been true. But the way this applies to areas near the company’s warehouses is less understood.
Take the Inland Empire, a rural and exurban region in California saturated with warehouses because of its proximity to Los Angeles. At Cajon High School, a public high school in San Bernardino, students — many of whom have family members employed at Amazon — can take classes in the Amazon Logistics and Business Management Pathways career track.
Writer Erika Hayasaki visited Cajon High. Here’s what she found:
A dozen students sat clustered at work tables inside an air-conditioned classroom, which was designed to emulate the inside of an Amazon facility. On one wall, Amazon’s giant logo grinned across a yellow and green banner. The words “CUSTOMER OBSESSION” and “DELIVER RESULTS” were painted against a corporate-style yellow backdrop. On a whiteboard, a teacher had written the words “Logistics Final Project,” and the lesson of the day was on Amazon’s “14 Leadership Principles.” Each teenager wore a company golf shirt emblazoned with the Amazon logo.
Students and staff members expressed pride in being associated with the company. Amazon partnered with the school as part of its five-year anniversary in the Inland Empire, donating $50,000 to start the pilot program, the giant sweepstakes-style Amazon check displayed prominently at the classroom entrance. The students had already taken field trips to tour the nearby Amazon warehouse.
A public high-school classroom designed to resemble an Amazon facility, with students wearing Amazon logos on their clothing as they memorize Amazon’s leadership principles (which, it is worth noting, also include “Ownership” and “Think Big,” injunctions that hold merit for readers of this magazine when imagining how we might solve the problems exemplified by Amazon). Such a relationship between the company and public goods like a high school is part of what it means to consider Amazon as “the major working-class space of suburban and exurban socialization.”
The behemoth is here, producing not only profit but people, too. That entails corporate indoctrination, social estrangement, and profound alienation from one’s labor, which is particularly meaningless as one breaks one’s body to get so many goods to people’s doors.
But were a culture of resistance and organization to emerge, it could become something quite different: the warehouse as site of struggle and contestation and solidarity, and Amazon as object of scrutiny, an enemy. There are currently people, both inside and outside the warehouses, working toward the latter outcome, and even the likes of Jeff Bezos can’t stop them. As a noted historian of a different era put it, “The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.” It still is, and with each shift it is remade anew. Whether that will lead to despair, militancy, or something else entirely, remains to be seen.