Inside Amazon’s ‘Labor Awakening’: Journalist Erika Hayasaki on her New York Times Magazine story

A delivery driver loads packages at an Amazon distribution facility. (Amazon photo)

What happens when Amazon becomes an integral part of a community’s economy and culture? And what does the result say about the tech giant’s larger impact on the world?

This week, on the GeekWire podcast, we’re exploring the double-edged sword of the company’s rapidly growing fulfillment and distribution network through its large presence in the Southern California Inland Empire. We also look at the future of its workforce in building a crucial union vote in Alabamaand growing wave of robotics and automation.

Our guest is a journalist Erika Hayasakiwhose piece, “Amazon Great Awakening of WorkThe February 21 issue of the New York Times Magazine examines the impact of the pandemic and Amazon’s unprecedented growth on the workforce and the place where it lives. Hayasaki is a Southern California freelance writer teaching in the Literary Journalism Program at the University of California at Irvine.

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The creation of the piece was a simple observation and a question.

“I started looking into Amazon and its presence in the Inland Empire about two years ago just because I was in the area and driving around,” said Hayasaki.

“It really started with the question, ‘Hmm, there are a lot of Amazon everywhere.’ Amazon trucks, Amazon planes, “she said.” Amazon had teamed up with Lennar to create smart homes with doorbells from Alexas and Ring. There were these huge warehouses pretty close to where I lived. I just wanted to find out how ended up here, why it is so present. “

Hayasaki saw Amazon’s growth firsthand during the course of her coverage: “When I started reporting this story, Amazon had 20,000 workers in the Inland Empire. Two years later, 40,000. Doubled within my reporting period. That’s amazing to me. “

This growth reflects a bigger story. Worldwide, from the end of 2020, Amazon employed nearly 1.3 million people, an increase from 500,000 employees last year. The company is in California employs more than 153,000 peopleThat makes Amazon the largest state for employment, quickly outperforming Washington state, which is home to Seattle’s headquarters.

“There’s this conversation about what Amazon brings to a community in desperate need of jobs, but at what price?” Hayasaki cited concerns about working conditions and environmental impact. “You hear this back and forth all the time between the city officials or the officials, Amazon itself, and then the people who work in the trenches or work on workers’ rights or are just trying to survive day by day. Day.”

In Eastvale, California, the town at the center of their history, officials originally believed the Amazon operations would result in a collapse in tax revenues, but because of the way California divides that revenue among counties, they discovered that they would not get as much as they had imagined. Meanwhile, they found that the presence of the facilities required additional resources in terms of law enforcement and road maintenance.

While city officials carefully said they welcomed the Amazon jobs, Hayasaki said, they also believed there should be more financial returns for the community, in particular Given the amount of money Amazon made as its e-commerce infrastructure becomes even more important during the pandemic.

In the piece, Hayasaki quotes a former Eastvale Mayor Todd Rigby as saying that the company “uses our services but doesn’t necessarily pay his fair share”.

This reflects some of the concerns I’ve heard on a smaller scale from people in my hometown of Orland, California, where the company plans to open a delivery station. Amazon was able to use a nondisclosure agreement with the landlord and streamlined approval process with the county to plan the facility largely under the radar with no opportunity for public input. In a way, the anecdotes in Hayasaki’s play confirm concerns I heard in Orland in the course of my own reporting.

Working conditions are another problem. In the past, Amazon was able to avoid unionization of its workforce, but the pandemic proved to be a “breaking point,” she said writes in the New York Times magazine: “Some workers were no longer willing to make concessions to a company that they believed would endanger their safety and possibly their lives.”

A landmark union vote in Bessemer, Ala., Could prove crucial.

“I’m really watching Alabama closely,” said Hayasaki. “According to the local organizers, the pressure against the unions at Amazon is very strong. … At the same time there will be these mail-in voting papers. So that could make a difference. You don’t go to a facility. They can vote and send it in in the privacy of their home without feeling the pressure to go to a place where they can vote in front of everyone. “

Podcast edited and produced by Curt Milton. Themed music by Daniel LK Caldwell.

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