Bill Bodani liked his old job. He cleaned slag out at the Sparrows Point steel mill in Maryland, cleared the flues and the broken brick out of the blast furnace. He loved it despite the asbestosis it gave him, writes Alec MacGillis in his new book, Fulfillment. “I enjoyed the people,” Bodani told MacGillis. “They made it enjoyable. The Black, the white. It was a family thing. I don’t care if you knew them for five minutes, they took you in. No matter how bad I got hurt, or how bad things got, there was always a bright side. You had those guys with you.”
Until he didn’t. The mill closed, and Bodani needed a new job. He found one with Amazon, working in a Baltimore-area fulfillment center. He started out at $12 an hour — much less than he’d made at the mill. He’d traded his old friends for a place that would, as MacGillis put it, fire workers “by algorithm.” And Bodani had a problem. He was older, and he needed to use the bathroom more often than did his younger co-workers. When he had used up his breaks, he resorted to an undignified option. He’d piss in a corner of the warehouse, using a forklift as a privacy shield.
MacGillis completed Bodani’s story before the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union announced that it would try to unionize the first Amazon warehouse in the country in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers there reported their own versions of Bodani’s problem. The company regimented their days so strictly that they often didn’t have the time they needed to use the restroom. The union still lost, an election now contested before the National Labor Relations Board. Despite the outcome, the stories stick. Workers said they couldn’t stay six feet apart from each other in the middle of a pandemic, spoke of dirty workstations that never got clean. Amazon, they insisted, was a bad place to work. Why, then, are cities so desperate to bring Amazon home?
In Fulfillment, MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica and the author of 2014’s The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, offers answers. The digital economy has fattened a handful of cities while others, often old industrial hubs, fall behind. There is historical precedent for industries to cluster: “History,” he writes, “is the story of cities with the right confluence of people in close quarters to spin the world forward, whether in classical Athens or Renaissance Florence or industrial-age Glasgow.” That dynamic, however, has “trebled” in recent years, he claims, with innovation the new resource to mine. Amazon and Microsoft swelled Seattle, brought it new wealth, a new class of resident, and a new set of problems. That wealth never reached a number of Seattle’s long-term residents, who could recall an older, more livable version of a vibrant city. What dispersed out from Seattle was not wealth, either, but something else. Inequality trickled down. [Continue reading…]