Bessemer – the Alabama town where Amazon warehouse workers recently voted not to join a union – is named after Henry Bessemer, a British inventor who revolutionized steelmaking. When an Alabama businessman founded the city in 1887, he named it Bessemer in the hope that it would become a center of the steel industry.
It did. With iron ore and the other natural resources in Alabama, Bessemer’s steel mills flourished. They provided jobs that helped many workers build a civic life. They were typical of broad-based American prosperity in the mid-20th century.
Today that steel work is long gone, done by technology and global competition. Bessemer no longer makes steel. On the site of a former mill – one owned by US Steel – is the huge Amazon warehouse that was in the news because of the union vote.
Amazon thoroughly defeated the union’s organizing efforts by stressing that it was already paying well above the federal minimum wage of $ 7.25. And that’s right: All employees earn at least $ 15 an hour. The message resonated. Compared to other jobs they might find, Amazon employees decided they were already doing pretty well.
But it’s also worth thinking about Amazon jobs in a broader context that encompasses not only the alternatives available today, but the history of Bessemer and many other struggling cities in the U.S. Jobs and others that enabled workers to become business leaders to climb – Amazon jobs don’t look that attractive. Fifteen dollars an hour for a full-time employee is roughly $ 31,000 a year, less than half the median family income in the United States, and in many cases low enough for a family to qualify for subsidized school lunches.
This is not the kind of pay that is likely to help the country rebuild a growing, thriving middle class. And Amazon jobs are increasingly looking like the future of the US economy.
“Similar to a factory”
Amazon is the fastest growing company in the country in many ways. Its founder and chairman Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world. The company employs around 1.3 million people worldwide, compared to 750,000 a year and a half ago. Only Walmart has a larger workforce among American companies.
Alec MacGillis, the author of an excellent new book on Amazon called Fulfillment, points out that Amazon’s warehouse jobs have a lot in common with the industrial jobs of the past. They are among the main options for those graduating from high school or community college with no special professional skills. They are also physically demanding and dangerous.
MacGillis carefully reminds people of the injuries and deaths that came with old factory jobs and documents the similar risks warehouse jobs can bring. Jody Rhoads was a 52-year-old mother and breast cancer survivor in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her neck was crushed by a steel frame when she drove a forklift in an Amazon warehouse and killed her. (“We don’t believe the incident was work-related,” an Amazon executive told the federal government, falsely suggesting that her death was due to natural causes.)
As Spencer Cox, a former Amazon employee who is currently doing a PhD. On a dissertation at the University of Minnesota on the company, my colleague David Streitfeld said, “Amazon is reorganizing the nature of retail operations – something that is traditionally physically undemanding and has a large amount of downtime – into something that is more like a factory never leaves to. “
Despite all the similarities with factory work, Amazon jobs also have crucial differences. They’re more isolating, as MacGillis told me. Instead of working in teams of people who create something, warehouse workers often work alone and mainly interact with robots. Amazon jobs also pay less than many factory jobs.
MacGillis tells the story of three generations of Bodani men who worked at the Sparrows Point steel mill near Baltimore. The youngest, William Bodani Jr., made $ 35 an hour (about $ 52 in today’s dollars) in 2002, along with bonuses. That’s enough for a solid middle class income.
After the steel mill was away from Sparrows Point, Bodani instead took a job at the Amazon warehouse, which is on the same land. He was in his late 60s at the time and was doing a fraction of what he once had.
It would be one thing if this type of downward mobility reflected the overall performance of the US economy. But it is not. The economic output per person is much higher than two decades ago and much higher than during Bessemer’s heyday in the 20th century. Most of the profits, however, went to a tight group of workers – among the upper middle class and especially among the wealthy.
For many others, an Amazon job seems to be preferable to the alternatives, even if that’s also part of the reason why so many American families have problems.
Legacies: “Even in its loudest and most famous form, it was a vessel for intense pain,” writes Jon Caramanica of the rapper DMX, who passed away on Friday.
Lived life: His famous clients included Marlon Brando, Magic Johnson, Morgan Freeman and Britney Spears. But he chose not to defend OJ Simpson. Howard Weitzman died at the age of 81.
ART AND IDEAS
The emotional art of signing a song
If you’ve seen the national anthem before the Super Bowl, you may be familiar with the idea of the signed chant. It is a sign language interpreter who plays a song, often next to the singer. The best interpretations are not just conveyed by the lyrics of a song. they convey his emotions.
A good performance “prioritizes dynamics, phrasing and flow,” writes Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim in The Times. Deaf singers prepare by experiencing a song as they can. Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant, a deaf actor and dancer, tucked a small speaker into his clothing so he could feel the vibrations of “Midnight Train to Georgia” as he recorded a rendition for a number of covers of landmark American sign language songs of black women.
“Sometimes interpreters don’t show the emotions associated with the music,” Primeaux-O’Bryant said. “And deaf people say, ‘What is this?'”
In the performance, Primeaux-O’Bryant pulled an invisible whistle to match the woo-woo of the band’s horns. To interpret a lengthy “Oh”, he used movements that gently expanded the words and fluttered his hands into his lap.
For more: Watch a clip of Primeaux-O’Bryant’s performance here. And GQ profiled Matt Maxey, who translates Chance the Rapper at his concerts.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to cook
“Saturday Night Live” responded to the Derek Chauvin process. Carey Mulligan was the host.
Now is the time to play
Spelling Bee’s pangram on Friday was midbrain. Here is today’s puzzle – or you can play online.
Here’s today’s mini crossword and clue: Where Grizzlies Might Beat the Heat (three letters).
If you feel like playing more, all of our games can be found here.
Thank you for spending part of your morning with The Times. Until tomorrow. – David
PS 66 years ago today, a study showed that Dr. Jonas Salk was highly effective. The results obtained “fanfare and drama far more typical of a Hollywood premiere than a medical meeting,” reported The Times.
You can find today’s print homepage here.
Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about the introduction of vaccines in Europe. On the book review podcast, Blake Bailey discusses his new biography of Philip Roth and the debate over Roth’s legacy.
Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected]
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