Whatever happened to last year's breakout stars?
President Obama is giving a big economic speech at an Amazon warehouse in Tennessee later today to, as a spokesperson explained, highlight “an example of a company that is spurring job growth and keeping our country competitive.” It’s part of a tour highlighting the president’s commitment to the middle class, and Amazon eagerly played along by announcing Monday that it is creating 5,000 new jobs at its distribution centers nationwide.
The White House calls them “good, high-wage jobs,” and Amazon touts the benefits it offers workers, but many critics say Amazon, rather than being a model of the solution, is exemplary of everything wrong with post-recessionary America. When I called up Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, his first response to news of Obama’s speech was an exasperated, “Oh, Jesus.”
“They’re investing in America, that’s true. Amazon is growing rapidly, but they’re not creating good jobs. They’re creating insecure, temporary, attenuated jobs, which are reproducing all the pathologies of a two-tier labor market and a world of inequality — that’s what they’re creating,” Lichtenstein said. “And they’re a fabulously successful company with a new technology that could create a solid working class, but they chose to instead create something that looks like it’s out of the 19th century.”
Mac McClelland detailed her harrowing experience working as a temp in a Mississippi fulfillment center for Mother Jones. It’s a story of countless minor indignities and banal abuses, horrendous conditions and constant threats of termination, and a Kafkaesque maze of subcontractors and staffing agencies, all endured for an hourly wage that was essentially impossible to live on. The warehouse wasn’t owned by Amazon, but her story is typical of the tens of thousands of low-wage temp workers who toil in fulfillment centers across the country, experts and other former employees have said. These are, unfortunately, typical of the kind of jobs created after the Great Recession, as a recent report from the National Employment Law Project explained.
That’s not to say there aren’t good, full-time jobs at these fulfillment centers — there are — but as Dave Jamison notes, they tend to be skilled direct-hire positions, like managers and forklift operators, while the vast majority of workers are unskilled temps, like “pickers” who find goods on shelves for shipping. Of the 4,500 jobs at the Chattanooga distribution center Obama will visit today, 3,000 are seasonal temps, the Times Free Press reported in 2011 after the center opened.
The fact that Amazon is promising to create 5,000 new full-time jobs with health care, 401(k) plans and company stock awards is certainly positive, and hopefully a sign of change, but is atypical. While Lichtenstein said he was’t aware of the specific conditions at the Tennessee center, the use of “permatemps,” who usually don’t get health care and other benefits, and subcontractors is well known at other Amazon centers, like those in Southern California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois. “So I have to think that that’s the standard operating procedure for Amazon, which is building these things like mad all over country, creating this sort of antediluvian structure of labor,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, an Allentown Morning Call investigation found brutal heat, mandatory overtime, unresponsive managers and delays in payments to employees. The story was the same in Kentucky and elsewhere. Reporters from the Seattle Times found workers who toiled in dangerous conditions but dared not question managers. “As long as my body holds up, I will keep working. But the way it feels, I don’t know how long that will be,” one worker said, explaining that she saw no other options for employment.
Still, there’s no question that Amazon has been phenomenally successful, creating tens of thousands of American jobs and contributing billions to the economy. Overall, Amazon says it employs 20,000 workers in its U.S. fulfillment centers, out of a total worldwide workforce of 97,000, which includes thousands at its Seattle corporate headquarters and other U.S. offices. It’s a classic question of economic tradeoffs. The use of temps helps keep labor costs down, which allows Amazon to hire more workers and reduce prices for consumers, but at the cost of job quality for current employees. And with Amazon’s profits in the red, and an apparent supply of cheap labor, they may have little room to boost wages.
Meanwhile, independent booksellers are up in arms about Obama’s visit to Amazon. They say that they create more and better jobs than Amazon does at its fulfillment centers. “We cannot believe this is your vision of job creation and the future of American middle class,” the New England Independent Booksellers Association and the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association wrote in a letter to President Obama. “We would hope your administration would be standing with Main Street, rather than explicitly or tacitly endorsing [Amazon's] practices.”
Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, wrote that for every $10 million that shifts from bricks-and-mortar stores to Amazon, 33 retail jobs are lost. “That would mean, for 2012 alone, Amazon cost the U.S. 42,000 jobs just last year,” he wrote to Obama. Other booksellers charged that Amazon is an illegal “monopoly,” adding, “it’s hard to imagine the DOJ opening a proper antitrust investigation of a company that has the President of the United States dropping in to laud the company and spend some time in one of its warehouses.”
In Washington, Amazon has invested heavily in recent years, spending $2.5 million on lobbying efforts last year and more than $850,000 in the first quarter of 2013 alone, according to lobbying disclosure forms filed with the Senate. That’s up from $2.2 million in 2011 and less in previous years.
The company’s top agenda item in the capital is to impose a national sales tax on goods purchased online. It may seem odd that one of the world’s largest retailers would want to tax itself — indeed, other online merchants like eBay oppose the tax — but Amazon says a national law is better than a patchwork of state regulations. And by playing ball, the company can help mold the bill in its favor. Obama also supports the tax, so Amazon’s lobbying and political cover on the issue may have ingratiated the company with the White House.
Meanwhile, Amazon has been expanding into the government marketplace, recently winning a contract to build the CIA’s cloud computing system and another with the State Department to distribute tablets loaded with American content around the world in a kind of Kindle-diplomacy.
But the fact that Obama is seemingly endorsing Amazon’s employment practices underscores just how far we’ve come from the days when good, unionized work at auto companies and factories was easy to find and promised uneducated workers a good life. A job at a distribution center is certainly better than no job, but it seems a far cry from the vision for the middle class that the president lays out in his speeches. And by speaking at Amazon just days after he expounded to the New York Times about income inequality, Obama seems to be acknowledging that the old world is in the past and never coming back.
“I was once quite hopeful that this was how we would reconstitute the blue collar working class,” Lichtenstein said of distribution centers. “But they don’t have benefits and the turnover rate is enormous, and so you actually have all the pathologies that are generated by that kind of employment situation.”
The star of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” charmed practically everyone at the Oscars, where she was the youngest best actress nominee ever; she went on to film a remake of “Annie” opposite Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz.
Carly Rae Jepsen
Jepsen, who had 2012’s song of the summer with “Call Me Maybe,” released the fifth and final single from her debut album in January 2013. She toured the U.S. in mid-2013 -- just as Daft Punk and Robin Thicke battled to succeed her as icons of the summer.
Honey Boo Boo
2012’s biggest reality star, the young pageant contestant Alana Thompson, had a quieter time this year, with a second season whose ratings were strong but whose buzz was a bit muted. America was, by now, accustomed to young Thompson, and outraged or scandalized reactions were reserved for other TLC programming, like “The Man With the 132-Pound Scrotum.”
Ocean missed out on the top Grammys for which he was nominated in early 2013; he bounced back quickly with featured appearances on albums by Kanye West, Jay Z and Beyoncé, and is at work on a new album. Things are looking up!
The “21 Jump Street” and “Magic Mike” star had a marginally less charmed 2013, with “White House Down” failing to connect with moviegoers and “Foxcatcher” delayed until next year. It may get worse before it gets better: His big 2014 sci-fi flick, “Jupiter Ascending,” looks … well, a little weird!
With their third album in 21 months hitting No. 1 immediately upon its fall 2013 release, the boy band that broke into America in 2012 would seem to be here to stay for a while. Still, they looked a bit nervous in their reaction shots during the Video Music Awards’ ‘N Sync reunion; maybe not this year, maybe not next, but eventually, the Justin of One Direction is going to break out. For now, though, things look good!
Lana Del Rey
The famously uncomfortable “Saturday Night Live” musical guest overcame endless mockery from 2012 to land her first top-10 hit in the summer of 2013 -- a remix of a year-old song, “Summertime Sadness.” As the co-writer of “Young and Beautiful,” the love theme from “The Great Gatsby,” Del Rey is such a front-runner for the best original song Oscar (last won by Adele) that there has been a direct-mail campaign to academy voters against her. The song was also played at the most romantic event of the year: Kanye West’s stadium marriage proposal to Kim Kardashian.
Wilson, who charmed fans of 2012’s “Pitch Perfect,” had a rockier 2013, with her sitcom “Super Fun Night” struggling creatively and in the ratings. Her next planned movies are both sequels, to “Kung Fu Panda” and -- hoping lightning will strike twice -- to “Pitch Perfect.”
Another 2012 music icon, Gotye won the record of the year trophy at the 2013 Grammys for “Somebody That I Used to Know.” He released no new singles in 2013, and has told the press he has been struggling to complete new material. Good luck, Gotye!
The golden boy of the 2012 Olympics, without feats of aquatic derring-do to distract the public this year, saw his always-tenuous persona completely shift from “amiable jock” into “utter dolt” with his E! reality series. Worst of all, the series was canceled.
In 2012, the young actress -- best known for her role in the indie “Winter’s Bone” and a supporting part in the “X-Men” franchise -- had marquee roles in the first “Hunger Games” film and in David O. Russell’s comedy “Silver Linings Playbook.” In 2013, she played to her strengths: After winning an Oscar, she starred in the second “Hunger Games” movie, on whose publicity tour she managed to charm everyone in America, and had another role in a David O. Russell comedy, “American Hustle,” for which she might just win ANOTHER Oscar. By 2014, she may end up running a major studio, or serving as president.
The breakout bikini model of 2012 made a repeat appearance on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue -- and got to do high-fashion spreads in Elle, Vogue and Vanity Fair. She was cast in a Cameron Diaz comedy, too. Some types of appeal are eternal!
E. L. James
The “50 Shades” novelist now gets to help share some input into a movie adaptation set for release in 2015. She probably never needs to work again! Isn’t that great? Isn’t that … just … great?
The “Gangnam Style” phenom performed at New Year’s 2013, but will spend New Year’s 2014 flipping channels to find his pistachio ad, his goofy antics having been outdone in the past year by “The Fox” singers Ylvis. Nothing meme can stay.