Old-school home-improvement contractors have a piece of folk wisdom they love to share with prospective clients.
“Listen,” they like to say. “I can do this job for you fast. I can do this job for you cheap. I can do this job for you good. Pick any two — but I can’t do all three.”
Work done fast and cheap, this folk wisdom understands, ends up sacrificing quality. Want cheap and good? That’ll cost you. Want quality on the cheap? That’s going to take a lot longer.
This wisdom has been around, in one form or another, for almost forever. But not everyone holds to it. Take billionaire Jeff Bezos, for instance. His Amazon empire prides itself on delivering on all three fronts: good results that come fast and cheap.
Does this Amazon claim hold up? Sure does on one level. The Jeff Bezos level. Amazon’s business model has produced spectacularly good results for Bezos, currently the world’s second-richest person, with a fortune hovering near $200 billion. Amazon has also produced, the company PR maintains, spectacularly good results for consumers as well. They can get, the claim goes, almost whatever they want quickly and cheaply.
What Amazon’s cheerleaders never acknowledge: For Amazon’s workers — and our broader society at large — the results from Amazon’s empire building have been anything but good.
That became particularly apparent last weekend when ferocious winds that peaked at 150 mph swept through Edwardsville in Southern Illinois, near the heart of America’s notorious “Tornado Alley,” and left six Amazon warehouse workers dead. Debris from their workplace, reports the National Weather Service, turned up “tens of miles” away.
Amazon officialdom, after the tragedy, issued the sorts of statements that corporate officials regularly issue after disasters. We’re “deeply saddened.” Such a horrible act of nature. So tragically unpredictable. Or so Amazon — and Corporate America writ large — would always like us to believe.
But the tragedy in Edwardsville should not have taken anyone by surprise, certainly not anyone who understands that good, fast, and cheap can seldom ever comfortably coexist.
Why did Amazon locate its mammoth Edwardsville distribution operations right on Middle America’s Tornado Alley path? No mystery there. Edwardsville’s plentiful flat acreage and easy access to interstates, airports, and other transport offered Amazon the promise of speedy delivery times and lower delivery costs. Check fast. Check cheap.
But what about that tornado threat? Careful advance planning and safety precautions could have neutralized that danger. Amazon could have had built into its Edwardsville distribution center the latest in structural resiliency and safety features. But taking safety into serious account would have slowed the center’s construction and raised the center’s cost.
So the warehouse went up instead with no special attention to tornado safety. The construction blueprint maximized speed and minimized costs. And then Amazon managed the distribution center to keep costs as low as possible and distribution as fast, with precious little thought to worker well-being.
OSHA — the federal occupational health and safety agency — has now begun an investigation into the entire affair. OSHA’s inspectors should have plenty to investigate. Since the deaths in Edwardsville, Amazon workers throughout the Southern Illinois area have been ripping the company for failing to conduct tornado drills and expecting workers to keep working even after alarms ring out.
Amazon did, to be sure, provide the ill-fated Edwardsville warehouse with “storm shelter” spaces. These spaces also carried another name: bathrooms. Moments before the tornado’s arrival, Edwardsville worker Craig Yost would later tell the local KMOV news, Amazon supervisors were directing people into their worksite’s bathroom “shelters.”
“The walls caved in, and I got pinned to the ground by a giant block of concrete,” Yost went on to relate. “On top of my left knee was a door from the bathroom stall, and my head was on that with my left arm wrapped around my head. I could just move my right hand and foot.”
To deliver quality fast and cheap, Amazon sacrificed the good that should have been a safe workplace for Craig Yost and his fellow warehouse workers. And Amazon is doing its best to make sure that this sacrificing — by workers — continues. The company has been actively exercising its considerable corporate power to prevent the one turn of events that could reliably keep Amazon on its safety toes: an active union presence at every Amazon worksite.
Earlier this year, Amazon quashed a landmark union organizing drive at its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse via assorted subterfuges that the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s national president would later describe as “intimidation and interference” that “prevented workers from having a fair say in whether they wanted a union.” A National Labor Relations Board regional office last month agreed and ordered a do-over on the election.
But let’s be careful not to pick only on Amazon. Within Corporate America, the brazen Bezos hostility to trade unions hardly stands alone. Our nation’s corporate giants have been on a ferocious 50-year offensive against collective bargaining.
Back in the mid-20th century, over a third of America’s private-sector workers belonged to unions. The U.S. Department of Labor reported earlier this year that only 6.3 percent of private-sector workers now carry union cards, this despite polling data showing that the share of nonunion workers who want a union at their worksite has increased markedly over recent decades.
Today’s tiny union presence in the private sector has beget wonderful results by every metric that truly matters for the corporate boardroom set. Corporate America’s squeeze on unions has kept wages low, share prices high, and compensation for top execs at stratospheric levels. Earlier this year, Institute for Policy Studies research revealed that the CEOs at America’s 100 largest employers of low-wage labor saw their personal compensation jump by $1,862,270 in 2020. Typical worker take-home at these same 100 companies rose — over the course of the entire year — by just $58.
The even bigger picture: Since 1978, the Economic Policy Institute reported earlier this year, CEOs at major U.S. corporations have now realized, after inflation, a pay hike of a whopping 1,322 percent. The typical worker earnings bump over the same four-plus decades: just 18 percent.
Officials at OSHA, the federal workplace safety agency, say their investigation into what exactly happened at Edwardsville may take as much as six months. OSHA simply doesn’t have the funding, that timeline illustrates, to keep adequate and timely tabs on the state of America’s workplace safety. Last year’s OSHA budget: just $591.2 million.
Some perspective: Over the past year alone, the personal fortune of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has increased by over $4 billion, seven times OSHA’s total annual budget. His total fortune earlier this week weighed in at $194 billion. A mere 5 percent annual federal wealth tax on all those Bezos billions would raise enough funding to quadruple the annual OSHA budget — and then quadruple it again.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.