Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America By Alec MacGillis • Farrar, Straus & Giroux • 2021 • 400 pages • $28
Jeff Bezos and Bill Bodani are two of the leading characters in Alec MacGillis’s new book, Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America. Bezos of course is the world’s richest person, with more than $190 billion in wealth. Bodani, a laid-off steelworker, became a $12-an-hour pawn in the Bezos e-retailing empire—a forklift driver at an Amazon fulfillment center just outside Baltimore.
MacGillis sheds some unflattering light on Bezos’s rise—he moved the then-tiny company he founded from California to Seattle in 1994 so he could poach Microsoft’s engineering talent. Upon arriving in Seattle, MacGillis writes, Bezos and his wife rented an $890-a-month house that had a garage “so that Bezos could later adopt the customary ‘garage start-up’ mythology.”
More recently billionaire Bezos bought a fourth “second home” in Washington D.C. for $23 million in cash—it has 11 bedrooms, 25 bathrooms, five living rooms or lounges, two dressing rooms, a wine room, a whiskey cellar, and a 1,500-square-foot ballroom with floor-to-ceiling fluted Ionic columns.
Bill “Bo” Bodani was born in 1949 and grew up in a working-class neighborhood outside Baltimore. In his early years, Bodani and his family lived in his grandfather’s home because housing was so tight in the then-booming Baltimore area. Both his grandfather and father worked in Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point mill, which was the world’s largest steel mill in the 1950s. Following in their footsteps, Bodani went to work for Bethlehem in 1967. It was hard, hazardous work; his jobs there included removing slag from the hot mill, cleaning the flues, and repairing the brick work inside the furnaces. During his 30-plus years at the mill, Bodoni had several teeth smashed and his legs broken in industrial accidents.
Despite that, Bodani said, “I would’ve stayed there forever. I never dreamed of retiring, because I enjoyed the job. I don’t care how dirty, how dangerous it was . . . I enjoyed the people. The Black. The white. It was a family thing . . . They looked out for one another.”
Once the pride of Baltimore, the colossal steel mill slouched toward obsolescence after Bethlehem Steel—whose CEO was the nation’s highest paid executive in the 1950s—moved far too slowly to innovate and invest in new, more efficient technology. Undercut by cheaper foreign competition, Bethlehem filed for bankruptcy in 2001. When the mill closed, Bodani—a union steward with the United Steelworkers—was making $35 an hour, and that was before the $200 bonus he received in many paychecks.
Fifteen years after Bethlehem’s bankruptcy, Bodani—his pension cut by nearly 50 percent because of corporate shenanigans—took a $12-an-hour job at an Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore, where a G.M. assembly plant once stood. Amazon at first rejected Bodani, but hired him after he threatened to sue for age discrimination. Management soon saw that the 69-year-old Bodani was so expert with machinery that it had him train younger workers how to operate forklifts. Bodani soon moved to a nearby Amazon center, located where the Bethlehem mill once stood. “Bo,” MacGillis writes, “was now making barely more than a third of what he had been making in his final year at that same spot, not even counting bonuses. He had no union rep, and in fact managers had warned him and his workers against seeking any or risk losing their jobs.”
Bodani’s roller coaster of a tale illustrates the book’s main themes. Fulfillment traces the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of the burgeoning service and high-tech sectors. It tells of the disappearance of many proud, high-paid union jobs and the growth of millions of low-paid, unfulfilling service jobs. MacGillis, a senior reporter with ProPublica, uses Bodani’s story, together with the rise and fall of the Bethlehem mill, to tell of the decline of Baltimore (where MacGillis lives) and some other great American cities. Fulfillment uses the Bezos/Amazon story as a counterpoint to tell of the rise and transformation of Seattle from blue-collar lumber and shipyard town into high-tech boom town, with soaring home prices and millionaires galore. With a terrific eye for detail, MacGillis writes of a Gucci store in Seattle that sells sandals for $650 and a rooftop bar with $200 martinis.
In contrasting the trajectories of Baltimore and Seattle, Fulfillment trains a spotlight on what MacGillis sees as one of America’s gravest problems. Some “winner-take-all” cities are booming; he focuses on Seattle, Washington D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, cities that attract a disproportionate amount of investment, jobs, and highly educated workers. At the same time, “loser” cities—he focuses on Baltimore and Dayton—have been sinking for decades, struggling to attract investment and jobs.
Fulfillment is a sharp-eyed overview of many of the most profound problems America faces: the plight of left-behind cities, the vast, hard-to-check power of corporate behemoths like Amazon and Facebook, the dreary lives and futures of millions of low-wage workers, and the damage that profit-obsessed corporations too often do to communities, the environment, and workers.
Fulfillment is terrifically well-researched, featuring numerous investigative nuggets about Amazon. MacGillis keeps the story moving by telling people stories, whether about David Rubinstein, President Carter’s deputy domestic policy adviser who became a billionaire after founding the Carlyle Group hedge fund, or about Todd Swallows, a Dayton native charged with spousal abuse who cycled through a dozen jobs in a decade, landing a $12-an-hour job at a cardboard factory at age 27, the same amount he made 10 years earlier in his pizza shop job.
In recent years, MacGillis has been very smart (or perhaps very lucky) in catching America’s zeitgeist. The Cynic, his biography of Mitch McConnell, came out in 2014 when the Senate Majority Leader was at his most powerful and conniving. MacGillis’s political stories out of Dayton during the 2016 presidential election beat many others in showing that many blue-collar mid-Westerners were drifting away from the Democrats and embracing Trump and his demagogic promises. And now MacGillis writes a book on Amazon just when Amazon’s sales and prominence have soared to stratospheric heights and many Americans are saying its immense power needs to be curbed and its harsh treatment of workers needs to be remedied—and just as the first high-profile unionization effort, at a warehouse in Alabama, fell badly short.
Fulfillment is a book of contrasts. It tells of high-tech execs who pull down eight-figure salaries and struggling workers who earn $8, $10, and $12 an hour at restaurants and small factories. It tells of the epidemic of drugs, overdoses, and suicides in fading blue-collar communities and of lobbyists’ lunches in lavish ballrooms. It tells of booming neighborhoods like one in Northern Virginia with a condo complex called Prosperity Flats, and it tells of South Baltimore, where long-vacant homes are being demolished and their handsome old bricks are being sold to developers in Washington, 40 miles away, so their new buildings can have a fashionable retro look.
Fulfillment is about Amazon, but it’s also about far more than Amazon. MacGillis writes, “[A]s the company’s pervasiveness spread, so did those fissures that it had been helping to create all along.” Fulfillment examines Amazon’s enormous size and power as well as its predatory tactics, obsession with secrecy, and ravenous appetite for government subsidies. (We see that Bezos, a libertarian, loves government when it comes to subsidies.) With its focus on one-click purchasing and second-day delivery, Amazon boasts that is the most consumer-centric company in the world, and MacGillis gives Amazon credit for doing a first-class job of helping tens of millions of Americans get through the pandemic. But Amazon also comes across as one of the least worker-centric corporations—its warehouse employees work like automatons, with computers and apps telling them what to do minute by minute. Some workers tell of Amazon’s computers issuing warnings when they’ve fallen behind their production quotas or spent too much “time off task” (perhaps from going to the bathroom) and even of computers and apps informing workers that they’ve been fired.
The “fulfillment” workers often pick 300 or more items per hour in their physically grueling jobs. They receive just two 30-minute breaks during their 10½-hour shifts and, after clocking in, have to wait four hours for their first break. It recently came to light that many Amazon truck drivers have such heavy delivery schedules that they pee in bottles because they don’t have the time to find bathrooms. Bodani had a similar problem. While Bezos’s Washington mansion boasts more than two bathrooms for every bedroom, Bodani—needing to use the bathroom more than younger workers—felt oppressed by Amazon’s constant monitoring. If he took more than 20 minutes a day for trips to the bathroom (which was several minutes away from where he worked), he received demerits and could face termination. Sometimes, MacGillis writes, Bodani had exceeded his allotted 20 minutes and couldn’t hold it in, so “he found a quiet corner and parked his forklift as a hopeful shield.”
MacGillis portrays Amazon as a bully, with its relentless pressure on its workers, its demands for secrecy and government subsidies, and its strongarming of small businesses. Amazon requires new warehouse hires to sign agreements in which they pledge to “hold all confidential information in strictest confidence”; Amazon’s obvious objective is to scare workers from discussing what happens inside. As Amazon scours the nation for locations (and subsidies) to build warehouses and data centers for its computing cloud business, it demands that cities, counties, and public agencies sign nondisclosure agreement before it even begins negotiating with them. Various cities and states have given Amazon more than $10 million in subsidies and tax credits (for instance, a moratorium on paying property taxes), as part of an incentive deal to locate a facility. Knowing that such generous subsidies can generate political problems and skeptical questions from the public. Amazon, MacGillis writes, calls on public officials it is negotiating with “to do their utmost to refrain from releasing information” and to alert Amazon of any public records request so that Amazon can fight to block them. In this way, Amazon is anti-democracy and anti-transparency, opposed to letting an informed public have an effective voice, just as it opposes letting its workers have an effective voice.
As for Amazon strongarming small businesses, Fulfillment tells of some small school supply companies in El Paso that supply the area’s schools. Those companies have a 15 percent profit margin. They got squeezed, however, when Amazon’s high-powered government division persuaded the El Paso School District to use Amazon’s platform for purchases. As a result, those small companies feel they have no choice but to use Amazon’s platform. Their big complaint: Amazon’s commission is 15 percent, equal to their profit margin, although its commissions and fees often rise to 27 percent of sales. Amazon’s cut of third-party sales exceeds $40 billion each year.
Amazon is a glutton for government handouts; it signals to cities and counties that if they want an Amazon facility, they had better offer fistfuls of subsidies and tax credits. Ohio offered Amazon a 15-year tax credit worth $17 million for a fulfillment center, while Maryland and Baltimore gave Amazon $43 million to open a center. When Amazon invited cities throughout the country to bid for its second headquarters and more than 10,000 jobs, there was a frenetic competition in which cities and states strained to outbid each other. Columbus offered $2 billion in subsidies, Maryland a $6.5-billion package, and Newark $7 billion. Amazon ultimately picked Washington, D.C. and Arlington. MacGillis concludes that the HQ2 bidding war was a charade to produce maximum publicity for Amazon, while Amazon was always going to pick a “winner-take-all” city like Washington or New York—a center of power with many highly skilled workers. Amazon had strongly considered choosing Long Island City in Queens for its new headquarters, but dropped the idea when lawmakers, progressive activists, and labor leaders objected to the nearly $3 billion in government incentives offered Amazon.
MacGillis argues that Amazon should have considered locating its second headquarters in a left-behind city, perhaps St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, or his beloved Baltimore. “What if Amazon treated their headquartering decisions as an act of corporate citizenship?” he wonders.
An Amazon spokesperson said, however, that “[n]owhere did Amazon say HQ2 was a project designed to help communities in need.” In saying this, the spokesperson was following one of Chairman Bezos’ leadership principles: “Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion.” Nick Hanauer, an early investor in Amazon who has grown critical of the company, was asked whether Amazon should have considered locating HQ2 in a left-behind city. Hanauer responded: “Right a social wrong? Are you fucking kidding me? . . . Those people believe that the only thing important in the world is how well Amazon does, at the exclusion of everything else. They’re going to go where it’s best for Amazon . . . Jeff’s perspective is the canonical neoliberal perspective: that the only purpose of corporations, the only purpose of shareholders, is to enrich themselves to the exclusion of everything else.”
My main criticism: Fulfillment would have been stronger if it had a chapter that explored proposals to address, and hopefully fix, some of the immense problems MacGillis highlights. Congress should consider legislation barring states and cities from offering lavish subsidies to lure corporations, often in a mad race that rewards prosperous companies and shareholders while draining the public fisc and straining taxpayers. Washington needs some aggressive, latter-day, Teddy Roosevelt-like trustbusters to stop giants like Amazon from squeezing small businesses into using its platform and then often taking 20 or more cents of each dollar they sell through Amazon. Congress should certainly pass a law to give workers more power to improve the grueling conditions at workplaces like Amazon’s. (Let’s call them “unfulfillment centers” for workers.) The federal government should be far more resourceful and aggressive in using infrastructure, procurement, and R&D policies to steer investment and jobs to left-behind communities like Baltimore and Dayton.
Even if Fulfillment doesn’t explore solutions, it shines a welcome bright light on many of America’s most pressing problems, and in that way, it will push readers, and the nation as a whole, to work harder to solve those problems and, hopefully, make many Americans’ lives more fulfilling.