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Amazon Workers Rediscover the Grapes of Wrath: Ezra Klein

By Ezra Klein
September 28, 2011 8:00 PM EDT
Lessons of Grapes of Wrath
Lessons of Grapes of Wrath

Want to learn about the plight of unemployed workers during the Great Depression? Head to Amazon.com and order John Steinbeck’s Depression-era epic, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Want to learn about the plight of workers during our own Lesser Depression? Head over to Amazon’s warehouse in Lehigh, Pennsylvania, and watch them prepare your book for shipping.

What the book will give you is perhaps the most penetrating lecture on labor markets in the American canon. It comes as the Joad family has just completed a long, awful trip from the desiccated fields of Oklahoma to the rumored paradise of California. Their journey was propelled by an orange handbill that Pa Joad kept folded in his pocket: “Pea Pickers Wanted in California. Good Wages All Season. 800 Pickers Wanted.” It seemed to be a ticket to a better life.

When the family arrives in California, there’s no work. Just tents and hungry, hopeless people. A young man leaving the Hooverville they’ve just joined laughs ruefully at them: “They say they’s three hunderd thousan’ us folks here, an’ I bet ever dam’ fam’ly seen them han’bills.”

“If they don’ need folks,” asks Tom Joad, “what’d they go to the trouble puttin’ them things out for?”

“Look,” the young man says, “s’pose you got a job an’ work, an’ there’s just one fella wants the job. You got to pay im what he asts. But s’pose they’s a hunderd men. S’pose they’s a hunderd men wants that job. S’pose them men got kids, an’ them kids is hungry. S’pose a lousy dime’ll buy a box of mush for them kids. S’pose a nickel will buy at leas’ somepin for them kids. An’ you got a hunderd men. Jus’ offer ‘em a nickel -- why they’ll kill each other fightin’ for that nickel.”

Weak Labor

Economists would bloodlessly describe this arrangement between workers and employers as “an equilibrium.” In a tighter labor market, when there aren’t “a hunderd” men competing for each job, a worker’s threat to quit gives her significant power over the employer. In a weak labor market, when there are multiple workers aspiring for any one job, unskilled laborers have very little power. In a depressed economy, the equilibrium between what workers can demand and what employers will pay can be downright horrifying. “The Grapes of Wrath” is about that imbalance in an era when it tilted sharply toward employers.

Knowledge Economy

It’s easy, however, to write that lesson off -- to assume it’s an artifact of an early 20th century agrarian economy, the product of a sympathetic novelist’s imagination, immaterial to the 21st century’s knowledge economy. Which is why it’s worth considering the process that gets “The Grapes of Wrath” to your door.

In a remarkable article published in Allentown, Pennsylvania’s Morning Call newspaper, reporter Spencer Soper interviewed more than 20 current and former employees of Amazon’s Lehigh warehouse to paint a picture of life in the Lesser Depression that looks more like “The Grapes of Wrath” than anything we expect to see in 21st century America.

The warehouse, Soper reported, is brutally hot in summer. In a nod to modernity, “computers monitored the heat index in the building and Amazon employees received notification about the heat index by email.” One day, the index “exceeded 110 degrees on the third floor.” A local emergency room doctor treated so many warehouse employees for heat exhaustion this summer that he called federal regulators to report an unsafe work environment. A security guard called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after seeing two pregnant women taken to nurses. Some workers would break out into a sarcastic chant: “End slavery at Amazon!”

Ambulances on Call

There were occasions in June and July, Soper reported, when “Amazon paid Cetronia Ambulance Corps to have ambulances and paramedics stationed at its two adjacent warehouses.” The company refused to cool the warehouse by opening the garage doors because managers feared it would lead to theft.

Amazon told the Morning Call that it had installed a cooling system at the warehouse, but the company has not responded to specific allegations in the article and didn’t return my call for comment.

It issued a statement to the Morning Call attributed to Vickie Mortimer, general manager at the company’s Upper Macungie warehouse:

“The safety and welfare of our employees is our No. 1 priority at Amazon, and as the general manager, I take that responsibility seriously,” Mortimer said. “We go to great lengths to ensure a safe work environment, with activities that include free water, snacks, extra fans and cooled air during the summer. I am grateful to work with such a fantastic group of employees from our community, and we partner with them every day to make sure our facility is a great place to work.”

Scarce Jobs

In a more robust economy, Amazon would have to treat its employees better or they would simply leave to pursue other opportunities. “But with job openings scarce, Amazon and Integrity Staffing Solutions, the temporary employment firm that is hiring workers for Amazon, have found eager applicants in the swollen ranks of the unemployed,” Soper reported.

Right now, there are about five unemployed Americans for every open job. In many regions and industries, that ratio is much higher, especially among unskilled workers. It might not be 100-to-1, but it’s close enough to ensure that the one who does get the job has little power. Orange handbills might have been replaced by e-mails and Monster.com, but the Joads would surely recognize the men and women competing to work in that hundred- degree heat, climbing over one another for the chance to support their kids.

(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ezra Klein in Washington at wonkbook@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

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