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Why in the World Is Obama Going to an Amazon Warehouse?

Not long ago, Mac McClelland, a reporter for Mother Jones, spent a month working at a warehouse that handles shipping for the big online merchants. Here is how it began:

"Don't take anything that happens to you there personally," the woman at the local chamber of commerce says when I tell her that tomorrow I start working at Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. She winks at me. I stare at her for a second.

"What?" I ask. "Why, is somebody going to be mean to me or something?"

She smiles. "Oh, yeah."

This town somewhere west of the Mississippi is not big; everyone knows someone or is someone who's worked for Amalgamated. "But look at it from their perspective. They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they're gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they're gonna increase the goals. But they'll be yelling at you all the time. It's like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they're going to tell you, 'You're not good enough, you're not good enough, you're not good enough,' to make you work harder. Don't say, 'This is the best I can do.' Say, 'I'll try,' even if you know you can't do it. Because if you say, 'This is the best I can do,' they'll let you go. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You'll see
people dropping all around you. But don't take it personally and break down or start crying when they yell at you."

The warning, it turns out, was not melodramatic. There are safety concerns to worry about, McClelland learns in training: “Give forklifts that are raised up several stories to access products a wide berth: ‘If a pallet falls on you, you won't be working with us anymore.’ Watch your fingers around the conveyor belts that run waist-high throughout the entire facility. People lose fingers. Or parts of fingers. And about once a year, they tell us, someone in an Amalgamated warehouse gets caught by the hair, and when a conveyor belt catches you by the hair, it doesn't just take your hair with it. It rips out a piece of scalp as well.”

Above all, though, there is the constant demand for speed. McClelland and her fellow workers spend the day rushing back and forth among the different levels of the warehouse searching for the items on their list, scanners in hand, walking an average of 12 miles a day to retrieve Barbies, iPod protector cases and “a staggering number of dildos.” Being assigned to books is the worst because the shelves in that section tend to deliver the strongest electric shocks. Lunch and bathroom break is 30 minutes, but you have to leave time to go through the metal detector to make sure you’re not stealing anything. Total after-tax take-home pay at the end of a minimum-wage 10.5 hour day: $60.

I was surely not the only person who thought of this piece when I heard that President Obama’s Tuesday stop for his big tour to spread his economic message was an Amazon fulfillment center in Chattanooga. This is what he sees as an ideal venue to discuss a "better bargain for the middle class," the subject of Tuesday's speech? Someone who works at that exact Amazon site sent Gawker an account of work there, and it sounds similar to McClelland’s report: “You could easily spend most of your 15-minute break walking through the warehouse just to sit down for five minutes…The job is to scan and count the number of items in each cubby. Employees are expected to count 125 cubbies per hour.” Meanwhile, Amazon workers elsewhere have filed a class-action suit over the unpaid time they lose at the warehouse security checkpoints.

When I asked the White House today about the Amazon visit, it pointed me to spokesman Josh Earnest’s comments at Monday’s briefing. “I read in the newspaper today that Amazon has committed to hiring another 5,000 [full-time] workers at those fulfillment centers located all across the country. That’s the kind of investment that we’re starting to see more of – that if we can put in place policies that will encourage companies in America to bring back jobs from overseas, that if we can invest in the kind of infrastructure that’s required to allow companies to get products to market more quickly or to their customers more quickly, that’s certainly something that we want to encourage.”

In other words, job growth is job growth. One can certainly see the administration’s perspective on this: after several years of being pummeled about the jobless recovery, it is eager to champion any companies doing big hiring these days. And it is not alone in this: plenty of states and counties have been dangling incentives in front of Amazon and other online merchants to have them set up shop inside their borders. But the Amazon visit points more acutely than the administration might like to a tension inherent in our gradual comeback: what, exactly, is the line these days between a good job and a shoddy one?

This tension has been there all along in the administration’s touting of a manufacturing comeback – yes, some of those jobs are coming back into this country from China or Canada or wherever else, but they are coming back at wages far below what they were paying before they left. Are we cool with that? The administration is undoubtedly wrestling with this behind closed doors, but we haven’t seen much public grappling with this dilemma. Maybe Obama can address it at the Amazon warehouse. Just watch for the electric shocks.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.