Amazon: Evil Empire to Some, Highly Coveted Innovator to Others

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

An Amazon worker tapes a box for delivery at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Schertz.

I want San Antonio to compete at its best to win the new Amazon headquarters, but if we somehow pull off a miracle and win the lottery, don’t ask me to work there.

I regularly shop on Amazon, yet would not want to be one of those 50,000 employees the company is talking about hiring in a new headquarters city. I like the way the company performs for consumers, but don’t ask me to become one of the company’s stressed out, high-octane performers. No matter, really – There are plenty of other people who will line up for jobs there.

I share the observation after distilling reader reaction to my column last week, Why San Antonio Should Pursue the Amazon HQ2 Deal. Some readers joined in the chorus, supporting San Antonio’s economic development leaders as they prepare to compete with cities like Denver, Dallas, Charlotte, and Raleigh, N.C. Others said no thanks, and were highly critical of a company that pushes its employees so hard and fast to make the impossible, well, possible.

Both arguments have merit. Add in one other complexity: While I welcome Amazon’s innovation in same-day delivery service and am watching with interest the company’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods, I would hate to see it win market share from H-E-B, which employs far more than 50,000 people in Texas and gives back to San Antonio and the many other communities it serves in an unmatched way.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

United Express planes line up around the outside of San Antonio International Airport.

So, let’s agree it’s complicated and get busy with our best offer, which will serve as an important measure of how we stack up against other leading U.S. cities. Our shortcomings are well-known, and our elected leaders can take the opportunity to rally voters and get them to support the kind of public investments that will address our substandard mass transit system. Our low number of nonstop flights remains another thorny challenge.

We have many attributes. We can offer a competitive incentive package with help from the State. We can offer abundant, affordable land, and well-aligned, welcoming business and civic leaders. San Antonio has become a draw for young, talented professionals, so Amazon should have no problem attracting people to move here to supplement interested locals. No affordable city has 50,000 available skilled workers.

Amazon can play a major leadership role in accelerating San Antonio’s transformation, catalyzing support for a city with more equitable work and living conditions.

Eric Bell, Board Chair, Choose San Antonio, explained how joining SXSW was just an idea a year ago. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Eric Bell.

Paul and Eric Bell, a father-son pair of entrepreneurs in our city, argue that San Antonio and Austin should band together to present themselves as a super-metro, one city’s strengths making up for the other’s weaknesses. The Bells are not naive, and a recent New York Times story documenting the bruising Amazon workplace culture underscores that view. But they also understand the enormous economic implications.

The Bells understand why the arrival of the company to the San Antonio-Austin corridor arguably would be the biggest economic development story in our history.

Some critics claim Amazon will pay minimum wages here, which is contradicted by all evidence. I think back to a visit I made to the company’s massive distribution center in Schertz in April 2015 when Gov. Greg Abbott led other state and local officials on a tour. I wandered off unescorted to watch workers packaging orders for mail delivery.

I struck up a conversation with one woman performing the repetitive task of matching items to packaging options and then affixing mailing labels before sending the items down the line for whatever came next. She barely made it out of high school, she told me, and regretted not being a better student. She and her younger sister both were working as housekeepers for a chain hotel located on San Antonio’s River Walk when Amazon arrived in Schertz and began hiring.

Both were making around $9 an hour and were subject to shifting work hours, depending on the ebb and flow of conventions and hotel occupancy. She was earning around $15 an hour in her new job at Amazon and enjoying better health care benefits, she told me. Her sister was still trying to win a job at Amazon, still cleaning hotel rooms for a much lower hourly wage.

An Amazon worker moves boxes onto shipping rollers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Schertz.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

An Amazon worker moves boxes onto shipping rollers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Schertz.

There is nothing particularly inspiring about a job where all the work is repetitive, whether it is making hotel beds or filling boxes, but many workers have little choice without the education and skills to compete for higher paying opportunities.

Amazon, at least, has elevated hourly wages and benefits for hundreds of workers in this market. A headquarters would bring thousands of white-collar professional positions, while the fulfillment jobs would offer hourly wage-earners better pay and greater opportunity.

Over the years I have heard people describe Bill Gates and Microsoft as evil, Steve Jobs and Apple as evil, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook as evil, and yes, Jeff Bezos and Amazon as evil.

I look at the same individuals and the innovative companies they built as world-changing entrepreneurs. A city like San Antonio would be short-changing its future to not compete for Amazon’s next big headquarters, even if you, me, and many others won’t be applying for a job there.

5 thoughts on “Amazon: Evil Empire to Some, Highly Coveted Innovator to Others

  1. Sure we can try for this new headquarters, but we will never get it. We may be the cheapest for Amazon, and San Antonio/Austin might be a good bid, but the fact is our state government is going to keep tech companies from relocating here with their policies. Anti choice, bathroom bills, anti immigrant, anti health/pollution, anti climate change actions will not attract workers/companies to San Antonio. Until we really have progressive government the tech revolution will pass us by.

    • The Amazon Fulfillment Center in Schertz is already here, so it would seem to me that HQ2’s presence here would give the headquarters people some up-close insight into how the Schertz center affects Amazon’s reputation. I agree that our state government’s behavior is regressive, but perhaps San Antonio can overcome that and get Amazon to move here.

    • Much of what you mentioned is rarely relevant in business-making deals. Despite the loons in Austin, Texas is wildly popular for corporate re-locations and new facilities. Did you miss the recent Rivard Report article about a small biopharmical company selecting San Antonio for its HQ? And there are others.

      Amazon’s request for proposals from other cities is also about putting the State of Washington and the Pacific northwest in general on notice that anti-business legislation (either at the state or municipal level) will encourage businesses to seek more business-friendly environments. Don’t be surprised in the future that winning city might become Amazon’s main HQ.

  2. you are forgetting that we are light years behind most other cities when it comes to transit and other rich amenities, this is not appealing for amazon nor does it help them attract workers.

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