By Mike Elk
An Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn. struck many worker advocates as an odd stop for Obama on his recent “jobs tour” around the country. The president says he has gone on the tour in order to “lay out [his] ideas for how we can build on the cornerstones of what it means to be middle-class in America.”
However, worker advocates claim that the low-pay temp jobs at the Chattanooga warehouse contribute to a disturbing trend of middle-class erosion. As Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post reported earlier this week, Amazon employs a temporary staffing agency at the warehouse, Integrity Staffing Solutions, that advertises seasonal jobs at the warehouse with a starting pay of $11.50 an hour, or about $24,000 a year (significantly less than the estimated living wage [PDF] for a dual-earner family of four in Chattanooga, which is $12.54 an hour).
“His visit … highlights the vast gulf between the good jobs in the [logistics and warehouse] sector and the more common part-time, temporary, minimum wage jobs that dominate the industry,” said Guadalupe Palma, director of Warehouse Workers United in a statement. “We are confident President Obama’s visit will punctuate the need for leadership from global retailers like Walmart and Amazon.”
But President Obama made no mention of Amazon’s practice of employing low-wage, temporary warehouse workers. Instead, President Obama lauded Amazon’s “Career Choice Program,” which covers most of the cost for Amazon employees to take classes in high-demand fields like nursing.
This is not the first time that Obama has failed to use an appearance at a major corporation’s worksite to call out alleged mistreatment of workers. In January of 2011, as GE was facing criticism for not paying its taxes, outsourcing jobs and asking unions for concessions, Obama toured a GE plant in Schenectady, New York. Obama made no mention of these charges. Instead, he spent four paragraphs of his prepared remarks praising General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, saying, “I am so proud and pleased that Jeff has agreed to chair this panel—my Council on Jobs and Competitiveness—because we think GE has something to teach businesses all across America.” (Full disclosure: My father, Gene Elk, is a union representative for United Electrical Workers, which represents GE workers. )
Likewise, in June 2012, just after Honeywell laid off a large number of workers and attempted in union negotiations to dramatically raise healthcare costs for all workers and eliminate pensions for new hires, Obama had nothing but kind words for Honeywell CEO Dave Cote at an appearance at a Honeywell plant in Minneapolis. The president said, “ Honeywell is a great example of a company that’s doing outstanding work, and I want to acknowledge Dave Cote here who has been–-(applause)-–serving on my Jobs Council and doing a lot of great work.”
More recently, the White House has drawn criticism from the AFL-CIO for praising Wal-Mart’s pledge to hire veterans, despite charges by organized labor that Wal-Mart pays rock-bottom wages and routinely and illegally retaliates against workers who attempt to unionize. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union estimates that the average wage of Wal-Mart non-managerial employees is about $9 an hour (while Wal-Mart, using a different methodology that includes managerial employees and excludes part-time employees, claims the average is $12.78).
In March, First Lady Michelle Obama, who heads a White House initiative aimed at getting private businesses to hire veterans, lauded Wal-Mart at the Business Roundtable Quarterly meeting in Washington, D.C., saying “For every veteran who has served honorably and is in need of a job in the year after they separate from the military, Walmart is telling them that they will hire them….They’re saying, no matter what, we’ve got your back.” And an event at the White House in April, attended by President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Dr. Jill Biden, highlighted Wal-Mart, among other companies, for hiring veterans. For this, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka blasted the White House, saying “That this effort was valorized by President Obama and Vice President Biden reflects an acceptance of economic failure out of line with America’s history or future…After facing enemies abroad, is an $8.81 an hour part-time job the best we can offer returning veterans?”
When President Obama announced his jobs tour, many in organized labor had hoped that the president would use his bully pulpit to highlight how corporations are denying good jobs to American workers. But Obama disappointed yesterday. Instead, he continued his usual practice of claiming a major corporation is doing right by its workers, even when the unions who represent those workers vehemently disagree.
Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times, where this post originally appeared.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Talking Union posts by Mike Elk.