[Marxism] Amazon Everywhere

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 1 10:38:31 MST 2019


Amazon Everywhere
Prime Mover: How Amazon Wove Itself Into the Life of an American City
By Scott Shane

BALTIMORE — Another big Prime Air 767 takes off from Baltimore-Washington
International Airport — where Amazon’s shipping last year eclipsed that of
FedEx and U.P.S. put together — and wheels above the old industrial city.
Below, the online giant seems to touch every niche of the economy, its
ubiquity and range breathtaking.

To the city’s southeast stand two mammoth Amazon warehouses, built with
heavy government subsidies, operating on the sites of shuttered General
Motors and Bethlehem Steel plants. Computers monitor workers during
grueling 10-hour shifts, identifying slow performers for firing. Those on
the floor earn $15.40 to $18 an hour, less than half of what their
unionized predecessors made. But in Baltimore’s postindustrial economy,
the jobs are in demand.

Near the Inner Harbor are the side-by-side stadiums of the Ravens and the
Orioles, where every move on the field is streamed to Amazon Web Services
for analysis using artificial intelligence. Football players have a chip
in each shoulder pad and baseball players are tracked by radar, producing
flashy graphics for television and arcane stats for coaches.

Up in northwest Baltimore, a pastor has found funding to install Amazon
Ring video cameras on homes in a high-crime neighborhood. Privacy
advocates express alarm at proliferating surveillance; footage of suspects
can be shared with the police at a click. But the number of interested
residents has already outstripped the number of cameras available.

In City Hall downtown and at Johns Hopkins University a few miles away,
procurement officers have begun buying from local suppliers via Amazon
Business — and even starred in a national marketing video for the company.
Buyers say the convenience more than justifies interposing a Seattle-based
corporation between their institutions and nearby businesses. Critics
denounce the retail giant’s incursion into long-established relationships.
It is a very Amazon dispute.

As federal regulators and Congress assess whether Amazon’s market power
should be curbed under antitrust laws — and whether, as some politicians
argue, the company should be broken up — The New York Times has explored
the company’s impact in one American community: greater Baltimore.

Baltimore’s pleading pitch last year to become an additional headquarters
city for Amazon, promising a whopping $3.8 billion in subsidies, did not
even make the second round of bidding. But Amazon’s presence here shows
how the many-armed titan may now reach into Americans’ daily lives in more
ways than any corporation in history. If antitrust investigators want to
sample Amazon’s impact on the ground, they could well take a look here.

Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economist who has studied the region for years,
is skeptical of apocalyptic claims about Amazon, saying Sears and Walmart
were both once seen as all-powerful. But he called Amazon a “profit-margin
killer” and said it should be scrutinized, particularly because
technological trends that include artificial intelligence, driverless
trucks, drones and new payment systems all play to its advantage.

Ken Knight has felt Amazon’s long reach. He plans to close his
152-year-old Baltimore houseware and hardware store, Stebbins Anderson, at
the end of the year. He pins most of the blame on Amazon.

“It’s put me out of business,” said Mr. Knight, 70, who had hoped to pass
the business to his son. Mr. Knight is especially aggrieved by government
subsidies to the company in the name of job creation; he will be laying
off 40 employees.

Amazon insists, in an argument it is likely to use in antitrust
proceedings, that its market power is nothing like what people imagine.
Yes, it accounts for 40 to 50 percent of online retail in the United
States — but that is only four to five percent of total retail. (Walmart’s
revenue is still twice that of Amazon, though Amazon’s total value on the
stock market is the fourth largest among American companies, more than
double Walmart’s.) And while Amazon may sell nearly half of
cloud-computing services, it points out that the cloud makes up a small
fraction of information technology spending.

“We welcome the scrutiny,” said Jay Carney, Amazon’s top Washington
representative and a former White House press secretary for President
Barack Obama. “We operate in huge competitive arenas in which there are
thousands and thousands, if not millions, of competitors. It’s hard to
argue that if you’re four percent of retail you’re not in competition.”

Baltimore offers in microcosm the contentious issues that Amazon’s conduct
has raised nationally: The erosion of brick-and-mortar retail. Modestly
paid warehouse work and the looming job destroyer of automation. An
aggressive foray into government and institutional procurement, driving
local suppliers to partner with Amazon or face decline. A swift expansion
in air cargo, challenging FedEx and U.P.S. The neighborhood spread of
video and audio surveillance. And the steady conquest of the computing
infrastructure that underlies commerce, government and communications,
something like an electric utility — except without the regulation imposed
on utilities.

Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute, a strategy firm, who
lives part time in Baltimore, said Amazon’s impact only began with its
retail platform.

“It’s the invisible infrastructure that powers our everyday lives,” said
Ms. Webb, who examines Amazon in her book on the tech giants, “The Big
Nine.” “Most of us don’t know 95 percent of what Amazon is doing.”

She called the contest for Amazon’s second headquarters a “ridiculous
parade, a beauty contest” in which communities nationwide offered up
inducements while failing to make a cleareyed assessment of costs and
benefits. With its capabilities, market sway and long-term strategy, she
said, Amazon now conducts itself like a “nation-state.”

A River Through Commerce and Culture

None of this was imaginable in 1994, when Jeff Bezos paged through a
dictionary in search of a name for an online bookseller and stopped at
“Amazon.” Not only was it the largest river in the world by volume — it
was four times bigger than the runner-up, which appealed to Mr. Bezos’
outsize ambitions. Books were just the start.

Some 25 years later, fueled by customers’ addiction to click-and-done
convenience and speedy delivery, Amazon has quietly flowed into many areas
of life, bringing to more and more arenas its tireless innovation,
relentless focus on data, unforgiving employment practices and omnivorous
competition. In many homes here, as across the country, it is the ultimate
labor-saving device: supplier of electronics, clothes, groceries, books,
movies, music, information and security. More than half of American
households now have an Amazon Prime membership, and most shopping searches
begin on Amazon, not Google. Globally, Amazon, whose critics call it the
“apex predator” of digital business, delivered 10 billion packages last
year — more than the number of people on the planet.

Greater Baltimore accounts for one percent of Amazon’s sales nationwide —
just about its share of the population, according to data prepared for The
New York Times by Rakuten Intelligence, which tracks e-commerce.

But as a transportation hub, with Interstate 95 and major rail lines
converging near a busy port and airport, Baltimore punches above its
weight — originating 2.38 percent of Amazon’s shipments in the United
States, Rakuten said.

Even with all that shipping and logistics, Amazon ranks just 14th among
local employers, according to The Baltimore Business Journal. Yet like an
online shopper who realizes one day that half his possessions came from
Amazon, a Baltimorean who looks for the company’s footprints can find them
everywhere.

On a midtown back alley, Todd Blatt, one of 18,000 Maryland sellers on
Amazon Marketplace, uses a laser printer to turn out little models of the
iconic bus-stop benches that read “Baltimore: The Greatest City in
America,” peddling them online with an assortment of toys and bric-a-brac.
He’s battled counterfeits from competing sellers on Amazon but isn’t
really complaining: “I haven’t had a real job since 2012,” he said.

When the Baltimore Behavioral Lab, a research organization, conducts
consumer surveys, it posts them on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk microtask
site. Users earn tiny sums of money for participating.

Amazon Smart Home is partnering in one Baltimore suburb with Lennar, the
country’s largest homebuilder, to install Amazon Echo devices, which use
voice-activated Alexa to control Amazon Ring video cameras outside. In a
tough city neighborhood where drug dealers intimidate neighbors, the Rev.
Terrye Moore is organizing a subsidized video setup after hearing a radio
promotion for Ring by the N.B.A. great Shaquille O’Neal.

Public libraries are stocked with digital audiobooks from Amazon’s
Audible, and browsers can check reviews on Amazon’s Goodreads. Down the
road in Annapolis, Amazon Studios filmed scenes in the Jack Ryan
television series.

Amazon owns two Whole Foods grocery stores in Baltimore and is opening a
third, and recently began free delivery to Prime members. In a dozen
convenience stores, it operates Amazon Lockers, where customers can pick
up purchases. It has enlisted Kohl’s stores to handle returns. Its trucks
and vans are everywhere.

Experts at Baltimore’s academic medical complexes are discussing whether
Amazon is preparing to disrupt their industry too. In just the past 18
months, the company joined the health care venture Haven and bought the
e-medicine pioneer Health Navigator as well as Pillpack, now part of
Amazon Pharmacy.

Through Amazon Web Services, the biggest provider of cloud computing, the
company is building the country’s digital backbone. A.W.S. employs a small
staff of software engineers in Baltimore — the company declined to say how
many — and provides the computing infrastructure for many institutions,
from Johns Hopkins to the investment firm T. Rowe Price and the sportswear
company Under Armour. Even the secretive National Security Agency, south
of Baltimore at Fort Meade, acknowledged that it relied on A.W.S. “for
various administrative and mission needs.”

The arms of Amazon sometimes cross in unexpected ways. Though Under Armour
uses A.W.S., the clothier has had to balance its own online sales with its
Amazon.com “storefront.” The Maryland Department of Human Services
downtown partners with A.W.S. in a cloud-computing effort called MD THINK,
designed to streamline social services. At the same time, the department
said, it provides food stamps to nearly 600 local Amazon employees,
largely part-time warehouse workers.

Even as its omnipresence draws antitrust scrutiny, Amazon seems unlikely
to pull back. In June, Mr. Bezos, by most accounts the world’s richest
person, trumpeted a new Amazon plan to launch 3,200 satellites to provide
internet service around the world. He argued that Amazon’s size meant it
should take on huge, new challenges.

“Amazon is a large enough company now that we need to be doing things
that, if they work, can actually move the needle,” Mr. Bezos said.

Mr. Bezos, who is renovating a $23 million house in Washington, an hour
south of Baltimore, has long pushed the mantra of “customer obsession,”
and it has paid off. In the Harris Poll on the popularity of major
American companies, Amazon has ranked No. 1 or 2 each year since 2012. By
comparison, Google fell to 41 this year, and Facebook to 94.

But putting customers’ convenience first, a key to Amazon’s spectacular
growth, can put a big squeeze on everyone in the company’s long supply
chains — warehouse workers, independent sellers, delivery drivers, cargo
pilots — not to mention smaller competitors.

A New Kind of Assembly Line

Shaquetta Taylor, who goes by Shaq, scanned an item — a bag of glazed
pecans. Her screen directed her to “Stow Item,” and the digital clock
started counting — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 — as she found space for it in the
robotic pod. Then there were cactus-shaped tea lights — 17, 18, 19, 20 —
and a children’s crafting kit and a magnetic door screen (“Actually, I
have this myself,” she remarked).

Ms. Taylor, 43, in glasses and a “Toy Story” T-shirt, mother of two sons
and grandmother of a 3-year-old, arrived four years ago at Amazon’s
warehouse awed by the company’s cachet. “When I first came here, I
thought, ‘I’m not good enough for Amazon,’” she said, taking a brief break
from Stow Station 3301.

But after a year, she was asked to become an “ambassador,” helping out
newer colleagues at this Amazon Fulfillment Center, shorthand name BWI2,
built where G.M.’s Baltimore Assembly Plant operated for seven decades.
Its scale is mammoth: 27 acres of floor space, 2,500 employees, 14 miles
of speeding conveyor belts.

If Ms. Taylor doesn’t make her numbers, she can be fired. She’s thrived
because she’s fast and accurate, over a demanding 10-hour shift with two
half-hour breaks, one of them paid.

The warehouse is run by Preet Virdi, general manager, an Amazon true
believer who moved from India to attend Georgia Tech 13 years ago. Mr.
Virdi, 35, said his top priority was safety — a whiteboard recently listed
40 head injuries and 109 foot injuries so far in 2019 — and added that his
next priority was “how we make the workplace more fun.”

The real boss is data, however, as it is everywhere in Amazonland.
Everything that happens is timed and measured in a way that efficiency
experts of earlier generations could only dream about. If the computers
say Ms. Taylor or other “associates” are too slow or sloppy, they’re out.
And if Mr. Virdi doesn’t make his numbers, he’ll be out too.

That is nothing new in industrial practice. But Amazon, with an
unparalleled mastery of digital tools and the coolly calculating tone set
by Mr. Bezos, has brought it to a rare extreme. The company’s astonishing
success has made it, in turn, a powerful influence on other companies.

Some workers thrive despite the pace. “The day goes by quick,” said Robert
Taylor, 51, a leader in the warehouse chapter of Glamazon, for L.G.B.T.
employees. “All these other people go to the gym. Amazon pays me to stay
in shape.”

Some see a path to advancement. Samaira Johnson, 26, a high-school
graduate with a pet iguana at home, is already a leader among the
employees trained to work with the warehouse robots. Asked where she saw
herself in 10 years, she replied, “Running an Amazon building like this
one.”

Others falter. Sharon Black, 70, a veteran Baltimore activist who has held
assembly-line jobs at G.M. and other plants, worked for a few months at
BWI2 last year and found a striking difference: At Amazon, the computers
ruled.

That wasn’t entirely negative, she said. In the application process,
Amazon didn’t care about age, gender or race — only that a person could
walk several miles a day and lift 50 pounds. “They’re an equal opportunity
exploiter, I’ll tell you that,” Ms. Black said. “You could come in with
three arms and they wouldn’t care.”

Ms. Black said she quit after two written warnings that she wasn’t meeting
productivity standards, knowing a third would get her fired.

“The machines determine so much,” she said. “You’re clocked from beginning
to end. They grind through people.”

When another employee told the National Labor Relations Board that he had
been fired for complaining about working conditions, the company said he
had it wrong: He had been fired for working too slowly.

In fact, an Amazon lawyer wrote to the N.L.R.B. last year, it had fired
“hundreds of other employees” at the Baltimore warehouse for failing to
make their numbers. The letter, obtained by The Verge, listed more than
800 workers fired in the previous year, but the company now says the
correct number was 309.

Automated dismissals are a feature, the letter said, not a flaw. “Amazon’s
system,” the lawyers wrote, “automatically generates any warnings or
terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from
supervisors.” Amazon says termination decisions are ultimately made by
managers.

Workers at Amazon who run into that kind of trouble have no unions to
represent them — a shift from Baltimore’s past. G.M. employees were
represented by the United Automobile Workers. At the second warehouse, on
the old Bethlehem Steel site, United Steelworkers held sway. At both
plants, the pay was adequate to support a family.

In the G.M. plant’s final years, line workers made an average of $27 an
hour, equivalent to more than $35 today. G.M. workers could make $80,000
annually with overtime, according to contemporary news reports, equal to
$102,000 in 2019 dollars.

The vehemently anti-union Amazon has raised its lowest hourly pay to
$15.40, which is a little over double the federal minimum wage, the
company points out. But even a veteran worker at its BWI2 warehouse would
have to put in considerable overtime to get to $40,000 a year, less than
half of what a G.M. worker could make in the past.

Nor are the job numbers comparable. The G.M. plant employed 8,000 at its
peak; Bethlehem Steel employed 30,000. Amazon has a total of 4,500 workers
at the two warehouses.

In a statement, the company called its jobs “safe and innovative,” noting
that the warehouses were built on “blighted property” that was vacant for
years before Amazon “injected life (and jobs)” back into the East
Baltimore brownfields.

In a city that has shed most unionized industrial jobs, Amazon gets plenty
of applicants. Its hourly pay is $2 or $3 higher than at many comparable
employers, and benefits are also more generous: medical, dental and vision
coverage and a 401(k) with a 50 percent match. The company will reimburse
an employee up to $3,000 a year for further education, or give a worker
$10,000 to start a business delivering Amazon goods.

Under the circumstances, government officials here are grateful for
Amazon’s presence. The company has gotten $65 million in tax incentives
and loans to build the two big warehouses and related smaller facilities,
according to the Maryland Department of Commerce.

The company said it had spent about $1 billion on infrastructure in
Maryland to date; hired about 7,000 full-time direct employees, nearly all
at warehouses; and used contractors who hired another 2,100 people.

But economists say online shopping has also erased thousands of retail
jobs, and critics point to other costs, including traffic congestion and
environmental effects, so assessing the company’s net impact is difficult.
Few of the Amazon jobs in Baltimore are the highly paid tech and
management positions appearing in Northern Virginia, which Amazon chose
for its 25,000-strong second headquarters, called HQ2. (Amazon chose New
York City for a similar hub but withdrew in the face of local opposition.)

Such a boon might have been transformative for Baltimore, a struggling
city surrounded by wealthier suburbs. But the city ended up on the
company’s long list of also-rans, 230 locales that turned over reams of
valuable work force and work site data to Amazon in elaborate applications
— and got nothing in return.

In a statement, Amazon said the top criterion for choosing a location was
“the availability of tech talent.” It added, “Nowhere did Amazon say HQ2
was a project designed to help communities in need.”

For Ms. Black, the former employee, one experience captured what she
thought was the eerily inhuman warehouse culture. In November last year,
two contract workers were killed when a tornado collapsed a wall of a
smaller Amazon warehouse opposite BWI2.

Ms. Black said she drove to work the next morning, steering around fallen
trees, wondering how the company would handle the deaths at the brief
standing meeting that began each shift.

“I thought they’d have two minutes of silence,” she said. “Nope. We didn’t
pause.” Instead, she said, there was the usual tribute to the “power
picker” — the outstanding performer in her unit, as measured by the
computers. Michael Jackson music played, she said, and the supervisor
shouted, “Let’s have a better day than yesterday!”

It was a reference to production levels, not to the overnight catastrophe.

Rachael Lighty, an Amazon spokeswoman, said the company offered counseling
and hosted the most affected employees for a meal. “We are committed to
constantly improving how we communicate with and engage with our
employees,” she said.

Despite the demanding nature of their jobs, many warehouse workers fear
Amazon intends to replace them with robots, a worry shared by some experts
and politicians like Andrew Yang, the presidential candidate who warns
that automation will create mass unemployment. Amazon has begun testing
machines that can pack boxes, and human beings can be prone to injury,
easily exhausted, eager to unionize and outspoken about gripes.

The robots that silently cruise through the warehouses, each carrying up
to 1,200 pounds of purchases, are none of these things.

But Ms. Webb, the futurist and technology writer, said she believed Amazon
had made a different discovery: that the job of moving products from bin
to pod and pod to box is presently more cheaply performed by humans than
by robots.

“It’s not that the robots are taking over,” Ms. Webb said. “It’s that
we’ve been relegated to robot status.”

Asked whether the Baltimore-area might automate further, Ms. Lighty, the
Amazon spokeswoman, said there was no such plan.

“We have hundreds of robots here, but thousands of people,” she said. “And
it’s the people that make the Amazon magic happen.”

Buying Local, via Seattle

A marketing video released last spring appears designed to capture some of
that magic, right in Baltimore. Shots of the city’s harbor and iconic
rowhouses alternate with views of the busy Amazon warehouse. “We help
Baltimore businesses buy from other Baltimore businesses,” says Mr. Virdi,
the warehouse manager, as packages race past on conveyor belts.

More surprising than Mr. Virdi’s remarks are enthusiastic endorsements
from City Hall and Johns Hopkins, whose chief purchasing officers laud
Amazon in the video for helping them connect with local suppliers.

It is a glimpse of Amazon’s major push into territory it has not yet
conquered: purchasing by government and other institutions that relies on
competitive bids and fixed-price contracts. At the federal level, Amazon
lobbied for legislation — congressional staffers called it “the Amazon
amendment” — designed to help it win government sales. At the local level,
it has fended off accusations of predatory competition by saying it can
actually connect local buyers with local suppliers.

Brian Smith, the Johns Hopkins purchasing officer and a subject of the
video, said local businesses often found the big university hard to
approach. But he met an Amazon representative at a convention, and now
Johns Hopkins has a customized Amazon Business page that gets local
vendors “in front of a lot of eyeballs here,” he said. Erin Sher Smyth,
Baltimore’s chief procurement officer, noted that Amazon’s website flagged
such criteria as minority and female owners and made record-keeping easy.

But like many people who find Amazon both convenient and worrisome, Ms.
Smyth admitted to a certain ambivalence about its impact.

“In my role as city purchasing agent, I’m trying to get the best product
for the best price, efficiently, and Amazon lets me do that,” she said.
“In my personal life, I do worry about Main Street shops.”

Her anxiety is widely shared. As in other cities, many Baltimore shopping
districts are anemic and pocked with vacancies. The waterfront Harborplace
shopping pavilions, once a symbol of urban revival, are in receivership.

The causes include mismanagement, shifting tastes and big-box competition,
but Amazon’s unstoppable growth is a factor. In Baltimore and its suburbs,
the average Amazon shopper makes nearly 40 purchases a year, totaling
about $1,300 — spending that is up more than 50 percent since 2016,
according to Rakuten.

Now, as it moves into institutional procurement, Amazon has sought to
persuade civic-minded public officials that it can be a booster. Both the
city and the university designated a particular company located about 15
miles southwest of Baltimore, AJ Stationers, as a preferred supplier of
office products via Amazon, in part because the firm is owned by a
minority woman, Angela Jeung.

That has been a windfall for AJ Stationers, said Rusty Balazs, the sales
manager, who estimated that annual sales to Johns Hopkins had climbed from
$100,000 to $2 million. But AJ Stationers has shrunk from two stores and
about 50 employees two decades ago to a website and a dozen employees
today, he said.

Mike Tucker, chief executive of the Baltimore-based independent office
product dealers’ association, said AJ was really a “poster boy” whose
local deals, highlighted in the marketing video, were a public relations
tactic intended to obscure Amazon’s impact on small businesses already
battered by Office Depot and Staples. (His association, which had 12,000
member businesses in the 1980s, now has 1,500.)

“That Amazon convenience comes at a big price,” said Mr. Tucker, noting
that he welcomed the antitrust inquiries down the road in Washington. The
price is paid, he said, not just by local dealers but by their myriad
business connections, from cleaning services to gas stations, eroding
local employment.

“It doesn’t matter that the local business served you and helped you with
your problems for years and years,” he said. “Amazon does whatever it
takes to crush the competition.”

Addressing such criticism, Amazon said it offered “best-value pricing for
education and public-sector organizations” and helped small businesses
thrive “because customers are able to discover suppliers.”

Mr. Tucker said he shared the Amazon marketing video with a local office
products executive who had seen his Baltimore sales drop. When the
executive realized Amazon had moved into his market, his “head exploded,”
Mr. Tucker said.

But the executive declined to speak with The Times, Mr. Tucker said, for
fear of angering Amazon. “He’s afraid that they may have to make a deal
with the Devil to survive,” Mr. Tucker said.

Onward and Upward

Anyone who wants a glimpse of Amazon’s expansive appetite might pay a
visit to B.W.I. airport, where a new white warehouse seems to stretch on
and on. Workers are putting the final touches on a $36 million
200,000-square-foot building, financed with tax-exempt bonds, that will
dwarf Amazon’s current airport operations. There are bays for 93
tractor-trailers to load and unload at once.

The growth at what Amazon Air calls its “gateway” — one of 25 around the
country — has been rapid. In 2016, Amazon Air, a new division, did not
operate through B.W.I. The following year, Amazon moved more freight
through the airport than either FedEx or U.P.S., the industry leaders. And
in 2018, it loaded and unloaded 9,300 metric tons of goods at B.W.I., more
than FedEx and U.P.S. combined, though globally their fleets remain far
larger.

Morgan Stanley warned a year ago that “the market is missing the risk
Amazon Air poses” to FedEx and U.P.S., knocking down those companies’
stocks. Other analysts are skeptical. But FedEx, worried that its longtime
partner was becoming a competitor, announced last summer that it was
ending air and ground delivery for Amazon.

Until recently, the company’s B.W.I. expansion here was swathed in secrecy
— environmental reports referred only to a “Midfield Cargo Operator,” and
Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, spoke last year of welcoming to B.W.I.
“a very well-known e-commerce giant.” Though its Boeing 767s are often
painted with the Prime Air logo, Amazon contracts its flying to several
lower-profile operators, including Atlas Air, ABX Air, Air Transport
International and Southern Air.

One reason for Amazon’s reticence may be stormy negotiations between its
biggest carriers and the Teamster units that represent pilots. Union
records show that Atlas Air, the biggest Amazon flyer, pays pilots about a
third less than FedEx or U.P.S.

Ed Nirel, a first officer for Atlas, said he had flown into Baltimore “at
3 a.m. and 3 p.m.” and had watched the operation expand, with a half-dozen
Amazon Air jets now sometimes jockeying for docking space. He said the
pilot pay gap had led to staffing problems; he has worked as many as 17
days in a row for Atlas, he said, compared with a maximum of four days at
his last job, with ExpressJet.

“I’d love to stay at Atlas — it’s a great group of pilots,” Mr. Nirel
said. “The Amazon airport operations are pretty cool to see. But if FedEx
or U.P.S. offers me a job, I’m going to go. My working life would be
better, and it would be better for my family.”

Robert Kirchner, who recently retired as an Atlas pilot and now is a union
negotiator, said Amazon’s drive for speedy delivery was stretching the
work force to the breaking point.

“Atlas’s fatigue complaints are through the roof,” Mr. Kirchner said.
“They’re wearing the pilots out, and it’s a completely unsafe situation.”
He said the union was closely tracking the still-unexplained crash of an
Atlas 767 carrying Amazon cargo into a Texas swamp last February, killing
three, to see if fatigue was a factor.

Atlas, responding to questions from The Times, said its pilots got a
“competitive total compensation package” and flew an average of 42 hours a
month, compared with an industry average of 53. It said it was working
with the National Transportation Safety Board to understand what went
wrong in the Texas crash.

Drive five minutes from Amazon’s new air cargo hub and you find a humbler
scene: a package delivery station, surrounded by Prime tractor-trailers,
unmarked white vans used by Amazon contractors and the flex drivers who
load their cars with packages for what the industry calls the “last mile.”
There are new SUVs, compacts with rooftop carriers and banged-up sedans.
The drivers use the Amazon Flex app to sign up for “blocks” — $54 for
delivering a certain number of packages between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. on one
recent day, or $72 between 5:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.

Amazon just opened a second Baltimore delivery station. Every such station
Amazon opens, said Marc Wulfraat, a supply chain consultant, means that
about 40,000 packages a day, previously delivered by the United States
Postal Service and other carriers, shift to Amazon’s own operation.

One consequence is a steady shift of work from unionized Postal Service
jobs to flex drivers, many of them struggling to get by. In August, the
Postal Service explained a big third-quarter loss by saying in a filing
that “certain major customers” were cutting back on package shipping. In
Baltimore over the past two years, the Postal Service share of Amazon
deliveries has dropped from about 60 percent to under 30 percent,
according to Rakuten. Amazon’s own share of its Baltimore deliveries has
risen to 50 percent from 20 percent in 2017.

On a private Facebook group for flex drivers working the Hanover, Md.,
station near B.W.I., the replacements for postal workers and FedEx
truckers trade tips and grumble.

Several said the station was so jammed they had to load packages outside
in the rain. Whoever at Amazon designed the 25-mile route to Sykesville,
Md., one driver groused, “needs to be drug-tested, like seriously.”
Another complained that a 28-package nighttime route listed at
two-and-a-half hours took her more than four hours to complete, and “a dog
came out on me on top of that because it was too dark to see.”

Net Profits

But the most profitable part of Amazon’s operations has nothing to do with
the clamor of warehouses, airports and trucks. All but invisible to the
public, Amazon Web Services hums quietly in the background of a huge and
growing slice of American life.

Countless Baltimore-area businesses, nonprofits and government programs
use A.W.S. When Baltimoreans stream a movie on Netflix instead of Amazon
Prime, they are still using Amazon — because Netflix relies on A.W.S.’s
cloud computing. (The Times is also an A.W.S. customer.)

Many companies see A.W.S. as the computing equivalent of Baltimore Gas &
Electric, the local utility: They plug into the cloud — the generic term
for rented, off-site computer space — and pay for what they use. Some fret
about what will happen when Amazon’s cloud crashes, as happens
periodically with power companies. But A.W.S. has proved quite reliable so
far.

Consider T. Rowe Price, the global investment firm headquartered on
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which has steadily replaced its own information
infrastructure with Amazon’s service.

As it adds customers in Asia and Europe, said Nigel Faulkner, chief
technology officer at T. Rowe Price, the traditional approach would be to
build its own data servers in new markets.

“With Amazon we can rely on their servers in those places,” he said.
“That’s cheaper.” T. Rowe Price can increase or decrease its use of A.W.S.
services at any time, paying only for what it uses. And there are hundreds
of applications built on A.W.S. offering specialized services, from
database management to artificial intelligence.

The N.F.L. also uses Amazon’s software tools, crunching data from more
than 200 metrics in every football game. Data streams to the A.W.S. cloud
from chips embedded not just in players’ shoulder pads but in referees’
jerseys, the football and even the chains used to measure first downs.
Machine-learning tasks that used to take all night are completed in 20
minutes using the massive computing capacity of A.W.S.

“What we’ve really done is take a lot of the gut instinct some people have
and quantified it,” said Matt Swensson, the football league’s vice
president of emerging products and technology.

When the Baltimore Ravens faced the Miami Dolphins, for example, N.F.L.
analysts could annotate the video with the time Lamar Jackson took to get
a pass off (3.8 seconds), the precise distance of the throw (46.9 yards)
and the odds that Marquise Brown would catch it: 32 percent. (For the
record, he did catch it — for a touchdown.)

A.W.S., like its cloud competitors, is especially popular with tech
start-ups, which can pay as they grow, said Chris Sachse, founder of
Think|Stack, a Baltimore company that works closely with A.W.S. and
provides cybersecurity and infrastructure consulting.

Mr. Sachse, whose grandfather and father sold trucks for a living and who
serves on a state work force development board, said he saw tech jobs as a
potential path for Baltimoreans without higher education, because they
require expertise but not degrees.

“A college degree doesn’t help you with A.W.S., because it’s all
brand-new,” he said. “A lot of people think the death of industry has made
it impossible to have middle-class jobs. I think we have a path to those
middle-class jobs.”

Mr. Sachse said he has advised Baltimore start-ups gratis, including one
working to streamline philanthropy and another selling subscriptions to
products like razors. He often asks A.W.S. to provide free training and
other services, and they usually step up.

“I’m sure they see the capitalist return on it,” he said. “For them it’s —
the more people we train to use A.W.S., the more business we’ll have. If
these start-ups hit it big, so does A.W.S.”

The Giant and the ‘Little Guy’

Mike Subelsky, a Baltimore tech entrepreneur, once extolled A.W.S.’s
virtues at the trendy South by Southwest festival, talking about his email
start-up while dressed as “Mr. Spam.” A regular Amazon shopper, he said
Amazon had saved him more than once, recalling its speedy delivery of a
crucial Spanish-English dictionary for his middle-school daughter.

Yet these days, he’s ambivalent. He worries about Amazon’s invasive data
collection, the influence exercised by its algorithms, the heat generated
by its enormous computer centers and the exploitation of its workers.
“It’s a U.S. company that’s hyperdominant and rich and has incredible
market power, and they’re not in it for social good,” he said.

His mixed feelings echo those of many Americans about the emerging dark
side of digital life.

“For my generation, the internet was the equivalent of landing on the
moon. But the internet seems to have made some things so much worse,” he
said. “I’m not sure this is the world I want my kids to be growing up in.”

At Stebbins Anderson, the home products store dating to 1867, a
30-percent-off closing sale is underway. Mr. Knight, the owner, recalls
the beginning of his long battle with Amazon nearly 20 years ago, when
customers would ask for a six percent discount to match the online
retailer, which for many years collected no sales tax.

Amazon started imposing sales tax after building warehouses in Maryland.
By then, it was also receiving loans and tax credits from the state, while
drawing away more and more of Mr. Knight’s patrons, he said. Even his own
daughters, busy at their jobs, found online ordering irresistible.

“It would have been nice to get some of the benefits Amazon gets,” he
said. “But the little guy always ends up footing the bill.”

Across town, however, there’s an unexpected development in the area where
Amazon got its start: books. It decimated Borders and Barnes & Noble in
Baltimore. But that made room for a small, hardy band of independent
bookstores, led by the Ivy Bookshop, which opened a second bookstore-cafe
called Bird in Hand in 2016.

Like independents making a comeback around the country, the Ivy sells
books at full price, making its success all the more striking. Customers
will pay $30 for a book they might get with a click for $20 online, in
part because they don’t like the world they believe Amazon is building,
said Emma Snyder, the shop’s owner.

“There’s much more consciousness of supporting a bookstore and
specifically not using Amazon,” Ms. Snyder said. “Part of what people
don’t like is that Amazon debases the value of things. We’re commercial
spaces, but we fundamentally exist to feed and nurture people’s souls.”





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