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When I first did research on Walmart’s workplace practices in the early 2000s, I came away convinced that Walmart was the most egregiously ruthless corporation in America.However, ten years later, there is a strong challenger for this dubious distinction—Amazon Corporation.Within the corporate world, Amazon now ranks with Apple as among the United States’ most esteemed businesses.
Amazon is now a leading global seller not only of books but also of music and movie DVDs, video games, gift cards, cell phones, and magazine subscriptions.
Like Walmart itself, Amazon combines state-of-the-art CBSs with human resource practices reminiscent of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”—gigantic warehouses where goods ordered by Amazon’s online customers are sent by manufacturers and wholesalers, there to be shelved, packaged, and sent out again to the Amazon customer.
Amazon’s shop-floor processes are an extreme variant of Taylorism that Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, a near century after his death, would have no trouble recognizing.
With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.
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Amazon is also a truly global corporation in a way that Walmart has never been, and this globalism provides insights into how Amazon responds to workplaces beyond the United States that can follow different rules.
In the past three years, the harsh side of Amazon has come to light in the United Kingdom and Germany as well as the United States, and Amazon’s contrasting conduct in America and Britain, on one side, and in Germany, on the other, reveals how the political economy of Germany is employee friendly in a way that those of the other two countries no longer are.
Amazon, like General Electric and Walmart, prides itself as a self-consciously ideological corporation, with Jeff Bezos and his senior executives proclaiming an “Amazon Way” that can illuminate the path forward for less innovative businesses.
In December 2009 Mark Onetto, chief of operations and customer relations at Amazon and a close collaborator of Bezos, gave an hourlong lecture on the Amazon Way to master’s of business administration students at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
Onetto is a disconcerting figure, because once he starts talking, style and substance are in sharp contrast.