In his speech yesterday at the Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn., President Obama proposed a "grand bargain" with Congressional Republicans, involving a cut in corporate tax rates in exchange for more spending on programs for "middle class jobs," as he put it. The proposal was greeted coolly by Republicans.
In his his speech (via the Chattanooga Times Free Press), the president made several references to the warehouse. At the beginning, he commented, "I just finished getting a tour of just one little corner of this massive facility--size of 28 football fields. Last year, during the busiest day of the Christmas rush, customers around the world ordered more than 300 items from Amazon every second, and a lot of those traveled through this building. So this is kind of like the North Pole of the south right here. Got a bunch of good-looking elves here."
Later, he said, "I'm calling on our businesses to do more for their workers. Amazon is a great example of what's possible. What you're doing here at Amazon with your Career Choice Program pays 95% of the tuition for employees who want to earn skills in fields with high demand--not just, by the way, jobs here at Amazon, but jobs anywhere--computer-aided design or nursing. I talked to [Amazon founder and CEO] Jeff Bezos yesterday, and he was so proud of the fact that he wants to see every employee at Amazon continually upgrade their skills and improve. And if they've got a dream they want to pursue, Amazon wants to help them pursue it. That's the kind of approach that we need from America's businesses."
The paper noted added that "when the president talked about raising the minimum wage, that drew claps and cheers from many in the crowd. 'When folks have more money in their pockets, that's good business for Amazon.' "
The crowd in the warehouse numbered at least 2,000 and included invited guests and politicians. Amazon employees were each allowed to bring one person. In a timeline of the presidential visit to Chattanooga, the Times Free Press noted that while waiting for the president's arrival, "employees are warned not to talk to the media. Spokespeople for Amazon rove about keeping an eye on the press."
The president's "grand bargain" proposal received the most general press coverage, but in its article about the president's speech, the New York Times noted that "the White House came under fire because many Amazon jobs pay only $11 an hour, and the pace of the work at these warehouses has been described as exhausting."
The Times concluded the story: "Mr. Obama's appearance here also raised the hackles of independent booksellers, who blame Amazon, with its deep discounting and massive selection, for putting bookstores out of business.
" 'We are disheartened to see Amazon touted as a 'jobs creator' and its warehouse facility used as a backdrop for an important jobs speech, when, frankly, the exact opposite is true,' the American Booksellers Association said in a letter to Mr. Obama."
More regional booksellers associations sent letters about the visit to the White House yesterday. The board of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association wrote in part, "The day may come when you will not have the pleasure of shopping at our stores, such as Politics & Prose, Kramer Books or One More Page. We would hope that your administration would be standing with Main Street, and investigating the monopolistic practices of Amazon, rather than either explicitly or tacitly endorsing those practices."
The Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association said, in part, "Your high profile personal support of locally owned bookstores always warms booksellers' hearts. But your appearance at the Amazon facility in Chattanooga shows us that we on Main Street aren't as important to your plan as a company that flouts the law and creates low-wage and low-benefits jobs."
And the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association wrote: "Today you scolded corporations who have 'fancy accountants' who stash money away overseas to avoid paying taxes. 'That's not fair,' you said, while the very company you visited does a sophisticated dance to avoid paying sales tax.... Amazon's sales model is a direct threat to the health of literature, boldly sacrificing books as loss leaders alongside, to use your words, 'dog food, Kindles, and beard trimmers.' As we speak, Amazon is brazenly undercutting the book industry by offering 60% discounts on new hardcover titles--essentially eliminating the opportunity for an independent bookseller to make that sale. If independent bookstores absorb this hit, who will sell your books, and where will you purchase books for your daughters?"