President Obama's visit to Amazon's giant distribution center in
Chattanooga, Tenn., this past week provided just the sort of "optics," as
politicians like to say, that the White House loves: the president surrounded by
cheering workers at a brand-name corporate titan.
It would seem the perfect setting for the president to lay out a plan to cut corporate tax rates in exchange for a commitment from Republicans to back programs to create middle-class jobs.
Obama even arrived a day after Amazon announced plans to add 5,000 more workers at 17 fulfillment centers to pack and ship orders, and another 2,000 employees at call centers in several sites, including Kennewick.
To some Amazon critics, though, the visit was something of an optical illusion. Amazon came under fire a year ago over harsh working conditions and slim benefits at its warehouses. What's more, many of the new jobs Amazon is offering at fulfillment centers pay $11 an hour or so, hardly the type of middle-class jobs Obama is hoping to create.
Not surprisingly, the American Booksellers Association, an independent booksellers group and longtime foe of Amazon, pounced, criticizing Obama for the visit. In a letter to the president posted on its website, the group blasted the Chattanooga visit to highlight Amazon's job creating as "greatly misguided."
In addition to the workplace concerns, the group complained about Amazon's practice of underpricing rivals to gain market share, undermining small booksellers that can't afford to sell books below their cost. That has put many of them out of business, eliminating jobs in the process, the booksellers argued.
"The simple fact is that Amazon's practices are detrimental to the nation's economy," the group wrote.
Amazon did not reply to a request for comment about the group's concerns.
So why did the White House choose the Amazon warehouse for the president's jobs speech?
It's likely not because of Amazon's political largesse, or that of its chief executive, Jeff Bezos. While Amazon employees gave $117,221 to Obama's presidential campaign last year, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, neither Amazon's political-action committee nor Bezos appears to have contributed to his re-election effort.
In a briefing with reporters Monday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked why the president was heading to Chattanooga, where Amazon employs 1,800 workers.
"That's the kind of investment that we're starting to see more of -- that if we can put in place policies that will encourage companies to invest in America to bring back jobs from overseas, that if we can invest in the kind of infrastructure that's required to allow companies to get products to market more quickly or to their customers more quickly, that's certainly something that we want to encourage," Earnest said.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on Amazon's employment track record. And neither she nor Amazon would comment on whether Amazon invited the president to visit its fulfillment center or if the White House approached Amazon to see if the president would be welcome.
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