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Amazon Pushes Back Positively on Labor Issues with Innovative New Education Initiative, Paying 95% of Tuition Costs for Employees

Jeff Bezos is no Joe Hill, and his company — along with Apple, Walmart and others — has come under increasingly frequent criticism from labor activists and progressives for being unfriendly to union organizing and, according to some, a tough place to work. Parsing such matters can be a delicate balance for progressives; as we wrote here in April:

While the company certainly has its detractors among competitors, some publishers, some authors, and progressives who decry the company’s labor practices, it is nonetheless an enormously popular company. So progressives like me might wring our hands over the conditions faced by Amazon’s warehouse workers, but at the end of the day Amazon has more progressive titles and more progressive customers than any other bookstore….

Other predictable consequences of Amazon’s dominance not only in the ebook sphere but beyond could create problems for the company if it does not make forward-looking changes in the way it does business. The company is seen by many as a tax-avoiding bogeyman that is destroying not only publishers and wholesalers but independent bookstores in particular and Main Street in general, and while there are major economic forces at work here that would probably lead to the same conclusion without Amazon at the head of march, Amazon has to realize that it should do everything possible to avoid being seen as the online version of Walmart. And while Amazon has escaped much of the kind of negative attention that has surrounded Apple and its FoxConn manufacturing plant in China, there is an emerging campaign among labor activists and progressive journalists to focus a spotlight on poor conditions in Amazon fulfillment centers. As with all of these concerns, there are real issues at play, and Amazon’s best moves would be substantive rather than media-driven.

Our point, of course, was that a company in Amazon’s position might well be too powerful for any among us to force it into what we might consider best labor practices, but Amazon — even if more out of a sense of realpolitik than noblesse oblige or progressive principles — would do best to play a positive, innovative leadership role both in addressing its tax responsibilities as a corporate citizen and in making every nook and cranny of its corporate empire (including any out-of-the-way spots where contract, 1099, or third-party employees might toil) “best in class” as places to work, to prosper, and to grow.

So we don’t want to congratulate a marathoner gratuitously for a strong first mile, but all in all, we see Amazon’s press release this afternoon as a promising step, and we will keep watching.

Amazon Launches Innovative New Education Initiative, Paying 95% of Tuition Costs for Employees to Pursue Their Aspirations – Whether at Amazon, or in Another Industry

SEATTLE–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Jul. 23, 2012– Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN) today announced the Amazon Career Choice Program, an innovative new program designed to expand the choices available to its employees in their future careers, whether at Amazon or in another industry. Many fulfillment center employees will choose to build their careers at Amazon. For others, a job at Amazon might be a step towards a career in another field. Amazon wants to make it easier for employees to make that choice and pursue their aspirations.

Jeff Bezos – Photo Credit: James Duncan Davidson

“At Amazon, we like to pioneer, we like to invent, and we’re not willing to do things the normal way if we can figure out a better way,” said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, in a letter posted on the front page of Amazon. “It can be difficult in this economy to have the flexibility and financial resources to teach yourself new skills. So, for people who’ve been with us as little as three years, we’re offering to pre-pay 95% of the cost of courses such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technologies, medical lab technologies, nursing, and many other fields.”

The program is unusual because unlike traditional tuition reimbursement programs, Amazon will exclusively fund education only in areas that are well-paying and in high demand according to sources like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the company will fund those areas regardless of whether those skills are relevant to a career at Amazon.

“I welcome Amazon’s innovative initiative, which offers a new and exciting way for corporate support of employee education,” said Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire. “I hope that other companies follow Amazon’s lead and I thank them for a creative new approach.”

The Amazon Career Choice Program builds on a series of innovations at Amazon’s fulfillment centers. Amazon’s high productivity allows the company to pay its fulfillment center employees 30% more than traditional physical retail store employees while still offering customers the lowest prices. Amazon’s work on safety practices has been so effective that it’s statistically safer to work in an Amazon fulfillment center than in a traditional department store.

Amazon’s bias for reinvention extends into recruiting programs across its fulfillment network. Amazon’s seasonal recruiting program CamperForce – where RVers combine work with camping – has been very successful and hundreds of campers return every year. Amazon’s military veteran recruiting program effectively helps vets transition into the civilian workforce. Amazon was recently named the #1 Top Military Friendly Employer by G.I. Jobs Magazine.

To learn more about the Amazon Career Choice Program, please visit www.amazon.com/careerchoice.

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