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Obama appearance at Amazon warehouse angers booksellers

President Obama on the economy
President Obama, shown speaking last week in Galesburg, Ill., is scheduled to visit an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Tuesday.
(Tannen Maury / EPA)

President Obama, who faithfully shops at independent bookstores when given the chance, has angered the American Booksellers Assn. with a planned appearance Tuesday at an Amazon warehouse.

The appearance is “greatly misguided,” ABA Chief Executive Oren Teicher wrote in an open letter to the president. That’s because the online retailer has caused a net loss of jobs, the organization argues, while President Obama’s goal is to promote his plan for a stronger economy.

Obama’s tour is called “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class.”

Amazon has just announced that it will add 7,000 jobs -- 2,000 of those seasonal -- at its regional shipping and customer service centers. The company says its workers make 30% more than traditional retail staffers.

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Amazon news releases often make comparative references without sharing specific data. But it’s possible to get a sense of what it will pay its Chattanooga, Tenn., warehouse workers: about $11 per hour, according to the jobs website glassdoor.com.

That’s a bit more than the $8.25 an hour McDonald’s pays its workers -- a wage that even McDonald’s acknowledges needs to be supplemented with a second job to make ends meet, and those “ends” include rent of just $600 and no budget for heat -- but it’s hard to see how an annual salary of less than $23,000 a year is a better bargain for the middle class.

While it’s hard to get people to agree on exactly what a middle-class wage is, in 2011, CNN Money reported that the first decade of the 21st century was the first time in American history that middle-class wages declined: Adjusted for inflation, median household income dropped from $53,164 to $49,445.

A 2012 Pew Research study showed that, on average, Americans think it takes $70,000 for a family of four to be middle class.

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Publishers Weekly, the publishing industry trade magazine, quotes Obama deputy press secretary Amy Brundage on the appearance: “The Amazon facility in Chattanooga is a perfect example of the company that is investing in American workers and creating good, high-wage jobs,” she said Friday. “What the president wants to do is to highlight Amazon and the Chattanooga facility as an example of a company that is spurring job growth and keeping our country competitive.”

ABA’s Teicher protests that, writing, “At a time when Main Street retailers, including indie bookstores, show promise of recovering from the recession, 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.”

Citing the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Teicher writes, “Every $10 million in spending that shifts from Main Street retailers to Amazon results in a net loss of 33 retail jobs. That would mean for 2012 alone — using Amazon’s own numbers about its increase in sales — Amazon cost the U.S. economy more than 42,000 jobs just last year!”

Can President Obama be a friend to independent booksellers and Amazon at the same time? He’s been photographed at independent bookstores Prairie Lights in Iowa City and Bunch of Grapes in Martha’s Vineyard. The next time he shows up to shop for books, they may have some less-than-enthusiastic words for him.

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