The Times story spurred predictable, justified outrage. No company should be treating workers as disposable, to be trashed as soon as sickness or family obligations impede their ability to be on call 24/7. But a curious backlash to the backlash also developed. On Twitter, some tycoons took the Amazon news with a laid-back, “boys will be boys” complacency. Even journalists dismissed the complaints as white-collar whining. Ezra Klein, the editor in chief of Vox, urged readers to reserve their sympathy for blue-collar workers, such as the fulfillment-center employees baking in a Pennsylvania warehouse (until bad press shamed Amazon into buying air conditioners for the facility). White-collar workers can always leave, Klein assured us—the greener pastures of Google await.
It would be nice to believe America’s already attained the nirvana of white-collar labor-market flexibility that Klein assumes. But in truth, employers do a lot to limit workers’ options. As Orly Lobel, a professor of employment law at the University of San Diego, has shown, non-compete clauses may prevent a manager from joining a rival firm—or even any similar firms in the industry—for a period of months or years after they depart. Comprehensive non-disclosure agreements also diminish mobility: It may be hard to propose projects at a new employer knowing that they could trigger litigation alleging that they’re imitating past work.
The logic of the “save your tears for the blue-collar workers, who are really suffering” argument fails in other ways, too. Imagine the Times had published an expose of Amazon warehouse conditions instead. The merciless logic of relative victimization would downplay the suffering: “They have it lucky! Bangladeshi textile workers make dollars a day.” Comparisons like that may be a useful exercise for a philanthropy deciding whether to apportion a fixed set of dollars to abused managers and workers in more- and less-developed countries, but the court of public opinion shouldn’t be treated as if it operates on such zero-sum terms. If anything, sympathy for abused white-collar workers probably increases sensitivity to the plight of the precariat.
Moreover, when employees at the top are worked into the ground, cutthroat labor standards can trickle down. There is a direct connection between the way managers are treated, how they treat their direct reports, and how those reports treat other workers. Amazon is likely no exception. Jeff Bezos’s obsession with metrics—numerical targets to be maximized, whatever the costs—reflected his formative experiences at D.E. Shaw, a Wall Street finance firm. As Karen Ho observed in her penetrating study Liquidated, the volatile, abusive work environment of Wall Street bankers directly informs the way they look at the rest of the economy: If suddenly losing one’s job was a constant risk for them, as Ivy League graduates, how could a blue-collar worker ask for more? It’s a short-sighted and often cruel attitude, but it’s understandable: In a white-collar work environment where everyone is viciously competing to stay ahead, squeezing lower-level managers (and expecting them, in turn, to squeeze their subordinates) is to be expected.