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Originally published August 3, 2013 at 8:09 PM | Page modified August 4, 2013 at 9:12 AM

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Obama’s ‘jobs visit’ to Amazon riles critics

A booksellers group was among those questioning why President Obama held up Amazon’s Chattanooga, Tenn., warehouse as an example of middle-class jobs.

Seattle Times business staff

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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.

— Jay Greene: 206-464-2231 or jgreene@seattletimes.com

Another business starts up in a garage

A Seattle startup hopes to do what moms across the country have tried to do for years: incentivize cleaning out the garage.

When it launches Aug. 22, StowThat will offer a way for people who need more storage space to find people who have extra room.

Founder Joe Mele says the service will be a cheaper alternative to commercial storage competitors, and could allow clients to rent space nearer to them, like a neighbor’s garage, than a storage facility.

Mele likens his company to the “Airbnb of self-storage,” referring to the online service that allows members to list everything from rooms to villas for short-term rental.

StowThat originated when Mele and his wife, who have a few rental homes, tried renting the garages out separately. They charged about $100 less a month than a storage facility, and interested renters flocked.

He figures the biggest challenge StowThat will face is supply, not demand. After all, who couldn’t use another room full of space for their stuff?

Most people don’t have an empty garage just sitting around, though.

Mele hopes the money they can make by renting the space is enough of an incentive to empty it and rent it out.

“If you rent your garage out for $150 a month,” he said, “a couple thousand dollars (over a year) is a meaningful income for a lot of people.”

StowThat finished first last month in a startup pitch competition called TechCrunch Seattle, winning tickets to TechCrunch’s September conference in San Diego, Calif. There, Mele and the company hope to gather investor interest and more publicity for the startup.

The company plans a “soft start” in the Puget Sound area to collect customer feedback, and will expand the service if it gains popularity.

— Colin Campbell: business@seattletimes.com

Comments? Rami Grunbaum: 206-464-8541 or rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com

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