$15 an Hour

Last month, in response to political , pressure led by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and California Congressman Ro Khanna, Amazon decided to raise the hourly wage of all its warehouse employees, including temporary or “seasonal” associates, to $15 an hour. A debate began almost immediately. Even though Amazon now pays all of its workers the same minimum wage demanded by hard fought grassroots campaigns in places like Seattle, and bitterly opposed by the usual suspects on the libertarian right, the media quickly found people inside the company who were less than pleased by the salary increase. Supposedly in order to save money for the higher hourly wage, Amazon was cutting “performance bonuses” and stock options. Veteran employees resented the idea that they would be paid the same hourly rate as temps. Amazon now expected its warehouse employees to increase their productivity by 50 percent.

I started work at Amazon as a scanner over the summer, and almost immediately after being hired there was a change in how employees were expected to do our jobs. When I started, the scan rate was 120 boxes an hour, but after a few weeks a new rate of 180 boxes an hour was introduced – a 50 percent increase.

Much of the criticism is, of course, nonsense.

Amazon has not increased its scan rate quota 50% from 120 boxes an hour to 180 boxes an hour. As along as I’ve worked at Amazon, the required scan rate has always been 180 boxes an hour in “pallet land” and 270 boxes and hour in “autosort,” two sections of an Amazon sortation center it’s not particularly important to be familiar with, and nothing has changed as a result of the pay raise. Not only would 120 boxes an hour be absurdly easy – you could literally do it in 15 minutes and slack off for the next 45 – to claim that until last month it was all Amazon demanded of its warehouse employees would be to give Jeff Bezos credit he doesn’t deserve. I was actually “written up” – given a warning – for doing 160 boxes an hour long before they raised my pay to 15 dollars an hour. What’s more, scan rates at Amazon are arbitrarily enforced, and largely depend on your relationship with your immediate supervisor. If he likes you and doesn’t try to bully you into doing the larger, heavier boxes, you can spend all day scanning envelopes and do well over 300 an hour. If he doesn’t, he’ll put you on “noncons” (boxes too big to go on the conveyor belt) and you’ll barely break 50. Whether or not you get fired largely depends on how many people they want to fire anyway.

As far as stock options and performance bonuses go, well that’s more difficult to answer. I’ve never seen the kind of “performance bonuses” described in the Seattle Times article and would probably find them more of a nightmare than a benefit. “Pay by rate” is a tried and tested way to cut pay. Why a journalist at the progressive and otherwise excellent website Truthdig is lamenting their absence is a mystery to me. I do get some kind of packet a few times a year from a company called “Vanguard” urging me to sign up for some kid of stock option program. Whether or not that envelope, which I usually just throw away without opening, stops coming is of little importance. The idea that casual warehouse workers with a schedule of 18-25 hours per week value care more about some sort of 401k program that might yield a few pennies than an extra 75-100 dollars a month in their paychecks just seems to point to the overwhelmingly upper-middle-class origins of newspaper reporters. They grew up listening to their parents talking about stock portfolios. They think we all have them.

So two cheers for Bernie Sanders and Ro Khanna. If I’m not particularly excited about the pay raise, it’s mostly because Amazon had already raised hourly rates to 14.50 an hour (for permanent employees) and 13.50 an hour (for seasonal associates). That extra 50 cents, which they can, as the media has pointed out, make up for by cuts in other areas, bought Jeff Bezos a nice round of good publicity, and cut Bernie’s legs right out from under him. You want 15 dollars an hour, you got it. The real issue is not so much that Amazon is particularly horrible compared to similar companies like UPS, or even an extra dollar or two an hour, it’s the neoliberal economy, of which Amazon is a perfect example, itself. Even 20 dollars an hour wouldn’t be a “living wage” in the constantly shifting, and usually part time, schedule of an Amazon warehouse employee. It probably would be if you worked 40 hours a week and had full benefits, but quite frankly the idea of scanning boxes or throwing packages on a conveyor belt 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year with a week or two off, horrifies me.

Amazon’s warehouse jobs are by their very nature short-term, unstable, fast paced, dead end, excruciatingly dull, and increasingly ubiquitous. They make a lot of money for a few people at the top of the economy. They benefit people like me, who actually want to be short term, interchangeable employees. Amazon lets me stuff most of my work hours into the weekend, which allows me to be a full time student. But in the long run they are disastrous for American society. Amazon warehouse jobs are fast, brutal, short term positions that few, if any, people hold onto for more than a year or two, if that. Sanders and Khanna did exactly what liberal Democratic politicians should do, used the power of government to discipline a big corporation, but it’s simply not enough. Amazon is capitalism perfected, and the only way to save the economy from companies like Amazon is to end capitalism.

A Union at Amazon?

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An Amazon warehouse is a state of the art union busting operation. Between the short, unstable shifts, the heavy reliance on temporary workers, the incessant micromanagement, the never ending evaluations, and the oppressive security culture , nothing seems quite so unlikely that me or my coworkers could show the discipline and solidarity necessary even to get to the point where we can apply to join the United Food and Commercial Workers or the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Nevertheless, according to the website Gizmodo, the management in Seattle seems to be worried. In a 45-minute-training video distributed to “Team Leaders” at the grocery store chain Whole Foods, recently purchased by Amazon, managers are taught how to recognize the signs of an union drive and given pointers on what they can and can’t do to help break it up.

“The training video then asks managers to listen to 10 hypothetical employees and select whether their remarks constitute a “warning sign” or “innocent interaction.” Workers loitering in the break room after their shift, asking for a list of the site’s roster, or complaining about the absence of a living wage fall into the “warning sign” category…..Throughout, managers are encouraged to express opinions against unions to their workers, and any of signs of potential organization are supposed to be escalated to human resources and general managers immediately.”

https://gizmodo.com/amazons-aggressive-anti-union-tactics-revealed-in-leake-1829305201

Even if I did have the time or energy, I would have no idea how to organize a union at Amazon. I am also well-aware of the tremendous political obstacles. Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, Jeff Bezos not only has powerful connections inside the Democratic Party, he owns the Washington Post. As a result, coverage in the mainstream media of a union drive at Amazon would probably make the coverage of Occupy Wall Street look positive by comparison. The professional organizers, legal advisors, labor journalists, and political activists it would take to guide me and my fellow Amazon Warehouse slaves from the hell of the casually employed precariat to the promised land of the middle class are probably just sitting this one out. At least I’ve never seen any of them. Nobody’s even handed me a pamphlet.

That Amazon would be so difficult to unionize, that so much of its workforce is recruited from a marginal, otherwise unemployable segment of the population, is, I think, also an opportunity. The main reason why organized labor in the United States has suffered such a precipitous decline is obviously political oppression. From the Taft Hartley Act to Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the air traffic controllers union, to Barack Obama’s refusal to honor his campaign promise to institute “card check,” the American ruling class has demonstrated that it will stop at nothing to prevent what happened in the 1930s from ever happening again. But political oppression is not the only reason Americans don’t join unions. If we really wanted them badly enough, we could get them. The problem is that ever since Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare in the 1950s, unions have become so conservative they barely seem worth joining. In 2016, SEIU almost tripped over itself in its rush to endorse Hillary Clinton over the far more worker friendly Bernie Sanders. Temporary warehouse workers at the fully unionized UPS actually make less money per hour than temporary warehouse workers at Amazon. The people who run the AFL-CIO aren’t workers. They’re lawyers and bureaucrats, Democratic Party operatives a lot more comfortable at a fund raiser on Martha’s Vineyard than on a picket line.

If we, the under employed, under socialized and uneducated warehouse slaves at Amazon could organize a union from the bottom up, and without any help from the AFL-CIO, it would probably be the most important, and ultimately the most radical political event since the Russian Revolution.

Destroying Freight at Amazon

Even though I know that shipping at Amazon works the same way it does at FedEx, UPS, or the United States Postal Service, I would never buy a laptop from Amazon. I know how their workers treat the product. It’s not that I’m intentionally careless, or that I subconsciously take out my anger on the freight. Quite the contrary, as soon as I walk through security in the morning I’m as brainwashed as anybody else at Amazon, perhaps more. There are times when I’d probably be willing to take a bullet for a badly packed bag of cat litter. No responsible cat owner deserves to be punished just because an active shooter decides to target my dirty little corner of hell. But the pace at which we’re required to work makes it almost inevitable there will be extensive damage.

Being an able-bodied male, I’m rarely allowed to scan. Instead the PAs (Process Assistants, low level supervisors) usually send me back to “inbound,” were I spend the inside a tractor trailer breaking down 8-foot-high walls of boxes and throwing them on a conveyer belt. Physically it’s the most demanding job in the whole warehouse, especially in the Summer when the temperature inside the trailers is over 100 degrees and the “safety tip of the day” is almost always “make sure to hydrate.” Psychologically it’s one of the easiest, a kind of tradeoff. If you’re willing to do the hard, brutal job of unloading trucks in the Summer, you can avoid the inevitable political infighting out on the warehouse floor scanning.

Depending on how fast the (mostly women) on the warehouse floor are scanning, I can do two, maybe even three full size tractor trailers in a 5-hour shift. Think about how many packages that is. The typical tractor trailer is 53 long without the cab, and the boxes are almost always packed tightly all the way up to the ceiling. I’ve never tried to count but since we’re required to send at least 1800 an hour down the conveyor belts and I’m rarely spoken to about my “throw rate” my guess is I do about 10,000 a day. Handling packages with care is not a problem in one of the “fluid tracks,” where you work mostly with boxes that weigh under 5 pounds. It’s impossible in one of the “noncon” trucks, where each item can weigh anywhere between 25 and 50 pounds. Since one of Amazon’s “safety tips” is that you can’t work inside a truck that’s obstructed by large boxes, nor “noncons” (boxes too big to put on the conveyor belt) and since nobody at Amazon wants to lift anything over 10 pounds, I have to get them out of the trailer as quickly as possible. Often, I simply throw them through the air, big, cumbersome rugs, and 30-pound kitchen tables flying out of the back of the trailer and landing on the floor with a thud. When I can get them on the conveyor belt I’m never particularly careful how I handle them. I can’t be. If I tried, a Process Assistant would almost miraculously appear, assure me that I’m doing a great job, but also let me know that if I could work a little faster that would be great.

While we usually don’t get to see the product we’re handling — the boxes are mostly plain brown crates with a UPS or Amazon label slapped on the front — every once in a while, the fulfillment center just slaps a label on the manufacturers box. Paradoxically the least well protected items are almost always the most valuable, MacBooks, Lenovo ThinkPads, computer monitors, copying machines. On one particularly hot day this Summer (it was at least 110 degrees inside the sun baked trailer) I found myself slamming down big, heavy boxes onto the center of the belt, box after box, row after row, for close to a half hour. When I finally decided to pay attention, I realized I had just thrown about 500,000 dollars’ worth of 27 inch of Dell Ultra Sharp monitors down onto a conveyor belt, often dropping them right off the top of the 8-foot row. “Thump, rattle, thump, rattle, thump, rattle,” the belt said, “doesn’t it feel good just to slam something heavy on a hot summer’s day?”

Amazon of course has the money to pay for damaged freight. It’s figured into their business model. They’re not going to haggle over a 300-dollar computer monitor like some guy selling knockoffs on Canal Street.  But I wonder sometimes. A MacBook, a ThinkPad or a Nikon D700 that gets crushed between a 90-pound box of replacement disc brakes will be replaced, no questions asked. But what about the items that sustain minor, even unnoticeable damage, the laptop that never quite works right or the digital SLR with its shutter knocked slightly out of alignment? Working at Amazon sometimes feels as if I’m watching our cheap, disposable society get cheaper and more disposable in real time.

Take Two And Go But No

To read media coverage of Amazon’s labor conditions is to conclude that working in an Amazon sortation center is hell. Let’s cut to the chase. It is. It’s one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had –- and I spent one summer gutting fish on a factory trawler just outside of Dutch Harbor, Alaska – but it’s not exactly hell in exactly the same way the newspapers have described it.

Most people who work in the media are from the upper-middle-class. A journalist goes to a private, or a very good public high school, then onto one of the Ivies, and then into an unpaid internship in Washington or New York where his parents foot the bills for his living expenses. Very few people who get to write for Mother Jones or The Nation, let alone the New York Times or the Washington Post, have spent year after hopeless year laboring away at dead end jobs a few paychecks away from the streets, with no health care, no prospect for advancement, no chance of climbing into the middle-class, and really very little reason not to scam a few bottles of opiates and just make the inevitable as quick as possible. So the typical newspaper reporter attempts to translate what he experienced putting in a few weeks on Jeff Bezos’s payroll into language his friends, and the wider middle-class public, can understand. This means melodrama. Amazon warehouse slaves can’t even go to the bathroom. We have to piss in bottles.

I suppose it’s true somewhere but I’ve never seen it.

If you really want to understand what it’s like to be an Amazon warehouse slave, you need to read two books. The first is Charles Bukowski’s Post Office. The second you probably haven’t heard of, but it’s called The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Winslow Taylor (Google him). Whoever designed the system of labor management at Amazon probably wrote a PHD thesis on Taylors brief, little known, but crucial book on industrial organization. Everything Taylor recommends, treating them as interchangeable parts of a machine, the 15 minute breaks that are really ten minute breaks, and thus really no breaks at all, the incessant micromanagement, the never ending evaluations, usually by a junior level, and equally interchangeable and replaceable manager, stopwatch in hand, is key to running an Amazon sortation center. There’s nothing particularly new about it. It’s been around at least since Henry Ford’s assembly line, but Amazon has refined the system to perfection.

The problem is not that it doesn’t work, or even that it’s particularly sadistic. Taylor’s system, if implemented correctly, would actually make my job easier. The real problem at Amazon is that while they’ve built their system of labor management to run like a finely tuned Swiss watch, the parts they’ve made it with are people who are not only fallible human beings, but fallible human beings from the very lowest classes of society, people, like me, people who can’t write a resume, can’t get recommendations, can’t handle a job interview, and who can barely pass a psychological evaluation and a drug test. The lower level managers are, if anything, even worse human material than us temporary warehouse slaves since they’re chosen, not because they’re particularly efficient workers or particularly good at dealing with people, but mostly because they’re unimaginative drones good at following irrational guidelines, not only blindly but enthusiastically. Amazon is the most top heavy company I’ve ever seen. For every one hardworking temp desperately trying to meet his scan goal for the day, there are two or three lower level managers hanging around doing nothing. Jeff Bezos is the richest man in history but that has a lot more to do with the government tax breaks that allowed him to build his business on such an enormous scale than it does with efficiently run warehouses.

The take two and go principle is the most important, and widely repeated rule at Amazon. Every day starts with a military style “stand up” where 50 to 75 sortation associates are asked how they’re doing — you’d better say “great” – led through a series of largely useless stretches, given “safety tips,” told the “sortation goal of the day” (how many boxes we all have to do before the shift ends) and last but not least reminded that they should “take two and go.” What it essentially means is that while you’re scanning packages into the system, you turn off your mind and act instinctively. You don’t think about the boxes you pick off the conveyor belt. You grab the first two you see, scan them, then go back to the conveyor belt, and grab the next two you see. It would make perfect sense if the rule were actually enforced. The large, heavy boxes, the lighter boxes, and the large envelopes (or “jiffies) would be evenly distributed among the people on the shift. Scan rates would even themselves out. Anxiety levels would go down, and more freight would get processed quickly.

The problem is the “take two and go” rule is never enforced. In the Spring and around Christmas time, during “peak season” when there are plenty of temps, permanent workers who are friends with low level supervisors usually come to an arrangement with their bosses. Favored workers get to stand in place near the conveyor belt gathering envelopes (or “jiffies”) and small, easily handled boxes while the management runs around yelling at the temps to “do the big boxes do the big boxes do the big boxes.” The favored workers can then take them out to the floor and scan them in at their leisure. This allows a small core of favored, permanent sortation associates to achieve high scan rates, win prizes, and build up even more favor with the management, while temps fail to meet their goals and eventually get dismissed.

Eventually the temps get so sick of handling 90% of the workload, so they just start to slack off. They know they’re going to get fired anyway so why the fuck not? That means lower scan rates, longer shifts, and less profits for the company. The second is the number of fights it causes. During the off season, when there are no temps to bully into doing the heavy work, permanent workers run around yelling at one another. “Do the big boxes. Do the big boxes. Do the big boxes.” I’ve never seen a fist fight at Amazon but I’ve seen an entire conveyor belt jammed up and eventually stopped because everybody who should have been scanning was shouting at everybody else to “do the big boxes. Do the big boxes. Do the big boxes.” None of it would have happened had the supervisors just enforced the “take two and go” rule. At times, I’ve gotten so sick of the incessant arguing, I’ve just forgotten about my scan rates and spent the shift doing the heaviest boxes I could find, and building nice, neatly stack pallets for everybody else. As a reward, I’ve been issued two written warnings. But that’s what it’s like at Amazon, a shining, well-oiled, efficient virtual machine wrapped around a core of laziness, inefficiency, and absurdity.

Failing the Marshmallow Test

It’s a slow day at Amazon. At most jobs this would mean an easy day. At Amazon it means more stress. As an Amazon Sortation Associate, I’m expected to scan at least 180 boxes an hour. That’s difficult enough when the conveyor belts are overloaded with freight, but nearly impossible when everybody on the shift is competing for the same few packages.

It’s two hours into the shift and I’ve only done 200 items. Depending on the supervisor on duty, not meeting your “sort goal” can mean anything from absolutely nothing to a written warning and even termination, but whatever the management does, not meeting it also means going home with a sense of failure and anxiety. Will I get fired? Am I being lazy? Is there anything I could have done to have worked more efficiently? Will I make it tomorrow?

A middle aged man approaches me. I suppose he’s about my age, but for some reason he considers me a young, able bodied slacker who doesn’t want to pull his weight. “Why are you only doing the jiffies (envelopes),” he says. “Why don’t you do the big boxes?” He knows damn well why I’m competing for the smaller, high volume items. I want to meet my sort goal like everybody else, but he’s hoping I’ll take some of the heavy workload off of his back so he can meet his, so he picks a fight, hoping to bully me into giving him the advantage. I try to control my anger. I don’t want to get written up. Just then I’m saved.

“VTO, VTO, VTO,” the supervisors all start shouting in unity, “VTO, VTO, VTO.”

There is a famous psychological study called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. At the Bing Nursery School of Stanford University, a group of 32 children, 16 boys and 16 girls, are given a choice. According to Wikipedia “the children were led into a room, empty of distractions, where a treat of their choice Oreo cookie, marshmallow, or pretzel stick) was placed on a table. The children could eat the treat, the researchers said, but if they waited for fifteen minutes without giving in to the temptation, they would be rewarded with a second treat.” It was later found that the children willing to delay gratification and wait for the second treat were most successful in life, both at school, and later as adults when they entered the workforce.

VTO is Amazon putting what was learned in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment to practical use. Amazon will hire anybody who can pass the drug test. Their business model is all about throwing interchangeable bodies at their massive workload, squeezing every precarious worker out of all they can get, and then getting a new one. Often this means they have too many people on hand for the work they have to do for that shift. That means getting rid of a few people, not permanently but only for the day, a kind of micro, voluntary layoff. So they offer “VTO” or “Voluntary Time Off.” In other words, Amazon’s system of labor management divides us into people who want to eat one marshmallow now or do a few more hours of work and get another marshmallow, few more hours of pay, later. 

I choose not to take VTO. The reason I wound up as and Amazon Warehouse Slave in my 50s is that I failed the marshmallow test in my 20s and 30s. I studied the wrong subject in college. I failed to put aside money for the future. I didn’t establish myself on a career path. I didn’t get married or buy property. As far as my position in the world goes, I’m a 25-year-old millennial in the body of a middle-aged man.

I applied for the job at Amazon after a long stretch of unemployment because I had read an article in Mother Jones where Amazon had worked a 28-year-old man so hard he died of a heart attack. “Wow,” I thought, “if you can die there, they’ll probably even hire a completely loser like me. They won’t care about the gaps in my resume. They’ll just drug test me then work me to death.” But if anything is going to change, if I’m going to escape from the Amazon Warehouse, I have to pass the Marshmallow Test this time, work every shift to its completion, save money, live frugally, wait an extra 2 hours for that extra 30 bucks, and do it consistently.

2 hours later I go home. I’m exhausted, but since so many people took VTO, accepted the mini-layoff, I managed to make my “scan goal” for the day. The final tally? 925 items in five hours.