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.