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.