By: Steve N.
Palm my disheveled hair. A meager attempt to gain some semblance of professionalism. I’m fifteen minutes early, I’m sure this will impress. A woman greets me as I enter the temp agency’s office. A melancholic, “Hi, did you apply online?” A meager attempt at human formalities, all enthusiasm snuffed out. I notice vinyl decals pasted on the floor. Footprints ominously guiding the applicant through various computer kiosks in order to attain employment. To my right, rows of chairs, ‘no cell phone’ signs and a big TV looping a video touting the virtues of the Amazon workplace. To my left, bright colored footprints leading the hapless victim around the perimeter of the building. “Yes”, I cheerfully replied, handing her my identification, “I did the application online. Should I wait over there?” “No,” with the same melancholia, “you have to follow the footsteps.” Confused, I repeated, “oh, I filled everything out already.” “You have to follow the footsteps.” I complied.
Alone in the seating area, completely in the dark about how any of this worked, I watched the indoctrination video multiple times. Applicants were told of the worker-centric *Fulfillment Centers* — Amazon jargon for their abhorrent warehouses. I don’t recall many details from the film, a general expression of, “By golly, we work hard but we have fun and we love each other!” It was at pains to express how diverse and accepting the work environment is. Being sure to check all the boxes of inclusivity, a gay person was interviewed. Clearly this is a job meant for everyone! I wondered how much they were compensated for their likeness and societal struggle to be viewed countless times. Just another robbed soul.
Forty-five minutes pass and I’m led into one of the cubicles filling the center of the office. More robotic than depressed, I’m asked if I watched the orientation video (how could I miss it?) and told, “Amazon is not currently hiring.” Baffled as to why I was scheduled for an interview I ask when they will be. I’m told, “Maybe in a few weeks, maybe during the holiday rush.” After some paperwork and more robotic questions, I head home, hoping to come up with some money before rent is due. I’m at a loss to articulate how demoralizing and truly bizarre this experience was. In my naivety I believed the machine-like treatment that *Integrity Staffing*—Amazon’s temporary employment agency—shows towards applicants was a fluke unique to them. I was wrong.
A couple weeks pass and my orientation training arrives. We’re informed of the humble beginnings of Amazon, it started in a garage but, shucks, look at it now! Our initiation into this capitalist cult of personality was sure to include a basic life lesson: if you hook-up with a coworker it might be awkward when the relationship goes sour. I was thankful for the wisdom. We’re eventually lead into the main building, gaining access through the hefty turnstiles with our *white badges* — a white identification card, the color signifying that the worker is a temporary employee. This badge has a bar code, your picture, your name and a sort of Amazon name…
To avoid confusion (or to further dehumanize the worker) one’s name is chopped and turned backwards. A few letters from your last name and a few from your first. Thus, Steven Newman became ‘newmaste’, coldly reminiscent of a Sanskrit word I can’t recall the meaning of, namaste. To me, the reassignment of names invokes images of cult-like conditioning. Less of drum circles and dread locks; more of a slow-burn Jonestown Massacre. And much like the tragedy at Jonestown, the ongoing horrors of Amazon’s warehouses are closely kept from the public eye — and from the workers.
Inside these dungeons of commerce colored safety vests show the worker who’s-who in the pecking order. Green are the common workers, dark-green are safety personnel, blue are *ambassadors* (training personnel), blue and green are assistant managers, red are managers, and purple vests work in Human Resources. This color coded hierarchy may differ in other warehouses, but this is what I remember from *PHX 7* — the designation for the warehouse I worked in.
Our group of trainees were taught to operate a piece of machinery called an ‘Order Picker’. A nine-thousand pound contraption that lifts the occupant forty feet in the air to retrieve cheesy poofs and squaty potties for Amazon’s demanding clientele. If it seems dangerous to have swathes of hardly trained and underpaid workers driving easily lethal machines for ten hour shifts, then we’re on the same page. We were ‘pickers’. A customer clicks the buy button on the website and Amazon’s computers send the command to workers’ hand held scanners for them to ‘pick’ the item from giant storage racks. Every pick is timed in order to increase efficiency and inevitably the danger of the job.
We were part of the *PIT Crew*, the group of workers who operate moving machinery or ‘Powered Industrial Trucks’. During our training we were assured that safety protocol was top priority. We wear harnesses to keep us from falling several stories. The Order Picker will not fall over when raised forty feet in the air. No one is allowed to reverse the Order Picker in the storage aisles to avoid crushing workers who might not be visible. It all seemed logical, but as you might have guessed quotas take precedence over safety.
The chaos of all these machines and humans scurrying around a Fulfillment Center (FC) is truly indescribable. Something between Lord of the Flies and The Matrix. One night I came strangely face to face with the Algorithmic Overlord while picking in a *VNA* (Very Narrow Aisles have only a few inches of clearance on either side of the Order Picker from the storage racks so the machines steering is switched off and guided electro-magnetically). We’re told when an item falls in a VNA, don’t reverse, don’t push it with the Order Picker, honk the horn in a specific manner until a safety supervisor removes the item from your path. I was one of the dum dums who actually believed this shit. Waiting there honking like a doofus, a woman in the adjacent VNA peeks through the steel cage separating the aisles and asks, “Are you new here?” And broke my naivety with, “No one is coming to help you.” It was an epiphany. A terrifying epiphany. Isolated on machines, separated by cages, guided magnetically, controlled by super-computers, and judged by inscrutable algorithms. The machine-controlled dystopias of Sci-Fi are not some distant reality, they exist right now. I’m completely serious, if you’ve ever worked at Amazon you know precisely what I mean.
I’m sure the tension this cut-throat environment generates is immediately apparent to everyone who has worked there as well. Fighting to maintain your ‘pick’ quota while others are doing the same. Workers ‘stowing’ (stocking) items trying to keep up with The Computer and being inherently at odds with ‘pickers’ and vice versa. Workers building needless animosity so some buffoon can get their cheesy poofs in less then a day. This is not unique to Amazon. However, these warehouses are cesspools of everything wrong with neo-liberal capitalism: the thin veneer of comfort, progress, acceptance, and freedom barely masking the inhumanity of borderline (or literal) forced labor. Those potato chips taste a whole lot better if I forget the palm oil they’re fried with is produced through chattel slavery. This is the essence of Amazon.
After a measly two months of working there I recognized hardly any faces moving about the FC. I asked a long-time PIT Crew worker “Is this place just a revolving door, I don’t recognize anybody?!” He explained, “Yeah, about seventy-five percent are a revolving door, about twenty-five percent of us stick around.” He had only been there for two years. Of course, this three-quarters is almost certainly temporarily employed by Integrity Staffing, which conveniently hides how few people are willing to navigate the algorithm and be debased by Amazon as full fledged employees. Work somewhere, talk to those workers, or look at the turnover rate if you want to know how dehumanizing a job is.
To buttress the brainwashing, twice every shift management held a pep rally they called *Stand Ups*. “We gotta show the day crew what we’re made of and do more than them!” “If you show up on *Prime Day* we’re gonna give one lucky person a few hundred dollars!” (a lie). “Please everyone remember your breaks are ten minutes, five minutes are for walking to and from the break room!” In every single Stand Up management had to mention how walking was a part of our break. Almost no one complied with this rule, we took our full fifteen minutes. This show of spontaneous solidarity was a light at the end of the tunnel for me, an absolute refusal to fully comply with The Machine.
If a worker is injured in the FC the Stand Up turns into a *Safety Stand Down*. A sparse explanation of how the injury occurred is given and little or no advice on how to prevent it in the future. Safety, safety, safety! Just repeat it like a mantra until you forget to think about the underlying causes leading to workers being hurt. If the roof is leaking and a dock worker slips and breaks their arm —which happened when I worked there — don’t think about how they would have been punished for slowing down to mitigate the danger. Safety is top priority, just endlessly repeat the word safety and sweep reality under the rug.
One Safety Stand Down was particularly gut-wrenching. In a soft, soothing, up-speak voice a manager informed us, “So… this didn’t happen in our building but it happened in a Phoenix warehouse… I don’t know what happened… A person got a finger or hand or maybe an arm between a machine and something else… But, it was bad enough that we have to tell everyone about it…” In other words a worker got their arm crushed off by a forklift or Order Picker or some kind of ‘Powered Industrial Truck’. Absolutely no guidance for preventing this type of gruesome injury was given to us. We were left completely in the dark. With sociopathic cadence, he completed the Stand Down, “Wow… This is really depressing… What did you all do this weekend? Anything fun?” This cold, nonchalant transition from talking about a worker being maimed to casual chit chat is seared into my memory. It’s something I will remember the rest of my days.
Obviously, the best way to mitigate severe injuries or death is to have highly trained, well paid workers with plenty of off-time and vacation in order to have the capacity to maintain focus. Ten hour shifts are too long in such a catastrophically dangerous environment. Efforts to make the FCs safer must be rewarded by Amazon, not reprimanded according to production rates and the inscrutable algorithm. Religious observance to “efficiency” and shareholder’s investments are a recipe for disaster. These are common sense observations that don’t quite attack the root of the problem. In the IWW we would prefer the treatment of human beings as human-machines to cease in it’s entirety. Full stop.
“How is this place not unionized?”, I remember thinking to myself one night. We were worked to the bone; I lost twenty-five pounds over four months. I had already spent many years doing manual labor and yet Amazon got me feeling the onset of a hernia in my lower abdomen. The non-ergonomic controls on the Order Picker and fast paced repetitive actions had my wrists and joints in too much pain to do scarcely anything in my free time. Perhaps I’m just weak, or maybe that’s exactly what bosses want workers to think.
I grew up in a poor family so my interactions with my coworkers resonated with me and solidified my ire for Amazon. Single mothers trying to stop their households from becoming homeless. Former felons trying to be accepted by society. Emigres doing their best to flourish in a new world. Hardworking folks hoping for a stable, well-paying career. Young adults optimistic about the future, not fully realizing the economic trap they’ve been born into. Thinking, dreaming, loving, creative human beings all reduced into profit-generating robots. All reduced into expendable servants for a small handful of wealthy psychopaths. Fulfillment Centers are a bleak reality of modern “progress”.
Don’t get me wrong, there was spontaneous resistance in our Amazon warehouse. The obstinate refusal to take short breaks. Workers knowing when to slow down production to avoid raising the quota. Workers making jokes out of company demands or otherwise building camaraderie from unreasonable requirements. Workers conveying their grievances to one another and reciprocating understanding. The foundation and desire of workers to throw off the shackles is amply present.
I didn’t last very long at Amazon, just a few months. I’m amazed when I meet someone that’s been there for years and years. The potential of writing stuff like this to help workers understand the madness behind the monster is the only thing that kept me around for more than a week. Well, that and desperation for money. A few years after I quit Amazon I joined The Industrial Workers of the World and I only wish I had joined sooner. Seeing the growing resistance to this behemoth has been empowering to say the least. We The Workers can organize our way out of the cruelty and subjugation of the capitalist cult. This is our world!
To be continued…