by Ryan Hill
December 24, 2011
As I write this, hundreds of thousands are ready to gift Amazon-bought items to friends and relatives for the holidays. While CEO Jeff Bezos had a part in creating this retail powerhouse, he’s no jolly, gift-bestowing Santa. To the workers who move millions of products through the Amazon logistics chain day and night, he’s more like the Krampus, pursuing and punishing the “bad children” who fail to meet insanely high production rates with write-ups and layoffs, often in that order.
The Krampus, a frightening figure of pre-Christian Germanic origin that happens to also bear striking resemblance to Jeff Bezos and other members of the 1%.
Behind their user-friendly website is a network of worker-unfriendly warehouses responsible for circulating the commodities (everything from lettuce to e-readers) that generate billions in profits for its executives and investors. In Amazon-speak, the warehouses are “fulfillment centers,” where the desires of its customers are fulfilled by a lean logistics chain that cuts costs at almost every turn. Earlier this year, journalists and advocates brought literal sweatshop conditions to light at several warehouses where the summer heat wave brought temperatures up to over 100 degrees. Even with workers falling from heat exhaustion, Amazon refused to do basic things, such as installing sufficient fans, tolerating slower production rates, or opening docking doors to improve airflow.
From that hot summer, we enter a cold winter, where the company has just laid off thousands of temporary workers after its peak season. Amazon keeps the majority of its workers in temporary status, technically employed by Integrity Staffing Solutions. As employees unload, stow, pick, sort, pack, and load (in that order) over the last week, managers moved from department to department explaining to workers that their production rate is below the desired level (rising every week) and that their assignment has come to an end. Some of them had been hoping to make the cut for conversion to Amazon employees, and left in a show of anger–most left silently, taken without notice, realizing that the pace and physical demands of the job weren’t for them anyway. At most facilities, the final wave of layoffs of hundreds at a time happened several days ago–in lieu of a severance package, $5 Amazon gift cards were offered.
I know this because I briefly worked at one of these fulfillment centers, enduring mandatory 60 hour shifts, monotonous tasks, constant surveillance, and seemingly daily performance reviews by a battery of Amazon and Integrity managers. The state of Tennessee and city of Chattanooga offered up a stew of tax incentives, free land, and other varieties of corporate welfare to entice Amazon to plant its next “fulfillment center” there and hire locals.
The fulfillment centers are typically huge and employ thousands during peak season.
While many blue collar jobs in manufacturing have been outsourced or roboticized, logistics jobs continue to grow in the US in response to a consumer market hungry for cheaper goods. Unlike these blue collar jobs of the past, there are no entrenched unions for companies to fear. As a result, the jobs offered (temporary or not) are no different than the majority of other low wage, no benefits positions offered to workers in any other sector. They don’t raise standards and don’t offer any mobility for advancement.
I was a picker, speed-walking from bin to bin, scanning items to send down the conveyor belt to sort, like some bizarro supermarket sweep that never seemed to end and only resulted in $5 Subway gift cards for top rates. As the promise of Subway gift cards implies, we were all treated like children. Managers sent messages on our scanners addressed to “kids,” no matter that a quarter of the department was old enough to have grandchildren. However young many workers were when they entered the warehouse, they left with adult problems–back aches, leg and foot pain, and other marks of repetitive stress and long shifts spent on concrete floors.
Most of the co-workers I talked to incurred several “points” for missing shifts due to these aches and pains. Many of us were also charged points for being a minute late to work, or back from lunch, even if it was just due to long lines at the time clock or security screening (imagine if you had to go through the TSA line for every break–that’s what it felt like, sometimes!). It’s quite easy to rack up enough points to result in termination, and by design–this way, Amazon generates a high turnover rate so that workers can be perpetually denied benefits, conversion from temporary status, and any sense of job security. A fellow picker summed it up in one sentence: “It’s like we’re all disposable.”
Of course, Amazon is no exception. Almost all of these characteristics could be seen in warehouses across the country, as Dave Jamieson reports in his excellent article, “The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty and The American Warehouse.” Warehouse Workers for Justice, a United Electrical Workers (UE) organizing project in Chicago, has also contributed detailed reports about the industry in Will County, Illinois, the top logistics location in the US. Though the Teamsters union has typically organized workers in related sectors such as parcel and freight, there have yet to be significant inroads on warehouse organizing. Union density in both transportation and warehousing has declined from about 26% in 2000 to just over 20% in 2011, with only a small portion of that total percentage in warehousing.
What would it take for workers to gain some footing in this sector? The specific conditions of warehouse work (temporary status, ease of electronic surveillance, high turnover, de-skilled jobs, etc.), combined with the overall economic conditions of low wages and high unemployment, present serious challenges to unions. Since unions generally have a shrinking dues base, organizing projects like these appear to be a risky investment. Workplaces with more stability–a rapidly shrinking target–attract the attention of staff organizers and researchers instead. To many folks who want (and need) bigger and bolder unions, this is a losing strategy–but to the more pragmatic forces within the movement, it’s going wherever growth is possible in a rapidly changing economy that favors capital more and more. Some of these same “pragmatic” voices also view contributions to the Democratic Party as a safe investment though, so go figure…
Perhaps this is why much of labor’s political momentum in recent months has come from “outside,” thanks to the Occupy movement. It’s allowed for the development of some shared space–independent of the Democratic Party and electoral campaigns–between students, unions members and staff, community organizations, and the many thousands of unorganized workers and unemployed who lack an organic connection to organized labor. It’s my wish that this shared space, political momentum, and the discourse of “the 99% vs. the 1%” will translate into prioritizing bolder organizing projects in sectors like warehousing. Not only do warehouse workers desperately need it, but so does labor if it hopes to remain relevant.
Photo: David Shankbone
The recent use of the port shut-down tactic on the West Coast (though not without its own challenges) also brings to mind the potential leverage of logistics workers, who operate critical “choke points” in a circulation network that is stretched as thin as it can be in order to maximize profit.
Every peak season night at the Chattanooga warehouse, workers pushed through nearly 250,000 items to customers expecting speedy delivery and managers marked every single minute of lost production from time spent in longer breaks than allowed. If just one shift in one warehouse was lost, it would mean hundreds of thousands of customer complaints and an overflow of goods in facilities that rely on “cross-docking” to make room for future shipments. Dave Jamieson quotes an organizer with UE who knows the score:
“Despite the fact that these workers are paid poverty-level wages, we estimate that about a trillion dollars comes through Chicago on an annual basis…That’s about $6 million per warehouse worker. Each worker is responsible for moving $6 million worth of goods through that supply chain. These are the workers who, collectively, if they don’t show up for a day, these companies would stand to lose a lot of money…That’s something these companies need to pay attention to.”
To phrase it in a seasonally appropriate manner, all I want for Christmas is a revival of labor’s militant spirit in 2012. (I suppose a job with living wages and health care would be nice, too.) I’m not posting my wish list on Amazon.com, though–I’m sending it to all you out there who can make it happen!
Haymarket really does release the best titles…
The situation has never in my short lifetime looked better to go “all in” to confront inequality and the decline of workers’ political power. It certainly seems like mass-based militancy anywhere could expand the opportunities for new projects everywhere, so wherever you are, let’s get to work!
Ryan, a member of the Solidarity Webzine editorial group, lives in Northwest Georgia and recently added another position to the long list of crappy jobs he has briefly held since he was 16. He was mostly nice in 2011.