August 8, 2019 9:27 AM   Subscribe

“Amazon has built a vast logistics empire by subjecting its workforce to extreme forms of technological discipline — designed to keep workers isolated, fearful, and maniacally productive. This piece sets out to surface the “weapons of the weak” wielded by workers to resist this regime. I talked to current and former Amazon employees, spoke with warehouse worker organizers, read exit interviews on Indeed and Glassdoor, and visited online forums where Amazon workers congregate to complain, commiserate, shoot the shit, and seek and offer advice. I learned a great deal about the regime of total surveillance and bodily control that Amazon has built to manage its growing logistics workforce. And I learned about the counter-strategies that workers deploy to resist the dehumanization, boredom, pain, and mental anguish that Amazon’s disciplinary apparatus exacts.” Surviving Amazon
posted by The Whelk (25 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
This line:
They use their scanners to find erroneously underpriced items and buy them in bulk.

Made me think of this recent post about all the severely underpriced cameras that Amazon sold. Perhaps it was deliberate after all?
posted by JDHarper at 9:38 AM on August 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

I grew up on movies like Clerks, Waiting, and Employee of the Month. Unlike restaurant work and office work, distribution work seems to be invisible in our popular culture.
posted by rebent at 10:11 AM on August 8, 2019 [10 favorites]

If you’re a picker, your scanner tells you the location of the product to be picked and begins counting down the time it should take you to get there. If it takes you longer than the allotted time, the clock starts counting up, recording the amount of time you’ll have to make up later to stay “above rate.”

I chose this bit as a representative example, but it all sounds like the type of hell Modern Times was satirizing almost 100 years ago.

To encourage competition, managers publicly post a ranking of employee productivity at the end of each day.

I used to work at a fast food restaurant that did something like this with coloured stars affixed to a chart. It was ostensibly a motivational tactic, because each star was worth a certain number of points and whoever got the most points at the end of the month was given $100 in cash ($50 for the part-timers), but I thought being evaluated in this manner was humiliating and not worth the effort you had to go to in order to win. And of course any time employees are being ranked against each other in this manner it's a threat.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:23 AM on August 8, 2019 [11 favorites]

I'm 29, and have been working since I was 16. 6 of the 13 years have been on phones - an area that is notorious for being micro managing. Every second of my day is accounted for. It's unnatural. It goes against the way that minds work, that bodies work. The work is constant.

Anyway, this past summer I took a course on sociology, an area that I was very casually familiar with, due in great part to places like metafilter. It was nice to learn the technical words for a lot of things that get discussed here and in my other areas of interest. Part of the final was just a free for all short answer that asked you to mention something that surprised you, and how you felt about it, etc. I kind of wish that sociology wasn't studied, in a way. Marketing, sales, distribution, there are a lot of sectors of capitalism that use sociological research to sort of "reverse engineer" the human experience, and I find it terrifying. When the article talks about how there are competitions in performance to create lateral hierarchy and make your coworker your enemy instead of your boss - all of that is on purpose. It's becoming more and more known that near every aspect of the world is created with intent, and created in a way that the intent is hidden.
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:24 AM on August 8, 2019 [63 favorites]

My wife and I are both out of work right now, and coincidentally we might have to move out in 3 months. My friends all told me: go work for Amazon for 3 weeks. At the end of that 3 weeks they apparently offer to buy you out, if you agree never to work for Amazon again, to the tune of $1600. Enough to cover a deposit and first month's rent on an apartment here. Apparently 3 of my friends got this offer after 3 weeks at the company. After the offer, they told me the job became increasingly more difficult and less rewarding.

It baffles me, the calculation the company is making there. I'm not sure why but learning about that unspoken policy gave me chills.

Anyway, I have various mental disabilities, cognitive differences and sensory sensitivities that will make this one of the shittiest 3 weeks of my life, but that is more money than I've had at one time in years, so I have to try. (If they'll even hire me.)

Sure wish I had anywhere near the strength of these folks. It sounds like a total nightmare.

Capitalism! *shakes tiny fist*
posted by captain afab at 11:00 AM on August 8, 2019 [16 favorites]

The purpose of this machinery is to accelerate the rate of exploitation — allowing for an unprecedented quantity of wealth to be expropriated by a single man.
To date, the only group of Amazon workers who have managed to collectively force a negotiation with management are those at the Shakopee, Minnesota fulfillment center outside Minneapolis. With the help of organizers from the Awood Center, a worker center funded by the Service Employees International Union, the predominantly Somali workforce has staged a series of protests against an ever-increasing pace of work which punishes devout Muslim employees for using break time to pray.


They’ve also benefited from preexisting cultural and communal ties which have provided fertile ground for building workplace solidarity. “One thing to know about our community — we talk a lot on the phone and chat over coffee,” Muse told the New York Times. “That makes organizing easier.” Most fundamentally, however, the workers have been successful because they’ve done large-scale actions together — actions that a pose a genuine threat to Amazon’s productivity goals, to the frictionless flow of goods, and therefore, to its bottom line.
There are varieties of Christian churches - the charismatic, methodist, and evangelical sorts of churches - which have flourished in many times and places where former agricultural workers are transitioning in large numbers to the lowest rungs of industrial and urban labour. Think about a time when large numbers of workers were making that transition in a nominally Christian country, from England in the 1700s and 1800s to places like Brazil and Nigeria now - and there's a pretty good chance you'll see lots of people packed into those churches.

This article is making me wonder whether the ability to organize at a place away from the surveillance of the employer is part of why this happens. The churches are not the sort of churches that the wealthy owners would go to or be welcome at. Maybe that happens for a reason, even if people don't think about it as a reason.

Maybe there aren't enough poor-people churches now, but there are enough poor-people mosques.
posted by clawsoon at 11:13 AM on August 8, 2019 [11 favorites]

Great read, I always love me some James Scott. I know a professor with a great story from Indonesian peasants being "encouraged" by dev agencies to plant palm trees instead of food crops just pretending they knew nothing and planting them upside down till the agency gave up.

But overall sobering and miserable, so heavily tracked. Everyone I know in retail abides by the simple rule of "rack as much as you want, just leave us out of it", but that doesn't seem to be an option that Amazon and similar systems leave open.
posted by Acid Communist at 11:46 AM on August 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

There is only one thing that is important enough to work at breakneck, ruinous pace for a short duration. That would be saving a life. Like don't take a break if you're rushing someone to a hospital or performing emergency surgery is what I mean. (Okay, maybe flying a plane, you get what I mean though so no actuallys!)

I can't think of a single other god damn thing in the entire stupid butt of a world that is worth crushing a human soul. Yet so many people seem to think stuff is SO FLIPPIN' important that these places exist. Including getting whatever you ordered off Amazon in two days. Which is stupid. You don't need anything next day or two days that you couldn't go find at a store or do without.

I'm in a mood over this. I want to turn off the internet wholesale.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:20 PM on August 8, 2019 [25 favorites]

Amazon is massively convenient, especially as more products disappear from local store shelves. But articles like this cause me to question whether I should support this company as it bleeds dry people and local retailers.

I mean, I stopped watching football because of CTE and such, so why would I keep giving money to a company that treats people this way?
posted by underthehat at 1:09 PM on August 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

My resolution for 2019 was to not purchase anything from Amazon or its subsidiaries and I'm very motivated to stick with this resolution forever! My husband and I used to buy crap almost every single week when we had a Prime membership. This, in my opinion, was hugely problematic for financial, environmental and moral reasons. I'm not claiming to be an expert or moral authority here, but if my experience is helpful to anyone who is thinking about quitting Amazon then I think it's worth sharing:

*First we cancelled our Prime membership about two years ago, which made it easier to stop buying mindlessly. We forced ourselves to think "do we REALLY need this doohickey or can we live without it?"
*If we determined we could not live without the doohickey, we tried to find it locally. If that failed, we would order from Amazon, Zappos, etc.
*Last year we made a concerted effort to only buy locally or directly from companies. We probably placed less than 5 orders from Amazon over the whole year.
*HOWEVER, I am a reading addict and was still purchasing Kindle books at least once a week! This was my weak spot. I decided to buy a Kobo e-reader and stop using my Kindle. The Kobo allows me to check out books from my library directly through the device. I'm saving a ton of money and haven't given a dime to Amazon.

A caveat - I live in a major metropolitan area and have easy access to lots of stores.

Occasionally I feel a twinge of FOMO because I am missing out on some great shows like Patriot, Good Omens, etc. And yeah, it's kind of pain to wait two weeks for something to be delivered. But you know what? FUCK AMAZON. For years and years I thought Wal-Mart was the enemy, and Amazon was like super cool and not evil at all. Yes, Wal-Mart is still the enemy, but we have a much bigger and scarier enemy now. Fuck Amazon, fuck Bezos, Metafilter is cool, fuck the on-demand economy, I'm out.
posted by GoldenEel at 1:44 PM on August 8, 2019 [21 favorites]

And yeah, it's kind of pain to wait two weeks for something to be delivered.

Even better is when you order something from China via Ebay. When it arrives, you've completely forgotten that you've ordered it, so it's like Christmas. Ooh, what's in this box!?!
posted by clawsoon at 1:58 PM on August 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

(And then if you ordered something stupid, it's also like Christmas. "Uhhh, thanks? past self? for this bag of styrofoam beads? That'll... come in handy?)
posted by clawsoon at 2:04 PM on August 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

Between 1994 and 2008, my job was building warehouse management software. Even at the very beginning of that time period -- before handheld computers were practical -- warehouses that were sufficiently standardized would make use of "engineered labor standards" to track worker productivity. In those days, the picking assignments were printed out on paper. A worker would pick up one assignment after the next, and their actual times were recorded along with the time that had been estimated by the software. And yes, if you consistently underperformed, you might eventually be terminated.

The standards themselves were based on the work of industrial engineers who would go around and measure various tasks like how long it took to get off the forklift, pick up the first box, pick up the nth box, etc. Somewhat amusingly, there wasn't enough processing power to try to accurately estimate travel time even though that accounted for a sizeable percentage of time spent on the picking assignment. So this tended to be given a single estimated value under the theory that variances would eventually be a wash across a day's worth of assignments.

Of course, one big difference between the warehouses we helped automate and those run by Amazon today was that the former were quite often unionized.
posted by Slothrup at 2:13 PM on August 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

On The Waterfront ran on TCM recently. It runs there a lot. The more I read about Amazon and the more I learn about the era of the longshoreman, the more I'm convinced they both rhyme and echo with what they do/did.
posted by hippybear at 7:11 PM on August 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

The ILWU is one of the strongest unions in the US, fwiw.
posted by mwhybark at 7:59 PM on August 8, 2019

Maybe they need to expand their mandate.
posted by hippybear at 8:05 PM on August 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

This week's premium Chapo features a reading series segment that recaps an article allegedly written by a 60-year-old Amazon warehouse worker for the phrenological journal Quillette (moar like toilet amirite). I'm not going to link it because scruples, but it's called The Problem With Tourist Journalism, and if it is real, it is probably the most insanely depressing piece of bootlicking you'll ever read.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:58 PM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm not going to link it because scruples

Good thing I don't have those
posted by thelonius at 12:06 AM on August 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

They engineered their workforce.
When will labor groups apply the same engineering mindset to ‘employers who are exploiting their workers? Because hey, fight fire with fire.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:05 AM on August 9, 2019

Amazon workers in Minnesota stage another protest

A two hour walkout by employees over a lack of parking spaces lead to the business granting more.

Direct action gets the goods.
posted by The Whelk at 5:37 AM on August 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Related : secrets of successful organizers.
posted by The Whelk at 5:50 AM on August 9, 2019

NYT: Hate Amazon? Try Living Without It

Nona Willis Aronowitz: Amazon is the clearest example of a corporation exploiting the precariousness created by capitalism — precisely by soothing some of its pain.
posted by 6thsense at 6:01 AM on August 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

What did she do before Amazon existed, though? Able-bodied middle class people with cars constitute the vast majority of Amazon's customer base. If people who fit that profile and had a problem with Amazon settled for buying less stuff, waiting longer for it to show up and paying S&H for it if they order online, couldn't they make a dent in sales?
posted by Selena777 at 7:59 AM on August 9, 2019

"Quillette... The Problem With Tourist Journalism"

I wasn't going to read it, but then I did, and this is just the whole thing in a nutshell eh.
If Bloodworth believes Amazon is inhumane for looking askance at a worker who asks for a sick day during his first three weeks on the job, then he and I live by different work ethics
posted by Acid Communist at 9:00 PM on August 9, 2019

« Older Bank Error in Your Favour   |   As old as Methuselah Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments