Making History at Amazon

Making History at Amazon

If they can disrupt the supply chain, Amazon workers could transform an industry that constitutes one of the commanding heights of the twenty-first-century economy.

Detail from Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry, South Wall" mural (Gift of Edsel B. Ford / Detroit Institute of Arts)

The Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts capture all the energy, noise, and coordinated power that produced millions of Ford cars in the company’s River Rouge complex. Painted almost ninety years ago, they are a triumph of twentieth-century art. The two largest panels depict, with remarkable visual compression, the complexity of automobile production in its many stages, with serpentine conveyors bringing engine blocks and car bodies to the men who, shoulder to shoulder, meld the parts into a V8.

Sweating bodies and clanging machinery are foregrounded, but toward the visual rear of the south wall fresco are a group of bourgeois tourists, clothed in suits, dresses, and hats. Their demeanor is stiff and standoffish, but they clearly stand in awe of the sprawling industrial concert that had already made the Rouge a mecca for those who sought a glimpse of a world in the making. From Aldous Huxley to Vladimir Lenin, and from Ida Tarbell to Margaret Bourke-White, Ford’s assembly lines seemed to embody the kernel of a new civilization.

Last month when some friends and I drove out to an Amazon fulfillment center in San Bernardino—two hours by crowded freeway from UCLA—I was thinking of those Diego Rivera tourists. Like Henry Ford, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has opened his vast industrial empire to visitors, a lot of them. Our tour of thirty-odd people was the fifteenth that week in San Bernardino, and there are at least twenty other sites open to the public. Hundreds of thousands are taking a peek into the windowless walls of huge boxes that, in the case of San Bernardino, cover some 1.2 million square feet (twenty-one football fields) and employ a couple thousand people on a round-the-clock basis. Above the interior entranceway were painted the words, “Work hard. Have fun. Make history.” We found that last phrase true enough, but also rather ominous.

Once inside the fulfillment center, the first impression was not one of absolute size, but of a colorful complexity. Everything seemed to be either yellow, brown, or grey: Yellow for the thousands of baskets full of product zipping their way along the maze of conveyors; brown for the Amazon shipping boxes moving toward waiting trailers; and grey for the work stations and the building interior itself. The noisy conveyors made conversation difficult, but Amazon issued earphones to all of us on the tour so we could hear the leader as she spoke into a wireless microphone.

We did not see many workers, and those we saw worked alone at tasks that required little or no teamwork or collaboration. Since our tour came after the holiday rush, some sections of the warehouse were idle, but even when fully staffed, the vast size of the place and the division of the workforce into different shifts laboring at distinct tasks create a sparse environment without many signs of human life. Amazon uses no robots at San Bernardino, although some product-moving, cart-like devices are deployed elsewhere. From a second-floor balcony, we saw a long row of what looked like small rooms or alcoves. These were empty trailers into which one or two workers built wall after wall of all those brown boxes. When the trailer was full, a cab backed up and hauled it away, opening the warehouse to an ever so brief splash of actual sunlight.

There are three main jobs at every one of the more than 110 fulfillment centers Amazon has built in North America (there are more than 175 worldwide). The first is stowing. When product comes in the door, it is distributed to dozens of “stowers” who exercise some discretion as they place the goods on the coded shelves in a somewhat random fashion. This is done so that when popular items are in demand, there will be no queue of workers seeking to grab the item from the same shelf or bin. But nothing gets lost, since the scan guns ensure that the location of every item will be instantly available for selection. “Pickers” do that work, guided by the Amazon sales portal, putting orders in a basket, and sending them on their way down the conveyor. Finally, it is the task of the “packer” to put the product in a box, fill it with bubble wrap, tape it shut, attach shipping labels, weigh it for postage, and once again put it on a conveyor for speedy movement to a waiting trailer.

We closely observed the work of one packer, an African-American woman in her twenties. She had a simple job, putting single items in each brown box, made numbingly routine by the hyper-Taylorization built into the machinery. As soon as she took a product off the conveyor, she scanned it. That robbed her of any freedom. The size of the box was now set, as was the precise quantity of bubble wrap flowing out of an automatic dispenser, along with the exact length of tape needed to seal the box. A printed shipping label was at hand to be slapped on just before the box was once again put on the conveyor. The whole process took about thirty seconds.

Our tour guide proudly told us that as of late 2018, all workers were paid $15 an hour, plus benefits like health insurance, a 401(k) plan, and parental leave of up to six weeks. Of course, that $15 wage and the benefits are only available to full-time employees; the company hires a lot of seasonal workers through labor contractors. Amazon even has a program called CamperForce for seasonal employment in the months leading up to the Christmas rush. These workers, many retirees, live in vans and campers parked at company-provided sites where electricity and water are hooked up. For most workers, pay is generally two or three dollars above that of retail, but well below that of traditional warehouse work. Indeed, because of the proliferation of retail-linked fulfillment and distribution centers, average warehouse worker pay fell from nearly $21 an hour in 2000 to about $17.50 in 2018 (both figures are adjusted for inflation and shown in 2018 dollars).

I asked the tour guide which job—stower, picker, or packer—was most coveted by workers. She would not tell me. In an auto plant, some jobs are much better than others even when the pay is much the same. Anything off the assembly line is a plum job, especially for older workers. But at Amazon, the pervasive use of scanning that starts and stops virtually every task ensures that just about everyone is on the “assembly line.” Tracking systems measure each employee’s productivity, issuing warnings for workers that lag and, if consistently behind, providing a record that supervisors use to terminate the laggards. At a 2,500-employee Baltimore fulfillment center, 300 workers lost their jobs in one year because of low productivity.

The handheld scanners most workers use “tell you exactly what you’re supposed to be doing at that time and exactly how many seconds you have left to do it before you are at risk of getting into trouble,” reported Emily Guendelsberger, a Philadelphia journalist who took a seasonal job at a fulfillment center just outside Louisville, Kentucky. In her book, On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, Guendelsberger detailed the aches and pains caused by the repetitive lifting, bending, and picking. But her real grievance, which we could see from just an hour’s worth of observation, was “how isolating it was. These programs that sort of plan your path around these huge warehouses, they don’t put you within speaking distance of other pickers or just any other human beings for most of your day.”

We could not tell if workers at San Bernardino developed any friendships with each other during the workday, but there was plenty of indirect evidence that the work took a physical toll. Our tour guide told us that Amazon assembled groups at least once a day for stretching exercises, and video screens demonstrated the proper way to stand, lift, and handle merchandise, and referred to workers as “industrial athletes.” Our guide explained that workers could use their ID card to select goggles and gloves, free of charge, from a company vending machine. Also free and certainly in high demand were the pain relievers and cold and flu medicines on offer from another machine located near the fulfillment center entrance.

The scanners also record a worker’s “Time Off Task” or TOT. If an employee’s TOT exceeds fifteen minutes in a day or one’s rate falls below the prescribed speed for the task, an Amazon worker will get a visit from a manager and an automatic write-up. Six write-ups a year and you’re gone. Visits to the restroom, to human resources, or to the on-site clinic are TOT unless made on a break or at lunchtime. But the high turnover at Amazon fulfillment centers—perhaps 50 to 80 percent a year—is not mainly a product of such cyber-generated discipline. An organizer with Jobs with Justice told Sam Adler-Bell that a frequent refrain among workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, is, “This is the best job I ever had, and I’m going to quit in two months.”

Amazon’s approach to discipline also points to its greatest vulnerability: its need for speed. As but one link in the manufacturing, distribution, and consumption supply chain, the fulfillment center is dependent upon a frictionless, hyper-efficient flow from the truckers who deliver the product from the port of Los Angeles to a separate set of trucks that speed the individual boxes away from the fulfillment center to UPS, FedEx, the post office, or Amazon’s own set of airplanes and delivery vehicles. As the warehouses become increasingly central to the success of this supply chain, so too does the potential power of those who labor therein. The ability of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to win a slice of the enormous productivity increase generated by containerization has boosted wages of those blue-collar men and women to over $150,000 a year.

The Walmarts and Amazons of the transpacific trade find such pay outrageous, but the capacity and periodic willingness of ILWU members to slow or stop the trillion-dollar flow of product has generated a site of West Coast working-class power that might well be a model for others laboring in global supply chains. As these logistic systems become ever more complex and well-integrated, they also generate other nodes of potential worker power, among them the container ship crews, the port truckers, programmers and other professionals at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, and the fulfillment center employees themselves. If they can disrupt the supply chain, these workers could transform wages and working conditions in an industry that constitutes one of the commanding heights of the twenty-first-century economy.

Indeed, work stoppages, protests, and organizing initiatives have proliferated through the Amazon ecosystem. On September 20, 2019, hundreds of Amazon professionals walked out in Seattle as part of a “Global Climate Strike.” Then, at the height of the Christmas rush, Sacramento night-shift workers delivered a 4,015-signature petition to their managers, demanding full-time work and an end to draconian time discipline. Thirty-six workers then clocked out and walked off the job. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, at an Amazon distribution center with a large Somali workforce, repeated protests, strikes, and political mobilizations over the last eighteen months have demonstrated the interwoven character of the ethnic, religious, and class identities of this immigrant community. Demands for more time to worship during Ramadan are seamlessly linked to workplace efforts to liberalize TOT rules. Supported by Representative Ilhan Omar, some of these East African workers forced Amazon to bargain with them on productivity standards and corporate disciplinary procedures. But the company would not institutionalize such a dialogue. An Amazon spokesperson told the New York Times that “the company did not see its work with the East African workers as a negotiation but rather as a form of community engagement” not unlike its philanthropic outreach to other civic groups and racial minorities in nearby cities and towns.

Eighty years ago the ILWU’s “march inland” sought to organize the warehouses and trucking firms that were linked so closely to port operations. With the Teamsters, a bitter rival, that effort enjoyed some success, but of course, in recent decades the deunionization and deterioration of wages and working conditions has turned most of the logistics supply chain into an Orwellian nightmare. I suspect that many of the tourists who have come to marvel at the gigantism and efficiency on display at San Bernardino and other fulfillment centers are not unaware of this dark underside to the logistics revolution. When and if the workers at Amazon choose to make (their own) history, they will have allies aplenty.

Nelson Lichtenstein teaches history at UC Santa Barbara where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. He is the author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business.