Slate Tries Presenting Amazon’s Abusive Warehouse Jobs as Great Opportunities

A mere day after strikes at Amazon warehouses in Germany, which caught the attention of the media in the US, Slate ran as its lead piece in Moneybox an article that bears all the hallmarks of being a PR plant: Amazon Warehouses Are the New Factories.

I suspect the author, Emma Roller, wouldn’t recognize a factory if it fell on her.

This piece is Dr. Pangloss meets neoliberalism. We are supposed to celebrate that blue collar workers can find employment at Amazon! And in a stunning display of fair and balanced reporting, there’s nary a mention of charges of abusive working conditions, intrusive surveillance, and unreasonable demands for worker output in the US, UK, and Germany.

While factory work is certainly not glamorous, except in the really horrible settings like meatpacking plants (subject to frequent fines for OSHA violations; workers get repetitive stress injuries), the working conditions in factories beat those in Amazon warehouses, hands down. You’ll also notice how this Amazon puff piece averts its eyes from the working conditions in Amazon warehouses. The Los Angeles Times reported 100 degree temperatures and firings of injured workers in an Amazon warehouse in Allentown in 2011; the Seattle Times mentioned similar complaints about warehouses in Kentucky. While Amazon was embarrassed into providing more air conditioners, it appears it is doing only the bare minimum, and then only in response to media pressure.

To understand the difference between traditional factory work and Amazon warehouses, you need to understand how Amazon warehouses are organized, or more accurately, not organized. The system is called “chaotic storage.” Workers dump incoming goods in whatever open space there is, logging its location on scanners. When orders come in, other workers are given instructions as to where to locate items, and they walk through the warehouse picking up items, with their path through the warehouse directed by computer. A summary from International Business Times:

Amazon must rely on barcodes and human hands to find the ordered items and drop them into the proper bins — without robots, Amazon utilizes a system known as “chaotic storage,” where products are essentially shelved at random..The real advantage to chaotic storage is that it’s significantly more flexible than conventional storage systems. If there are big changes in a product range, the company doesn’t need to plan for more space, because the products or their sales volumes don’t need to be known or planned in advance if they’re simply being stored at random.

It also saves in other ways, as SSI Schafer tells us:

Amazon for instance, still needs quite a lot of manpower, because a simulation of the storage processes showed that hiring warehouse staff was more economical than automation….

The amount of training required by new employees is also remarkably lower when using chaotic storage. It is not necessary for them to memorise the entire warehouse layout or even single storage locations. This will allow you to replace staff more easily or hire seasonal workers during peak times.

Now how are these jobs inferior to factory jobs?

1. The pay is much worse. Factory jobs were once the anchor of the middle class. I grew up in various small towns where the local paper mill was the anchor of the economy. And across the US, well paid factory jobs also provided the foundation for white collar wages. So conversely, the deterioration of working conditions and wages at the low end of the food chain allows for pay levels for white and pink collar jobs to be squeezed as well.

But look at how Roller tries to put a happy face on the pay levels:

Of course, the jobs won’t all entail manual labor:

Kenosha Mayor Keith Bosman said in October average wage will be just over $13 an hour for around 850 employees at the first distribution center.

The remaining employees will include technicians, computer programmers and managers, earning annual salaries ranging from around $50,000 to $250,000, Bosman said then.

The MIT Living Wage Calculator (which NC readers have criticized as being unrealistically low) puts the living wage for a single person in Kenosha at $9.72 an hour and for a single person with a child at $20.70 an hour. In other locations, Amazon jobs have paid less than for similar jobs at other employers, and a scan suggests that is true here. MIT lists the typical hourly pay in Kenosha for “transportation and material moving” which looks to be the closest comparable, at $14.18 an hour.

I can guarantee that that $250,000 job is for the local uber boss. Readers are invited to estimate how many technical and managerial types there are per 100 warehouse workers. And don’t assume the higher level workers are treated well relative to their skill levels. MSN Money devoted an entire article in October to 6 reasons Amazon employees burn out so fast.

2. Factories are social environments. Even on a production line, people get to know each other. They have bosses and gossip. By contrast, pushing a cart with a hand held computer telling you that you are falling short is dehumanizing.

3. Factories have job stability. Amazon uses a lot of seasonal workers. In part, that’s due to Christmas-related activity, but it’s also clearly a deliberate strategy to foster insecurity among the permanent workers. And notice the remark in the SSI Schafer piece that one of the advantages of chaotic storage was that it made workers essentially disposable. By contrast, in the old craft unions (machinists, papermakers), workers actually have expertise that meant they were not so easily replaced. And even in factories where the roles had been de-skilled, laborers still had to learn safety and “how we do things around here” protocols which meant there would be a learning curve with replacements.

But Roller runs some remarkable Amazon PR:

This is great news for blue-collar workers in the area, and unlike the factory work of yore, it’s not likely to move to China. Amazon prides itself on quick delivery, and one method for that speediness (besides drone delivery) is having warehouses scattered throughout the United States. Kenosha’s proximity to the largest metro area in the Midwest is ideal, and it sorely needs the economic revitalization.

Roller includes a chart, scaled to the 10,000s, that shows how manufacturing jobs in the Milwaukee area have fallen from 160,000 to 120,000 since 1990. Earth to Roller: the mere 1,700 jobs that will eventually be created in Kenosha won’t even register as a blip.

Let’s look back at the SSI Schafer quote again, shall we? The only reason these jobs are performed by people is that it doesn’t make sense to automate them….yet. Robots are getting cheaper all the time.

4. Factories make things, and making things is satifying. For instance, in the movie Gran Torino, the former auto worker turned curmudgeon played by Clint Eastwood lovingly tends to a Gran Torino he made when he was still employed (he also has a set of tools and tells a teenage neighbor boy on the importance of having good tools and knowing how to use them). And it does not have to be something as discrete as a car. One of my brothers works in a paper mill, and he discusses the heyday of the plant, when its paper was purchased by the most quality-conscious magazine publishers like National Geographic, with some pride, and he is distressed at how its product has declined due to years of mismanagement by Cerberus.

And Lambert wrote an entire post celebrating his first “real” job in a factory as his favorite job:

The place manufactured cord, like venetian blind cord, or yacht cord. When I’d walk through the door in the morning, the sound of several hundred machines was like the sound of the waterfall that originally drove the plant: Engulfing, overwhelming white noise. (We were all given cotton to make ear plugs, but who wore them? We needed to talk to each other.) In the winter, coming out of the cold, the noise was reassuring, somehow; of course the machines ran through the night….

My machines, unlike those Chinese machines, didn’t run in sealed boxes, and the frames, gears, tracks, and plates were all made out of cast iron; the bobbin shafts were steel; hence the noise. And as the May-Pole ribbons are only so long, so a bobbin holds only so much yarn, and at some point the yarn would come to an end and go slack. The lack of tension would trigger a ratchet that stopped the machine. Then the “braider tender” (I was a braider tender) would notice the stopped machine, slip the empty bobbin off its shaft, slip a full bobbin on, and restart the machine, letting the machine’s rotation weave the new yarn into the existing braid.

I enjoyed braider tending very much: For my whole life I’d been a nerd, an “intellectual,” with no physical dexterity at all; the factory work gave me that; it was a pleasure to toss an empty bobbin ten feet into the recycling can that the yarn department would come to pick up at the end of the shift; aiming and hitting was satisfying (I never missed); the thunk was satisfying; and above all it was satisfying to be more productive, since I didn’t waste time walking ten feet down the line. I’d figured that out. It was satisfying to blast my way down a line of dead, silent braider machines and spin them all up. All for $3.25 an hour to start, a considerable advance on my first factory job. My relation to the means of production, in other words, was in essence the same as that of the young Chinese women in the YouTube video you just saw, except I had to work a lot harder making cheaper cord (cloth, not metal) in far worse conditions. The cotton dust! The oil-stained wood floors! Thank heavens there was never a fire.

In essence the same, except of course I’m a guy, so I also got to do what guys do: Oil the machines, by making the rounds in the morning with an oil can and giving the gears a spritz. Eventually, they made me a mechanic, another thing guys do; the initiation rite was stamping my initials on my pair of pliers. (They also gave me a toolbox; my rival gave me a complement of nuts, bolts, washers, and fasteners, placed in the toolbox in Gerber Baby Food glass jars, which I realized only later was some kind of statement.) Here were even more problems to solve! For example, “a screw loose.” Overnight, a screw loosens, tension slackens on the braid, and the machine stops. Tighten the screw. The same thing happens the next night! (“Doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”) Why does the screw loosen? Well, the mill, and everything in it, is constantly vibrating, from the rotation of the machines, and also from the shafts that transmit power to the machines from the electric motors at the end of each row. So, somehow, the harmonics of the machine with the screw that came loose were out of sync with the building; the screw wasn’t “loose,” or even “coming loose,” but being shaken loose. A shim under one of the machine’s feet solved the problem by removing an extraneous vibration. And so, for my whole life up to that point, I had had a fundamentally unthinking understanding of what the “screw loose” (dead, but now live) metaphor meant!

I loved factory work — though I might not have loved it so much had I ended up in a mine, or a plating shop, or the kind of place where management (looking back on it) didn’t keep giving me new things to learn and do. It never occurred to me that the work wasn’t worth doing, or that that the people who ended up doing it were any different from me — except perhaps that they had chosen to be born into a different family than I had.

Now remember Lambert grew up in a family of academics. His father was a professor and his mother was ran a small book publishing house. Yet he loved his factory job.

Can you imagine an Amazon warehouse picker writing something like that? Only if they were paid enough by management to tell really big whoppers.

But there is one way these jobs are like factory jobs, or at least those of newer factories, which were typically transplants from the industrial heartland to the Sunbelt to set up non-unionized operations. Amazon appears to be doing a very good job of playing towns off against each other to extract large subsidies:

With the help of more than $24 million in state and local tax credits, the company hopes to have the first center up and running by 2015, bringing in 1,100 jobs. The second center would bring in an additional 575 jobs.

That’s over $14,000 in subsidies per job, or over half a year’s pay per warehouse job. Did anyone in Kenosha look at alternate uses of $24 million? Of course, one typical element of subsidy graft is that the local contractors get work and can be guaranteed to support the incumbent who throws them a really big job.

So as we’ve stressed, Amazon is simply a new-gen Walmart: a mass retailer that makes a science of squeezing employees and extracting tax breaks as part of its success. But you’d never learn this from a propagandist like Roller. I doubt she’d last a week in the Amazon “picker” job that she thinks is just swell for the lower orders.

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  1. John Firestone

    “Roller includes a chart … that shows how manufacturing jobs in the Milwaukee area have fallen from 160,000 to 120,000 since 1990. Earth to Roller: the mere 1,700 jobs that will eventually be created in Kenosha won’t even register as a blip.”

    Hey, that’s not fair! By my measurements, the 1,700 jobs will just reverse the little downturn at the end.

  2. YankeeFrank

    One thing the oligarchs never run short of is police stormtroopers and lickspittle apologists. While I don’t necessarily condone such behavior, I do understand the motivation for “up against the wall” tactics during revolutions.

  3. bob goodwin

    My first day on the job at Amazon I learned the word fungible.
    “We need to hire lots of engineers.”
    “What kind of work will they be doing?”
    “We will figure it out as we go, just make sure you hire fungible engineers.”

  4. Paul Tioxon

    The amazon warehouses are vending machines. The traditional warehouse was not built on the large scale of what is being put up today. Warehousing has been erecting what many suburbanites would consider skyscrapers, buildings of 100 ft or more, higher than existing fire fighting equipment can handle to reach the rooftops in some cases. Inside, a relatively few amount of people are needed, compared to the vast size. It is not surprising that SSI Schaefer is involved, as a leader in turning out low labor vending machine like operations.

    When Teva proposed a similar type of modern warehouse in Philadelphia, the jobs were not plentiful and the people surrounding the area were freaked out at the height of the proposed structure. Not at all low slung suburban office park dimensions, but extremely tall buildings that stood out, breaking the plane of the green canopy of bucolic splendor, exuding too much of an urban look than they perceived their patch of ground should be allowed to express.

    Excerpt from a failed mega warehouse deal:

    “Israel-based Teva’s plant will rise on Red Lion Road, on 136 acres at the site of the short-lived Island Green Country Club, part of the former World War II-era Budd Co. complex that made cargo planes and railcars.

    “When they put in the golf course, they left the underlying [industrial] zoning in place. And that’s what made the deal work,” Petrucci told me after speaking at last week’s Urban Land Institute forum at the Union League.

    Besides land for a million-square-foot-plus warehouse, Teva wanted hangar-like 125-foot floor-to-ceiling clearance. In most suburban towns, Petrucci says, “The zoning would cap a building height at 60 feet. People don’t want giant buildings in the suburbs.”

    These are not factories, not even in the employment potential. Fordism, the mass manufacturing, mass consumption model of industrial organization was a sound and complete system, for continuous improvement in the quality, and the amount of effort to produce each unit of production. Amazon has turned what could have been a nation of shopkeepers in strip malls and shopping centers, into a nation of milkman delivery routes. Local farm cooperatives in the past took their products to a marketing company that they owned and operated, in order to directly deliver their line of dairy products directly to the homes of the consumer, by passing the supermarket. Similarly, the home delivery of products by mail order companies in the past, Sears, Ward Montgomery, etc became department store chains when automobiles had us driving to regional shopping centers, instead of the more convenient, but parking limited local main street of shops or neighborhood commercial avenue. And now, mail order, but quicker deliveries, in safe areas where your package won’t be swiped, is coming back, like the Sears order or the milk man.

    “Sears, Roebuck & Co. – a symbol of honest-to-goodness American ingenuity and know-how. Dedicated to free enterprise and serving the working folks. A perfect partner for the neighborhoods that soon would sprout in the fields.

    This tower was no ordinary hunk of architecture – it won a gold medal for industrial design from the American Institute of Architects. It was hailed as a Gothic-style masterpiece that combined artistic design with industrial duty. Red brick. Clocks. Terra cotta trim. Ornate detail work decorating windows.

    Pretty fancy stuff for a building with a not-so-spectacular purpose – holding and hiding a gigantic water tank that provided the new Sears complex with fire protection. Practicality mixed with a little pizazz. The neighborhoods of the Northeast, as they grew up around the Sears tower, would be just the same way.

    When it opened, the tower and well-manicured grounds – with park benches, flowers and foliage – gave the appearance of a quiet, scholarly research laboratory. But the peaceful setting masked the frenetic activity taking place. From the beginning, this was a place where the work ethic was ingrained.

    Besides holding the water tank, the tower was built as the center of a nine-story merchandise building. The Sears complex was to be the company’s fourth – and largest – distribution center for mail-order catalog goods and a supply house for retail stores in the eastern United States.

    A six-story office building was erected, too, and, in the back, another warehouse. All told, a whopping 4.6 million square feet of floor space for merchandise – a million more square feet than the Pentagon.

    It’s all still here. The tower. The clocks. The offices. A retail store. And the merchandise, enough to fill orders for customers from the upper reaches of Maine to West Virginia. More than 200,000 items, scientifically scattered.

    This complex is the Sears catalog, sprung to life.”

    Sadly, the Sears Tower of Philadelphia is gone. A shopping center with a Walmart anchor took its place.

    What General Curtis LeMay did to NAZI Germany, we do to ourselves and cheer. How big a deal was its destruction? Even New Yorkers took note:

  5. Adriannzinha

    While many americans are still too mesmerized with the holiday deal of the day, their fantasy football roster, or Kim Kardashian’s latest tweet… the Germans at least give us some hope given that they are in the midst of wildcat strikes against Amazon for many of the practices described in the article above.

    The race to the bottom is well underway and America is putting the pedal to the metal.

    1. Emma

      The race to the bottom is over – these are the droppings left behind.

      Roller sounds like the Nurse Ratched of journalism doesn’t she? Her article undoubtedly soothes the crying babies of the Amazon Corporate Executive room and inspires violent thoughts elsewhere.

      As for Amazon, they’ve reinvented the wheel of Hard Times, and in doing so, have lightened the burden of squalor for the masses. Human work-machines who anemically swallow professional despair, and are vulnerably bone-weary inevitably hastening the speed of imminent death to mankind, are crassly used to achieve the triumphant longevity of the ugly habits of corporate greed and wised-up power.

      Amazon is the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of our day, but the chocolate has irretrievably vanished. Yet this remains unpalatable, indeed even unimaginable for some, so the saturated fat of neoliberalism smoothly pervades the glass elevator with peace of mind, whilst the golden ticket of an American dream sinks into an ambient state of oblivion.

      Nice work if you can get it…..

      1. savedbyirony

        agreed! i know people here do not tend to care for “The Nation” in general, but that magazine and its website cover labor and student activism much more than most msm outlets for anyone looking for more labor/activism coverage

    2. Larry

      I think you give up your hope on your fellow American’s too quickly. Fast food workers are staging wildcat strikes across the U.S. and Wal-Mart and other workers experienced strikes and protests on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I know with liberal beliefs, it’s easy to see that collective action will resolve problems quickly. But for people beaten down and dependent on jobs, such actions have real consequences. I get the sense that we’re at the beginning of a decades long struggle of labor vs. capitol, a second round of what occurred after the industrial revolution. I think unions are coming to a lot more American workplaces, and it doesn’t have to happen nationwide for it to have an impact on a lot of workers. Unionize Targets in one state say, and watch what happens. Maybe I’m naive, but I think Americans are getting pushed to the limit and are going to be pushing back in the near term.

      1. Banger

        I hope you are right. I do notice that the spell of happy talk of the media and attempts to manipulate public opinion are not as successful as they once were. There is a good healthy dose of cynicism abroad at all levels–perhaps people are developing immunity to the more noxious memes the propaganda organs feed us. Whatever it is people are coming to terms that the state is not benevolent nor are corporations. This makes the idea of people joining together in, at least, affinity groups more likely. If we can’t trust our cultural institutions we need some kind of area we can feel connected and a bit more secure in.

      2. Emma

        Ulysses and Larry,

        I regard your near-ideal embodiment of puissant apprehension as no insult, but nowhere do I suggest all Americans are oblivious, nor do I lose hope as quick as a wink!

        I only wish that that there were more numerous and admirable examples of activism going on, but watching American Idol or Dancing with the Stars sadly seems more socially acceptable to many doesn’t it?

          1. JTFaraday

            Oy. My most intimate acquaintance with your little friend was when the UAW was organizing the adjunct instructors and graduate student teaching assistants.

            Nothing like enlisting a whole army of part time instructors and students to scab away their own full time jobs and academic futures, (which they claim to desperately want).

            ““The symbol of Scabby appearing at a strike is a clear signal to the public that the management is attacking its workforce and the public by using unfair and unsafe practices. Such signals are not often clearly received by the public, in part because labor relations is not a simple topic. A 12-foot inflatable rat helps to make the message much clearer.””

            You bet.

          2. Emma

            It does – thanks for the insight.
            And thank goodness for Unions too.
            Wish I could have been part of a Union when employed. Would have undoubtedly helped to avoid the endless money pit of legal fees fighting two former employers. Thankfully one court ultimately ruled in my favor as the (female) Judge, when presented with all the facts, immediately saw what was going on. In the other case mirroring the first one, the Judge (different country) decided after a four year duration, that the case should be resolved in a different court. Needles to say, I had no money or energy left, nor good employer references (nor great future – nobody wants to hire someone who takes two employers to court even if simply for unpaid salary and bonuses) but the Judge was spotted drinking afterwards celebrating a presumable backhander with the lawyer of my former employer.
            Both former employers are still doing well because they keep up admirable appearances in the right circles. Smartly on their way to being an OBE or Chevalier de l’Ordre National.
            So I’m all for rats….but just the right kind.

        1. Carla

          “I only wish that that there were more numerous and admirable examples of activism going on” — They are going on, but there is a media black-out, so how would you know?

          To add insult to injury, NPR has been shilling for the TPP in the last couple of days.

          Oh, and now Bernanke has announced the taper to start next month, Dow up 296 points — everything’s peachy.

  6. DakotabornKansan

    Surely Amazon is the best of all possible worlds.

    If the great Dr. Pangloss were here, he might say something of the sort: “Amazon has achieved brilliance without conscience. Theirs is a world of logistical giants and ethical infants.”

    Neoliberal Slate has a ready stable of panglossian writers.

    Recall Slate’s Matt Yglesias waxing philosophically about the Bangladesh factory collapse last spring:

    “Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer.

    “It’s very plausible that one reason American workplaces have gotten safer over the decades is that we now tend to outsource a lot of factory-explosion-risk to places like Bangladesh where 87 [since revised to 1,127] people just died in a building collapse. This kind of consideration leads Erik Loomis to the conclusion that we need a unified global standard for safety, by which he does not mean that Bangladeshi levels of workplace safety should be implemented in the United States.

    “I think that’s wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.” – Matt Yglesias, “Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That’s OK,”

    [victims of an immoral status quo by an ethical infant]

    All is for the best.

    If the great Dr. Pangloss were here, he might say something of the sort: “Thought is the labor of the intellect, reverie is its pleasure.” – Victor Hugo

    FYI: The Washington Post Company owns Slate. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. Slate is a property of the Washington Post Company but is not part of the Washington Post.

    How did the world descend into this mess of “giants” and “infants”? How has neoliberalism come to dominate our lives?

    Surely this is the best of all possible worlds.

    If the great Dr. Pangloss were here, he might say something of the sort:

    “Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire.” – William Butler Yeats

  7. Fíréan

    My Amazon account was canceled some time ago ( beginning of this year), after the screening of the German televison ARD documentary program exposing the Amazon employee situation and disaffection., harassement of personnel by security staff.
    There was reportage of this in Englsih language text, eg, BBC. I am sure that a search related to the German program will bring up many more websites with details in English.

    I am surprised that the matter has taken so long to reach to the attention of the USA public.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      We’ve been putting these stories in our Links section but decided to elevate them to full blown posts after Obama gave a speech over the summer at a new Amazon warehouse touting it as creating middle class jobs.

      1. Fíréan

        Thank You for Your efforts.
        I believe that I may have replied likewise to earlier posts on the same subject matter, yet never one to overlook the opportunity to pressure the point further in the public domain especially when the conditions previously reported, employee discontent and/or conditions, appear not to have been improved upon at Amazon.

        Your book was available off the shelf, at American Book Store (ABS), in the Netherlands. No great loss in giving up access to Amazon.

  8. tongorad

    Ah yes, the Slate “take.” They pride themselves on being obtuse.

    I briefly listened to their cultural podcast because someone I knew in high school was one of the featured babblers. Pretty much their entire shtick is based on Malcolm Gladwell. In other words, take something really shitty and spray sweet-smelling bullshit all over it.
    A bunch of suck-ups.

  9. Klassy!

    Apologies ahead of time for the double posting (if that is the case). Not sure what happened to my comment, but wanted to point out this wrongheaded comment to the Slate story:
    I understand if you get your business and economics reporting from Moneybox, this argument seems perfectly reasonable.

    Note the many nagative (sic) numbskull comments from people who would be hard put to run a lemonade stand. Work is work and can springbroad to many things….just look around. The Japanese made a lot of cheap crap after WWII and look how it developed. Bingo!
    They are not making anything so that is wrong. Milwaukee was making transmissions– not cheap crap, not even auto assembly. This is quite a devolution.
    And Japan was making cheap crap after the war and the government made a conscious decision to support higher value industry and did all in their power to support the auto industry. Bingo!

    1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      Japan was actually famous for churning out cheap junk before the war. It was the experience of the war that accelerated Japan’s ability to produce high value manufactures.

  10. ep3

    Yves, I have mentioned before in the comments I worked in a factory for 7 years. I also worked as a picker for 1 year at a regional grocery store chain. I am now an accountant (one of those self made men who worked in the factory & then went to night school who doesn’t have stories about his drinking days in college).
    As Lambert says, I really miss my factory job because now as an accountant I have ended up in jobs where I don’t produce anything. With my factory job, I made parts. I could set goals. I could say to my manager “look, my productivity is…”. I have had accounting jobs where all I do is push paper. I actually enjoyed my time in public accounting because I produced something tangible; tax returns, payroll, financial statements, advice. I am finding in the private sector, your only production is how much you save/cut in costs. And in the factory it was important to become more efficient.
    In regards to the picker job, I worked in the general merchandise warehouse of the grocery chain (this chain invented combining groceries & general merchandise into one building). So we had a cyclical busy time. When christmas came, we worked more hours. After christmas, you worked less. Now my place hired you with the intent to keep you. Even tho you were hired seasonally, as long as you made your rate, you kept your job. (that’s the amount of time it took to pick an order. Picking was time studied by engineers to calculate how much time it should take). But I enjoyed it. I had goals and it did have substance. I did produce something and contributed to the greater good.

  11. mls broker

    I read for a while and thought … Isn’t anyone going to mention the (precious!) few degrees of separation between Slate Washington Post Jeff Amazon??

    Thanks to you, Kansan.

    Although … your statement “Slate is a property of the Washington Post Company but is not part of the Washington Post” would seem to be belied by the implications of the rest of your take.

    It’s ALL Jeff, Inc.

  12. Gaius Gracchus

    I loved my factory job. Sure, I have worked over blue collar work–unloading trucks for UPS, washing dishes, construction–but the aluminum factory was one of my favorites.

    It was hot, sweaty, and full of noxious fumes. But it was extremely satisfying. My body was worn out at the end of the shift, but it felt good.

    In the years since I have enjoyed other jobs at times, ones that made much greater use of my brain. But I miss the simple pleasure of hard physical work.

  13. EmilianoZ

    A few random thoughts:

    1) Lambert says: My machines, unlike those Chinese machines, didn’t run in sealed boxes
    The “Chinese machines” are probably German or Japanese. The Chinese dont make machines, they just use them to assemble things (that probably come from Germany or Japan).

    2) I havent bought anything from Amazon since they increased the minimum for free shipping from $25 to $35.

    3) Here’s the interview of a journalist who spent some time working in an Amazon warehouse in France:
    He doesnt reveal much that’s interesting, but I was struck by the reference to Stakhanovism. Apparently, everyday they have to go applaud the “top performer” who pushed his own limits. I learnt about Stakhanovism in high school history. It was used to deride to methods of the Soviet Union, just like the Potemkin villages. It’s ironic to see such notions now adopted by the US.

    4)Work hard. Have fun. Make history.

  14. Jerome Armstrong

    These are temporary jobs. It won’t be past the end of this decade that they are replaced by robots.

  15. Mister Bunny

    Best job I ever had was in a paper recycling warehouse. We baled used newsprint into 1500 lb blocks with a huge baler and tied them with baling wire by hand. It was an unheated warehouse, scorching in summer and below freezing in winter. I got very good at the job, learned to drive big trucks and the forklifts. The cast of characters I worked with 40 years ago were a hoot. I’ve worked at offices and newspapers for decades now, but that’s the only job I really miss. And the only one where I still retain vivid memories of a typical day. Marx was right about the socialization inherent in factory work.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I mainly use “people,” “citizens,” and sometimes when it fits, “voters”.

      English requires elegant variation in “good” writing. I’d rather use the unfortunate “folks” than the neoliberal-reinforcing “consumers” (except when we really are talking about shopping).

  16. Ed S.


    You said: Emma Roller, wouldn’t recognize a factory if it fell on her.

    Here’s a bit about her (courtesy of

    Her elevator pitch:

    Through my work in fast-paced and highly demanding newsrooms (summer intern at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – 3 months), I have honed reporting and editing skills that set me apart from the pack. I have experience at the local, state and national level – from covering national education policy on the Hill (intern at the Chronicle of Higher Education – 6 months , to breaking news from the Wisconsin state Capitol during the run-up to Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election(during the MJS internship), to managing a newsroom of more than 75 student journalists (editor of her college newspaper). My talent, know-how and challenge-driven work ethic are rooted in a passion to tell impactful stories.

    Taibbi she’s not.

    1. RanDomino

      Mostly I just feel bad for her. Look at her blog on her eponymous website. She’s just one of these sad young college graduates who has no real job prospects or future, willing to take whatever shit job she can in a desperate effort to get her foot in the door of being middle-class (without having to do actual work, of course). Politically vaguely liberal/progressive, but not with any kind of knowledge of history, and not enough to organize in any way- certainly not to do something as outlandish or risky as unionize. The move to Washington DC or New York is almost a cliche by now. She is almost certainly doomed, lingering in her current state for years probably while making ends meet as a barista.
      There are so many 20-something middle-class suburbanites lingering with college degrees and no futures. Sometimes they work in warehouses and sometimes the bounce from internship to internship.

  17. casino implosion

    Those factory jobs you celebrate were at one time the ne plus ultra of dehumanization, deskilling, loss of pride in workmanship, and all the rest of it.

    Now, next to these poor Amazon droids, the schmuck on the assembly line looks like a craftsman.

    I hate to think of the conditions that, certainly, will have us in 30 years talking about how good the human warehouse automaton has it.

  18. Mac

    So.. Exactly what would folks like to have amazon do? Would close up shop and quit be a good deal? Other than knock them what do you want?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Amazon engages in predatory practices. I didn’t get into that part, but they have long been selling books and CDs below cost, which in an antitrust violation. Why the DoJ has not gotten after them is beyond me.

      They need to pay people decent wages and offer better work conditions. You seem to have missed that 1. Retail existed long before Amazon and 2. There are other online retailers, if you must shop online, and search engines let you do a plenty good job of comparison shopping. If Amazon went “poof” overnight, there are plenty of people who’d fill the gap, and quickly, too.

      1. Emma

        I think too, that if we all made the small effort of purchasing 5% more “Made in America” (ie. opting for 5% more Made in America, as opposed to 5% more Made in China) from small independent stores, then that would also surely not only have a positive impact on the US economy, but also help more Americans who need it.

  19. legacy guy

    I worked in the electronics industry 2 short stents in different decades the first company sub contractor to a big military company in the 1980’s.The second a Fortune 500 company. I like my jobs. I was laid for 2007 when the economy was starting to tank. The industry I work in you have to be train by government or trade school. I fell sorry for the young woman reporter going from internship to the next to be a reporter for main stream or should I say your whore to the wealth elite counting the young men in the media field too .

  20. Fiver

    Once Google starts cranking out sport-utility robots, these “jobs” are gone too. Combine these with Amazon’s drones and you can see the next military and civilian applications already taking shape in minds that appear bent on creating all the elements for a real-time global sci-fi thriller – it will be like Transformers on Obamakoids.

  21. dcliquidators

    I do hope that what is happening now would serve as a wake up call to Amazon. They should give living wage to their workers as well as fix their warehouse system.

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