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.