John Roland, a part-time teacher, wrote the following account of his experiences working at a Chicago-area Amazon sortation center as a seasonal worker during what Amazon calls “Peak Season,” which includes Black Friday and Christmas. Some names have been changed to avoid retaliation against workers. We share it now, as workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are holding a historic union vote.
When I first saw the amazon job listing for a seasonal worker position at a local sortation center, where Amazon sorts all the boxes for mailing after they’ve been boxed at a fulfillment center, I was thrilled. It came with a “$3,000 signing bonus,” and was an 8am-5pm, consistent 5 day work week. For that work, I would be paid $15.50 an hour, a wage that is still hard to come by in Illinois, even though it will be the state minimum wage by 2025, an incremental measure passed by democratic state leadership in 2018/9. As of today, it is only $11 an hour.
I was excited for the prospect of earning that extra money, on-top of the wages I earn as a part-time teacher, to buy holiday gifts for my friends, family, and partner. The teaching job market has also grown increasingly dire, as COVID-19 saw enrollments plummet, resulting in part-time teachers receiving less consistent course loads. I thought with the Amazon job, I could perhaps find consistent work, and through hard work, distinguish myself and find a more permanent position. The work was consistent as I came to find out, but intensely exploitative, with minimal breaks, long hours, and almost no hope of upward mobility.
My first day at Amazon, when we self-administered drug tests, took our ID pictures, and got general information, showed me quickly the kinds of people, like me, who Amazon was exploiting with their signing bonuses and promises of high wages. The first person I met when I entered was an 82 year old man, Tony, who moved with the help of a walker and could hardly bend over to pick up his coat off the ground which they made him remove to take his ID picture. He told me he was a widower, and that his pension, from construction forklift driving, had run out. Lashonda, 36 of Joliet, IL, a recently divorced mother, and told me as we were touring the facility that “no matter how bad it is, I need the money, to get back at that son of a bitch in court.” Child custody percentages are often decided by income, she claimed. Jacob, 19, who I replaced on the line to train on the first day, was clearly overwhelmed by the work assigned to him, scanning and building pallets, and he told me he had received almost no training outside the incredibly dry online training videos all amazon employees have to watch before being hired. While I was doing the training at his position, he was scolded by a “blue vest,” (leadership and management wear different color vests) Amazon’s “educational” middle managers, after another worker had complained that his pallets were too unstable to haul, and could fall on top of what amazon calls “water spiders,” or workers who haul completed pallets.
My second day I met a laid off trade worker, Bill, 52, who had previously been a sewer maintenance worker in the City of Chicago. We were both taken away from our scanning and pallet building to sort in the expensive box section (where all items over $1000 in value are sorted). At the time, we two were covering an entire pallet building lane, of about 8 subsections. Ideally, each one of these subsections is meant to have a worker. Both of us were lifting packages over 100 pounds ourselves, even though amazon dictates that anything over 40 pounds should be team lifted. Both of us had helped an older woman in an adjacent lane lift vacuum cleaners, weight sets, and small furniture.
“This is typical,” he told me. “Just as we feel like we’re doing some good, we get transferred to where the real money is.” He told me this was his 30th day on the job, which meant he’d receive the first half of his signing bonus, but his voice was hardly celebratory. “Here, you never feel like you’ve accomplished anything, at my old job at least you started a job and finished it, saw it progress.” He was particularly angered that day for being shifted, because a young orange vest (management), perhaps 20 years old, had done it. “That lane is going to go to hell,” he concluded, and he was right. When we returned several hours later, no one had scanned our boxes, and hundreds of boxes were piled up at each station.
At the expensive box sorting, I met with Jeremiah, 23 of Joliet, IL, and a seasoned amazon veteran. He let me know right away that I better plan to work two hours more than I agreed on my contract, due to what Amazon calls “flex hours,” or mandatory hours added onto shifts based on “market activity.” As I was a two-shift (of four hours each) worker, which he thought was funny, the foolish actions of a new associate, I would be required to work from 8am – 1pm, and 1:30-6:30, not the 8-12, and 1:30-5:30 I had originally agreed to.
But this was all well known to Jeremiah, a few other things were on his mind that day. First, a fellow worker on the line, who had autism, had reported his friend to management for sitting on the conveyor belt while it was off, which he was fired for after management looked at the video surveillance. “They’ll never do anything to him,” he said bitterly, “even though he doesn’t work, because HR needs to check that disability box.” As we sat there sorting boxes neither of us could ever afford, I saw so clearly how the rich had divided and conquered us, and fanned the flames of bigotry and hatred between workers.
Second, and most urgently, Jeremiah was worried about his grandmother and bringing COVID-19 home to her. “Amazon doesn’t give a fuck, it’s that sample, it’s a whitewash, they want us here sorting boxes, that’s it” he said, with frustration in his voice, “that’s what I’m most worried about, my grandma.” Social distancing was only loosely possible in the facility, and we were supplied with only one pair of gloves per day and given box scanners that clearly had not been sanitized, and sometimes were even warm and damp with the sweat of another worker.
I worked at the facility for a few more days, nodding to Bill and Jeremiah in the break room with chairs on either side of a plastic temporary table. Almost no one spoke to each other, and simply sat opposite each other, eating and drinking what amazon had sold us (for a bargain), looking at our phones, reading about the virus, the contested election, and texting with friends and family. I quit that job, never seeing the signing bonus, because at the end of the day, I didn’t need it. It wasn’t worth the commute, or the back pain, or the feeling of standing only by the grace of caffeine.
I quit because, ultimately, I was not like Jeremiah, Bill, Lashonda, or Tony. I did not need to work there, I didn’t have to break my body, exhaust my free time, slowly kill myself physically and spiritually, for Amazon. I didn’t need the money for a divorce, college textbooks, an exhausted pension, or for my wife, or grandmother. It was simple privilege that I could quit, there are millions of Americans who need that money for so many reasons as the social safety net continues to disintegrate, and it is those people, honest and good-hearted working class Americans looking to support their family or friends, who amazon exploits the most.
As a former Amazon employee, I send my unflinching solidarity to the workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voting to unionize. Only together, with the combined strength of all my former co-workers, and the thousands of Amazon workers around the country, can we begin to take back control of our lives. Work, at its most fundamental, should not destroy the worker. Work can be an enriching, empowering, and rewarding act. But it can only be so when the product of that work doesn’t belong to and enriches another at terrible cost to us. I became convinced during my time with Amazon that only a union, of all workers like Lashonda, Bill, Tony, and Jeremiah, can begin to challenge the tremendous corporate power on display in Amazon warehouses.
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