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Subjects of the algorithm

Report from an Amazon Fulfillment Center

Alice Lea writes of their experience as a cog in the Amazon machine.

I worked at Amazon’s SAT3 Fulfillment Center in San Antonio, Texas during peak season (October-January), and my experience there radicalized me. We were treated like poorly behaved children on good days and like livestock on bad days. Each and every move we made was tracked, analyzed, and recorded from the very moment we badged into the building to the moment we badged out. To our managers we weren’t humans with families, lives and souls; we were simply production machinery.

The important thing to know about working at Amazon is that everything is determined by the almighty algorithm and not by management directly. Production rates are determined by a series of algorithms and are impossible to sustain for a 10-plus hour shift. I worked in the outbound packing department, and we were expected to package 250 items per hour. Most people didn’t even come close. On average, people packed around 150 items per hour which was still hard. Packers are constantly bending, reaching, and twisting to grab items off the wall and box them up as quickly as possible before throwing them on the conveyor belt.

To start working you have to scan your badge at your workstation, which tracks your productivity constantly throughout the day. The second we stop working we accumulate “time off task”, even for using the bathroom or fixing equipment. The algorithm notifies our managers that we’re not working and automatically generates a writeup for having too much time off task. The restrooms were a good quarter-mile walk from the work area and were far too small for the number of people using them. There was usually a line and the restrooms got disgusting really quickly, a source of constant, justifiable complaint among my coworkers.

Amazon was the first workplace I had actually made friends in. I had worked in construction as an apprentice in a building trades union for a couple of years, but I never could relate to my coworkers very well. At Amazon we were all united in our need to pay the bills and by our lack of any particular job skills. Many of my coworkers were in their 20s to early 30s, young parents with hungry mouths to feed or independent young adults struggling to make rent. None of us wanted to be there but the starting wage of $16.50 an hour plus the promise of decent health insurance (only if you could make it past the 90-day mark; most people lasted less than a week) made it one of the less shitty jobs available in San Antonio.

The hard truth to swallow about Amazon is that your order is sorted, packed, and delivered by an aging workforce. Aside from management, the workforce at my fulfillment center was split pretty evenly between folks under 35 and people over 50. Many of the older workers were divorced women or immigrants trying to support their families. We got paid poverty wages to get everyday commodities to people’s doorsteps as quickly as humanly possible. Everything from heavy boxes of cat litter to children’s toys to individual energy drink cans, at every step of the way our hands touched your order so that we can pay our bills.

The way management treated us was explicitly infantilizing. One of the managers in the onboarding department happily informed us that working at Amazon was “high school 2.0.” Most of us got bossed around and worked like rented mules, even the old timers. I remember overhearing one of the managers patronizing a confused old man a few work stations down from me and feeling a kind of rage I had never felt before. That old man shouldn’t need to work at Amazon in the first place, but he damn sure didn’t need to be treated like that by some kid with a brand-new business degree.

My wife worked with me at Amazon, on the fourth floor in the inbound stowing department. One day at work she had a health emergency and had to go to the hospital immediately. First she went to the on-site clinic where they refused to give her any ibuprofen, because that would mean that it was a documented incident and Amazon would be potentially liable for footing the bill. I ended up having to walk off the line to drive her to the emergency room myself, and HR refused to excuse our time for the day. That was the angriest I’ve ever been in my life. The HR people kept saying that it was totally out of their control, it was all the algorithm and that they were very sorry but they couldn’t, and wouldn’t, help us.

We spent eight hours in the emergency room that night without seeing a doctor because we had to return to work at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. I had been a very active Maoist from 2020 to 2022 and took a break from organizing after participating in a rebellion against misogynist abuse in my former organization. I considered myself a radical at that point already but found myself radicalized all over again at Amazon. I had worked shitty jobs before but no amount of ditch digging prepared me for Amazon’s explicit dehumanization and outright hostility to the lives of its workers.

I came into Amazon expecting nothing and left with a burning hatred for the capitalist class and its industrial system of labor. My wife and I wanted to organize a union but the truth is that we were totally on our own and ended up spending more time fighting to protect our own jobs than anything else. Amazon Labor Union is largely dead at JFK8, and the new Amazon Labor Union in Kentucky is busy fighting for its life. The Teamsters have had little success in organizing Amazon so far and are now attempting to turn ALU into an affiliate union.

Beyond that, our own friends were too poor and scattered to provide us much support and we had little relationship with our own families. We ended up losing our jobs in January; we just couldn’t take it anymore. My wife’s physical health was a wreck and so was my mental health.

We’ve been unemployed for five months now; we’ve struggled hard and survived. We live in rural Oregon and I just got a union job at a paper mill that pays a living wage. I’ve learned a lot about how the capitalist system works. Enough surplus is produced by workers to house and feed us all, yet we starve and live in squalor while our bosses and landlords live so comfortably and easily. CEOs like Jeff Bezos worry about where they’ll dock their mega-yachts while my wife and I don’t have plumbing.The government spends its money on the genocide in Palestine, bombing people that have more in common with me than I do with the decision makers in Washington. All illusions of morality and fairness go out the window as soon as you don’t have any income.

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Alice Lea View All

Alice Lea is a worker and member of the Tempest Collective based in northern Oregon.