Diary of a Summer Job
Mac McClelland’s kickass cover story for this month’s Mother Jones is an exposé of the kraken-sized warehouses that make online stores like Amazon the shoppers’ utopias they are today. To get the story, McClelland took a job at one such warehouse as a case picker—a worker who, under the direction of a handheld computer that says where to go and how long to take to get there, weaves in and out of racks upon racks of goods to find the one product some consumer somewhere in these United States put into a virtual cart and then clicked “Buy” for. The piece is maddening and driven; it’s worth your time to read.
McClelland’s story also reminded me of 2002, when, on unpaid summer break from graduate school, I answered an ad that read “Case picker. Unairconditioned warehouse. $10.55 an hour. Call Helen,” and three weeks and two interviews later, I was hired by a temp agency to work for the third-party logistics company Worley Warehousing in Iowa City. Worley was contracting for Procter & Gamble, and I was picking cases of toothpaste and hair gel to send to Walmart and Costco distribution centers, where presumably my counterparts in those warehouses would do exactly what I did and the products on to individual stores.
At the time, I wrote three blog posts about the job for the former blog. The online version of those posts are no longer in the archives, but I still have them, or I have early drafts of them. I was a new believer in the power of a union then, but I was also, apparently, ruthless about efficiency; the posts read now as an exercise in missing the forest for the trees. They aren’t as interesting as what I didn’t post, such as an anecdote of a lecture given by B——, the shift manager. Part of one of the blog posts follows, as does the anecdote; below them both, a surprise!
Diary of a Summer Job, Week 1
The job of Case Picker is fairly straightforward. I drive a fork truck across the warehouse filling pallets with cases of Crest, Old Spice deodorant, Pert Plus, Clairol Red Hair Coloring—essentially, any personal hygiene product that Proctor & Gamble (P&G), now Proctor & Gamble/Clairol, makes—wrapping the stacked pallets with yards of plastic, and delivering them to the dock where they are loaded onto trucks and delivered to the Wal-Mart store in your home town. The warehouse is a twenty-four hour a day operation. First shift starts at six o’clock in the morning.
As straightforward as the job might be, it’s not easy. There are invoices to read, stacking patterns to learn for all types of different-shaped Crest boxes, and most important, fork trucks to drive. Training takes two weeks. First and second day, safety videos. In these we learned about “Ergonomics,” defined by a too-excited man as the occupation of bringing “common sense” to the workplace. Manufacturing, he said, is the heart of big business. Because manufacturing is important, and for better or worse because people are part of the manufacturing process, how people are treated determines how efficiently things which need to get made get made. … This video taught us that … “People are expensive: [they] cost more than any single other commodity.” Indeed, we cost even more than million-dollar machines, to which we were understandably asked to compare the average 30-year worker. If we will only treat our people as well as we treat our machines, the man in the video said, we will be efficient beyond compare.
Another video, “Remember Charlie,” was a speech given by Charlie, a man who blew himself up at an Exxon refinery, to a convention of Teamsters and railroad workers. Charlie, it seems, didn’t wear his safety equipment “that fateful night,” and as a result he preaches tales of caution and safety regulations to all who see his surgically-reconstructed face. His message was the message of Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar: if we all follow safety regulations, nothing bad will ever happen to us. In still other videos, through gory dramatizations of broken legs, smashed hands and heads, unwary pedestrians knocked to the ground by fast-moving trucks, this too was the message. Inscribe my safety rules upon thy heart, and nothing bad to you will happen! …
There are poor-enough employer-employee relations at Worley, and so little incentive either to work well or to work long—L——, for example, while a senior employee, has only been at this warehouse for three years—that if employees could really say why they like or dislike a policy, and if they likewise could voice challenges to bad policies, they could conceivably make their own work better. But as A—— has said more than once, “Procter & Gamble“—though we don’t work for P&G—“spends big money to bust up unions. A union here would be impossible.” By the third day her defeat began to ring through the voices of my cotrainees, and the most common phrase I heard, “That is fuckin’ unfair,” often coupled with, “That is fuckin’ wrong,” was always silently answered by L——‘s admission—sad because he made it after working nearly three weeks without a day off, and admitting too that he only ever gets a week’s vacation every year—“Worley is number one, and if you don’t believe it, work here for a while,” and by my co-trainee J——‘s acquiescence: “This is by far the most I’ve ever been paid.” Acquiescence too often stalls the search for justice, and many companies hate unions not because they cost money but because they cost profit. As A—— herself is quick to point out, the company for which we work negotiates contracts with a union in Cedar Rapids, but what she forgets is that, ultimately it is they, not P&G, with whom contracts and relations need to be improved.
Worley Notes 2
The shift manager on this job, B——, is an ineffectual, scolding stepfather. He wants to appear friendly, like a large teddy bear suddenly come to life, but unlike teddy bears he doesn’t listen to a word those around him say. He has little awareness of what goes on around him. By making himself loud, visible, he projects himself as a “good manager.” The way to work with people is to talk at them. Yet as he talks he does not listen. Nor does he discriminate or single-out his group from others. Nor does he seek to improve his “team” above that of the rest of the shifts.
This morning, in order to scold us, he turned off the fans that are our exhaust. He said:
- No cell phones;
- No food or drink;
- No smoking within 60 ft. of the building, and please won’t you put your butts in the ash tray?;
- Keep this place clean, and don’t eat or drink inside.
The final point was particularly jarring to a number of people who protested that the aisle we stood in, now strewn with plastic that was stripped from the pallets, was clean when we left, and that as much as we’ve been preached to about cleanliness lately, we’ve kept this place clean. He replied, “I’m not concerned about what the other shifts do—we’ll take care of them when they’re here. I’m concerned with what you do.” (Need it be said that we were saying precisely what he did? Why did he not, in fact, pay attention to what we did? Then he might have discovered he had no reason to scold.) But in fact, he was hardly concerned with what we did.)
B—— said, “Yesterday we found a pop can stuffed in the product. You are not to eat and drink in here! The entire plant [P&G] manager walked through here yesterday and this place was a disgrace!” I pointed out to him that I called supply [truck drivers who moved product from the back of the warehouse to the case picking area] and a pop can came with the unit. I suggested that the evidence did not necessarily point to our shift. He replied, “There you go. Don’t eat or drink in here.”
Someone else said, “B——, is there a phone for us to use, so we can make calls, say on our breaks, if there’s an emergency? If we can’t use our cell phones, what can we use?”
B—— said, “What happened to the phone in the break room?”
The worker replied, “I’m asking you.”
B—— said, “There used to be a phone in there (pointing) that you could use. Do you know what happened to it? You can use your cell phones on breaks.”
To which someone else said, “But what about about the people who don’t have cell phones? What can they do?”
B—— replied, “Where did that phone go? I don’t know what happened to it, if somebody took it home to use themselves, or where it went. There used to be a phone in there!”
Presently A—— asked, “Is there anything these guys do well? You seem to be all about criticizing lately. It’d be nice to hear something good for a change.”
B—— replied, “They threw a lot of cases this week.”
And so the only measure of worth is productivity. One is noticed by the number of pallets one stacks and is chastised for anything else. One is praised for pallets because pallets are all that such men are, in fact, attentive to. To chastise as B—— chastised, to praise as he praised, is to reveal that he in fact is not concerned with the people on his shift.
To throw cases feels
like a hangover without
the pleasure of drink.