Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

4.02.2013

The First Step Is Awareness

Recently I've begun seeing a trickle of reports about the warehouse labor and behind-the-scenes practices of large online retailers like Amazon.  I've always loved Amazon, have ordered from it many times, and, like most people, seem to be doing more and more of my purchasing online.  The more I learn about industry practices, however, the more I begin to question my purchasing decisions.  It seems the corporate competition to win customers by having the lowest prices has led to truly awful working conditions that I don't feel right supporting.

And it's not like the conditions are necessary.  If customers like me were willing to pay just a little bit more and shareholders were willing to accept just a little bit less profit, then employees might be treated a little more humanely.  Our cost savings and profits don't just happen magically--these advantages come at the cost of others being disadvantaged.  But if we could add a little more morality to our cutthroat competition and say, I'm willing to win a bit less so others can have a little more, then we could all move closer to coming out ahead together.  It's not necessarily natural or instinctive, since it's much easier to think, If I don't grab every little advantage available to me, then some other greedy guy will.  But it doesn't have to be that way.

I have an abundance of thoughts rattling around in my brain right now, all spurred by the excellent article I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave, so I think what I'll offer in reaction is a sort of associative annotated bibliography, with brief introductions to help you follow my connections and key quotes attempting to capture the thrust of each link.

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This is lengthy and takes some time to read, but it's well worth it.  I've tried to capture the essence, but there is much more (including links to investigations of other warehouses where conditions were even worse).

I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave
My brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying, dildo-packing time inside the online-shipping machine

 . . . "They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they're gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they're gonna increase the goals. But they'll be yelling at you all the time. It's like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they're going to tell you, 'You're not good enough, you're not good enough, you're not good enough,' to make you work harder. Don't say, 'This is the best I can do.' Say, 'I'll try,' even if you know you can't do it. Because if you say, 'This is the best I can do,' they'll let you go. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You'll see people dropping all around you. But don't take it personally and break down or start crying when they yell at you." . . .

I'm assigned a schedule of Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. When additional overtime is necessary, which it will be soon (Christmas!), I should expect to leave at 7 or 7:30 p.m. instead. Eight days after applying, i.e., after my drug test has cleared, I walk through a small, desolate town nearly an hour outside the city where I was hired. This is where the warehouse is, way out here, a long commute for many of my coworkers. . . .

"You look way too happy," an Amalgamated supervisor says to me. He has appeared next to me as I work, and in the silence of the vast warehouse, his presence catches me by surprise. His comment, even more so.

"Really?" I ask.

I don't really feel happy. By the fourth morning that I drag myself out of bed long before dawn, my self-pity has turned into actual concern. There's a screaming pain running across the back of my shoulders. "You need to take 800 milligrams of Advil a day," a woman in her late 50s or early 60s advised me when we all congregated in the break room before work. When I arrived, I stashed my lunch on a bottom ledge of the cheap metal shelving lining the break room walls, then hesitated before walking away. I cursed myself. I forgot something in the bag, but there was no way to get at it without crouching or bending over, and any extra times of doing that today were times I couldn't really afford. The unhappy-looking guy I always make a point of smiling at told me, as we were hustling to our stations, that this is actually the second time he's worked here: A few weeks back he missed some time for doctors' appointments when his arthritis flared up, and though he had notes for the absences, he was fired; he had to start the application process over again, which cost him an extra week and a half of work. "Zoom zoom! Pick it up! Pickers' pace, guys!" we were prodded this morning. Since we already felt like we were moving pretty fast, I'm quite dispirited, in fact.

"Really?" I ask.

"Well," the supervisor qualifies. "Just everybody else is usually really sad or mad by the time they've been working here this long."

It's my 28th hour as an employee.

I probably look happier than I should because I have the extreme luxury of not giving a shit about keeping this job. Nevertheless, I'm tearing around my assigned sector hard enough to keep myself consistently light-headed and a little out of breath. . . .

One suggestion for minimizing work-related pain and strain is to get a stepladder to retrieve any items on shelves above your head rather than getting up on your toes and overreaching. But grabbing one of the stepladders stashed few and far between among the rows of merchandise takes time. Another is to alternate the hand you use to hold and wield your cumbersome scanner. "You'll feel carpal tunnel start to set in," one of the supervisors told me, "so you'll want to change hands." But that, too, he admitted, costs time, since you have to hit the bar code at just the right angle for it to scan, and your dominant hand is way more likely to nail it the first time. Time is not a thing I have to spare. I'm still only at 57 percent of my goal. . . .

We will be fired if we say we just can't or won't get better, the workamper tells me. But so long as I resign myself to hearing how inadequate I am on a regular basis, I can keep this job. "Do you think this job has to be this terrible?" I ask the workamper.

"Oh, no," she says, and makes a face at me like I've asked a stupid question, which I have. As if Amalgamated couldn't bear to lose a fraction of a percent of profits by employing a few more than the absolute minimum of bodies they have to, or by storing the merchandise at halfway ergonomic heights and angles. But that would cost space, and space costs money, and money is not a thing customers could possibly be expected to hand over for this service without huffily taking their business elsewhere. Charging for shipping does cause high abandonment rates of online orders, though it's not clear whether people wouldn't pay a few bucks for shipping, or a bit more for the products, if they were guaranteed that no low-income workers would be tortured or exploited in the handling of their purchases.

"The first step is awareness," an e-commerce specialist will tell me later. . . .

At today's pickers' meeting, we are reminded that customers are waiting. We cannot move at a "comfortable pace," because if we are comfortable, we will never make our numbers, and customers are not willing to wait. And it's Christmastime. We got 2.7 million orders this week. People need—need—these items and they need them right now. So even if you've worked here long enough to be granted time off, you are not allowed to use it until the holidays are over. (And also forget about Election Day, which is today. "What if I want to vote?" I ask a supervisor. "I think you should!" he says. "But if I leave I'll get fired," I say. To which he makes a sad face before saying, "Yeah.") . . . .

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A few years ago some friends and I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and discussed it online through a blog.  The book was an attempt to make the general public aware of the horrific working conditions in factories a hundred years ago in an attempt to bring about change.  The situation in the article above strikes me as similar.

The Jungle Book Discussion

Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” as a labor exposé. He hoped that the book, which was billed as “the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of wage slavery,” would lead to improvements for the people to whom he dedicated it, “the workingmen of America.” But readers of “The Jungle” were less appalled by Sinclair’s accounts of horrific working conditions than by what they learned about their food. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he famously declared, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” . . .

So I think Sinclair is very deliberate about Jurgis’s pat response to every adversity at the start of the book: “I will work harder.” According to the American mythology, that will do the trick. But we see that Jurgis--and the whole family--works as hard as humanly possible only to find it’s not enough to save them. Their disadvantages are too great, the obstacles stacked against them too powerful, to simply be overcome by hard work. Sinclair uses Jurgis’s story to deconstruct the idea of the American Dream, to show that it is more myth than mythology. There is an element of truth to the concept, of course, but the reality is much more complex than the “blame the victim” approach that’s generally espoused. . . .

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One of my previous posts, sharing some philosophical grounding for where I'm coming from when I say it doesn't all have to be pure profit-motivated competition.

You Can't Have Winners Without Losers

 . . . So, if we ever hope to really have a "we" that succeeds together as a group--where we are all winners and don't have any losers on our team--there has to be more to our measures of success, to how we define ourselves, to the core of our philosophical models than pure competition.  It needs to be an ingredient, but it needs to be moderated. . . .

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Another previous post looking at motivation in our business practices.

Free Market Values

 . . . So the more we define ourselves as purely self-interested individuals with only market concerns, the less moral our decisions and transactions will be.  The more purely capitalistic our free market structures and institutions are, the less concern we'll all have for others and any sense of the common good. . . .

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Whether we want it or not, online shopping is the business model of the future.

Malls Must Move Beyond Shopping to Survive in Internet Era

  . . . While retailers and mall owners struggle to find answers, all agree that warehouse property owners are the big beneficiaries of the change in retail habits.

Every additional 1 billion euros of online sales resulted in an average additional warehouse demand of approximately 72,000 square meters in Britain, Germany and France over the last five years, a report from warehouse landlord Prologis said last year.

"Logistics is the new retail," said Simon Hope, global head of capital markets at property consultant Savills, referring to the way changing consumer trends will affect the way investors see property. . . .

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There is a big movement in Republican-controlled states, including mine, to get rid of income taxes and replace them with sales taxes.  Critics are pretty unanimous that this makes the tax code less progressive and hurts individuals with less money much more than it does corporations and the wealthy.

Paul Ryan Wants to Cut Income Taxes.  Bobby Jindal Wants to Kill Them Dead.

 . . . it’s pretty clear that getting rid of income taxes makes state tax codes more regressive. . . .

So the evidence that scrapping income taxes and replacing them dollar-for-dollar with sales or property taxes would help growth is thin at best. And the evidence that that change would increase taxes on poor people and decrease them on the rich are considerable.

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So not only would the policy changes likely hurt struggling warehouse workers, the sales tax increases may never make up the lost revenue if shopping is increasingly done online--since companies like Amazon do everything in their power to avoid paying sales taxes based on the claim that the sales cross state boundaries.

Amazon's Scorched-Earth War Against the Rest of Us

At first glance this seems silly. Can a 5-to-10-percent price difference really be such a deal breaker for Amazon? But Caldwell has a point: Amazon's ferocious response to recent attempts to get it to collect sales taxes suggests a company that thinks its life depends on not paying them. . . .

In the meantime, state treasuries are slowly but steadily being bled dry thanks to Amazon's take-no-prisoners approach to paying taxes. With most states still hammered by depressed tax collections thanks to the poor economy, this means that Amazon's remorseless resistance to collecting taxes is in direct conflict with funding for schools, parks, medical care, and street repairs.

Why wage a brutal, unpopular, scorched-earth campaign like this over a few percentage points? Probably because Caldwell is right: For all its talk of technology and convenience and selection, Amazon basically stays in business because it can charge slightly lower prices than brick-and-mortar stores. A level playing field might be good for state coffers and the schools and police officers they support, but to Amazon that doesn't matter. It's nothing personal, mind you. Just business.

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When companies don't pay their employees enough--or treat them so poorly that they develop health problems and fire them so cavalierly that they regularly end up on unemployment benefits--the rest of us are stuck making up the difference.  We'd all be better off if they were paid and treated well enough that nearly everyone could make ends meet without assistance.

Alan Grayson Says More Walmart Employees on Medicaid, Food Stamps Than Other Companies

Walmart employees are paid so little, he argued, they often seek government programs for help.

"In state after state, the largest group of Medicaid recipients is Walmart employees. I'm sure that the same thing is true of food stamp recipients. Each Walmart ‘associate’ costs the taxpayers an average of more than $1,000 in public assistance," Grayson wrote in a Huffington Post column on Nov. 24, 2012.

He doubled down in a subsequent interview with The Young Turks show on Current TV, saying Walmart employees represent "the largest group of food stamp recipients."

Democrats and labor unions have long been critical of the non-union retailer and have recently been emphasizing that its low wages end up costing government because workers seek food stamps and other aid. ("Wal-Mart" is the corporation. "Walmart" is a store.)

We wondered if Grayson was right that the chain's impact was that large, so we dug into the numbers. . . .

Grayson's claim about Wal-Mart employees on Medicaid and food stamps has support from several reports, although it's worth noting that some of them come from Democratic or labor-funded groups that are critical of Wal-Mart.

Comprehensive figures are not available, but we did find considerable evidence that echoes Grayson’s point about employee dependence on public health assistance in several states. His claim about Walmart employees on food stamps is not as substantiated, but we did not find any substantial evidence that contradicted his point.

His claim about the $1,000 cost has the least support because it's based on two studies that are eight years old.

Also, the presence of Wal-Mart at the top of the list is not necessarily unexpected given its size and the nature of wages for retailing.

On balance, we rate the claim Mostly True.

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But it doesn't have to be this way.  And not just from an idealistic perspective.

The Trader Joe's Lesson: How to Pay a Living Wage and Still Make Money in Retail
Companies that invest in higher salaries for low-level employees find success in a competitive market

Many employers believe that one of the best ways to raise their profit margin is to cut labor costs. But companies like QuikTrip, the grocery-store chain Trader Joe's, and Costco Wholesale are proving that the decision to offer low wages is a choice, not an economic necessity. All three are low-cost retailers, a sector that is traditionally known for relying on part-time, low-paid employees. Yet these companies have all found that the act of valuing workers can pay off in the form of increased sales and productivity. . . .

As global competition increases and cheap, convenient commerce finds a natural home online, the most successful companies may be those that focus on delivering a better customer experience. . . .

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One other thought about alternative economic models.  This one likely has to do more with the arts and our patronage of them than the purchasing of purely physical items, but there are many ideas here worth exploring and possible applications to consider.

TED Talk: Amanda Palmer: The Art of Asking

  . . . And this is the moment I decide I'm just going to give away my music for free online whenever possible, so it's like Metallica over here, Napster, bad; Amanda Palmer over here, and I'm going to encourage torrenting, downloading, sharing, but I'm going to ask for help, because I saw it work on the street. So I fought my way off my label and for my next project with my new band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, I turned to crowdfunding, and I fell into those thousands of connections that I'd made, and I asked my crowd to catch me. And the goal was 100,000 dollars. My fans backed me at nearly 1.2 million, which was the biggest music crowdfunding project to date.


And you can see how many people it is. It's about 25,000 people.

And the media asked, "Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy. How did you make all these people pay for music?" And the real answer is, I didn't make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I'd connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you. It's kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists. They don't want to ask for things. But it's not easy. It's not easy to ask. And a lot of artists have a problem with this. Asking makes you vulnerable. . . .

My music career has been spent trying to encounter people on the Internet the way I could on the box, so blogging and tweeting not just about my tour dates and my new video but about our work and our art and our fears and our hangovers, our mistakes, and we see each other. And I think when we really see each other, we want to help each other.

I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, "How do we make people pay for music?" What if we started asking, "How do we let people pay for music?"

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