RogerBW's Blog

On the Clock, Emily Guendelsberger 16 February 2020

Guendelsberger worked as a reporter at a local newspaper; it was closed down. Through a combination of poverty and journalistic curiosity, she took a pre-Christmas job at an Amazon warehouse ("fulfillment center"), then later worked at a call centre and in a fast-food outlet.

But the author's note of this book is possibly the most important part, a thing that is unaccountably missing from other works of "I was there" journalism: the ethics chapter. Guendelsberger describes just when she worked at which establishment, that she used her real name on job applications, that she covertly recorded managers speaking as the voice of the company in the states where that's unambiguously legal and took notes in the other case, that she didn't record her coworkers (except with their consent) even when it was legal… this is a vital thing which should be copied in far more places.

After that glorious start, it's a little disconcerting to trip over a linguistic hurdle: to Guendelsberger, the use of "in the weeds" is a class marker, where white-collar workers mean "bogged down in unimportant details" and blue-collar mean "frantic because there's more work on your plate than you can manage". Fair enough for her; to me it means "well away from where you want to be", with a secondary sense of "flying far lower than is safe or approved". There isn't the visceral sense which I'm meant to have that I fall into one of Guendelsberger's categories, though of course I do. Even though I have worked in call-centre tech support, that was, as she points out is true for many people who like to give advice to young people today, quite a while ago, when it was regarded as one of the services a company needed to provide to its customers rather than a profit centre in itself; and when, even if tech support bods weren't especially valued or expected to stay in that job forever, there was some recognition that skill levels varied and there was some virtue in getting them better at the job.

Also, we didn't have to try to sell things.

One of the key points of Guendelsberger's experience, I think, is that high worker turnover is not just an accepted cost of doing business, it's a necessary part of this employment model. The job will burn out almost anybody, and they will leave, and take time (not paid for by the company!) to recover… until, in poverty and desperation, they take another job which will be just as bad, because this is how almost all the remaining blue-collar work now looks, with per-second time monitoring, formal schemes of penalty points for late ("tardy", infantilising with the language of American schools) arrival or early departure, and where being able to take unpaid time off without being fired is a sign you're in one of the better jobs.

I came to SDF8 to try to understand what it feels like to work in a fulfillment center. But the thing I really and truly understand now is that, regardless of how broke I may be, I'm the upper class. I always will be. I won't ever really understand what it feels like to work here, because I know that I get to leave.

You idiot.

One starts to feel that while every little rule might be the result of a genuine problem – maybe people really do spend too long on toilet breaks if not timed to the second and chivvied back to their desks, maybe someone really did steal a customer credit card number by writing it down on a bit of paper – they all end up pointing in the same direction, towards removing any possible dignity from the worker. Sure, the company will penalise them if they clock in an instant late… but it won't reward them if they clock in early, indeed it won't allow them to do that, so instead they have to turn up early and mill around aimlessly until the arbitrary deadline passes; that has no useful purpose except to remind them who controls their lives.

There's biology here, and sociology, and a call to revolution. There are the long shadows of Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford (and Ray Kroc), all of whom made fortunes out of making their employees work at top speed all the time, because when they can't hack it any more there are always more employees where they came from. And then increasing that speed, because hey, why not, it's not like they have feelings the way people like us do.

An excellent book, and one which you should read. Yes, you.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog.

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action advent of code aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio audio tech aviation base commerce battletech beer boardgaming book of the week bookmonth chain of command children chris chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup covid-19 crime cthulhu eternal cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi economics en garde espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 essen 2018 essen 2019 essen 2022 essen 2023 existential risk falklands war fandom fanfic fantasy feminism film firefly first world war flash point flight simulation food garmin drive gazebo genesys geocaching geodata gin gkp gurps gurps 101 gus harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo 2018 hugo 2019 hugo 2020 hugo 2022 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life javascript julian simpson julie enfield kickstarter kotlin learn to play leaving earth linux liquor lovecraftiana lua mecha men with beards mpd museum music mystery naval noir non-fiction one for the brow opera parody paul temple perl perl weekly challenge photography podcast politics postscript powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha python quantum rail raku ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs ruby rust scala science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans smartphone south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance the weekly challenge thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel type 26 type 31 type 45 vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1