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The Workers Who Bring You Black Friday | The Nation

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The Workers Who Bring You Black Friday

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Amazon warehouse

A worker gathers items for delivery from the warehouse floor at Amazon's distribution center in Phoenix, Arizona (Reuters/Ralph D. Freso)

One morning I am told to report to the larger warehouse. I wait for a supervisor near the security checkpoint, in front of a digital display that lists the number of days since an accident. Today it reads: 4. 

When I follow the supervisor through the vast building, it’s easy to see how people can get hurt here. In the “picking module,” employees dart around snapping up products for online orders, a slip away from a sprained ankle or worse. (“Work there if you want to lose weight,” someone tells me.) Shelves tower overhead, filled with pallets loaded with heavy boxes. They fall, you’re crushed. I will witness one such near miss, when a heavy box topples from a raised forklift, sending a loud boom through the building. Thankfully, no one was underneath. As we make our way to the rear, we have to sidestep workers driving forklifts and cherry-pickers—the latter used to reach the highest shelves—zipping around the tight spaces. 

We head up a flight of stairs to the packing area. A series of conveyor belts are filled with boxes, most reading Walmart.com on the side. The boxes, filled with an endless array of products, must be stuffed with brown packing paper, folded and shoved through a taping machine, after which they’ll continue on their journey through the building. Initially, the pace seems sustainable. Every three seconds or so a new box arrives, and I feel oddly content with the small role I’m playing to keep the online shopping beast humming along. Electric blankets and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Diaper Genies and vibrating baby chairs. Backpacks, keyboards, extension cords. Some of the product combinations are intriguing: the person, for example, who needs a tent and a printer cartridge. Judging by the sheer number of items for kids—My Little Pony, Elmo, a host of characters I’m too out of the loop to identify—by early November parents are already deep into Christmas shopping. 

Then comes a collection of toy cars that, no matter how hard I try, refuse to fit into the box they’ve been assigned. I put the carton aside, several precious minutes wasted, and see that my conveyor belt is really backed up. I know such a sight often prompts a visit from a supervisor, so I begin to hustle. 

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The boxes start flying by. Pack-fold-tape, pack-fold-tape. At this speed, my powers of observation have left. No longer do I care about the product, or pause to imagine the customer; my thoughts, such as they are, tend toward “Here comes another box of crap.” This goes on for how long I don’t know, but at some point I realize that a light is blinking. I look up. I’ve been so focused on dispatching the boxes, I’ve failed to realize that the conveyor has jammed in front. As far as I can see, the packed and taped boxes are frozen in place, some mashed together in a way that is unlikely to cause “customer delight,” which is the number-one goal here at Ingram Micro. I look around for guidance. Not a supervisor in sight. My hands are bleeding again, rubbed raw by the cardboard. Unsure what else to do, I take my break and go to the bathroom to wash off. Unlike my co-workers, I can afford to get fired. 

* * *

On the final day of the iPad project, a young worker to my right calls my name. We’re both doing the same job at the end of parallel lines: grabbing boxed iPads after they’ve gone through the taping machine and stacking them on pallets, to be loaded onto trucks and delivered to customers. There’s a sign on the taping machine, warning us to keep our hands away. Previously, an extension allowed the iPads to exit the taping machine and land on a platform. But today the extension has disappeared, and we have to snag the boxes as they emerge from the machine to keep the precious cargo from falling to the ground.

“Yo, Gabe, can I get some help?” I scamper over. While grabbing an iPad, his sweatshirt cuff has become trapped in the revolving gears of the belt, threatening to suck his hand into churning metal. As he yanks, I pull the machine in the opposite direction, and after a moment of struggle he’s free. A few seconds of “fuck that was close” breathing follows. His wrist is bright red. Then he rolls up his sleeves and, seeing more iPads on the way, gets back to work. 

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