Inside a Dot.com Sweat shop

Interview of a former Amazon warehouse worker Nichole Gracely

Nichole Gracely has the inside scoop on demerits, humiliation, and the work ethic Amazon warehouses demand (think: Columbus’ marauders taking their pound of flesh from the Taino).

Overview (5 w’s): I worked in their Lehigh Valley Fulfillment Center for a year altogether and I served as Morning Call reporter Spencer Soper’s inside informant before, during, and after the investigation ran. Check this out if you haven’t already. I’m proud to have been a part of this story, perhaps the first anti-Amazon piece that really stuck.

Paul K. Haeder: Why’d you become a source for a news expose on this Amazon policy of sweatshop labor?

Nichole Gracely: I wanted to see Amazon exposed and I lacked the time and resources to write my own story. Peak 2010 was a nightmare and I accumulated demerit points due to snow-related absences and was terminated in February 2011.

Here I reference a story — “Erroneous emails lead some applicants to believe they had jobs when they didn’t.

July 23, 2011 by Spencer Soper, The Morning Call

“If you apply for a job at Amazon.com’s Lehigh Valley shipping hub, be careful. Especially if you’re about to quit a different job to work there.”

I contacted Soper immediately after I read the above article and urged him to investigate further. He later contacted me as a source and I requested anonymity because I planned to return to Amazon in August as an ISS temp for Peak 2011. I trusted him immediately because of the questions he asked when we first spoke.

I was inside Amazon’s warehouse to witness management’s damage control measures in the wake of the bombshell expose. “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse” ran on Sep 18, 2011 and I was hired directly by Amazon in October.

The following is my anonymous contribution to the story:

One temporary warehouse worker who started last year said a major selling point was that the assignment could lead to a permanent job with Amazon. Workers had meetings with their ISS managers at the start of each shift. During those meetings, Amazon managers would come and deliver a pep talk, encouraging the temporary workers who wore white badges to work hard if they wanted to get permanent positions and wear a blue badge, she said.

“They said, ‘We don’t care if you’ve been here for two months or for two weeks. If you work hard, we’ll notice and you’ll get converted to a blue badge,’ ” she said.

The number of permanent positions available was always vague, and it was difficult to get a straight answer about hiring, she said. Managers would say Amazon would be hiring “a significant number” of ISS employees to permanent positions.

“They said it on a semi-daily basis,” she said. “They really dangled it and made it seem like this wonderful possibility if we just worked harder … especially when there were a bunch of new hires hungry for a new job.”

She worked in the warehouse for six months and didn’t see any of her temporary colleagues converted.
ISS promoted her to ambassador, a position that trains new workers. Still, she was terminated shortly after the holiday rush ended for missing work during snowstorms, she said.

“It became clear that they did not want to hire people. They wanted to let people go,” she said. “They said they wanted the best people for ambassadors. I was an ambassador and I was not hired.”

I was pleased with how he handled my contribution, thankful to him and the editors at the Morning Call for the story, and amazed that it received national attention. Amazon has been protested for myriad reasons and the Morning Call ran the first article that crashed corporate’s party. Amazon’s arrogance was staggering and I still can’t believe that they did not envision any potential repercussions for the way they had abused thousands of workers. Amazon clearly enjoys immunity on so many levels so the arrogance fits neatly into a much larger, violent class structure.

The heat and cold received too much emphasis, and it was easy for callous detractors to mention kitchens and other hot workplaces while the more egregious offenses, the systemic issues, were obscured. I know that other workers have it worse, and even I’ve had jobs that were worse. There is something deeply unsettling about Amazon, and I was most profoundly distressed on a psychological and spiritual level while I worked there. Misanthropy and dehumanization; bitter class struggle; intelligence routinely insulted; mocked; punished for our powerlessness. The way Amazon handled the heat, fire pulls, and arson certainly demonstrates its ability to disregard workers’ humanity, and very poor decisions were made. There is so much more to the story! I don’t believe that greater compensation alone would improve Amazon’s workplace, though it would definitely be a start because most workers’ entire paychecks are spent before payday.

PKH: What does Amazon’s policies in the warehouse say about Amazon on a larger frame?

NG: Amazon is misanthropic to the core. Immature, destructive, sociopathic. Everything is for the shoppers and shareholders. Anyone with money is lavished in excess, workers are squeezed and punished for their powerlessness. Amazon is launching the People’s Production Company? Here we have another instance of Amazon’s Orwellian abuse of language –Amazon is not for the People in any way. They should focus on what they do best. Why do they try to be everything to everyone? What is this game Amazon (Bezos)? Amazon could be a life-giving river. Now, everything they do is toxic –venture capitalists and other nefarious influences decide for Amazon.

PKH: How can we get people to fight back and to blow the lid on this sort of corporate abuse when most Americans—150 million—are living at or near poverty?

NG: I honestly don’t know, and that is why I must connect with anyone who will fight against injustice. I don’t have much fear these days. Acquiescence is not an option. We must improve our social bonds. I’m most hopeful because I don’t see youth falling into the same race-baiting traps as their forbears. Racism is manufactured by the elite, at least that is my view. The kids are alright! We must improve literacy, however. Literacy is imperative and I am most troubled by America’s lack of literacy. We’re also terribly fragmented and our relations are less than harmonious and that is a problem. Families, communities, and schools are weak and must be strengthened.

PKH: What are your goals for the next few years, personally and as far as activism goes?

NG: Work with workers for improved conditions. Learn Spanish. Live and write. People tell me stories, and you would not believe what I hear. I’d like to write a series similar to Studs Terkels’ Hard Times because I hear more and more that must be documented. Keep an eye on AFRICOM and Academi. Strengthen bonds. Find my people. No more isolation. No more abuse. Community gardening. I believe that every connection forged against all odds is a potential revolution.

PKH: Is there a “typical worker” at these warehouses, or some common demographic or character list you can pinpoint? If so, what is that?

NG: Amazon’s warehouse is the most diverse work setting I have ever experience, and that is what I liked about it most. Anyone working there as a temp, or even an Amazon associate to a lesser extent, is disenfranchised and powerless – that’s what we all had in common.

PKH: What’s it like back east, in Penn., for youth, for people of color, women, the labor movement?

NG: All are threatened. Pennsylvania Governor Corbett is most pro-biz and his budget cuts are savage. I think that his support may have something to do with Amazon’s arrogance. Look into fracking in Pennsylvania for further proof that our state is being whored out to the big interests.

Story – “Amazon.com Sends Corbett a ‘Thank You’ for PA Budget

“Supporting the growth of Pennsylvania’s economy and specifically the creation of secure jobs for our residents is a high priority,” said Kelli Roberts, a spokeswoman for Governor Tom Corbett. “This begins with the recent passage of a responsible state budget that does not raise taxes and the passage of tort reform. Both give business the stability they need to stay, relocate and grow in the commonwealth.”

PKH: Any comments about the Amazon pieces in the Morning Call and Mother Jones or Seattle Times that you’d like to illuminate?

NG: They are remarkably accurate.

PKH: What sort of transformation, if any, has this entire news report(s) thing done to you?

NG: I followed the discussion boards closely and it was heartening to read that a significant number of people were truly outraged by what they read, and that they planned to boycott. The return to investigative journalism is exciting and I hope that the success of these stories will compel smaller, community-oriented publications to investigate and report corporate and workplace abuse. I was also amazed by how quickly the Morning Call story spread and the attention it received. Soper could have written the same article ten, twenty years ago and it may not have been read outside the Lehigh Valley. Technology facilitated connections and I was able to connect with reporters and participate in labor discussions. It was all very exciting. I don’t place complete faith in technology and activists must have networks in place to stem the threat of executive decisions and potential communications’ disruptions. I’m done with Facebook after it goes public.

Amazon’s workers are no longer invisible. Foxconn’s workers are no longer invisible. The public now knows that the Tech industry utilizes a tremendous amount of human labor and that these corporations that everyone thought were so hip and cutting edge are really no different than the old bosses. I’m sure that a lot of middle-class liberals were dismayed to hear that it is no more ethical to shop Amazon than it is Wal Mart.

Bio

Name — Nichole Gracely
Age — 35
Hometown — Grew up outside Schnecksville, Pa. I taught ESL in South Korea for more than two years, traveled Asia, been around the Caribbean and zig-zagged the U.S. I worked at the Chicago Board Options Exchange and the Chicago Brauhau. I was a Sales Representative at REI in Eugene, Oregon. I currently live in Bethlehem, Pa. I’ve been around. The east coast is definitely not for me and it’s time to move.
Family — My mother passed away in February 2007 and her passing (combined with a mean economy) was a terrible setback. And so I went to Amazon with a positive attitude because I liked Amazon before I worked there. I like to do physical labor, feel comfortable among other laborers, and the pay was comparable to what I would have earned in an office at the time.
School(s) –MA in American Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.(2011). BS in Journalism at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va.(1998). News-editorial focus, Sociology minor.
Immediate goals — Find my voice.
Down the road goals — Share.
Definition of social justice — Dignity for workers. Dignity for all. No rights should be granted to one group at the expense of another. It is more than mere economics — we’ve got to recognize our shared humanity. Working at Amazon felt a little too much like H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. One day I overheard a young girl on Amazon’s warehouse floor ask: “Why they be hating on us?” Good question.
Define “living wage” to the One Percent — We work hard and deserve more than a meager existence. Workers should not live paycheck to paycheck and constantly worry that everything can be taken away at any time for whatever reason. We need a national healthcare system. Now!

Paul Kirk has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. Read other articles by Paul.