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Heike Geissler’s Grim Account of the Amazon Workplace

17 April 2019

From The Literary Hub:

Midway through Seasonal Associate, Heike Geissler describes a day off from the Amazon warehouse. It is spent at the Leipzig Christmas market, drinking mulled wine, and then at the fine art museum, strolling through the galleries, looking at paintings, and taking her first deep breath since getting hired for the holiday rush.

I’m thinking of this rare, tranquil moment in her book as Geissler and I visit the Guggenheim Museum on a brisk March day. I find her waiting out front, wearing a wool hat low over her face, angular and framed by blunt brown bangs. We shed our coats to bask in the warmth of Hilma af Klint’s lush, floral paintings, to take a photo together in the reflective surface of a Robert Mapplethorpe assemblage. In Seasonal Associate, art and literature serve as scarce reprieves from the dull work of the warehouse—unpacking, scanning, counting, imputing—a way to restore the creative potential “buried behind your fatigue.” Geissler knows this struggle first hand.

“When I was working at Amazon, there was no time for reading. I was too exhausted,” she told me over an impromptu lunch at The New Amity Restaurant. We split the coleslaw and pickles that came with my BLT and drank many cups of coffee.

. . . .

“There are plenty of nonfiction books written by journalists who embed themselves in bad industrial situations for a limited time, but no one has given a subjective, and literary account of 21st-century flex-time industrial work,” wrote Chris Kraus, writer and co-editor of Semiotext(e), over email.

Geissler, the daughter of a postmistress and a steel worker, grew up in East Germany and now lives in Leipzig, where, in 2010, she worked as a seasonal associate. Eight years earlier, at the age of 25, she won the prestigious Alfred Doblin prize for her debut novel, Rosa, which was met with wide critical acclaim. Less so her metafictional second book, on the difficulty of writing a second book. She then published a children’s book with an illustrator friend, relishing the freedom to experiment and collaborate. But she didn’t interview at Amazon looking for a good story.

“I needed money,” she told the audience at her New York Goethe Institute event. The mother of a young son (she now has two), writing and translating were not paying the bills.

Geissler did, however, take notes on her daily experiences in the warehouse, later assembling them into a manuscript. It was rejected by five German publishers before she decided to pull it. Instead, she re-edited and recorded herself reading several chapters out loud and put the audio files on her website. She wanted to speak to the listener directly, so she supplemented the first-person narration with a second person address.

. . . .

This means that reading Seasonal Associate feels disconcertingly immersive. You, the reader, are the one experiencing the monotony of training day, the draft that comes in from the loading dock, the flu that inevitably develops, the relief of the sick day, and then the dread of returning to work. Meanwhile the first personal narrator serves as a guide to your experience at the warehouse, the version of Geissler who has already experienced everything you are about to: the casual misogyny of the managers, the hands cut up and then wrapped, the half-hearted attempts to spend time with family after a long shift.

. . . .

At the warehouse she is spoken to like a child and treated like a “tool gifted with a voice no one wants to hear.” Everything that makes her an individual is an annoyance to her employer, who will not hesitate to automate her work as soon as it becomes cost-effective.

“There’s this whole narrative of your working life, the narrative of suffering,” Geissler said. “I’m always curious about how people live, what they have to do for money and we can change or improve that. The struggle must be to strive for better working conditions, for the best working conditions.”

. . . .

Amazon has embedded itself in consumer culture on both sides of the Atlantic. I think of the products that pass through Seasonal Associate: punching bags that come in multipart packaging, hair dryers, novelty mugs, and of course, books, thousands of books stacked up, health books, vampire books, and, in ironic twist of events, books of a writer Geissler once knew, a man who supports his family with his books, while she supports hers by boxing them.

. . . .

“There’s a large level of precarious work that creates the conditions by which you are buying a book for $9.99,” says Alex Shepard, writer at The New Republic, who has written about Amazon for the magazine. The promise of well-paid, white collar jobs in urban centers also depends on “ruthlessly cutting costs at every level. Not just in their supply chain, but in the supply chains of the companies that sell on their platform as well.”

. . . .

At her Goethe Institute event, the audience asked Geissler questions about not just Amazon, but also the possibilities of socialism, the rise of the far right, and the decline of labor rights, even in Germany, which has a strong tradition of unions and workers’ councils. German writer Kevin Vennemann, who wrote the afterword to Seasonal Associate, tells me that German readers responded to Seasonal Associate as a critique of a particularly American brand of capitalism now affecting work culture in Germany too, leading to strikes and ongoing issues with workers’ councils. In this context, Geissler has been read as a strong, new voice amid rapidly changing political and economic norms.

. . . .

“She reemerged with this book as a writer who takes a firm political stand and has theoretical tools for analyzing late capitalist working conditions. It’s rare for that kind of book to be embraced on a larger scale within German literature,” says Venneman.

. . . .

In Seasonal Associate, Geissler writes that she wishes she had done more to disturb the peace while still an employee, that she had resisted the urge to play by the rules, ingrained in her since childhood. Damaged the products. Stuck an insult inside a package. Slowed down the supply-chain. Instead, she writes, she and her co-workers took out their frustrations on each each other.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG says, in case you missed it, the author of the OP and the author of the book would like you to buy Seasonal Associate.

And, as indicated, you can buy Seasonal Associate at Amazon!

As a matter of fact, if you’re a warehouse worker, you’ll almost certainly pay less for Seasonal Associate at Amazon than anywhere else. That way, you’ll be able to buy the book and have more money left over for basic necessities.

PG says Seasonal Associate falls into the literary genre of slumming.

“I’m an intelligent, refined and educated person who spent time with the proles and this is what it was like. I hated it!!! You can’t imagine the scope of the squalor and filth. You can thank your lucky stars that you’re not a prole and have to live like that. And, while I was a Seasonal Associate, I met some proles who said they don’t like squalor and filth, but they can’t afford to go to graduate school.”

“But now I’ve been there, done that, wrote the book. I knew my publisher would want some authentic prole color from real proles for Seasonal Associate, so I got it and I’m finished with the prole scene except for talking about it in my book interviews.”

“For my next book, I think I’ll write about the empty lives of the filthy rich who live on yachts and sail around the Mediterranean with no thought for the poor. That will be a nice change from being a Seasonal Associate.”

As the author of Seasonal Associate learned, warehouse work (and a lot of other jobs involving manual labor) is physically hard work. The OP doesn’t say whether the author had ever had a job involving manual labor before, but, if she had not, then her being sore and tired after work is to be expected.

From his own experience doing manual labor significantly heavier than the author’s, PG suggests that you become physically accustomed to the work after a couple of weeks, but going home sore lasts longer than that. Eventually, your body adapts. However, if the author is in her thirties and has spent several years writing books, absent a serious and continuing workout program, her body would take longer to adapt.

This is information that anyone with experience in manual labor would understand. A Seasonal Associate without such experience would be surprised and might come to the erroneous conclusion that everybody’s work experience was the same as her own, even if they had worked in the Amazon warehouse for several months or years.

As to “late capitalist working conditions,” if capitalism is going to disappear, what will replace it?

“The possibilities of socialism” are mentioned.

That certainly worked out well for the workers’ paradise formerly known as the German Democratic Republic. East Germany was so wonderful that its citizens kept leaving paradise for West Germany. They were probably worried about the potential for adverse effects from too much of a good thing. By 1961, one in five East Germans had fled the country. That left fewer people for the Stasi, the East German secret police, to watch.

The mortality rates for both men and women were significantly better in West Germany than in East Germany. As one example, reported suicide rates were about 60% higher in East Germany than in West Germany prior to reunification. These differences persisted over a period of about 20 years despite the fact that most observers believed the reported East German health statistics were substantially massaged prior to publication.

Mortality from heart diseases and alcohol abuse was also materially higher in the East than in the West. Much of the difference between other causes of death in West Germany vs. the Worker’s Paradise was the marked superiority of West German medical facilities and a chronic lack of medical supplies in East Germany.

PG has calmed down and will stop now.

Amazon

30 Comments to “Heike Geissler’s Grim Account of the Amazon Workplace”

  1. There are only a few topics that will all but guarantee to piss me off, and this is one of them. For the entirety of my 20s I was a furniture warehouse worker. It was hot, physically damaging (and I’ve got the long-term spinal damage to prove it), and low pay. It got me through the recession but not without incurring a major toll. That damage was a big part of why I went back to school in my 30s and now work in a lab.

    Until a person has actuary worked as a warehouse worker, and not just as a seasonal temp but as a “this is my future” employee, they don’t have a clue how physically and mentally taxing it is. These pseudo-undercover hot takes about how horrible Amazon’s warehouse jobs are? Give me a break. They’re no dream job, and only a fool would claim they are, but only someone completely clueless about the work would ever think warehousing was anything but grueling.

    Like PG says, this sort of information is common knowledge for anyone who’s ever worked a physical job. Writing a book to complain about it? No thanks. If I wanted to listen to a rookie whine I’d just go back to the bar hangouts near my old job.

  2. What kind of jerk says in an interview that she wants to commit crimes against customers and goods? Does she think this will increase her employability?

    Academics and rappers both seem eager to tell people they are criminals.

    • “What kind of jerk says in an interview that she wants to commit crimes against customers and goods?”

      Someone that wasn’t looking for an actual job, but to make money making a statement.

  3. Ha! Friend of mine (in his 50s) tried to do Amazon warehousing, it turned out to be too much ‘hustle’ for him.

    He also reported that there were bad workers aplenty, the types that would force-jam the machines to allow them a longer/another break while someone was called out to fix their little tricks.

    So it seems Amazon can’t avoid hiring crap labor any more than any other business.

  4. “PG says Seasonal Associate falls into the literary genre of slumming.”

    Thanks for the commentary, PG! I think you nailed it.

    I did a lot of factory work after High School and it was enough to send me back to college to get a nice cushy IT job.

    • You’re welcome, K.A.

      I also gained a lot of determinaton to do something with my head instead of my back as a result of a lot of summer/part-time during school jobs.

  5. I’m confused about this bit…

    “As long as we have this narrative that your basic meaning in life is to find a job and pay for things, as long as this narrative is retold, Amazon is stronger than us,” she said.

  6. Seems Amazon doesn’t care about her as an individual. So what? She’s just a cog in their machine.

    They don’t care that she is too good for the work. They don’t care that she goes to the Guggenheim. They don’t care that she knows Hilma of Klint, and they really don’t care what she ate at The New Amity Restaurant. And they sure don’t care about her narratives.

    Anybody care?

    • Seen enough of them to just shake my head as they whine.

      And for too many of them their whining gets in the way of their working – and they can’t figure out why the boss is telling them they aren’t pulling their weight.

      I did (decades before all this PC crap) have a supervisor that loved to bait that type. He’d tell ’em they were too good to work ‘here’ and should go find a job where their knowledge and connections could get them a much better job. If they didn’t take the hint, it was then suggested they not bother the rest of us with their self-assumed greatness and get back to work!

  7. The majority of humanity does jobs that need doing, to feed themselves and their family.

    I am grateful for their labor, and their time.

    Her, I’m not grateful for. Poor baby – she had to take an actual job.

  8. “At the warehouse she is spoken to like a child…”

    There is a reason for that. Her managers have discovered that if they do not explain things simply and in detail, their employees will do stupid things.

    “and treated like a “tool gifted with a voice no one wants to hear.””

    Welcome to being the new guy on the job.

    “Everything that makes her an individual is an annoyance to her employer, who will not hesitate to automate her work as soon as it becomes cost-effective.”

    Her employer simply expects her to provide labor in exchange for money and isn’t interested in a personal relationship? The horror. The horror.

    I’ve worked in a warehouse. Cry me a river.

    • Lol. Isn’t it strange? They don’t care about the opinions of people who don’t have any experience or know how their systems work. What bastards.

  9. Based on what I’ve read I see nothing that would make me want to read this book. It appears to me that it is like many others showcasing their ADS and railing against Capitalism. I won’t comment further without reading the book. Which I have no intention of doing.

  10. Turning Mazlow on his head is fraught with hypocrisy.

    This is a prime example of someone whose survival needs (physiological, safety) are covered, and who mistakenly goes to seek the higher needs (love, esteem, self-actualization) in a survival job–and then tries to make money and obtain love, esteem and self-actualization by criticizing the job instead of criticizing their own choice.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

    Also, they ignore the fact that jobs like this are not destinations–they are stepping stones up the ladder for everyone with a modicum of ambition.

  11. Writing in German, Geissler uses the formal you, Sie, to address the reader. But at the warehouse, everyone is referred to by the overly familiar du, a “creepy German imitation” of the informality of the American workplace, as she put it.

    “We don’t have this divide in English,” explains Katy Derbyshire, who translated Seasonal Associate for Semiotext(e). “She’s actually granting her readers a politeness that Amazon doesn’t.”

    Well, I’m curious how Derbyshire translated this “Sie / du” into English: We did have that divide, we just don’t use it anymore. When is the last time anyone seriously said “thee / thou / thine”? I have wondered how tu & usted or tu & vous get translated into English, especially for novels. The sie / du is a natural candidate for the “lost in translation” pit. And I assume Derbyshire means that the German readers are being granted a courtesy, because it wouldn’t be relevant in English, since we use the polite, formal “you” by default, not the casual, overly familiar “thee/thou.”

    As for the rest, if I recall correctly, the East German regime was not keen on religion. So I can take pity on Geissler, for her mistaken belief that Amazon is the cause of this idea that you’re supposed to work. I’m willing to bet she has no idea of Paul’s summation of the laws of charity: if you don’t work, you don’t eat. She’s barking up the wrong tree here.

    I gather Geissler is supposed to be educated, or thought of as educated. It rings hollow, though, because an education is supposed to help you understand your society’s foundation, and the pillars that hold it up. She’s not alone in her predicament, sadly.

    • The russians used to have a saying about work under the soviets: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”

      All Germans were and West Germans are a very industrious people but two generations under communism left East Germany crippled. You’d think a generation would be enough to restore the traditional “lutheran” values.

      She might be an outlier, like so many of the literati.

      • You’d think a generation would be enough to restore the traditional “lutheran” values.

        That it only took two generations to break off their connection to their history and culture is disquieting. Especially because I’d imagine that, say, pre-Berlin Wall East Germans are still around. I should keep this in mind, in case I ever break down and write a dystopian novel. But then again, Geissler could be an outlier as you said, which is actually a cheerful thought.

        • Two generations is one more than needed.
          Look at Cuba or Venezuela, where it took less than a generation to institutionalize a new culture.

          Or, without getting too political, look at how populism has taken over both parties in the US in less than two decades.

          Lenin, Mao, and Pol Pot were pikers next to Castro, Khomenei, and Chavez, who rewrote their countries without massive genocidal campaigns. The trick is to control the thinking of the kids not the bodies of the parents.

          That where most distopias miss the boat. Propaganda is better than armies. “One man, one vote, once.”

          All it takes is control of the educational system and a decade. Pretty soon the next generation only knows and believes the new orthodoxy.

          Remember this from a few weeks back?

          https://www.vox.com/2019/2/23/18237410/dianne-feinstein-children-green-new-deal

          • It might be two decades: after I saw the video the first time, I had flashbacks to my childhood. We were bombarded with these “Save the Earth” campaigns in the 80s and 90s. In the 80s a TV special aired one night, and I think we were told to watch it for school. The idea is that Mother Earth was in danger — she was a woman in an ugly dress, and she on an operating table from some TV show. Various TV characters, including Cliff and Claire Huxtable, discussed strategies to keep Mother Earth from flatlining on the table. And for years we heard alarmist warnings about the ozone layer and acid rain, which my best friend claimed could harm our faces if it got on us. I think I assumed acid rain would look different from regular rain, so I shook off any worries about it.

            And then there was “Captain Planet,” which I thought was lame, but maybe some kids bought it. And Sean Connery in “Medicine Man,” where the premise was that destroying the rain forest could destroy the cure for cancer, which was a popular premise in news shows, too. And kids magazines. That campaign just went on and on.

            I was thinking when I watched the Feinstein video that the teachers must have seen all the same campaigns I did when we were kids. But they never shook it off. And as true believers, they have passed on their beliefs, and now you have kids thinking they’re going to die in 12 years. My goodness.

            However, the larger point, that the minds of children is the important target? Yes to that. Dystopians don’t tackle this well, hence my impatience with them.

            • And now some want to give the vote to 16 year olds.
              Probably because of the Feinstein encounter. Opportunity and fear in concert.

            • Anyway, that is the key flaw of young adult dystopias: they tend to revolve around the trope of rebellious youth whereas it is the lack of life experience that leads the real world youth to toe the line in repressive regimes because it’s all they know.

              All the authoritarians need to do is invoke an external bogie man, a great satan, to justify their regime. Just another of the many things Orwell got right about collectivists.

              Sad to see the warnings of de Tocqueville, Orwell, Hayek, and yes, Rand, so quickly forgotten.

          • After 70 years of Soviet communism, the farmers on the collectives still produced more from their private plots than from the collective. Something didn’t work as intended.

            Humans are acquisitive. No system ever gets rid of that. It will always assert itself.

        • Part of the problem is that before Communist rule, the East Germans had twelve years of Nazi rule. Even in 1990, when the system collapsed, there were not many East Germans who could remember living in any kind of freedom.

          • I forgot about the Nazi angle. Now I vaguely recall reading about Neo-Nazi violence in East Germany after the Berlin Wall fell. I gather the East Germans were never de-Nazified because they were swept up in the communist block. So you’re right, the East was cut off more thoroughly than I’m credited.

            At any rate, I’m coming to accept how little influence elders may have on their descendants, when the larger culture is against what the elders stand for. And actively undermines it … The evidence for the wisdom of the injunctions Ye Olde Hebrews had against living amongst various heathens looks clearer in ways I never appreciated before.

  12. Perhaps future articles like this can include the person’s university degrees, student debt balance, and the reason they are working for minimum wage?

  13. Anyone that has worked the Greenchain at a sawmill laughs at her.

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