Over the course of my life, I’ve held a number of jobs that were objectionable for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t until I went to college and worked for temp agencies over a summer break and winter break, however, that I was faced with employment that made me feel senseless and useless, as if I were one of the alienated laborers I read about during the school year when I was studying Marxist-influenced social theory. These jobs represent my brief entry into the world of blue collar, “light industrial” labor.
In the region of PA where I grew up, known as the Lehigh Valley, there are a lot of factories and warehouses. It is home to Crayola. There is a factory that produces all of their products in Easton and a packaging warehouse in Bethlehem. A quick trip to the temp agency landed me a middle shift (4pm-12am) “light industrial” position at the Bethlehem warehouse.
My job entailed standing on a line and placing boxes of crayons, markers, pencils, or paints in different kinds of boxes; sometimes I also was responsible for folding the boxes. This department was known as “Creative Development.” I don’t know why it was called that. I also occasionally worked in “Compounds” (again, I don’t know why it was called that). One task there involved sitting on a chair while I grabbed pieces of silly puddy off of a conveyor belt and placed them in the plastic eggs. That was nice, because I could sit. Another task involved standing next to a conveyor belt and assembling art kits for young children. These kits would include things like a notebook or coloring book, a box of pencils or crayons, stickers, and other assorted products, all wrapped up in an air-tight bag made of the same material as chip bags. Each person on the line was responsible for a different step in the creation of these bags; I might, for example, place the crayons on the coloring book as they quickly moved past on the belt. I would stick with one task two to four hours before being rotated to something else. Sometimes the belt would go by so fast that I couldn’t keep up with it, and this would screw up the whole line. Frequently the machine that wrapped the kits would jam; that was always nice because we got to stand around waiting for it to be repaired.
It seemed to me like it couldn’t possibly be efficient for Crayola to operate in this manner. When all that my job involved was, literally, placing a box of crayons on top of a notebook over and over again, there had to have been a machine that could have done it for me. The absurdity of it all was driven home when one day I was at the end of a Compounds line and my task was to place the finished coloring book kits into boxes. Later that same day, I was moved to Creative Development, where I had to open these same exact boxes of kits and start the process of putting the kits into different boxes. In effect, most of what happened at that place entailed putting things into boxes, taking them out, and putting them into different boxes.
After I was laid off from Crayola – probably because I didn’t work fast enough and the so-called line leaders got frustrated with me – the temp agency placed me at a mailing warehouse. A short Hispanic man who cursed a lot showed me around and described what I would have to do. However, because the place was in the process of implementing a new system to organize their operations, I never actually had to do anything! Instead, I sat in the break room all day and read, all the while being paid $7.25/hour, under the assumption that eventually they would figure things out and there would be loads of work to do. Once or twice a huge order would come in, and we would all stuff envelopes for about half an hour, then return to the break room. One time, I had to stuff envelopes with letters from a large internet telephone company that was getting all of the clients of another internet telephone company that was going under. I realized that my good friend from college was working for this company that summer, and I thought it was funny that I was responsible for what Marxists would call the “concealed labor,” while he was making three times as much as me working in an office. I quit after three weeks; I later heard from a friend that they finally realized they were wasting their money paying people to sit around, so a huge group of people were laid off.
Walgreen’s Distribution Center
A few months after my stints at Crayola and RR Donnely, over a winter break, I found a job at a Walgreen’s warehouse through a different temp agency. Again, I worked in packaging. A large section of the warehouse was built to accommodate a peculiar policy of Walgreen’s stores: instead of receiving separate boxes for each product they need, they receive plastic crates with an assortment of products, the number and arrangement determined by that store’s specific needs. Apparently, someone up above decided that this was more efficient, even though it added a whole huge step in the process of getting products to the stores. My job involved standing in front of a shelf filled with about thirty different products. As plastic crates came by on metal rollers, a LED display would display a code that indicated to me what products to place in the crate (for example, 5C6 would indicate five items of whatever was on row C and column 5 of the shelf; products ranged from Planters peanuts to Walgreen’s brand douches). When a product ran out, I had to tell the line leader, and he or she would go on the intercom and request that a stocker or “order picker” bring more. Some people on the intercom really seemed to enjoy themselves, and said things like, “Walgreens tampons for stack K, I repeat, stack K. Stack K, thank you!”
These “light industrial” positions I held were my true education in the nature of “alienated labor,” and of course they highlighted how lucky I was to be going to college and, hopefully, preparing myself for something more meaningful. They posed for me a sort of existential dilemma, because not only was I working for large corporations that I felt surely had questionable business practices, but I couldn’t fully understand how I was actually helping them to begin with. A robot could have done what I was doing; and actually, the more robotic I was at these places, the more efficient I was and the more the managers liked me. But I am not a robot, so I never really excelled.