The Best Thing About a Manual Labor Job is The Camaraderie
The great people I’ve met at Amazon and Walmart
During the thirty-minute breaks as an Amazon warehouse picker, I like to complain with some fellow workers.
We complain about some of the robots malfunctioning or big boxes of items jammed into a bin that’s impossible to get out. Because we’re assessed on our productivity and times, having a missing item and having an item jammed into a bin that’s impossible to get out becomes a big nuisance.
However, it’s been two weeks and I love Travis and Kim, two of my fellow pickers who got hired around the same time I did. We joke, complain, talk during breaks, and engage in the best thing about our manual labor job — camaraderie.
It goes without saying that working a 10-hour-shift doing anything can be pretty taxing at times. When it comes with a lot of physical labor, it becomes even more taxing. Being a warehouse picker is a pretty isolating job. You don’t really interact with anyone unless there’s a problem or there’s something wrong — most of the time, you’re just at your own station, by yourself, trying to keep yourself occupied with a boring and not-so-stimulating task.
That’s what makes the human interaction so special. Of course, we’re dealing with a worldwide pandemic, so social distancing and masks are pretty important — so we keep a distance and obviously try to limit how much we interact, but the moments when they come become a lot more special.
That brings me back to my time at Walmart, where I was a booster team stocker along with about seven more people. I will always remember the coworkers there who showed me the ropes and who I was able to laugh with and engage with for nine hours a day.
Amazon is a significantly easier job than Walmart was, at least in the beginning. Directions are much more clear at Amazon for where to find what, and where to put what. Plus, I don’t have to interact with any customers at Amazon. I remember my first day at Walmart when various people asked me “where do you find the pasta sauce?” and “where do you find the baby formula?”
Of course, I didn’t know. I had to ask and bring them to a co-worker that did know — after all, it was my first day. Fortunately, most of the people were pretty understanding. I wasn’t a cashier, so I didn’t have to actually deal with that many customers.
They told me what sections had which products, but of course there were specific brands of specific products that I spent minutes at a time searching for designated sections on shelves. It would be co-workers who showed me the ropes until I got the hang of it and showed new workers the same.
I remember Alex, the guy who’d been working at Walmart for ten years who showed me where everything went. I remember Pat, who was a painter for twenty years of his life and openly spoke out against Walmart’s anti-union videos. I remember Matt and Lyle, who learned the ropes with me and chatted with me the most about their lives. Matt would constantly talk about how he wasn’t doing well in college because he was smoking too much weed, which we joked and went back and forth about. I remember John, who was a graffiti artist in New York’s underground subways and talked about the various times he almost got arrested.
I remember Tim, the 80-year-old man that refused to back down when managers told him to stop using a ladder at risk of getting hurt, and who worked like he was 20. I remember Maggie and Cass, who decried the fact that they only made the male workers like myself and the rest unload items off the truck and engage in more physically intensive tasks.
To this day, I still interact with Cass and keep in touch, and it’s been five years since we worked together in a menial summer job. We’ve still worked together as writers in various respects.
It was just stocking, so I wouldn’t quite call my Walmart job manual labor. But because they asked all the guys to help unload the truck or lift heavier items at times, it ended up being that way for me. I remember just hating having to stock the really heavy detergents — seriously, that amount of liquid made them impossible to lift.
There were days that I was just tired and exhausted, and only interacting with my co-workers kept me awake and still doing my work. We interacted during breaks and talked as we crossed paths, and we all worked very hard so we just needed the camaraderie to preserve our sanity.
I’m glad that I’m getting paid a semi-respectable $15 at Amazon. In 2015 in New York, we were getting paid $9 an hour, 25 cents above then minimum wage ($8.75) at Walmart, so we weren’t making much money compared to how long and hard we were working.
But it was the people that kept me going and moving forward, and I’m sure we all kept each other accountable and laughing all the way.
I don’t know if I could have continued with the job that long without them — after all, I needed to, but I love seeing the camaraderie in the workplace of any service, retail, or manual labor job that transcends anyone’s politics. The workplace ends up having a culture and community, a sense of character that transcends just a place where people work to make money.
With any relationships, there are bound to be confrontations. I’ve never witnessed them, but I have heard stories about full-on fights that have broken out on the Amazon floor or at Walmart, which are COVID nightmares.
But you have to work together and you have to interact. With spending that much time in a day with anyone means that you should probably learn to get along, and I’m grateful that I always have in every manual labor job I’ve worked.
I don’t know what it’s like for the average worker in construction, an automobile plant, or on the docks, but I can imagine that it’s a similar kind of emphasis on camaraderie. When the job is hard, like in the military, sometimes all you have is the presence and the unconditional love of your fellow co-workers that know exactly how you feel — the mutual suffering and mutual rejoicing that comes with an intensive workplace transcends all the difficulties that come
Names changed to preserve confidentiality