Holiday season nears, dear INDY reader, and I wonder what you’ll be ordering from Amazon—a roasting pan, scented candles, or perhaps a “Bah, humbug” coffee mug?

I’ll be packing those orders, scrambling to box the expected 180 packages an hour. More than 6,000 of us labor away in a giant windowless warehouse near Raleigh off I-40. 

Duke anthropologist and Amazon worker Orin Starn Credit: Courtesy of the subject

We’ve had some worker wins lately—the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the Screen Writers Guild, and, closer to home, at REI and the Duke Graduate Students Union. But heady talk about resurgent unionism belies the beaten-down condition of millions more American workers. 

My day job is as a Duke anthropology professor, but I’m working full-time at Amazon to learn more about it. We’re quite the mix between teenagers and seniors, military vets and anime nerds, hip-hop princes, and migrants from around the world, although tilting young and Black in the majority.

You work 11-hour shifts and earn $16.50 an hour at my facility. That’s not even half what MIT economists estimate as the minimum living wage of $38.23 an hour for an adult with a child in the Raleigh area. 

At Walmart, McDonald’s, or Home Depot, you’ll make the same starvation pay or less. These companies get away with their misery pay by keeping unions out. Barely 10 percent of American workers belong to a union despite the momentum at Starbucks and few other companies.

That’s down from 35 percent in the labor movement’s heyday a half century ago.

No unions means nobody to force companies to do right by their workers.

As the crazy-volume holiday shopping begins, we’ll soon be working mandatory 60-hour weeks. I’ll pack more than 1,000 boxes a day. My coworkers at ship dock will trudge upward of 10 miles loading up the big blue tractor trailers that will get packages on the way to your door everywhere across the Triangle. 

But Amazon doesn’t pay holiday bonuses. Equal-opportunity miserly, the company gives no paid time off for Christmas, Ramadan, Diwali, Passover, or any other day of the year.

Our facility will close for part of Christmas Day—yet the “holiday” is unpaid.

Instead a cheery sign about ”Letters to Santa” has appeared in our break room. Do you know a needy fellow worker? Or are you suffering hardship yourself? The sign explains that you can write Santa requesting help, and leave the letter with HR. They’ll pick a few lucky workers for a small cash prize.

It’s one more sign of the abject state of the American worker that a trillion-dollar company substitutes a poverty raffle for paid vacation days and real holiday bonuses.

I see how hard my warehouse friends have it. A woman I’ll call Mary works six days a week, holding down a second job as a cashier at Dollar General. She and other Amazonians are a health problem or unexpected expense away from the streets.

One of my coworkers sleeps in his car with nowhere else to go after getting evicted for not being able to make his rent. 

Another Amazon facility where I worked had a food pantry for needy workers. That was nice—and a tacit admission the company doesn’t pay enough to put food on the table. 

I can attest that people work hard at Amazon. Most of us are fast and efficient and do a pretty good job, despite so many hours on the floor.

My facility has a worker-led union movement, but it’s tough to gain traction. You work so continuously at Amazon that it’s hard connecting with your fellow workers over the conveyor belt din. It’s not like a Starbucks or REI store, where the small workforce can build trust to band together.

High turnover, union-busting, and sheer exhaustion also make unionizing a hard ask.

Only a single U.S. Amazon warehouse has succeeded in unionizing so far, on Staten Island, and the union there is now in disarray.

The UAW victory remains great news for the labor movement. Yet far more Americans will continue to labor away with dismal pay and few rights in places like my Amazon warehouse.

Let’s hope that Amazonians and other poorly treated workers can beat the odds to organize in the coming years.

Or we’ll have to start writing those letters to Santa.

Orin Starn is a Duke anthropologist and has been working at Amazon since 2020. If you would like to volunteer or contribute to C.A.U.S.E, the worker-led group seeking to unionize the RDU1 warehouse near Raleigh, you can email them at

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