Inside an Amazon Warehouse, Robots’ Ways Rub Off on Humans

As with picking, trucking may be fully automated one day. In the meantime, said Karen Levy, a sociologist at Cornell University who has studied the trucking industry, “what you end up doing is making people better cogs.”

Few of the workers said they were nostalgic for their old employers. Mr. Chase, the picker with top-10 ambitions, said that his previous job, sorting mail for the Postal Service, had been “very tedious” and that his current work was fun by comparison.

Among the others I met that day were a former Uber driver, a former tollbooth cleaner and a former assistant deli manager at a supermarket. All said they had better health benefits at Amazon and made more money. Entry-level workers on Staten Island start at $17.50 per hour or more and get a raise every six months.

Mr. Waterman, the packer, previously worked in the frozen-food department of a grocery store. He said that in addition to earning better wages and benefits at Amazon, he appreciated having a more predictable schedule, and the way managers try to train struggling workers.

When I asked whether he could see any benefit to a union, Mr. Waterman told me, “The biggest benefit is job security.” He quickly added, “The managers here, they don’t want to fire people — they just want people to work hard.”

Professor Levy said workers facing employers preoccupied with efficiency often found ways to resist. She recalled a trucker who had figured out how to play solitaire on the computer that the company installed in his cab. “It was a super meaningful way for him to preserve a little bit of decisional autonomy,” she said.

Amazon workers, too, have resorted to small acts of rebellion. Near the entrance of the Staten Island center was a wooden cart with a big pile of bananas. A sign announced that the bananas were free (“Yes, Free!”), but with a caveat: “Please, take just one at a time,” the sign said. “Don’t go Bananas.”

I was standing about 15 feet away when I saw it: A woman walked by and grabbed two.