By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
There’s been some admiring coverage in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere of UPS’s Orion system of algorithmic route selection (driver reactions), but not much discussion of how electronic monitoring structures the UPS driver’s entire working day (or what we “professional” types are wont to call our “workflow”). A recent article from Esther Kaplan, “The Spy Who Fired Me,” in the March 2015 issue of Harper’s, covers this topic very thoroughly (and for other companies than UPS). Harper’s being Harper’s, Kaplan’s article is only available in print or via online purchase, hence not easily discoverable online, and so I kept trying different keywords to find it, with increasing frustration, until I finally remembered that I’d actually purchased a copy of the magazine (!). So, if print is their business model, do Harper’s and yourself a favor, and pick up a copy.
Back when I was a production manager, I used to think the UPS was a pretty good job, even leaving aside the union: Sure, they were super-Taylorist, but you got to be out and about, and the UPS guy was always whistling. Somehow, though, I don’t think they’re whistling any more. (I may have an age cohort thing going on here; I’ve had a ton of jobs, many of them not “good,” but all interesting in one way or another. However, when I read Kaplan’s article, it occured to me that the workplace may have been crapified beyond all recognition, and I may be failing to empathize with that.)
So here’s a description of the software that enables UPS to Taylorize its drivers’ workflow:
(Kaplan) The telematics system that now governs the working life of a driver includes hand-held DIADs, or delivery-information acquisition devices, as well as more than 200 sensors on each delivery truck that track everything from backup speeds to stop times to seat-belt use. When a driver stops and scans a package for delivery, the system records the time and location; it records these details again when a customer signs for the package. Much of this information flows to a supervisor in real time.
Which is cool, from a pure data geek perspective, but maybe not so cool when you consider your supervisor is looking over your shoulder every single second of every single hour of every single working day, and taking notes the whole time. Below, I’ll call out what I see as the effects of the telematics system: Loss of Collegiality, Catch 22s, and Exploitation and Suffering. I’ll conclude with a note on the role of the unions.
Loss of Collegiality
First, the executives use deception (shocker) to market informatics internally.
(Kaplan) [“Jeff Rose,”] who asked that I not use his real name, said that telematics was introduced as a safety measure…. But safety is not the reason given for telematics on UPS investor calls. On those, executives speak instead about the potential for telematics to save the firm $100 million in operating efficiencies, including reductions in fuel, maintenance, and labor.
Fine, I suppose you expect that, but more corrosively:
(Kaplan) Another effect was the evaporation of collegiality. “If you monitor someone very closely, and previously they had the feeling that you trusted them, they may no longer have that feeling,” he said. Managers who were once able to supervise employee performance in a way that was perceived as positive “now spend half their time monitoring.”
And collegiality is one of the things that makes a workplace worthwhile in itself, beyond the check, meagre or not. (For a particularly horrible example of a feral management style and metrics combining to dehumanize the workplace, see Alec Baldwin’s famous speech in Glengarry Glen Ross.)
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure” translates, in practice, to “You only manage what you do measure.” Which is all very well, except it puts the worker in a Catch 22 situation of hitting the metric or breaking company rules, the law, or endangering the health of the worker.
The Catch 22 of breaking the rules (and I love this “workaround,” it’s so ingenious):
(Kaplan) A UPS spokesperson told me that telematics has improved safety overall and lifted seat-belt compliance to an “almost perfect” 98.8 percent. But UPS drivers tell a different story. One wrote on an online forum about a new hire who was beating his quota by an hour and a half to two hours every day. “This guy has literally told me he will buckle the seat belt behind him and not wear it,” he wrote, saying the driver also has high backing speeds, an “absurd amount of bulkhead door events”—driving with the back door open—and many mis-delivered packages.
I would imagine a considerable amount of imaginative effort goes into figuring out where the telematics sensors are, and how to game them. Rather like Winston Smith finding his corner out of view of the telescreen.
Breaking the law:
(Kaplan) Another woman told a workshop that at her firm, drivers got paid by how many jobs they delivered. “So we’re telling them to produce as much as they can — but don’t speed. It’s a Catch-22.”
Endangering the heatlh of the worker:
(Kaplan) UPS coaches drivers to follow eight rules for safe lifting, which Rose rattled off by heart…. But, he said, “if I did those eight things for each box, how productive would I be?”
Bringing us directly to exploitation and suffering.
Exploitation and Suffering
Let’s just recall the stakes for the owners, here. To repeat:
executives speak instead about the potential for telematics to save the firm $100 million in operating efficiencies, including reductions in fuel, maintenance, and labor.
$100 million a year isn’t nothing, even these days, and I bet those “operating efficiencies” give the stock price a bump, too; screwing the workers always does. For example, it sounds like UPS’s eight rules of lifting are honored more in the breach than the observance, since, after all, that’s what the incentives are:
(Kaplan) These days, on an average shift, Rose makes 110 stops and delivers 400 packages. He leaves his house at seven in the morning and seldom gets home before nine-thirty at night, when he is so exhausted he rarely makes it to bed–he grabs dinner and passes out on the couch. “If you were to go to one of those UPS facilities at shift-change time, you’d think you were at a football game, the way people are limping, bent over, with shoulder injuries, neck injuries, knee injuries.”
If we think of all that organic damage as externalities, it’s clear that UPS’s $100 million would vanish if the owners were forced to eat those costs. I’d argue further that exploitation — risking people’s knees, and backs, and necks for money — always creates suffering, systemically. As things are now, when they call capital dead labor, reader, they are not kidding.
(Kaplan) “People get intimidated and they work faster,” [“Jeff Rose”] told me. “It’s like when they whip animals. But [telematics] is a mental whip.”
Here’s the money quote:
(Kaplan) “,” said Zingha Lucien, another fleet consultant. “Drivers might not be happy being measured, but in the end they will yield.”
I read the organic damage created by telematics at UPS as a failure at the organizing level. Sure, the Teamsters have made sure that nobody can be fired on telematics data (though of course managers game that). And sure, the paycheck is reasonable (I don’t know if the system is two-tier), and they have health insurance for the externalities. But does any of that really compensate for a busted knee, or a wrecked back? That’s life-time of pain stuff!
The real issue goes back to what’s being measured: Clearly, measuring the “externalities” or (compensating for them) wasn’t part of the requriements document for the telematics software; the requirements were written by people who, as Lucien says, have “the power,” and the union contract is an after-the-fact kludge that tries to ameliorate some of the damage.
How would you get workers to have power over the telematics requirements document so that their interests were incorporated into it? That I’m not so sure about. Readers?
NOTE Readers, I’d be very interested to hear of the experiences any you have, working in a workplace with telematics. What’s it like?