Big Data Is Watching You (at Work)

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.)

Catch 22s

“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.”


Conclusion: Organizing

Here’s the money quote:

(Kaplan) “The important thing is where the power lies,” 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?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Everythings Jake

    Where companies perceive significant operational efficiencies will be gained, they’ll implement the kind of telemetric measuring UPS has done. But most companies do not stake their profit on right turns, and they do not want to spend money in measuring. Potentially costly human resources are still required to interpret the data. Additionally, the costs of e-discovery are frightening to many corporations, and so much data is simply not captured, no less analyzed. That said, in general, the societal trend towards Big Data, mixed with the social sciences, and most recently neuroscience, is terrifying.

    1. Uahsenaa

      Potentially costly human resources are still required to interpret the data.

      I would quibble with this point. My brother-in-law, whom I find affable if not occasionally suspect, does IT for a major trucking company and so is intimately involved in collecting, storing, and running algorithms on precisely this kind of data, though what they collect is far less extensive. The algorithm required to rank drivers in terms of their “stats” is actually incredibly rudimentary, they then place these ranks on a “leaderboard” where everyone can see, and the actual work of analysis is functionally done by the drivers and middle managers themselves, without the need for a technocrat stats prophet to interpret it for them. The drivers know what is being measured and how, and also how to make their lives more miserable so as to improve their stats. The whole thing is coated in the veneer of a came, tapping into people’s innate competitiveness, so that they do most of the heavy lifting of exploiting themselves. The “analysis” in human terms is basically a form of institutional bullying; no hr specialization needed.

      1. Everythings Jake

        Again, I don’t disagree that where the company believes its profit is connected to these kind of telemetrics, they will use them. And your report confirms that. But I work for a Fortune 250 company and very little of what I do is measured. I know this because my job regularly requires me to find out what is measured about others. The company is disinterested in spending money for software, IT support, and still necessary other human resources to monitor its employees. So, for example, I can find out what sites an employee visited, but I can’t say absolutely how much time he spent there. Where the site imposes automatic refresh, we can’t tell if he clicked. Part of the success of the Panopticon is the illusion of constant monitoring. We should be careful to examine when the Panopticon is real and when it’s not.

        1. jrs

          I agree that may be largely the case now, that it’s the illusion of total monitoring. But it can always get worse ….

          1. Everythings Jake

            No question, if it gets feasible to collect, retain and evaluate the data, they will. The sociopaths who run the place and the technocrats who can’t help themselves will never understand the value of not doing. Just let’s be realistic about what they’re capable of, what they’re willing to do, what they’re actually doing. Resistance needs truth too.

        2. Uahsenaa

          We seem to be speaking at cross purposes, so perhaps I need to clarify what I mean. There is a social dynamic at play that renders people complicit in enforcing norms and the means of exploitation. I see this a lot in my own worklife, i.e. academia, where, because hiring/promotion decisions are made by committees of your colleagues, there are a number of pressures to appear (that’s the operative term here) to be conforming to others’ expectations, even where you might do something that’s in your best interest and perfectly permissible. For instance, I know quite a few friends who have avoided taking the personal leave made available to them by their institutions, simply because they didn’t want to be perceived as “slacking” by their colleagues, even though they were having a baby, needed to take care of a sick family member, or, in one case, have major surgery. The PanOp doesn’t need to be real, so long as people feel as if it is. Behavior is changed merely by this perception.

  2. H. Alexander Ivey

    “Where companies perceive significant operational efficiencies will be gained, they’ll…”

    Ha,ha. Nobody (in big companies) is trying to make money or save costs “for the company” anymore. They are not interested in making a good or a service for a profit, they are interested in either gaming the system to get more compensation or to get satisfaction out of treating their subordinates as slaves.

    Ignore the social POV of work at your peril.

    1. Everythings Jake

      Yes, it’s bad, but not in the grand sweeping way you seem to think it is. Companies are still subject to the limitations of the bureaucrats that run them. And the costs of litigation still weigh on the decisions they make. The company I work for dumps data on a 4-7 year cycle, because the substantial costs of discovery (as much as $10M-$15M in a substantive case) make it prohibitive to retain the kind of data they might otherwise find useful. Certain kinds of data they simply don’t collect out of that concern. No disagreement that if they could minimize the risk, they’d keep everything, but it’s not the present case.

  3. Kane

    Executives and management can be monitored via technology and be subject to big data analysis of what they do surely? Shareholders and owners can be subject to the same by the government to prevent tax abuse and illegal acts. The government is subject to monitoring by its owners -the men and women driving the vans and working in these businesses via their shareholder certificate – otherwise known as a ‘vote’.

    1. JTMcPhee

      That “vote” is only a shareholder certificate in the Wonderland of libertarian Fantasy. Who has co trol? Who had all the money? Who stomps on anything that might point toward organizing and/or resistance or healthier alternatives by anyone that might challenge the klepto-oligohegemony?

  4. James Levy

    It’s as if a secret election was held at some time and efficiency was chosen as our top and overriding civilizational objective. It would appear that the contenders–kindness, justice, ecological balance, dignity, discovery, leisure–were swept away in a one-time-only selection process. And for those who say efficiency is a prerequisite for everything else I contend that they are wrong. Efficiency makes for potentially greater material benefits It says nothing about how those benefits are applied and distributed. And it ignores benefits that are not material but are essential to what most human beings would consider a good life (friendship, connectedness, meaningful work, physical exertion in a pleasant environment, a sense of autonomy and personal agency). The greatest impediments to a better world today are instrumentalist thinking and an obsession with efficiency. Both turn people into things that are to be used and manipulated for narrow definitions of gain.

    1. Ulysses

      “The greatest impediments to a better world today are instrumentalist thinking and an obsession with efficiency. Both turn people into things that are to be used and manipulated for narrow definitions of gain.”

      Very well said!

      This whole thread puts me in mind of the memorable words of one Thomas Gradgrind, a Dickensian masterpiece:

      ‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use of ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’

    2. JTMcPhee

      Definitional query: is killing the habitability of the planet for most humans and most species “efficient”? I agree wholeheartedly with your points, but too many of us yield the power of words to help and strengthen and heal to the SOBs who peddle the Narrative. Liberal should not be a pejorative, ” conservative” should be thrasshed as a pernicious lie.

  5. geoffrey gray

    Surveillance via cell phone sensors is also coming to mental healthcare. Check out which has an app for depression treatment that is being deployed at big health care outfits like Kaiser. The app tracks where you go, whether you walk or run, how social you are, what activities you engage in, how many calls/texts you make and for how long, etc. The end result of this kind of thing is to create naturally artificial people–people who lie about everything all the time. In other words, a nation of politicians.

  6. Davram

    This sort of story makes me wonder what kind of people want to live in a world where everything is measured. I hear about people doing this to themselves, with apps and sensors, and find the very thought nauseating. I take too many smoke breaks, I read NC at my desk, I think I would go nuts if I were brought to measure in this sort of exacting way.

    1. jrs

      I can see the appeal of some of the monitoring tools like fitbit, and then I remember if it monitors it probably reports, and I’d rather just monitor my own darn walking routine thank you very much.

      I think at work much is monitored but much less is analyzed meaningfully.

  7. Llewelyn Moss

    It will be interesting to see how Telematics bleeds into the consumer/citizen side. Progressive insurance already offers customers the Snapshot Device. The sales pitch is ‘rewards for your good driving habits’. But we all know its purpose is to monitor your bad habits. The reward for the not-so-good driver is probably raised rates and cancellation. And that driving data probably follows you the rest of your life.

    I recall there was talk of making a law of mandated tracking devices on all cars. Imagine the Police State implications of that. Local cops could monitor all cars driving in town and issue instant tickets for going 5 mph over the speed limit; rolling through a stop sign; tickets for not wearing seat belt; driving too close to the car in front of you; headlights not on when it’s raining; etc. The Stasi Police powers are almost endless.

    1. casino implosion

      The ability to sensorize a vehicle like you say is just the flip side of the potential to automate its operation. We’ll see robot cars obeying a program before we see masses of regular humans trying to drive like robots while being watched.

      1. Llewelyn Moss

        Now that is scary. The last thing I want to do is sit in a car controlled by some buggy computer program. In fact, it literally may be the last thing you ever do. ;-)

      2. ambrit

        Flip that equation. We’ll more likely see masses of people barred from driving, thus making their class much more controllable, and much more easily observed. The amount of infrastructure required for “robot cars” to become common is large enough an expense that its implementation becomes problematical.
        One could say that this development will bring forth a system like, say, London, where most people get around on public transportation, and special trips use taxis. Unfortunately, America has had a long running program to dismantle public transport. Combine that with taxi fares that are unaffordable to most “average” people, and you have a New Peasant Movement.

      3. Brooklin Bridge

        We’ll see robot cars obeying a program before we see masses of regular humans trying to drive like robots while being watched.

        No, I don’t think so. We will see humans being used as free (actually paying for the privilege) beta testers of the automation process each step of the way and of course they (the humans) will be watched and monitored as part of the qc program. This allows a smoother legal transition as well. Thus, when John Q. Doe goes off the cliff due to a floating point error in the software, it will be Mr. Doe’s fault since he should have been paying attention. Remember, the MSM has to earn their keep. No one will hear much about automation or software failures. It’s all black box.

        In the meantime, You’re going to see a lot of new state legislation soon about new requirements in vehicles. Mostly software and monitoring devices; some of them automating certain tasks, others preventing you from lane drifting, other watching your eye and facial movements and analyzing them based on “averages” of what it is assumed should be the case for a fully alert driver. If you are deemed less than fully alert, your insurance goes up. If you drift over lane lines more than the average, your insurance goes up. And finally your insurance goes up anyway, just so you don’t get sumg. All for our safety, of course.

        The rear end camera seems like a marvelous idea until it leaks out that police can monitor and record everything your rear end camera sees. Of course who cares what police see in their rear and who is going to put two and two together about what the rear end cameras in the cars in front of them see? And what do you know, they just passed legislation with a little clause that makes it all legal. Hahahahahaha. Then legislation will be passed that gives police the authority to orient your camera remotely, and so on. Now you are paying a small fortune to act as an unpaid mobile seeing eye. Anything less would be unpatriotic.

        As to fully automated cars, it’s going to be a while for several reasons, not the least of which is that such a program would be horrendously complex – they are much farther away from it in any pure form than is generally assumed. They currently need to rig the highway or road with all manner of sensors, for instance, which would be cost prohibitive if only to maintain in any large scale scenario. But there are other reasons as well. Fully automated cars must generate or potentially generate the same or greater profits for the critical industries in question (such as insurance) or it simply won’t happen.

        And all of this is happening against a backdrop of societal, political and economic collapse. Our highway infrastructure is a horrible twisted joke, for instance, yet we are automating vehicles?

        1. JTMcPhee

          Maybe somewhere there’s a cutout that directs toward “survival”? Let us remember that not so long ago, in the Age of Raygun, people were actually TechLovers in bed with WarLovers and ready to hand over the determination whether to launch the Tridents and Peacekeepers based on orbiting and ground based detectors and “algorithms” that would decide that it was time to end the Game by playing out the last round in a spasm of planetary destruction.

          I asked several ardent supporters of the panoply of Star Wars (Reagun version) how deep their trust was that all those millions of lines of code, and all those sensor links on all those satellites and aircraft and ground stations would work perfectly to differentiate a Soviet Attack from a flock of geese or a reflection off the chrome of a Soviet Zil limousine. Totally, they said. So a thought experiment was offered. Thousands of Americans are killed and injured every year from vehicles running red lights. What about we install one of those carbon dioxide lasers at every major intersection, controlled by sensors and code to milspec, and any vehicle running the red light gets bisected laterally and lengthwise? Great deterrence, right? and that perfect code and sensors ought to be up to the simple task of red-light-runner distinguishment?

          No takers, of course, no way no how.

    2. Ramoth

      My husband and I are Progressive customers and have used the snapshot device on both of our cars. We migrated there in search of lower rates after Geico jacked up our car insurance in the wake of a minor fender-bender (my fault). Anyway, my husband earned us lower rates with his snapshot device but I did not. They didn’t raise our rates after the 6-month test, they just didn’t give us as big of a discount. My take-away from the whole thing was that the one on my car (they specify which one goes in which car) was more sensitive than his, since I was the one with the most recent, albeit minor, accident. I tested this by driving both cars and noticed how much more sensitive mine was than his. I also think it was trying to “train” me to be a better driver, or to at least adopt the behaviors Progressive finds the most safe. The training was successful, more or less, as I find myself still driving as I would if the monitor was still in place, and it’s been almost a year since they were removed from our cars.

      1. swendr

        “They didn’t raise our rates after the 6-month test, they just didn’t give us as big of a discount.”

        Not being a smart-ass here, but that means they raised your rates. The insurance industry thought long and hard about how to eliminate the formerly common complaint, “I got in a fender-bender, and those bastards raised my rates.” along with the political pressure that goes with it to increase regulations. Now we all get to qualify for various discounts which may be granted or denied at whim and without much in the way of transparency, and apparently, we have relinquished insurers of any of the responsibility in the process.

    3. Tom in AZ

      My wife decided to change our auto insurance after 14 years, to make sure the 33 yr old in house son was covered under a ‘household’ policy (his past habits were making his own unaffordable). the new company sent along 3 of those devices for our vehicles. I told my wife to call and see if they wanted it back or should I just toss it in the trash. 325K on my pickup since new off the lot in 07. Not going to have some scold in their office telling me I’m speeding on the fwy. Again. Always, And forever…

  8. casino implosion

    I’m fascinated by this, because as a worker in a fast paced physical job (heavy construction) I spend a lot of time inventing ever more efficient ways to move, with the ideal always being the platonic perfection of a formula one pit crew. It’s a game to me, a way to compete with myself and others and it makes the day go quickly. The rewarding aspect however is the fact that it’s voluntary and comes from my own will and desire to excel. If I was being watched by sensors, I think I’d have the opposite reaction.

    1. ambrit

      I remember many a bizarre conversation with the Quality Control inspector on one memorable federal government job. Your experience seems to be close to the ideal. I can recall several instances of process improvements arising from below being ignored or stymied because they didn’t fit some pre conceived legitimization process. Most of the time, the job related fubars I’ve seen were the result of ego problems. With this Telematics system, the group or class that makes the rules governing workplace process is removed even farther from the actual work. What could go wrong? Well, we have an algorithm for that Sonny Jim.

      1. casino implosion

        Reading about the life of Frederick Taylor in Jackson Lears “Rebirth of a Nation” was very interesting….kind of the same way we got game theory from a paranoid schizophrenic. Lears mentions a book called “Frederick Taylor: A Study In Personality And Innovation ” by Sudhir Kakar and altho I don’t usually like reductive psychological explanations for things, I plan to read it.

        1. JTMcPhee

          You folks have maybe seen nurses at work in hospitals or “nursing homes?” The American business model, “more work from fewer people for less money,” is just an unhappy overlay for the kinds of people who seem to be attracted to nursing. There is real efficiency: 204 bed 2 needs a change and a bath, 207-1 has an IV running with a med that if over-administered is fatal, two patients are being admitted, 2 discharged with paperwork coming and going, 3 doctors are at the nursing station, egos and pens in hand, issuing orders some of which are actionable negligence that you are supposed to catch and backstop, time to pass meds and do the counts of narcotics in the Pyxis, someone is vomiting in 209-2, and on and on for a 12-hour shift with the certainty that if the census drops again you or your partner will be “sent home” to increase the workload and profits.. And keep the supplies up, and be sure there’s clean laundry in the linen cart, oh, and do the charting that requires both paper and keyboard since they’re ‘going to a new system….’

          What’s it all about? Patient care, human fellow-feeling, being wired to care, though increasingly it’s just desperation to hang on to a job as these facilities get bought and merged into corporate blobs.

  9. Real ness

    Of mixed opinion

    On the one hand, I don’t like giving more tools to managers to control our lives

    On the other as a consultant/contractor, I’ve dealt with employees in large companies who exist based on creating inefficiencies

  10. Joe

    I worked for Bellsouth when AT$T took them over. AT$T then purchased and implemented UPS’s horrifying management system. I lasted a year before fleeing in despair.

    AT$T also used the resultant numbers to rank and yank employees. Not making your numbers two times led to mandatory training; not making your numbers a third time resulted in dismissal.

    UPS’s system at AT$T resulted in high turnover, low morale, lack of spare parts on hand, discontinuation of technical training, the contacting out of all functions including human resources, the offshoring of internal tech support , etc.

    So from AT$T’s perspective, it’ s all good. How their network continues to function is a mystery.

    1. trinity river

      It doesn’t work for a customer perspective, ask me. So,what are we saying. It doesn’t work from a customer perspective, nor an employee perspective. When you talk to any customer service rep, they are trying to figure out how to game you for a commission, no matter the reason for your call.

      Since productivity gains have to constantly be improved to increase profits each and every quarter, how does that work in the long term? My experience tells me that results in someone gaming the system. That will result in unethical or illegal behavior, or both.

  11. ambrit

    Since this Telematics system is a Panopticon on wheels, it is possible to assume that management considers the workforce as a species of criminal. Extend the analogy just a bit, and Drones become a flying version of the Panopticon, and extend the ‘criminal’ analogy to the entire population, inclusive of the ‘elite’ classes. This ice cream cone not only licks itself, it also bites itself in the a–e!
    The usual mistake the technocrat class makes is that it somehow engages in Magical Thinking where oppression comes into play. “It can’t happen to us.” Famous last words.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      “It can’t happen to us.” Famous last words.

      Absolutely. That couldn’t be more true in this case.

      I’m not sure the working class is viewed so much as criminal as “in opposition” (if the distinction is worth anything). What isn’t always obvious is the implicit assumption that whatever constraints are added are for the purpose of controlling behavior with the given that such control, to be in the best interests of the company, is therefore not in the best interest of the person being controlled. I don’t, for instance, agree that money/efficiency is always the underlying reason. Managers know that personal motivation almost always trumps procedural efficiency, yet an overall mechanized system that “squeezes” efficiency against the grain is still preferred at the corporate level (managers with more pay) and works it’s way down with pretty much guaranteed approval along the way.

      Perhaps this question will be answered by just how completely humans are removed by automation or whether they are still squeezed by it in various ways that satisfies some gawd only know what dark aspect of the managing class.

  12. Denis Drew

    America needs a change of culture — to a culture where this sort of abuse is automatically frowned upon and considered socially unacceptable. This will only happen — like so much other humane stuff will only happen — once we re-unionize. The culture is the automatic protection.

  13. Demeter

    I am trying to fathom WHY UPS feels the need to destroy their business.

    UPS serves a useful purpose, but why the grasping penny-pinching, pound-foolish management?
    A few really bad stories, a consumer boycott, and it’s back to the Post Office with the packages. There are always alternatives….

    Profits aren’t everything. Profit-seeking to the point of destroying the business never works out for anyone, not even the management.

    1. Ed

      If you read this and other financial sites, you should realize that one of the big changes that happened with the US economy in the late 00s is that the idea of a business providing some sort of good or service that people want, at a cost lower than what they charge, making a profit, is out the window. Businesses get their revenue stream ultimately from the US government (actual government contracts, contracts from government contractors, low interest rate loans, equity floats on goosed up stock markets, etc.). This means no need to have an actual functioning business. “Employees” are hired because its fun to inflict pain on people. I am willing to bet that ultimately the revenue stream of UPS is not dependent on delivering packages, and if it was, the company would have been bankrupt by now.

      1. cnchal

        “Employees” are hired because its fun to inflict pain on people.

        I believe that to be untrue. Employees are hired to perform a certain jawb at a price that is less than what that employee’s employer sells the output from that jawb. Maximum exploitation is the guiding principle.

        Inflicting pain is the result, not the purpose.

    2. Dirk77

      You are confusing the goals of the company with those of management or even the owners (shareholders). As this post makes clear, upper management belongs to a different social class than the regular workers. The ceo hangs with other CEOs and wall st investment types. He get credit for cost cutting, but avoids blame for falling revenue due to self-destructive practices. All applauded by wall st who just care about goosing the stock short term before dumping and running. Ups is just another brand to devour at which point the locusts will move to another. God I’ve become cynical. Too bad it’s true.

    3. Mel

      “back to the Post Office with the packages”
      Hence the pressure that the Post Office is being put under. It won’t syphon off business if it isn’t there.
      That business plan has the same fault as the business of investing in rental housing. You can say “Poeple need housing, ergo they will have to pay us for it” BUT that neglects the fact that if people have no money, they won’t pay whether they have to or not. If it costs $10 to mail a letter, lots of letters don’t get sent. If every purchase from Amazon or Ebay costs a lot more, stuff won’t be purchased. We laugh at Amazon drones; there’s a reason for them.

    4. evodevo

      Hey! As a postal worker, I can tell you the Post Office is scrambling to implement as much of the UPS management program as they can co-opt. We rural carriers are now equipped with scanners synched with a cell phone, so our location and package scans can be monitored (doesn’t work so well out here in the sticks, where cell phone service is iffy). Can’t back up the car, can’t spend too much time at the gas station, can’t talk to the senior citizen at the mailbox, etc. etc. Problem is, they have down-sized management so much since ’08 that there isn’t really anyone left to monitor us (heh, heh). Virtually all of us at my small office suffer from carpal tunnel, shoulder pain, bad knees, arthritis of one sort or another, and all the while the managers keep sending out “safety talks” on lifting, forbid backing the car, package delivery protocol (put car in gear and shut off, curb wheels, take off seatbelt, exit car, deliver package to front door, reverse routine – which, if followed would put me getting back to the office at midnite), AND cutting back the number of hours allowed to do the same amount of work in. We have a union – don’t know if it’s worth the dues or not. The corporate model is the big fad right now.

    5. Tom in AZ

      It is just another bust out by the management. Hell, the post office is doing the ‘last mile’ for most rural deliveries for both UPS and FedEx ground. And their prices have close to doubled in the past couple of years. If the asshats in the Republican Congress finish off the Post Office, that $25-30 overnight letter is not gong to make voters happy, when they are just sending a birthday card.

      1. different clue

        If part of the DC FedRegime’s goal is to make large parts of rural America uninhabitable so as to drive millions of people into the urban shithole cities and turn over all the land to Yeltsin-style privatiser land-oligarchs, then privatising the Post Office as part of a plan to make a letter cost $30 to deliver would be designed to make rural and small town people so unhappy as to drive them off the land and into the cities. Making people unhappy would be the point of the exercise. One could think of it as a kind of Stalinism with a Market Face.

    6. jrs

      Well with a more and more disabled post office to compete with they don’t really need to be good do they? Yea there’s UPS etc. but it is pretty oligopolistic.

  14. optimader

    as well as more than 200 sensors on each delivery truck that track everything from backup speeds to stop times to seat-belt use.
    I wonder how many are actually working on any given day? Sound like maintenance Gordian Knot.
    Our UPS driver presents as a happy guy. Personally, I would just approach it as if they weren’t there and do the job.
    My commute includes a road on a main route to the UPS distribution center. I do wish they had a sensor that electrified their seats when lingering in the right lane. It is a dickish driving etiquette.

    1. optimader

      BTW, on general principles I use the USPO for personal stuff almost exclusively. For my geographic location anyway, I perceive it is less expensive and at least as quick to boot.


    How would you get workers to have power over the telematics requirements document so that their interests were incorporated into it?

    Tasers, carefully applied.

  16. tongorad

    Richard Wolff delivers the goods on efficiency with a simple question:
    “Efficiency”: Whose Efficiency?”

    In short: productivity, efficiency, markets – we live in a time of unchallenged assumptions. Simple questions such as “who benefits?” from all of these relationships are absolutely verboten in our current politics.

  17. Otter

    Military training camp. Esprit de corps sounds good. Sounds like, every one tries to do their utmost best. What it really means is, when one fails, the whole group is punished. Which is another way of saying, the whole group watches every one, and punishes the ones who fail. Until they fail catastrophically or submit.

    Collective reprisal on civilians is not an aberrant war crime, but a first principle of the system.
    Stop and search is a military operation.

    Once past the title, and the executive summary, descriptions of Orion don’t say much about route selection. It is all about “delivery-information acquisition devices” and “more than 200 sensors”, and the myriad rules which must be obeyed. This is way beyond panopticon. This is esprit de corps.

  18. curlydan

    For most companies, the execs are looking at the $100M (they think they’ll get0 and the resultant boost in EPS. The drivers will realize the system and adjust accordingly and as best they can. But it’s all short-term thinking from those at the top who just want to beat last year’s numbers. Crapification in the name of stock appreciation.

    Managers know who is under-performing, but higher-level management wants metrics to dumb down the process and thought required to determine who are the best and worst performers. So we get dumb big data interventions or drug tests, etc. It all becomes one more insulting hurdle workers are forced to jump over and one more way to ignore the most important thing in a business: the customer. But hey, EPS will rise $0.03 YOY and the stock options will vest, so upper-management won’t really care about the externalities.

  19. Mel O

    My father was a UPS driver for over 30 years. He retired relatively recently. The actual “monitoring” system they use is so obsolete. It’s a computer tablet with 10+ year old technology they’ve updated twice in my lifetime. The truck gets so filled that there’s no way the sensors, if there are any, are utilized. Something important the brown cafe forum highlights- there is a difference between what management tells shareholders and what it actually looks like on the ground. At the end of the day for those on the ground, including low level management, it is about delivering the package, making sure there are no customer complaints, especially from commercial clients, and how many packages are left on the truck at the end of the day. UPS has always been Taylorist, but poorly designed tech like Orion falls to the wayside since it wastes too much time. Our Orweillian overlords (shareholders and financiers) like to hear that management is automating the workforce for short term value forecasting, but it’s just a big show that may/may not decrease/ increase EPS and keep the management in/out of power. Also if we are going to be up in arms about UPS, safety and part time worker use over the holidays are probably much more heinous. On a bright note aside, full time drivers are unionized.

    1. Tom in AZ

      That’s closer to my real life experience with UPS the last 10 years or so. I saw them daily, sometimes twice a day, had a scheduled pickup at the end ot the day also. Sometimes the truck would be so misloaded (by that I mean the early deliveries would be so buried or misplaced) they would have to backtrack 2-3 hours later after finally digging mine out. Used to feel badly for them. The holidays were awful, even if they gave them a temp worker as a ride along.
      Have a friend who drives for Frito-Lay, and the demands they put on her and no doubt all those drivers are brutal.

  20. Mel

    “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”

    AFAIK this came from computer system design, when Tony Hoare said something like “You can’t control what you can’t measure.” It slipped into management and results in the kind of hell-on-wheels “objective” evaluations described here.
    From what I’ve seen of management, it won’t work unless it’s softened: “You can’t manage what you can’t recognize.” You can speculate that the worst god-awful killer business practices come from people who can’t recognize the situations that they’re squeezing their measured numbers from.

  21. Santi

    Your link to the post of your former job reminded me a fine movie “Mondays in the Sun”. There is a very good scene when the protagonist, Santa, played by Javier Bardem, complains about how lack of unity and talking about “competitors” instead of “comrades” breaks it all. I couldn’t find it with English subtitles, but this one about looking for a job in a depressed economy is also great.

  22. gardener1

    I spent most of my work life shoveling boxes for UPS. I started with them in 1988 and turned in my last day Nov. 2001 as they were implementing system wide electronic tracking and oversight systems, and expanding their international operations.

    UPS was a management owned company until 1998. All of the supervisors and managers had risen through the ranks of box shoveling. They knew exactly what an exhausting backbreaking career it was, and they had the wherewithal to make independent decisions in daily operations.

    No more. After the 1999 IPO the company became a Wall St. commodity. Bean counters, college educated knuckleheads, logistic ‘experts’ and other suit-and-tie types who had never handled even one box in their entire lives took over the company. Employee turnover skyrocketed. Supervisors were relieved of their decision making abilities and constantly squeezed to produce ever increasing numbers. Packages didn’t count any more, only the daily numbers. Any supervisor who tried to buck the system in any way was shown the door. Some of them never made it that far, the stress and pressure from corporate headquarters killed them right in their little cubicles. On the job heart attacks were not uncommon in middle management.

    For package handlers, anyone who suffer an on the job injury was fired. This was quite common. The mantra was that if you followed safe package handling procedures you would not be injured at work. Therefore anyone who was injured must not have been working safely violating company procedures, which was legitimate grounds for termination. End of story.

    In all my years with the company I only remember two rank and filers who actually survived long enough to retire. They were both over-the-road tractor trailer drivers, and those guys don’t handle packages. Your average delivery driver who started out in the load lines and bids up to a delivery route over the years, wears out well before they’re eligible for full retirement.

    And as an addendum, bizarrely, there is almost no automation in the package handling itself. Everything is done by people power. Every box, every bin, every everything is hoisted, lifted, and sorted by hand. In all my years I never once saw so much as a pallet jack in a UPS facility. None.

    Using current package handling methods I don’t see how they can possibly squeeze more production out of the current system, no matter what kind of computer modeling the desk jockeys in Atlanta dream up. More employee tracking technology is not going to improve a system that still operates like a 19th century cotton farm. Need slaves.


    1. Paul Tioxon

      You never saw a pallet jack? Not manual or powered, nothing? The pallet is one of the breakthroughs of modern business in America from the post WWI era that contributed to the economic boom of America. I’ve worked with manual jacks that look like they first came out when the Great Gatsby was first published. I don’t know how any company can not use them, especially a business that just handles boxes. From loose cargo that required labor gangs of teamster and stevedores to crate by crate, off load product, to palletized shipping to cargo containers, massing the tonnage from small parcels to a few easily off loaded cubes sped things up. No wonder bodies are destroyed at UPS jobs like clockwork.

      1. gardener1

        Never saw even the lowliest of manual pallet jacks and I’ve worked in more than one UPS facility, including the second biggest/busiest hub in the country. Much less something as techno as a forklift. Nevah.

        As a route driver (not OTR) I used to regularly pick up an account which made custom oil field equipment. Every day I picked up there a piece of of very expensive custom equipment which was wire tied onto a pallet and then plastic shrink wrapped. The whole shebang just barely fit through the back doors of the truck, usually weighed in the neighborhood of 150 lbs, and was loaded at the manufacture facility by forklift.

        However it was unloaded at the UPS facility BY HAND. It traveled it’s entire journey through the UPS package processing system by hand. Known as an ‘irreg’ (irregular), extra charges were applied for *parcels* like this but it went through the routing and sorting, loading and unloading and reloading, utterly without the aid of any kind mechanized machinery.

        Pretty sure the college boys manning computer tech in Atlanta HQ have no clue this kind of stuff even exists. They have probably never set foot in a UPS parcel hub.

        1. cnchal

          Thank you for your comments. They blow my mind.

          UPS is in the package delivery business, and the revelation that there is no equipment to assist in package handling is stunning.

          Once, I got to go into the back of a FedEx facility, and they had hand carts, so technically they are more advanced than UPS, but still, that practically zero thought has gone into package handling equipment and methods, and all this thought has gone into micro monitoring driver performance is revealing in itself.

          This Orion system developed by UPS uses cheap sensors and telecom equipment to monitor and suggest the route that drivers should follow, but in reading your comments and the comments on the unofficial UPS driver site, most drivers think it is idiotic.

          What that system misses is the knowledge the drivers have of their customers, like when is the best time to pick up or drop off, how long it will take, exactly where to park the truck if that is relevant and a host of other subtle reasons for doing things in a certain way, as well as local traffic conditions that drivers adjust to. The human touch.

          That UPS management is touting the reasons for this system one way to it’s workers and another to the banksters, is plainly dishonest, and typical of “business leaders” today. All have forked tongues, and not a word that passes their lips can be believed.

          My take is that UPS management couldn’t give a rats ass about it’s employees, and successfully wears them out before pensionable payments are due. A modern form of cannon fodder in the “business wars”.

  23. Oguk

    “In the latter part of August begins the cotton picking season. At this time each slave is presented with a sack. A strap is fastened to it, which goes over the neck, holding the mouth of the sack breast high, while the bottom reaches nearly to the ground. Each one is also presented with a large basket that will hold about two barrels. This is to put the cotton in when the sack is filled. The baskets are carried to the field and placed at the beginning of the rows.

    “When a new hand, one unaccustomed to the business, is sent for the first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly, and made for that day to pick as fast as he can possibly. At night it is weighed, so that his capability in cotton picking is known. He must bring in the same weight each night following. If it falls short, it is considered evidence that he has been laggard, and a greater or less number of lashes is the penalty.

    “An ordinary day’s work is two hundred pounds…”
    – Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1854)

  24. different clue

    One commenter said UPS drivers and lowest level managers end up not actually using this surveillance system. Another commenter said the UPS worker-treatment system is abusive in other ways. Does anyone know how USPS workers handling packages are treated as compared with the UPS workers?

    If it turns out that the USPS workers have better conditions for the time being, then every person reading this post who currently sends anything by UPS could switch all their sending to USPS. That is one way a culture starts changing from “below”, by thousands or millions of behavior changes by thousands or millions of people.
    Perhaps the people changing those behaviors in that way can find eachother and grow into a shared-behavior culture and then into a movement.

  25. OIFVet

    Problem is, that’s very hard to accomplish in B2B shipping. Most of the time USPS is never an available option from suppliers, a few smaller ones excepted. Personal is different story of course, but USPS seems to be unwilling to try to capture larger share of B2B shipping.

  26. Andreas Loibl

    Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’

    – Exploitation doesn’t start with telemetrics.As long as you produce for somebody else’s profit, you have to sell your labour power at permanent fire sale, to the conditions of your capitalist master. The more profitable you labour becomes, the wider the gap opens, the more power of disposition they get over you, the weaker your position as worker becomes.

  27. Mark J. Lovas

    On the subject of technology and monitoring, I cannot resist sharing one of my pet peeves. Where I live in the Czech Republic (not in Prague), there are relatively new buses which are plastered with advertising aimed to make us thank the EU for buying or partially funding the purchase of the buses. But, so far as I can tell, whatever high tech the bus actually has is devoted to the monitoring of riders, and ensuring that they have paid for their ride. At each entry point (front, back, and middle doors), there are plastic boxes slightly smaller than a standard piece of paper. And they’ve got voices which tell you what you’ve done after you’ve pressed your pre-paid card against them. (If you merely use a paper ticket, the box doesn’t talk.) So, there’s a cacaphony of sounds on a crowded bus: boxes with their computer voices announcing the entry and departure of passengers, and (a real delight) a painfully loud high-pitched buzzing sound warning that the doors are about to close.

    The boxes actually are placed upon metal posts which would otherwise be available for holding on, and I find that the buses in Pardubice (that’s the name of the place) don’t have enough grab bars. (Put together with the not so good suspension, and you get an unpleasant ride when you are standing up and exerting care to hold on.) (( A further piece of idiocy is a sign without words telling us that we should hold our backpacks with one hand in order to allow more passengers to get on. Well, sorry, but if I did that, I would probably fall over. I need both hands to hold on.)

    Forgive me if I digress even further from your theme, but I wonder why they must purchase such crappy buses with EU money. Recently someone told me that the EU has strict rule about how money can be spent–so much so that the government finds it difficult to spend all of the money that’s allocated to the country. Does that mean that the EU is, in effect, requiring the purchase of crappy (and not higher quality buses? When I say “crappy” I also have in mind the fact that the buses are also so high off the ground that one, in essence, falls out of them upon departure. I know from personal experience that e.g. Vienna has buses built lower to the ground; so the technology exists. Has the EU decided that some Czech citizens don’t deserve it?
    So, to return to your point. We are not only monitored at the workplace. Yesterday very kind local policemen in black uniforms boarded the train to check the ID’s of all present. They never actually said a word. I’ve seen it before and I wordlessly produced the proof they wanted. I don’t believe they were looking for anyone in particular. I think it was a fishing expedition. And I do believe that we live in a world where most of us are increasingly monitored– in and out of work. But I suppose you and your readers know that already. I do, however, recoil in horror at the thought that for most of the people I meet this situation is acceptable and not worthy of comment.

    1. ambrit

      Thanks for this report from The Continent. The part about the police checking IDs on the bus sounds almost Stasi. I haven’t encountered it around here in the American South yet, except for “Sobriety Checkpoints” on the road, where, admittedly, drunk driving is a problem, but I can see it coming soon in the U.S. One more false flag “terrorist” attack should about do it.

  28. ep3

    Yves, I have an uncle who retired from UPS as a driver. He retired very wealthy and successful well before old age set in. From what he has said, and other drivers as well, things went to pot when the company went public in 1999. Employees lost stock options (which were a big financial bonus) and pay was flatlined. and no retirement (well the true defined benefit pension was changed to a good old give-it-to-wall-street-401k “retirement fund”).

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