Some space for stories from the daily jam – written by us, sent by you or found on the net…
*** Delivery Driver, USA
“You just punch the clock / Too scared to punch your boss!” – Dead Kennedys
I punched my boss in the face. He told me he was going to lower my pay. I invited him to suck my dick and walked out. He followed me into the street and got in my face demanding to know why I was leaving. I told him that he was far too much of an asshole to be tolerated for any less than I was already being paid. Short of anything else to say, he offered to fight me. So, to quote Muhammed Ali, “We got it on, because we did not get along.”
We threw down right on the Bushwick sidewalk as dudes cheered us on in Spanish. I found out afterward that he didn’t expect me to actually fight him; he was just talking shit. But I got right in there and roughed him up pretty good. I grabbed him by the hair with one hand and blasted him over and over in the mouth with the other. A big chunk of his hair came out in my hand. But he toughed it out and only called a truce after his left eye swelled shut.
By then I’d had enough and I accepted. I told him “Nice working with you!” and tried to walk away. But he called me back. He had experienced a mysterious change of heart and he would let me stay on for the original pay rate. I had collectively bargained like a true Boston asshole.
I should have been suspicious of this guy to begin with when he spent half my interview trashing all his other employees for being lazy and incompetent. But I’ve come to expect that everywhere I work. Bosses and their workers have opposing interests, the bosses know it well, and workers need a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome not to recognise it. Anyway, I’ve worked for plenty of major dicks over the years and none of them paid as well as this guy, so he had that going for him. Most of all, being unemployed sucks. So we shook on it, and I was welcomed aboard.
On my first day a co-worker gave it to me straight. The owners make delivery schedules that are impossible to meet and blame the workers when things don’t go smoothly, hurling paranoid accusations around when the real culprit is everyday NYC traffic. The workers put up with it because the pay was good, but they hated the bosses, and it was mutual. I got a taste of this right away. The dispatcher accused me of not knowing how to drive a truck and of conspiring with the other drivers to lie about how long the deliveries took. And it only got worse after that. Before long I was being told that I had lied about my experience and my pay would have to go down. The rest is history.
At first the feeling was euphoric. After years of taking shit from a bunch of losers because they were my bosses, I thought I had no other choice. This time I felt like I had finally stood up for myself in a meaningful way. But even before my knuckles healed up I began to think otherwise.
The late 20th Century saw one defeat after another for organised labour in the United States. Ronald Reagan’s firing of the striking air-traffic controllers in 1981 was only the most public example of a vigorous anti-union backlash that continues to the present day. The result has been a devaluing of labour in many skilled trades, the loss of benefits and full-time positions throughout many sectors, and a diminished standard of living for the American working class. And it’s tough to reverse this trend, as anti-union legislation makes it difficult to organise, and the unions we already have are constantly under attack.
Most workers are now profoundly alone. They’re deprived of job security, isolated from their co-workers, and stretched so thin by juggling multiple jobs and taking care of loved ones that there’s no time for anything else, even if they decide that organising is worth the risk of being fired. A friend of mine got a job at Wal-Mart, and the first thing they told him in orientation was that unions were necessary 100 years ago, but nowadays the manager’s door is open to grievances, and that’s how they should get things settled.
Isn’t that exactly what I did?
So no matter how amazing it felt when I punched my boss in the face, I just embodied the profound impotence of the 21st Century worker. Instead of cooperating with my co-workers to form a union capable of fighting for our common interests, getting higher pay, slowing down work, and going on strike if we don’t get what we want, I stood as one.
The fact that I got what I wanted is irrelevant; This won’t work 99.99 percent of times it’s tried, never mind the million reasons why workers would be unable or unwilling to blast their boss like they were Mark Wahlberg on the Red Line. I’m not a Christian; I don’t renounce violence for moral or tactical reasons; and I don’t have an ethical objection to what I did. But punching your boss is no alternative to fighting back for real, and that can only be done together.
*** Truck driver, USA
I had a brief late night text conversation with another worker that I’ve been in contact with over the last few weeks and he said something that really made me look back on things…and I agreed.
I dropped out of high school in the twelfth grade for my own personal reasons and went to work. At 17 I didn’t know shit, but I was working full time and making money. By the time I was 19 I was working for a trucking company operating a forklift, a yard switcher and running a container yard. I was doing ok.
My dad always pushed that I needed to work my way up, get into management, sort of implying I get a “real” job. It seemed that everyone I knew had the same idea. I believed him and everyone else.
At the age of 23 that opportunity presented itself, and from years of being conditioned to think that’s what I had to do, I accepted. After about a month I hated it and couldn’t accept the fact that I was in charge of anyone. I couldn’t be a boss. I made every excuse to get back out into the yard switcher or on a forklift just so I could get out of that fucking office. Shortly after, I left the office and went back to what I was doing for a few more short months until I was let go and the company eventually closed. Ten years and now I had to start all over.
I had a choice. Being that I was still pretty young with a lot of experience, I could have looked into management again. That’s what everyone was telling me I should do. My other choice was to get a commercial license and drive a tractor trailer, which I already knew how to drive. I chose the latter because I couldn’t imagine myself being in management, especially after my short attempt. Also, after being in this industry for ten years, driving a truck seemed so much more important.
After submitting a ton of applications I was finally hired as a truck driver. It was a good job and paid much more than I had ever made… and I was a Teamster now too. I was so proud!! I put some time in and slowly climbed up the seniority list and felt I was really making it. Then the company closed and I found myself in the position of starting all over, again.
I found another job in my local. The work was harder but the money was good. I climbed my way back up the seniority list and things were good until that ended and I had to start over once again.
I’ve gone through this several times over the years, starting over, and I’m not young anymore. My body aches and the work always seems to get harder and harder. It never gets easier.
Over the years I’ve made a decent life for myself but it’s never been easy. It’s been quite hard actually and my body and my life have paid a toll because of it. At the same time I’ve always felt like I was contributing and the job I did was necessary to society.
I often wonder what would have happened had I pursued a management career and then I think of what Robert said (the dude I was texting). He has a much different story but yet somehow it’s the same. Both of us, and many more, took what society would consider “the hard road.” We could have made a different choice and perhaps had it much easier. Instead it’s been a constant struggle of two steps forward and one step back.
He said to me, in spite of all the shit he’s been through, that he wouldn’t change a thing. I agreed, and his response was, at least someone else gets it. I get it.
It’s a hard life and a rotten system, but as far as what I do and the choices I’ve made, I wouldn’t change a thing either.
(Chris, Nov. 28, 2016)
*** Hermes driver:
Three days after I applied online to be a Hermes “lifestyle courier” I was sitting in a working men’s club near Halifax with 18 other recruits to find out what the job involved. There were young mothers, young men like me, and a couple more middle-class guys. It sounded very promising. The manager explained how we would be independent couriers. We could take time out to get our hair cut, pick up our kids from school. They said that if we did one roughly two-hour round of about 50 parcels each day, we could expect between £400 and £700 a month, but it was not clear if that was before or after we’d paid expenses. None of the detail about having to pay for your own fuel and running costs was explained, though she did say there was a 55p-a-day opt-in car insurance and there was no sick pay and no holiday pay.
They seemed keen for couriers as the local field manager called that night and asked me to shadow a round in Huddersfield the next day. I went along and realised I was already clocking up the miles at my own expense and with no pay. I know the streets of Huddersfield, but not like this courier did. The speed he worked showed me that if you are not working at absolutely optimum efficiency, you are losing money. He knew where safe places were to put packages in individual houses, and what the collection days for the recycling bins were because they are good places to stash parcels.
Like lots of so-called unskilled labour, it’s actually a very skilled job. The next day I shadowed a round again, so by now I’d clocked up about 60 miles over three days and still not earned a penny.
Now I went solo. I was up at 6am and at the subdepot by 7.15am. The handheld device they’d given me didn’t work, so I had to write out the route with pen and paper, which wasted 90 minutes. One woman had a Nissan Micra – the boot, the back seat, the passenger seat was rammed. When my car was full with about 60 packages from high street brands I could only see out of the windscreen and barely see from the passenger side window. Some packages were huge – the size of a coffee table, some tiny.
Over the coming days I learned how buying stuff online has become fundamental to the nation. Everyone does it, from the wealthy to council estates. People now rely on couriers for everything from supermarket shopping to a new dress for the weekend. While some were keen to chat, others were very rude and left me with the sense that I was as disposable as the plastic bag the parcel was in.
On my first day I worked from 7.30am until 5pm with no breakfast and no lunch. I was earning between 50p and 80p a parcel, which, owing to the time it took me to deliver them, works out at less than £4 an hour even before expenses. But as the days went by I learned my routes and did speed up, although the longest it took me to deliver one parcel was 45 minutes. I was exhausted finding all the addresses, stopping and starting, and the handheld device stopped working again on my second day – another 40 minutes of my time gone.
The Hermes model offloads all the risk on to the “independent” courier, but the potential reward is absolutely limited. You are responsible for the packages, any problems with the system, your car, paying for your holiday time, covering any sickness.
I learned that the postman in one of the villages had recently had an operation on his hand as a result of an injury at work. His job was pretty much the same as mine, but he was a Royal Mail employee and had just had five weeks off on sick pay. Hermes couriers don’t get any sick pay. The postmen often help out the couriers because they feel sorry for them. They know the Hermes guys get a raw deal.
*** Wincanton worker
￼￼For a while, I worked in the transport office at the Sainsbury’s/ Wincanton warehouse in Greenford. My job was to track the deliveries (and the drivers) to make sure they got to the supermarkets on time. When I moved from being a picker in the warehouse to the office, everyone said, “Great! You’re moving to the office! That’s a big step up!” But it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. For starters, the pay was the same miserable £6.70 temp agency wage that I was getting before. Then, I was surrounding by managers, including all those who had bossed us around and treated us like feral kids when I was picking in the warehouse. Then, there was the 6am starts and 12-hour shifts. And last, and worst, was the fact that essentially, they wanted me to spy on the drivers. How? Well, their lorry was fitted with a GPS tracking system that was attached to my computer, so I could see exactly where they were and how long they’d been there. If I noticed they weren’t moving along fast enough, I had to give them a call and find out why.
I was no stranger to being spied on. Being a warehouse picker meant wearing a ‘watch’ which told you what to pick and where to put it, and told the managers how fast you were picking. This got turned into a number that measured your productivity. A low number meant that your shift might be cancelled the next day…so no long toilet breaks for us! Knowing what it’s like for your every step to be monitored, I wasn’t keen to start spying on and hassling drivers, most of whom were experienced in their jobs and didn’t need me looking over their shoulder. When I said I was uncomfortable with that, I was told, “You better get comfortable with that!”
Spy in the Cab…
It doesn’t stop at GPS tracking. There was a dispute at a elevator company called Kone in May 2015 where 300 engineering service workers went on strike against software in drivers’ cabs. It was being used to verify time-sheets and site arrival and leaving times – even though
the information it was collecting was unreliable. A union spokesperson said:
“Evidence has shown the mileage recorded by VAMS [vehicle access management system]
for business or private use is not accurate and exaggerates the amount of mileage being completed. It is ‘a spy in the cab’ that does not function properly, so it is understandable that our members are angry. This will lead to employees being wrongly assessed for private mileage, and could lead to wrong deductions from wages and ultimately disciplinary situations.”
The 2-week strike was called off a few days in when a deal was reached – basically measures were drawn up to make sure inaccurate information wouldn’t be used. It is interesting to note that the software is still being used and the union said it wasn’t against the principle of VAMS when used for health and safety purposes. But the fact is, most of this driver software and cab technology is being used and legitimised under the guise of health and safety – when the convenient side-effect of monitoring and surveillance is probably more of an incentive. After all, driver shifts that are normally between 12 and 14 hours probably have more of an effect on ‘driver safety’ in terms of fatigue but this is rarely a cause for management’s concern and intervention!
The latest generation of surveillance technology is more far-reaching in scope than GPS and speed controls. It is being developed mainly to increase productivity. The most controversial are things like cameras inside the cab facing the driver to see if a driver is slacking off or making unauthorized stops. To minimise the chances of drivers and unions contesting them, they are brought in stealthily and under the pretext of ‘health and safety’. It is harder to argue for ‘privacy’ on the job when management defends the use of cameras for evidence in fatal accidents (HGVs are involved in 52% of fatal accidents despite only making up 10% of motorway traffic).
The fact is, drivers across the board are worse off today than they were ten years ago. Even though there is a shortage of drivers in the UK, it hasn’t translated into better pay and conditions. Why? Because of subcontracting arrangements that has meant more competition amongst logistics and haulage companies and drivers being squeezed. Having some permanent drivers, some agency drivers and some self-employed drivers all working for one company hasn’t made it easier to come together and organise ourselves against the bosses. But it can be done. Back in 1996 and 1997 in France and Spain, tens of thousands of truck drivers who were pissed off about wages and conditions blockaded ports, fuel depots and roads to big factories. In Spain, 75% of the drivers were self-employed and in France, only 10% of them were in a union. But still, they managed to coordinate informally amongst themselves to cause mass disruption – their actions meant that German car factories had to stop production because they didnt have the parts they needed. And they won concessions from the government. In Russia more recently (November 2015), the government had to backtrack on a HGV tax because truckers staged mass protests on the roads.
“There’s 50 people outside going mental!”
The strikes in France and Spain show us that atomisation and control can be overcome. And the situation in general since then has gotten worse, not just for truckers, but all workers. At the Sainsbury’s warehouse, pickers employed through the temp agency, Templine, worked slow for one day to try and put pressure on the managers to give more money and guaranteed shifts. But it was always going to be difficult to do this alone. In December 2014 some of us temp workers invited our friends to come to Greenford and give out a leaflet addressing the drivers at Sainsbury’s. We wanted to tell them that we were fed up, that we had made some demands to management and might need their support in future. Drivers and pickers rarely mixed, and unless they were in the canteen at the same time, occupied two separate parts of the warehouse. So passing information onto the drivers was difficult, which is why we thought a leaflet would get the point across. We had a few drivers email us in solidarity but it didn’t lead to anything more…
So how can drivers, in particular within the supermarket chains, develop more collective power? Drivers potentially have a lot of power because they’re needed to get things from A to B. But as conditions worsen across the board – for drivers, office permanents and warehouse agency staff – our only chance, if we don’t just want very small and symbolic actions – is to do something together. The union, which, in our experience maintains these dividing lines between different groups of workers, won’t be proactive in this. We are all being outsourced, we all have weak unions, we’re all on different work contracts for doing the same job, being driven to work harder and more ‘efficiently’ for less pay, we’re being spied on. Unless we reach out to other drivers (permanents, agency and self-employed), and unless we link up with the warehouse crews, food production workers or supermarket staff, our struggles will be harder to win.
WINCANTON MANAGEMENT’S 10-POINT PLAN TO BREAK DRIVERS’ POWER!
1. Spy on drivers to try and catch them out e.g. hide behind the bushes and pounce when a driver doesn’t use his totally unnecessary straps; have all vehicles fitted with online tracking devices to make sure we know where the drivers are at all times. Try and stress drivers’ out individually by calling them up and hassling them to make them know they’re always being watched!
2. Cut down time-wasting and limit the time drivers have to talk to each other e.g. make the waiting area seats hard and uncomfortable! No unnecessary lounging about!
3. Divide-and-rule: try not to piss everyone off at the same time cos they might come together and put up a better fight – go for one group at a time e.g. don’t try and cut the shunters’ hours at the same time as you want to introduce new surveillance equipment in the lorries. This is a recipe for trouble!
4. Never admit your long-term plans for screwing people over – do things bit by bit. If you are challenged that you are e.g. cutting hours so that you can, in the future, have less shunters in the yard on each shift, just say they are being paranoid!
5. Always LIE to Sainsbury’s about the reason deliveries are late. NEVER tell the actual truth.
Top managers must sign-off on the exact lie we’re telling e.g. “traffic on the A406 and A205” (always a popular one!) or “driver blow-out” (when we can’t think of any other reason.)
6. Pressurise drivers into returning to work when they’re off work with a workplace injury – we don’t want to get a RIDDOR, be investigated and look bad! Downgrade injuries e.g. call ‘cracked ribs’ ‘sore ribs’. Get a manager or two to turn up at the driver’s house when they’re off to exert pressure.
7. Never presume a driver knows how best to do
his job (even though he’s the one that actually does his job). So for example: have de-briefs at the end of each shift and make drivers account for every minute of their shift; monitor drivers’ performance to try and squeeze even more out of them and then display the results – in order – on the wall to create a sense of competition rather than solidarity.
8. Driver solidarity – especially between agency and permanent drivers – needs to be discouraged at all costs, so pay them differently and give them different levels of training before they start the job.
9. Try and undermine peoples’ skills to make them feel like they are disposable e.g. introduce software for shunters so that a machine tells them where to go and what to do for the sake of ‘efficiency’.
10. Who do they think they are? Grown men?! Give them that school kid feeling e.g. deduct pay if people clock in more than 3 minutes late. We need more discipline!