The following is written by packagedude69 and reprinted, with permission, from elsewhere…
When I read Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, I was expecting something like a Frankfurt School abstract examination of the totality of capitalist society, which is kind of how the book was marketed. But the book was way more concrete than I expected, and one of the book’s concrete-ier chapters dealt with the audit, from Fisher’s perspective of a minor functionary in a vast bureaucracy whose occasional byproduct is education.
I’m also a minor functionary, part clerk and part manual laborer, in a vast organization whose byproduct is the sorting and delivery of packages. Since my, ahem, work, is different, but the experience of the audit is ubiquitous, I have a slightly different perspective on what Fisher talks about in the concrete chapters of his book, and an experience a couple days ago allowed me to put together some things I’d been thinking about for a while but was unsure of.
The experience occurred during a pure audit situation, the ideal audit situation, when the auditors are present but their presence is unknown and things are truly proceeding as normal. I came back late from my pickup route to the sort, and missed the meeting where my manager told all of us “hey idiots, don’t throw packages, don’t cross the belt, if you see someone in a polo and khakis he’s an auditor and you should cough cough, do what you do every single day.” I was across the belt, and a huge package came down and there was only one person on the other side to handle it. The rule is that packages above 75 pounds have to be handled by two people, but honestly anything above 60 and sufficiently bulky can be basically unmanageable by one person at the speed at which the belt moves and given all the additional requirements of the sort (the requirement to place packages in ‘walls’ so they don’t all fall over later, etc.). So, I crossed the belt. About two seconds later a pudgy middle aged man with a goatee and a partially shaved head (have you ever seen a white male police officer?), in telltale khakis and polos, materialized next to me. He took down my employee number by saying “hey, we’re just checking training records, routine stuff, let me see your badge.” After he took my number down, shaking from the rush of witnessing a blatantly unsafe act, he told me that I’d cost my entire workgroup an entire section of the audit and that I should, quote “never cross the belt, especially not during an audit. it’s a major safety violation.”
Fisher says that the audit is self-referential. No data from the audit is ever used outside of the audit, the set of procedures by which the data is collected have relevance only to the audit and not the thing that the process being audited is supposed to produce, and after the audit is done the data is discarded, the process resumes, with the only change being disciplinary actions, in the form of pay cuts, firings, demotions, or the increased arbitrariness and “scrutiny” of authority. At all major package companies this is so obvious not even the auditors themselves or my bosses even bother to appeal to the relevance of the audit to the actual process. Fisher’s equivalent is his “laid-back” ex-hippie boss, who says “hey look, we’ve got to do this and it’s bullshit, but we might as well go on with it and make things as easy as possible for ourselves.” Fisher says that an attitude like this doesn’t actually challenge the legitimacy of the audit at all, or even make it less effective, since its purpose is not to improve the process or, in my case, make anything safer. A short review of the idea of safety, which Fisher doesn’t encounter but makes up the major component of my audit, will establish this.
Packages themselves are unsafe. Spilled dangerous goods, drill bits that dislocate shoulders when lifted, packages that adjust in transit and tumble down when the container is opened, slippery bullshit that crushes toes, etc. Driving is very unsafe, especially in our area, which includes mountainous areas with long driveways, unimproved roads and tons of crazy weather. And delivering is unsafe. People here frequently let huge dogs patrol their grounds like some sort of insane English lord on a quarter acre, in Oakland some routes are done out of armored cars instead of normal delivery trucks, and one dude got the police called on him when he was driving a rental vehicle, a white van of course, and someone thought it was suspicious that he was driving super slow in a deserted residential neighborhood in the early afternoon.
So all this is obvious. Leaving your house is dangerous. The question is not should we take any risks at all, do things that are inherently unsafe, because we have to. The question is how much should we risk to get the job done. Package companies have said, we can risk the health and safety of our workers to a pretty considerable degree to get the job done. We can give them guidelines, punish them if they do unsafe things, and give them seatbelts and purely cosmetic back braces but at the end of the day we have to get packages to where they need to be.
This is where the traditional socialist focus on things other than high wages puts itself head and shoulders above the grubby small-time crap that passes for militancy where I work. There is basically no amount of risk or injury that is defensible or reasonable in the face of about ninety five percent of the pure garbage we deliver every day.
A courier of very long standing snapped his leg on an icy driveway last year delivering a Kindle. He was well paid to do it and he recovered fully, generating thousands of dollars in extra business for insurance adjusters, surgeons, the guys who took over his route when he was gone, and Budweiser. So from the perspective of capitalism everything is working normally. But as soon as these benefits go away, and they are being eroded at non-union FedEx and at “Change To Win” UPS, the broken leg = delivered Kindle equation will appear even more absurd and grossly wasteful than it already is. Socialism’s demand to not only compensate workers fairly but reduce the amount of time they spend working, period, is the only real answer here. And it’s clear from the internal decisions of package companies that they are able to bear the reduction in work – or at least the reduction in the intensity of the work – that would make authentic safety possible. Let me explain how I know this.
Peak season, from Black Friday to Christmas, is really the happiest time of the year at any package company. Everyone gets Hours out the ass, management give almost free reign to employees, the audit is completely suspended (audits only happen during this time of the year, the slow time), and, most importantly, the intensity of work is reduced dramatically. The sort, which during slow times is compressed into a supercharged hour and a half to two hours at my station, is stretched to an almost criminally indulgent six or seven hours during peak season. We get way more packages but more people are working, and working longer, and as a result the time is much easier. Drivers don’t have to worry about running their routes twice (once for priority packages and once for all the other ones), but instead just waltz into their area, deliver everything in a straight shot, and come back after a couple hours of overtime to a happy family and welcome rest. Management fawns over us for a month. We get donuts or bagels every day, crates of frozen turkeys and coolers filled with burritos appear spontaneously, customers leave us holiday cookies on their doorsteps, we do donuts in the parking lot in our huge trucks, and the checks are fat. It’s labor aristocracy hog heaven.
Package companies are meticulously managed and this freedom would not be allowed if the company were not making enough money. But the point is that there is no reason why couriers must be rushed to, say, jog down an icy driveway instead of walk slowly, or why the sort has to be two hours instead of four, and conducted at a much safer, more leisurely pace. Or why the audit focuses on the individual actions of employees in a context created by the company to compel rule violations, corner cutting, and deliberate unsafety, and not the fact that delivering slave labor iPads or merger agreements is not worth any degree of risk to anyone whatsoever.