The continued socioeconomic transformation of Appalachia has been a defining feature for the past century. One of the most notable transformations has been the widespread growth and development of warehouse labor, adding nodes to the American logistics network as Amazon continues its seemingly boundless march. This piece, written by a communist warehouse worker, explores the fundamental aspects of labor-discipline and worker resistance in the warehouse belt. As crisis now (and habitually) unfolds, it leaves Appalachia as no exception. Plague-induced lockdown envelops the majority of jobs not deemed “essential”; the demand for labor in warehouses, the lynchpins of the American commodity chain, grows exponentially. This unexpectedly timely piece draws our attention to where this (or any) crisis could be especially destructive, not simply to its own locale but to the integrity of American capitalism.
It began with a proposal written on the inside of a stall door in the men’s restroom: “Let’s go on strike, who’s in?” Under this was a tally, which reached twenty some lines before being erased by the janitorial staff. No strike ever manifested, though the appearance of the tally itself spoke to the misery of the warehouse experience during Peak, the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when every warehouse becomes flooded with packages to be dispersed across the country by overworked truckers in brown. The last few peak seasons have been relatively tame, with Peak ‘17 shifts not even extending beyond 4 hours most nights. This Peak was different; I write this with an eye to the antagonisms on the floor and labor discipline in general.
Around mid-October, the word came down that management was to hire 20 people a week in order to prepare for Peak. UPS has always relied heavily on seasonal labor, and so the idea is to fill the warehouse and then dump as many people as possible in Q1. This is possible in a unionized warehouse because no one can gain seniority during Peak, meaning that if you were hired November 30th, you would not be a full member of the union until sometime in early February. I sit in on the safety and hiring committee meetings because it allows me to start on the floor 15-30 minutes later, though these were much foreshortened by the desperation of Peak, and so was able to hear about this accelerated hiring plan.
The need to hire 20 people a week meant that very little attention was paid to those who were hired, allowing interesting forms of worker resistance to appear. A coworker on my belt would famously come an hour after shift start, work as much as he was willing to, and walk out. Some days he didn’t come in at all. He works here still, having become far more regular as pink slip season has rolled in and flow has dropped to a trickle. Many of the new hires were able to actively flaunt defying the demands of their supervisors, since the threat of walking out and leaving their belt to burn was always a strong incentive to leave that person alone. Likewise, many people would come in, work for as long as they needed to make money for the holidays and leave, never to be heard from again.
Under these conditions, labor discipline requires a soft power approach, especially to those who have been working there for a few years. The practice of leaving people’s packages per hour (PPH) on the belt supervisor’s desk for everyone on the belt to see is one such form of soft power, since those with lower PPHs can be harassed by the foreman, supervisor, and even their fellow package handlers. There is never any official speed-up in the warehouse, there is only the sound of the foreman coming by, reading you your PPH and asking why you suck so bad at your job, or telling you that you’re the reason the belt is still running, or implying that with numbers like these they will be looking to fire you. If you let it get to you, it’s a very effective way of getting you to speed up.
In the warmer months, an aspect of labor discipline that’s all but forgotten during Peak returns: “safety”, which is a series of habits that one can be written up for failing to follow and can be used as a pretext to fire whomever management wants out. During Peak, little attention is paid to this and quite often new hires go without any sort of training into the gotterdammerung that is the warehouse. Rather, the PPH is the number you live or die by. In this way, labor discipline at the warehouse can be understood as a two track approach, with either PPH or safety being used as a measure by which an employee can be harassed into speeding up or behaving better for management’s purposes. To follow every safety rule, especially the ones requiring the use of a load stand (a little yellow two-step that exists seemingly only to get in the way of doing work), would drop one’s PPH to a sub-par level, while keeping up a decent PPH requires ignoring safety rules and solely focusing on speed. The unspoken agreement is that one will focus on PPH to the exclusion of safety, both as rule and as the actual degree to which one puts oneself in harm’s way, until mid-January when the safety auditor comes around and everyone is to pretend like they follow safety rules year-round.
As the days shorten and the dark sits heavy and cold upon the warehouse, it becomes, for the duration of peak, something like a meat freezer for the bodies of its workers, all brick walls and concrete floors, always colder inside than outside, filled with so much dust that the water runs black when you wash your hands. Belts creak, emitting a metal screech that seems intent on giving you tinnitus. Every sense is assaulted. At the end of every shift, it disgorges a zombie-like mass of workers, freezing from the cold on their sweat-covered backs. They will go home and in their showers will discover that their snot has turned black with particulate matter and that their whole body is disgustingly caked by the same.
If you are loading, a segmented metal belt is pulled into your truck and overflows with a stream of packages, spilling over on either side, sometimes piling so high you feel trapped. There is no way in or out but to load, to cut your own pathway out of the truck, though this is made difficult by the propensity of roller lines to get jammed, either from a section breaking loose or a package underneath which prevents you from pushing it back. The feeling is always one of claustrophobia; you are always trapped and every truck is a premonition of the tomb. If you wear extra layers to keep the cold out, you will sweat straight through them and be cold the moment your body stops producing excess heat; the temperature is like another taskmaster, General Winter, egging you on to keep the heat going.
During Peak another part of warehouse life rears its head, the Sunday shift. For the rest of the year, it’s a five day, 20-30 hour workweek, but Peak brings the demand that one give up ever more time to the warehouse. While the shift counts for time and a half, it often runs for six to seven hours of the most grueling sort of work. The reason for this is, as expected, the season, as the run-up to Christmas means flow becomes so heavy it spills out and steals another day from you, from your life, and trades it back to you in wages so you can go buy something off the Amazon catalog some other warehouse shithead (a friend used this as a self-descriptor once and I’m so fond of it, I use it myself) will spend their holiday season loading. Away go the precious hours of your life, traded for doll-houses and ATVs.
In previous years, when there wasn’t the need for a sudden hiring surge, missing a Peak Sunday was putting your job in serious jeopardy, a fireable offense all the more fireable because it wasn’t asked of you any other time of the year. This Peak, however, saw many workers choosing to skip it, since no one could seemingly be fired and the extra shift couldn’t be enforced with the threat of a pink slip. Other shifts were always begging for extra help, and so one could always pick the time when one wanted to take an extra shift, or simply work as though it was any other time of the year, taking no double shifts and only working the bare minimum. It wasn’t uncommon to see supervisors from other shifts be laughed away when asking people to come in for doubles. Under the conditions of warehouse-wide desperation, worker resistance could take on more and varied forms, even if it proved to be individual and non-generalized.
Because UPS is unionized, most dissatisfaction goes through approved union and company channels. The work of a union is always, in part, to act as an official channel, capable of absorbing feelings that might otherwise produce strikes, and to set up a class of workers who have a material interest in making sure everything runs smoothly. I was enchanted by the bathroom door proposal simply because the past year or so of contract negotiations had been about forcing through a sub-par agreement to exercise the looming spectre of stoppage, a strike. For all of management’s bravado, the logistics network cannot accept any blocked nodes. The union– made up of mainly old-timers with pension plans and wages high enough to make them “middle class”, and young people just starting, with little hope of holding their jobs in the next decade as the warehouses quickly become more automated– is a house of cards, held aloft more by the lack of an official financial crisis than by its own internal stability. In companies without an official channel of dissatisfaction, little workplace protection, but with the same disciplinary mechanisms as those exercised at UPS, the possibility of a strike is greater.
One of the sights unique to this Peak was piles of packages sitting on the warehouse floor, some stacked so high they almost reached the ceiling, with nowhere to go and no one to move them. This is exactly what logistics networks try to avoid, since any package rotting away in the warehouse is, by definition, an incomplete transaction, a commodity purchased which nonetheless has not appeared on the doorstep of a purchaser. Many of these are Amazon packages, since, given the fragility of Bezos’s own warehouse network, much of that company’s flow still has to come through UPS. In ideal circumstances, no one is keeping these packages still at any point, since the commodities shipped this way are just-in-time, but the inability to actually meet hiring quotas and enforce Sunday shifts meant that entire sections of the warehouse were given over to mountains of packages, stacked like altars to Mammon.
This strange state of affairs points to the ultimate fragility of any logistics network, where a well-placed strike or generalized riot at any single node can cripple the whole with little difficulty. If there is a way of pulling the emergency brake on this train, it will require the sort of buildup to which the limitations of Peak Season only one-sidedly point. While the strange anonymous call for a strike doesn’t bring us to that point, it does seem to show that those who work the warehouse are aware of the ultimate weakness at the heart of the enterprise. If a single node falls, the network begins to collapse; if the network begins to collapse, other nodes might join, and the whole of the industry might be put to ruin. The lack of any future (both in the sense of the coming ecological crisis and the certainty of ever more automation) for the younger workers in the warehouses means that the coming years will see them transformed into key battlegrounds of class conflict, where the circulation of commodities might be arrested and the world of commodities thus brought down.
I would like to end with an image from a few months before Peak when a drunk driver hit the power lines keeping the warehouse running, bringing everything to a grinding halt. It was a Friday, the shift the last roadblock to the weekend, when everything went dark and all the belts stopped. I was talking to the Sorter on my belt when the alarm started blaring. Everyone evacuated the building, sitting in the cool darkness outside, awaiting the usual call to return to work. Instead, we were told to get back inside (the drunk driver was apparently having a shoot-out with the cops), where we waited in the pitch black warehouse for the lights to turn back on, for the work-a-day rhythm to return, for things to go back to normal. None of that occurred. We were told to get our things and go, as the back-up generator was a state away and there was no way to finish the shift. Outside, in the fresh night, we laughed and sang and joked as the whole throng of workers left all at once. For the duration of the night, it was as if a dragon had been slayed. This night remains with me because I hope one day every warehouse might be shut down and torched, as all the warehouse-workers cheer the flames.