What Your Boss Is Really Watching For

Excerpt from Christian Parenti, The Soft Cage (Basic Books, 2003).
From Chapter Ten, "The New Taylorism: Surveillance, Work and Discipline."

Thought Police On The Job

The AFL-CIO estimates that 50,000 people a year are illegally fired for attempting to organize unions. The role electronic surveillance plays in this can only be guessed at. But here are a few illustrative examples: Ken Hamidi, once an Intel employee, ran an e-mail forum of current and former Intel workers to discuss the grim side of programming and engineering at the vanguard of the New Economy. Intel objected and tried to block any Hamidi communication that was sent to Intel employee accounts. Allegedly the firm even pressured Hamidi’s internet service provider to delete Intel-employee responses to Hamidi. Finally a California court ruled that Hamidi’s e-mails, when sent to Intel’s servers, constituted "unlawful trespass."

Even more audacious was Northwest Airlines’ attempt to seize the personal—that is, privately purchased, home based, non-business related—hard drives of several employees who were also union activists. The organizers, struggling to win a new contract, had used their email and home computers to orchestrate a mass "sickout" in which flight attendants and ground staff all called in sick simultaneously rather than formally calling a strike. The action’s intent was to ground the carrier’s planes during the lucrative Christmas season so as to force through a better contract. It worked. No flight attendants meant no flights. Northwest was compelled to cancel 317 of its fullest, most profitable trips between December 30, 1999 and January 2, 2000.

Enraged, company executives struck back in kind, suing the union for waging an illegal strike. To prove their case they subpoenaed the hard drives of rank-and-file leaders. Their demand was granted by a federal judge, but a contract was signed before the hard drives were handed over. The Totalitarian resonance of these two examples should not be overlooked: the very right of workers to communicate freely is under attack.

Big Brown and the New Stop Watch

At United Parcel Service digital on-the-job surveillance joins old-fashioned Taylorism in its most dramatic form. A common feature on the landscape, UPS, the nation’s third largest employer, is also a massively dynamic yet overlooked technological innovator. Known among its workers as "Big Brown," "Uncle Brown," or the "Brown Machine," the firm handles 7 percent of US GDP, has over 350,000 workers worldwide, and was described by one analyst as among "the most technologically sophisticated companies doing any kind of business anywhere."

Always a rigorously ordered firm with a penchant for time-motion studies, UPS started in 1907 by James Casey as a small local delivery firm in Seattle. By the 1920s Casey’s firm had merged with a few competitors and expanded to Oakland and Los Angeles, and just a few months before the crash of 1929, the firm opened United Air Express, which flew packages up and down the West Coast and as far east as El Paso. Despite the depression of the 1930s UPS continued innovating with technologies such as mechanized package sorting and conveyor belts. During this era an authoritarian corporate culture began to flourish and all UPS vehicles were painted Pullman Brown, "because it was neat, dignified, and professional." So too were the company’s strict work rules, written up in a tome called the UPS Policy Book. Along with practical instructions on package handling these pages offer up a plethora of "Caseyism" epigraphs, such as: "You can’t be big man unless you have shown competence as a small man."

Much of the firm’s rigorous work rules and intense surveillance culture flowed from the personality of Casey, who in his austerity (despite phenomenal wealth) and business-oriented single-mindedness was almost a caricature of the Calvinist captain of industry. Supposedly Casey was "so consumed by the package delivery business that he rarely spoke of anything else."

By the 1930s, UPS headquarters had relocated to Manhattan. There the publicity-shy bachelor Casey worked long hours in a barren office, lived in "an unadorned two-room suite at the Waldorf Towers, and was known in his spare time to wander through Manhattan department stores, invariably ending up in the room where workers wrapped the packages for delivery. He liked watching."

UPS was using "scientific management" as early as most big American firms and eventually its work rules were crystallized into a set of procedures called "the Methods." Today the Methods run about fifty pages and describe basic procedures, all designed to minimize excess motion, speed work and keep the drivers moving. For example the Methods instruct: "Buckle the seat belt while inserting the ignition key….Engage the starter with one hand while releasing the parking brake with the other." That sounds fair enough, except that drivers who pause between actions are subject to discipline. In the past the company relied on as many as 2,000 industrial engineers whose job was to watch and measure work practices in the interest of constant refinement and reduction of motion. The same holds true today: drivers guilty of wasteful and excessive movements are fined and disciplined by supervisors who watch the loading docks and even travel delivery routes in search of errants.

But the firm’s culture of observation, measurement, and control took a quantum leap forward with the arrival of cheap digital computing. Starting in the 1980s UPS managers began a massive, almost awe-inspiring high-tech makeover. Their first move was purchasing two leading technology firms to develop and test specialized package tracking equipment. By the early 1990s UPS was busy creating the first nationwide integrated wireless network, a task that involved creating a partnership between four major telecommunications firms and their seventy-five junior partners. Big Brown needed this ethereal web to facilitate its latest technology.

At the heart of the new system is the "Delivery Information Acquisition Device" known to all as a "DIAD board." Carried by drivers at all times, this computerized clipboard combines the functions of a time clock, GPS tag, and two-way, text-based pager. At best the DIAD enhances flexibility and efficiency, while at worst it is an electronic leash that keeps UPS drivers working at a furious pace.

Work starts when a driver logs on to the DIAD with his or her personal ID. Using cell phone technology, the DIAD board logs the number, sequence and duration of stops, clocks the speed of each task, notes the driver’s location, and communicates all this to a receiver in the truck, which then automatically relays all data to the local dispatch center and from there to a huge UPS computer (one of the world’s largest) in Paramus, New Jersey, where information is archived and kept for at least eighteen months. Similarly, long-haul drivers at UPS are monitored by a device called IVIS, which records and transmits the truck’s location and speed, the driver’s work patterns, and the minute details of engine performance ranging from temperature to average miles per gallon.

So what is all this surveillance for? "It’s to grow the business and provide better service," says Pat Canavan, UPS Vice President for package project management. When asked about cutting labor costs, company spokesperson Joan Schnorburt explains: "The union has been involved in the process at every step of the way. This is about creating more jobs through growth." All this is true, but perhaps not the whole story. Some of the more political elements in the Teamsters, particularly activists with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), see another dimension to the Brave New technologies. "The holy grail, for management, is to scab a UPS Strike," says Charles Richardson, a researcher who has analyzed UPS on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Richardson argues that the technological leap forward at UPS is ultimately about "stealing knowledge" and making smart machinery that can be operated by not-so-smart scabs. Currently, work at UPS is too complicated and time-sensitive for replacement workers to handle. Thus during the 1997 strike the company shut down operations rather than hire temps.

Short of scabbing, UPS technology can already be used to fight union activism. Steve Henderson, a UPS driver in West Virginia, alleges that surveillance was used to harass and target him because he is a TDU member and was active in the 1997 strike. Along with scrutinizing every detail from his DIAD reports and subjecting him to "on the job supervision" ride-alongs in which line managers with clipboard in hand scrutinized every single move he made, "Uncle Brown" also sent spies out to secretly videotape Henderson while out on his route. They finally busted him taking an unauthorized 18-minute bathroom break at Hardy’s; Henderson says he was sick, but UPS fired him for "stealing time." "They’re out ta getcha, man," says Henderson, who eventually won his job back with union help. "Only thing to do is watch out and stay organized."

Drivers and linemen at Southern New England Telephone report similar harassment involving the overuse of GPS reports after they won a strike. One CWA organizer reports that rank-and-file union activists have been given what he thinks are punitively unfair surveillance-based evaluations at Verizon. Another commonly reported pressure tactic is for managers to merely show restive workers their GPS printouts. Inevitably these reports contain proof of some deficiency or technical violation: when every move made by every worker is tracked all the time, and when work rules attempt to regulate even the minutiae of the labor process, then pretty much everyone will be in technical violation of the rules at some point.

Some unions have managed to come to agreements in which management limits its use of electronic surveillance while others have used digital records against employers. One Teamster official said he had used UPS DIAD records to prove that drivers were not taking their legally allotted lunch breaks and thus giving the company labor for free, a fact that helped leverage some minor concessions from local management.

Seeing Beyond Mammonism?

Ultimately the question of workplace surveillance extends beyond the question of abuses by this or that firm. Nor is the issue simply one of trust and worker morale. Rather, the spreading superintendence of workers points to deeper problems of greed and accumulation as principles of social organization. Of course an economy based on competition and investment for private gain will seek to extract ever more value from workers. And whatever other function automated keyboards, telephones or GPS tags serve they will also be used by managers to increase leverage over labor…

Only regulation, legal limitations on surveillance technology and a popularly enforced reverse transparency in which corporations are subject to the gaze of critics will keep the tendency toward total observation in check. Nor is there, for this or any other social problem, a "solution" as in a commonsense policy "fix." Society is a battlefield of competing, overlapping and criss-crossing interests; regulations that would check the disciplinary gaze of the employer class can only serve as rules, or boundaries, to contain and shape what might otherwise be a very unfair contest.

Reprinted by permission of Basic Books.