Teamsters Deal with Speed-Up

May 1, 2008: Teamster employers are implementing new technology in a big way—making us change the way we work and creating new challenges for our union.

GPS and black box devices tell management where you are and what you’re doing. In warehouses, technology like voice selection spells out your job step-by-step.

Management often says they are bringing in new technology to make our jobs safer, stop mis-deliveries, or take the guesswork out of our jobs.

A big reason for these new technologies is often to speed us up, de-skill us, or eliminate Teamster jobs. And these changes can make it harder for Teamsters to stick together on the job.

How are members and our union coping with these changes?

Spyware

Many Teamster employers are using new technology to increase monitoring of employees—GPS is their favorite.

UPS is taking this spyware to a whole new level.

UPS is rolling out new sensors on package cars that will tell management:

  • If the package car is moving when the seatbelt is unbuckled
  • How hard the brakes have been applied
  • How long the driver backs up on a stop
  • Idle time
  • If the bulkhead door is open when the vehicle is moving.

New technology for the DIAD IV will tell the company where drivers are when they scan a package, get a signature, or hit Stop/Complete.

“Management can print out a list of your stops in order any day, and see how long you spent at that stop,” says George Kieffer, a package car driver in Denver Local 455 and the webmaster of the popular website DenverBrown.com.

“They know the chit-chat stop. They can’t fire you just from your print-out. But they know where to go and sit and watch. Management might just as well be sitting on your shoulder.”

This new technology is supposed to go hand-in-hand with UPS’s EDD system, which spells out stop-by-stop exactly how package car drivers should do their jobs. Experienced drivers have found that working smart and following all the rules to the letter can help them maintain a livable pace.

Kieffer recommends that drivers follow UPS’s methods and procedures. “Don’t take short-cuts—it will make your life easier. We do this when we have a ride-along. We should practice like this every day.”

The Voice in Your Head

Many Teamster warehouse workers now have to put on a headset when they go to work.

“We used to get a pick list that would tell us all the items in each order. Then it was up to us to figure out what to put on the bottom of the pallet to build a strong base—you don’t want to put light items under heavy items,” explains Phil Richards, a warehouse Teamster at Unified Grocers in Los Angeles Local 630.

“Now we have a voice in our heads, through the headset.” The voice selection system tells the warehouse selector each item to put on his pallet. When he’s picked one item, the headset tells him the next item to go pick.

Voice selection goes hand-in-hand with production standards in warehouses that say how much time is allotted to pick each order.

“A big effect of voice pick and production standards is to eliminate all the little micro-breaks we used to have.”

That means less time to recover from the hectic pace of work—and it can also mean less time to talk to other Teamsters about issues on the job. “When there’s a issue, you can’t rely on one person to talk to everyone. One person doesn’t have enough time. The best way is to get as many Teamsters as we can to help spread the word.”

Remote Control Trains

Railroad carriers are using new technology to reduce crew size.

Trains are now being operated by remote control inside railroad switching yards. Before remote control operation, this job took two workers, a conductor and an engineer. Remote control eliminates the engineer, and no one sits in the train.

Under the current contract, all trains must still have both an engineer and conductor when out of the yard. But that could change if employers get their way.

On the Norfolk Southern lines, the railroad has started to collect data in real-time about where the train is, how fast it’s going, and how the engineers are manipulating power and braking to control the train.

“The carriers want to cut down our crews to just one person per train,” says Hugh Sawyer, the local chairperson on the Norfolk Southern lines in Atlanta. “All this data they’re collecting on us will help them automate our jobs. They’re trying to set the stage for one-man crews, with the ultimate goal of no-man crews.”

“Our best protection is to do the job exactly as the company says,” Sawyer said. “They’re not paying us to be creative. When you go by the rules and run below the speed limit, that’s money in your pocket.”

A Strategy for Our Union

The pace of technological change isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon—and we can expect it to be a big issue in both local and national contracts.

Our union has negotiated some protections. During UPS bargaining, the union proposed strong language to prevent management from using technology to discipline our members. Unfortunately, in the final contract that language was watered down with exceptions.

Management has an obligation to bargain over the impact of new technology, including changes made mid-contract. That applies to national and local contracts.

Locals have successfully won restrictions on discipline and changes in production standards.

In the 1990s, our union launched a program to train workers in the warehouse industry to take on unreasonable production standards through the grievance procedure, information requests, and workplace solidarity.

We need more of these programs today.

Working Union

Management’s agenda is to speed us up by reducing our down-time and de-skilling our jobs.

Our job as Teamsters is to teach each other how we can work smart and establish a pace we can live with.

Concerned Teamsters can help teach other members how to deal with new technology by working smart:

  • Teach members not to work off the clock by starting early or working through their lunch.
  • Maintaining a reasonable work pace by following the company’s procedures and avoiding short cuts that cause speed-up and can lead to unfair discipline.
  • Stick together and educate members about their right to union representation if they face discipline.

For suggestions on dealing with new technology where you work, contact Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

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