December 7, 2020
By: Huey Dessalines
Memphis: FedEx is a multibillion dollar shipping company that employs over 500,000 people worldwide. It delivered over 2.54 billion packages in FY 2020. Top executives made several million dollars each in FY2020. Yet, on the shipping floor and in the trucks which have made such million dollar payouts possible, there is sharp class struggle like always. Health conditions are treated as burdens, 60 pound boxes zoom down conveyer belts and fall on workers, and an army of company police obstruct and seek to strike fear into the hearts of those who dare to struggle for better working conditions. We sat down with a worker at the Memphis hub this weekend to discuss conditions and the necessity for building struggle on the shipping floor.
If you’ve received a package from FedEx, it’s probably passed through the Memphis SuperHub. Ever since the COVID19 pandemic hit, there has been a marked increase in packages passing through the facility. Naturally, since the petit-bourgeoisie and upper class can afford to sit at home and order inordinate amounts of merchandise from online retailers. For the proletariat, however, there is no such luxury. Every day, tens of millions of workers must get up early in the morning, hop onto a bus or train or into a beat-up automobile, and do what the proletariat does regardless of pandemic conditions – go to work and sell their labor. The workers at the Memphis facility are overwhelmingly New Afrikan (Black), this is unsurprising because Memphis is a majority Black city. 65% of the city’s residents are New Afrikan, and the city has a history of sharp class struggle, namely a sanitation workers’ strike in 1968 directly triggered by the low pay and atrocious conditions in which New Afrikan sanitation workers were forced to work. The King Institute tells us:
On 1 February 1968, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Eleven days later, frustrated by the city’s response to the latest event in a long pattern of neglect and abuse of its black employees, 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike. Sanitation workers, led by garbage-collector-turned-union-organizer T. O. Jones, and supported by the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), JerryWurf, demanded recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage.
The union, which had been granted a charter by AFSCME in 1964, had attempted a strike in 1966, but failed in large part because workers were unable to arouse the support of Memphis’ religious community or middle class. Conditions for black sanitation workers worsened when Henry Loeb became mayor in January 1968. Loeb refused to take dilapidated trucks out of service or pay overtime when men were forced to work late-night shifts. Sanitation workers earned wages so low that many were on welfare and hundreds relied on food stamps to feed their families.
The grandchildren of these proletarian, New Afrikan revolutionaries are now facing similar conditions under FedEx’s purple reign. In addition to COVID19 volume, we are now facing the holiday season, when millions of Americans go online in search of deals on a variety of merchandise – each one of these items orderd online must be packed, sorted, scanned, and loaded onto a plane, and then delivered after going through another sorting facility. The work of thousands of people is needed to ensure that Americans receive their items in time for the Christmas holiday. This peak is not being met by increased wages or the hiring of more staff, and hazard pay is out of the question. Instead, FedEx workers face what they are calling “Shippagaedon”, with the same amount of workers being forced to handle a rapidly increasing deluge of packages. It is all too common for workers to put in 11 and 12 hour shifts, but workers have reported doing 13-15 hour shifts. There is only one half hour break. Full time workers are supposed to work 5 days per week, then receive 2 days off. It is now mandated by the company that workers put in 6 days per week. Some weeks are 7 days per week at the same grueling hours as usual. It is clear how this is a recipe for disaster. The fight for the 8 hour workday was one of the key hallmarks of the early proletarian movement, and here we have workers in the year 2020 working 15 hour shifts. One worker correspondent observed: “Instead of hiring more people and making it easier on us, they keep the same number and work us like slaves”.
Half of the fellow workers who signed on with FedEx at the same time as our correspondent have quit. This, again, is at a time when many are struggling to find work. FedEx pays $15 an hour and offers health insurance – yet people are quitting. It seems that $15 (the rallying cry for the minimum wage increase movement) is not enough to be at the mercy of machines and heavy packages for 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. Despite offering health insurance, FedEx team leads and managers, who are nearly 100% Euro-American, show a callous disregard for the lives of their workers, who are nearly all Black. According to a story our worker correspondant heard, an older fellow worker who had a pacemaker was observed holding his head down, almost as if he was sleeping on his feet. Note that this is very common among workers at this facility, due to the unforgiving work regime we’ve already described. But, this worker went over and sat down, holding his head in the same position. Another worker asked if he was OK, he shook his head no. This worker then rushed to the team lead, who rushed to the (white) manager, informing him that this particular worker was having heart trouble and needed an ambulance. The response of the manager was “don’t bother me with this”. The team lead sternly told the manager that this man needed a hospital, and only then did he relent. This could have easily been a scene from the Jim Crow era South, but once again we see that capitalism never changes its stripes at the root, it only adapts to changing times. The bosses knew this man had a heart condition, yet stuck him in an area that was physically intensive anyways, despite there being less physically intensive work for him to do. Other health risks include the potential to catch COVID from other workers as the facility makes it difficult to practice social distancing and many workers, due to the intense physical pace of the work, find it uncomfortable and inconvenient to wear masks. COVID-19 is decimating New Afrikan proletarian neighborhoods, mainly because the people who live there are forced to go to work in facilities such as FedEx.
We asked about the contradictions within the facility. Obviously, there is a national/class contradiction, with a minority of white team leads and managers who dominate over an overwhelmingly Black rank and file proletariat. There are very few Black team leads and nearly no Black managers. There are contradictions within the proletariat as well, however. As our correspondent says, there is always a left and a right line. Some workers look down on other workers, calling them “lazy” and criticizing them for taking extra breaks. As our correspondent says, “Nobody wants to be here. Nobody wants to be hit by these fucking packages or hurt by these fucking machines.” There is also some reformist sentiment. “If we just get rid of this one shitty manager, everything will be good”. The importance of unity among the proletariat, those who are risking their health (physical and mental) everyday on the shipping floor while colonizer and sellout team leads, CEOs and managers crack the whip and collect the larger paychecks is shown through practice. Communist politics, our correspondent says, must be in command, otherwise there will be no improvement in conditions but simply more speedups and suffering. The FedEx bosses purposefully pit worker against worker to attempt to prevent successful organizing and stir up distrust and scab culture.
The FedEx bosses attempt to alienate workers from each other. Our worker correspondent says that it’s only possible to have decent conversations about working conditions and struggles on the 30 minute break or during the bus ride to the facility. There is also a culture of company spying, policing and harassment of those who attempt to get workers together to discuss problems on the floor and proletarian unity. This is a violation of even bourgeois-reactionary Federal labor law, which allows workers to discuss wages and organizing. Our worker correspondent points out the necessity of agitation and propaganda in laying the foundations of a strong culture of solidarity in the facility. They also point out the importance of maintaining a strong proletarian security culture to prevent spying, scabbing, and sabotage from the bosses’ clique. Our correspondent closes with this: “Since we are being forced to work 6-7 days per week, sometimes even 13-15 hours, we have no personal lives. We can’t do personal things such as care for children, wash dishes, etc. We have to work all the fucking time, but we are not just mindless drones. We need time to sustain our lives, and we need some time to relax and socialize with fellow workers. The solution is to hire a lot more workers and stop working those who are currently here as slaves. They have the money for it, but they just want to squeeze us for profits.”
FedEx is just one company that is squeezing the proletariat more and more. Amazon, UPS, and other shippers are engaged in the same processes of speedup, underpayment, and understaffing on purpose. Only through organization on a revolutionary basis under a program based on class solidarity and militancy will conditions improve for workers everywhere. If you have similar stories to recount, contact PVN to arrange an interview.