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View from the warehouse floor

Murder, defeat, and other episodes

In the past few weeks, the logistics industry has been at the heart of a number of critical events in this country. First, there was the tragic mass shooting at the FedEx Ground facility in Indianapolis on April 20, where 8 people were killed, 4 of whom were Sikh, prompting a discussion about hate crimes and the appropriate response to it. Two days later, the Senate passed the “COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act” in response to the surge in anti-Asian violence in the United States; Its primary method of fighting this violence was to increase resources for law enforcement, not historically a friend to people of color in this country.

Second was the losssuffered by the unionization drive at the Amazon Fulfilment center in Bessemer, AL, where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, tried to organize the first Amazon shop in the United States.

Finally, Nomadland won at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director and Actress). It tells the story of how the financial crisis of 2008 produced a new group of itinerant and precarious workers employed in a number of odd jobs throughout the country, including the Amazon Camperforce. Many people have made very good critiques of the film (especially for its erasure of Native American and Indigenous life), but one of the things the film does do well is show what it is like inside a packing facility, replete with a condescending manager, painfully boring work, and constant deafening noise.

None of these episodes tells the whole story of the logistics industry, but each highlights an important fragment of the overall narrative: how this industry has become an important part of the industrial economy of the United States and represents a microcosm for many of the social and economic questions that the country faces.

Few people have any real understanding of what it is like to work inside the logistics industry–an experience that looks more like the factories and assembly line production of the early twentieth century than any other job in the US. People misunderstand both what it feels like to work there, but also why people choose to do so, and how the logistics industry is structured to make you feel disposable, replaceable, and faceless.

I worked for FedEx Ground last year. It’s not something that I would have written about ordinarily, because while I was working there, it did not feel extraordinary. It was a job: you clocked in, you went to work, you were constantly hounded by a manager, you joked and occasionally fought with a coworker, and you went home. But when the shooting happened in Indianapolis, there was a collective outpouring of grief and fear amongst coworkers, in part because we knew that it could happen to any of us, and in part because we know that we are almost completely powerless to do anything about it.

Nonetheless, within FedEx in Texas, there was a tremendous showing of solidarity with the workers in Indianapolis who were killed. The divisions in FedEx (Ground, Express, Air, etc.) are siloed from one another, but this was an instance where people in different parts of the company were all wearing black ribbons (or putting the magnets up on their vehicles) in memory of the people who were killed. There was also an outpouring of stories being shared about coworkers with mental health issues who have attempted or committed suicide. People were both horrified by what Brandon Scott Hole had done and knew people who were like him. Black co-workers would tell me who the racists on the job were, whose truck had a confederate flag or Trump bumper sticker on it, and who it would be wise to avoid. Others mourned co-workers who had died. The job has a way of grinding you down but also of putting you in touch with people who can lift you back up.

The first thing you need to know about FedEx Ground is that the job (what is called the “sort”) ends at 9 AM so that the FedEx vans can leave on time to make their deliveries. The start time of the job changes every single day depending on the volume of packages that a given facility has to deal with (a select crew of people is asked to come in half-an-hour early to help with the “presort”). You have to call in the night before to know when you will be up the next morning (sometimes it’s as early as midnight or 1 AM). Most of the people who work the morning shift are part-timers, not because they do not want full-time jobs (since most of them also work another job) but because FedEx will not guarantee most workers 40 hours in any given week. To guarantee full-time positions would mean that FedEx would have to pay for benefits immediately (these do not kick in until 90 days after you start if you are part-time). It would also mean that FedEx would lose its ability to let workers go when the workload is light. So there is a built-in precarity and variability, even though the job is permanent. You clock out when the last package is loaded–and the volume of packages is never constant.

My coworkers were anywhere from 18 to 65 years old, most of them Texas natives (although very few lived within the city limits), and incredibly diverse. It was the most multiracial job that I have ever held. There were at least 10 co-workers who were hearing impaired (I had to learn some basic sign language to communicate) and several with visible disabilities. I wore a Black Lives Matter facemask to work and kept a few on me at all times because someone was sure to ask me where to get one.

On entering the facility you went through security, but it was clear that the security was for the benefit of FedEx, not its employees. You had to pass through metal detectors on your way in. COVID-19 protocols had meant that there were thermal cameras to take your temperature before you could enter. You were only allowed to bring your belongings in a clear bag. Cell phones were forbidden. You were searched before you left. Though it wasn’t the most rigorous screening process, the end-of-day search was always a little humiliating as you had to turn out your pockets and remove your cap or hat.

You pass through the checkpoint and walk into the FedEx facility, an open door warehouse, half of which was dedicated to the vans and the other half to the conveyor belts and chutes where the sorting took place.There are FedEx flags and posters everywhere that tell you how much FedEx cares about science and safety. There is even a Simpsons-esque sign that tells you how many days have gone by without an injury or accident at the job (a number which is cooked up, as I’ve seen the daily injury reports).

The pace of the work is set entirely by the conveyor belts whose speed is determined by the managers (and their priority always seemed to be finishing by 9:00 a.m. over everything else). The team of managers, almost exclusively recruited from within the ranks of the people who worked on the floor, but who seemed to forget very quickly what the job had been like. FedEx prided itself on its policy of internal promotions.

The sort

I liked most of my coworkers. Most were friendly and kind and just wanted to get through their shift. The guys who worked next to me were jokers: one had just had a baby and he was an endless supply of cute stories, another was still in school and constantly daydreaming, another was an older guy who was very hard of hearing, and the last was a guy who worked at a fast food restaurant immediately after his shift at FedEx and could be caught napping if the belt stopped moving. I was a “tugger,” carting the oversized packages from where they were unloaded to the delivery vans, which was one of the most cooperative jobs on the floor, even though most of the guys hated talking. I use “guys” deliberately because it was the only job on the floor where there were no women who performed it. Women did every other job and surely could have done that one, too, but their absence was noticeable.

Others at the plant were cranky and mean, which at first I thought was a character flaw, but I came to see it more as a response to the endless turnover that took place on the job. If you didn’t think a coworker was going to last because they were too lazy, or not tough enough, then you didn’t bother to learn their name or be polite. A lot of people didn’t last more than a few weeks—the turnover at FedEx was intensely rapid, such that there were always new orientation classes to replace the workers who quit or just didn’t show up the next day.

The noise in the facility did not help their mood either. The combination of the belts running all the time (you couldn’t see a manager for most of the shift until the belt stopped running) and the industrial fans (that were supposed to make the Texas heat bearable) meant that communication often required yelling, even to someone not standing very far from you. While the managers all talked about social distancing and masking during the pandemic, hardly anyone ever followed through and the rule was never enforced. It was hard enough to breathe without the masks.

Managers were like managers everywhere. Few were kind or understanding. Most were only ever around to tell you what you had done wrong. And when the belt was moving faster than normal, mistakes were bound to happen. Large and heavy packages were supposed to be lifted by at least two people, but often you were left to do this work by yourself because the crew was short-staffed. Packages would fall and break, occasionally injuring people in the facility. A careless tugger could very easily get stuck under one of the overhead conveyor belts, since you tried to load the carts as full as you could and the safety guides rarely matched the actual overhead clearances. The floors could get slick from a spill or a leaky package, but you had to work around it. Packages were often moved from conveyor belts to rollers where it was all too easy to get fingers caught. There were also no scheduled breaks of any kind, even during a long shift. You could go to the bathroom or to get water whenever you needed to, but you had to clear it with your coworkers first.

The work was hard, but you were surprisingly grateful for the times when the belt was moving at a steady pace rather than the times when the belt was not moving at all. The boredom was deadening. You always left the job exhausted and usually drenched in sweat. I went through more than 2 liters of water every shift—the Texas heat, even in colder months, was grueling. The thing that I discovered while working there last year, though, was every week was a new record volume week, which meant that we were always delivering more and more packages. It meant that people were working harder and harder, and because the changes were so incremental, you almost got used to it—until someone got hurt.

One thing that I did not expect was that the orientation for new employees consisted primarily of videos. Most of them were stock footage of “happy” FedEx employees doing their job, but it occurred to me that the videos had to be shot in Indianapolis, simply because of how many visibly Sikh people were in the shots. There was one particular video about what to do in the event of a mass shooting at a FedEx facility. But this one was not just animated images—it cut and spliced images of actual FedEx facilities in it. Given the history of gun violence and mass shootings at US Post Offices in the 1990s, it is not surprising that this particular terror haunts the logistics and shipping industry.

Indianapolis is also important for FedEx Ground, as it is the second largest facility in the nation after Memphis (where FedEx is headquartered). It is also the only FedEx facility that I have heard of with a substantial Sikh workforce. Sikhs are a minuscule part of the Indianapolis population (between 8k and 10k), so it can only have been through word of mouth that Sikh folks found that they could find living wage jobs (starting salary at FedEx is $14.50 for part timers and $15.50 for full-timers, with benefits kicking in after a probationary period).

It is not surprising that immigrants flocked to jobs like this in similar ways as they did to auto, coal, and steel in different parts of this nation’s history. But what is also striking are the ages—associated with those new to the workforce, to those of retirement age— of the Sikh workers who were shot: “The victims were identified by the police as Matthew R. Alexander, 32; Samaria Blackwell, 19; Amarjeet Johal, 66; Jaswinder Kaur, 64; Jaswinder Singh, 68; Amarjit Sekhon, 48; Karli Smith, 19; and John Weisert, 74. Some family members of victims who were Sikh provided different spellings and ages: Jasvinder Kaur, 50; Amarjit Sekhon, 49; and Jaswinder Singh, 70.”

Indianapolis FedEx shooting victims

FedEx is one of the few places where you can find an integrated workforce working on an assembly line rigorously watched by cameras and bosses at all times. I’ve never worked at Amazon, but I suspect it is similar. It pretends it treats its workers well by paying them better than others, but the truth is that since people don’t have a way to fight for better working conditions, most of them would rather quit than continue to work there. The few who are internally promoted to make FedEx a “career” are held up as unattainable examples for the rest. The truth is that workers are disposable and management cares only about efficiency. On high volume days you are simply expected to do more in the same amount of time. And as a result it is not surprising that people break down, quit, or worse.

But here’s the problem: because the turnover is so high, FedEx is actually one of the only decent paying jobs that you can get with no experience or college. In Texas, Amazon pays a little better. And this is part of the reason that people can go back and forth between complaining about the job and being attached to it as a lifeline. In Nomadland, Fern is constantly saying how “it’s good money” while she’s working as a seasonal employee at Amazon, because it is—they do pay time-and-a-half just like they do at FedEx during peak season. The work is grueling and pure drudgery at times, but you also get to meet decent, ordinary people bound together by their work (and their hatred of their manager).

People can simultaneously be outraged by the indecencies of the job and still believe that they are better off than others (so many of my coworkers preferred being package handlers to working retail or fast food). I don’t know the ins-and-outs of what happened in Bessemer—I imagine that more details will emerge in the coming days—but I do know that the logistics industry is filled with angry people, most of whom vote by finding another job. Nomadland is a mixed film for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is simultaneously aware of politics and tries so hard to diffuse the politics into personal stories, which is why every person that Fern meets is an amateur philosopher or self-help guru. But it is also, despite Amazon’s best intentions, a story of how the logistics industry preys on precarious workers, young and old, in order to make its profits.

But here’s the truth: unless there is a concerted effort to understand the industry from the perspective of the people who work there, the outcomes will be lyrical desperation (Nomadland), defeat (Bessemer), or tragedy (FedEx). We cannot afford to write any of these pieces of the story out of the narrative, because the people who work in the heart of the logistics industry have amazing stories to tell. And as logistics becomes a central agent in the U.S. (and world) economies—comparable to the role once played by auto, coal, and steel—we cannot afford to misunderstand how our worlds have changed.

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Malli Nath View All

Malli Nath is a long time union activist in Texas.