XPO delivers injustice, unions say, and they may have a point

November 11, 2020

John Bendel

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Today it’s often called “last mile” transportation. Whatever they call it, delivering home appliances can be an awkward, difficult business. So when the driver and helper delivering our new washer and dryer stepped on and broke a small plastic device meant to keep the garden hose off flower beds, I wasn’t upset. But they were.

The driver apologized over and over again, even offering to pay for the cheap item from his own pocket. We would be getting an email survey about their service, he explained, and he needed us to click the box that said “excellent.”

The appliances came from Sears, but he did not work for Sears. He didn’t work for the company Sears used for local deliveries. Instead, he worked for a subcontractor, a small carrier that didn’t worry about labor law, never mind fair treatment. He said he was paid by the day. He earned the same amount no matter how many deliveries he made or how long it took to make them. He often delivered into the evening. If he damaged anything, any costs paid by the company were deducted from his pay. He needed our “excellent” rating because anything less counted against him. Punishment often meant he would not be dispatched and would lose a day’s pay.

How sad that any driver has to work under such conditions, but that sort of working environment is hardly limited to last-mile work. Consider driver-facing cameras, constant tracking, and the piecework we call mileage pay that shifts the cost of delays from the company to the driver. When trucking was regulated as a public utility and most drivers belonged to a union, this was unthinkable. Now it’s daily reality and not just for drivers but for virtually all workers in the transportation sector.

And Sears isn’t the only big-name company that has worked through questionable subcontractors.

Walmart is another, and probably worse. A few years ago, the retail monster agreed to a $21 million settlement with workers who worked in Walmart warehouses run by Schneider Logistics in California. Schneider in turn subcontracted with two staffing companies for the people who actually did the work. Many of them were hassled, threatened and cheated out of even minimum wage. Walmart brokered the agreement. Schneider reportedly paid the $21 million. You can bet they got off cheap.

‘XPO: Delivering Injustice’

Now XPO, a more recent logistics titan, has been accused of mistreating workers. In an unusual 22-page pamphlet, an international coalition of 11 unions (including the Teamsters) in seven countries laid out complaints against XPO Logistics. According to the document, XPO employs 97,000 people in 30 countries around the world, with substantial trucking operations in Europe and the U.S.

XPO became a big name in trucking here five years ago with the purchase of Conway Transportation, the national LTL originally launched by Consolidated Freightways in 1982. CF, as the old carrier was known, realized it might not survive after 1980s’ trucking deregulation. Sure enough, Consolidated collapsed in 2002 while nonunion Conway continued to grow. It had become North America’s fourth largest carrier by the time it was bought by XPO in 2015, in what is called a roll-up – individual companies acquired by merger or purchase to create a new entity. In this case, that new entity is XPO Logistics, headquartered in Greenwich, Conn. – a town on Long Island Sound best known for its expensive residential real estate.

In the pamphlet titled “XPO: Delivering Injustice,” the union coalition says, “From its warehouses to its truck networks, XPO’s business model is based on delivering injustice for its entire workforce, down to the very last mile.”

Among other things, they charge that during the COVID-19 pandemic, XPO could not provide masks for its warehouse workers who had to buy or make their own. XPO, they say, “is a company that punishes workers for trying to fix safety and cultural issues at their workplace, with union members having shifts restricted to below what was needed to live just for speaking up.”

In western Europe, XPO is charged with abusing drivers for subcontractors based in poorer eastern countries.

“I’m on the road now for 130 days. It is illegal I live in and around the cab of my truck with no access to facilities. I’m begging my company to go home, but they simply ignore my request,” said one Ukrainian driver.

XPO warehouses in the U.K. are described as “dark satanic mills.”

Meanwhile, XPO CEO Bradley Jacobs earns over $20 million a year, “more than double median CEO pay at peer companies” and 800 times the median salary of XPO workers.

Revealing quote

Then there’s a revealing quote from XPO’s U.S. employee handbook: “It is the company’s position that it can best achieve a competitive position in the transportation and logistics industries by remaining union-free. XPO will do everything legally possible to remain in that position and to convince the company’s employees that they have no need for representation by an outside party.”

Everything legally possible?

That probably says more about XPO than all the happy-ass videos of employees saying nice things about the company posted on their website since the pamphlet was released.

We can argue all day over the merits of labor unions. In fact, I wrote critically of the Teamsters many times. But that was before the impact of deregulation and the demise of unions became appallingly clear, and not just in formerly union companies. Union pay once set a level in the market for drivers. When those wages collapsed, they took the market with them. All drivers lost – even owner-operators. Truck driving went from one of the best jobs to one of the worst.

Who benefitted? Companies like XPO and wealthy executives like Bradley Jacobs.

But at least one guy may have put one over on mighty XPO. Last year, the company won a judgment from a New York court on Long Island against a customer who did not pay a freight bill, did not respond to collection efforts, and failed to show up in court. Even with the judgment, XPO may have a hard time collecting from that customer, a company called Keith’s Nervous Breakdown LLC. LL

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.