UPS Teamsters ‘Just Practicing’
The clock is ticking on the August 1 strike deadline of 340,000 UPS Teamsters. It would be the largest strike at a private employer in decades.
“People are actually paying attention,” said delivery driver Kioma Forero, a Local 804 shop steward in New York City. Customers along her route stop her to say, “I hope your negotiations go well.” The hosts are talking about it on Hot 97, the city’s top hip-hop station.
A deal could still avert a strike—as we went to press, the Teamsters announced UPS had reached out to resume negotiations. The union bargaining team had dispersed to members’ home locals after talks broke down July 5, for practice picketing that has put on display just how ready to strike UPSers are.
Already the Teamsters have won tentative agreements to end two-tier pay and forced sixth-day work for drivers, install air-conditioning in new delivery trucks, make Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday, eliminate driver-facing surveillance cameras, and curtail the subcontracting of feeder work.
But negotiations are stalled on the top economic issues. Front and center is the union’s demand to raise the pay of the part-timers who do most of the unseen work in warehouses—sorting, loading, and unloading parcels at a backbreaking pace while supervisors scrutinize and hassle them.
“The major sticking points are more money and a better quality of life” for part-timers, Forero said. “They are 60 percent of the workforce. It’s not just about the brown shirt and truck.”
‘A HELL OF A TOOL’
Bloomberg estimates a strike would cost UPS $170 million a day. Competitors could only absorb a fraction of its 20 million daily packages. And the 3,300 UPS pilots, represented by an independent union, have pledged they will not cross Teamster strike lines.
“If UPS chooses to strike themselves because they’re greedy and they’re loyal to Wall Street, not Main Street, they will throw this country into a recession,” Teamster President Sean O’Brien told a crowd at Local 282 in Long Island on July 15.
The profound seriousness of the strike threat, light-years from the dynamic in 2018 bargaining, is why the Teamsters have won so much already. And if they reach a deal by the deadline, this will be the reason why—that UPS knew, Wall Street knew, the workers knew, everybody knew how very ready they were to walk.
“Before, the company would use the strike against us, to scare us,” said Carlos Silva, a full-timer in Gardena, California. “Like, ‘If you don't want this contract, you’ll go on strike.’ Now it's the reverse—we’re using it against them. That’s a hell of a tool to have.”
PART-TIMERS DESERVE MORE
Part-time starting pay has crawled up from $8 an hour in 1982 to just $15.50 today, augmented in some areas with “market-rate adjustments.”
Preloader Damian Kungle in Canton, Ohio, works at UPS from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m., then delivers food for Instacart in the afternoon, racking up 12-hour days.
His wage is less than the starting pay at Amazon or Subway, he says. He stays for the Teamster-negotiated health insurance and pension, but he needs his second job because of the short hours and low wages: “I can't pay my rent on $16.65.”
CEO Carol Tomé earned $27.6 million in 2021—548 times the median UPS worker’s pay.
The inside workforce is overwhelmingly part-timers, who are guaranteed just three and a half hours a shift, though not for lack of work. Supervisors send part-timers home and finish the work themselves—even though Teamsters will grieve it and UPS will pay out triple-time penalties.
Why? “For the numbers,” Silva says. “UPS is a numbers company.” Supervisors get their bonuses based on keeping work hours down.
It’s a recipe for harassment. “Supervisors are constantly telling us to speed up and get everything off the conveyor belt,” said preloader Jenny Bekenstein, a shop steward at a Los Angeles hub.
She often urges members to request a team lift if a package weighs more than 70 pounds—their right under the union contract— “but some people would rather just deal with the heavy box than with a supervisor yelling at them.” So preloaders are heaving 150-pound boxes in sweltering heat without enough fans.
Supervisors exert tyrannical control—posting schedules late, screwing up payroll, threatening to fire you, or just standing there staring at you for 20 minutes while you race to unload a trailer at the mandated speed of 1,000 packages an hour.
“They want to give a heavy slap on the wrist, take time away from people, money away,” said delivery driver Darryl Pace of Local 413 in Columbus, Ohio. “It's a militaristic style of discipline.”
UPS can afford to do better—especially now. The company has raked in exorbitant profits since the pandemic, while UPSers endured greater hazards, leaner staffing, and more intense speedup pressure than ever. It made $13.1 billion in operating profit in 2022, up from $7.8 billion in 2019.
‘IT’S BEEN LIFE-CHANGING’
How did the Teamsters get to this powerful spot? For one, by electing new leadership. The Teamsters United slate, backed by the rank-and-file movement Teamsters for a Democratic Union, won the 2021 election 2 to 1, closing the book on the long concessionary reign of James P. Hoffa.
O’Brien made a campaign theme of his willingness, even enthusiasm, to strike UPS. His administration has reversed the Hoffa-era brownouts on bargaining updates and made a UPS Teamsters app. The international union encouraged member participation in the contract campaign, and gave locals and members the tools to mobilize themselves—campaign kickoff rallies, contract unity pledge cards, MLK Deliver on the Dream Actions, practice picketing.
But it was up to locals and the rank and file to pick up those tools and use them. The power was built in tens of thousands of conversations in UPS hubs, parking lots, and cafes over the past year. Labor Notes interviewed two dozen UPSers—far more than we have space to quote here—for a taste of this rich organizing.
TDU was an accelerant—networking Teamsters together, spreading the contract campaign, and training new activists how to implement it. As the campaign went on, more members and locals jumped in. TDU webinars to swap info and ideas grew from 500 participants to 1,500 to 5,000. By the time talks broke down, the practice picketing tactic had spread nationwide.
In February, second-tier drivers in Local 542 in San Marcos, California, started organizing weekly breakfast meetings before their shift to talk about the contract fight. They call themselves “Strike Force.”
Part-timers have a separate meeting after work, since the shifts don’t align. To bring the groups together, they organized a barbecue—“the best thing we’ve done so far,” says driver Abel De La Cruz. “Drivers helped pitch in for raffle prizes, for food. Everyone brought their own tables and chairs, to help set up at a local park.
“It’s been life-changing for me personally. Before this, I would not talk to anybody. I was a very shy person. Now I'm going up and giving speeches at barbecues and rallies.
“It’s really changed the attitude in my warehouse. Before it was a ‘go in, do your work, get out’ kind of deal, you know? You might say hi to a couple people. But through this movement we’ve all been able to get to know each other a whole lot better.”
BEATING DIVIDE AND CONQUER
In Ohio, with support from TDU, Kungle and Pace preempted the company’s divide-and-conquer tactics by launching a joint petition.
Part-timers pledged to support a key demand of full-time drivers: increasing UPS’s contribution to the central region pension fund. And the drivers would back part-timers’ demand for $25 an hour and more full-time jobs.
Kungle said the joint petition got drivers and preloaders talking to each other—dissipating the common frustrations over how a truck was loaded. They became advocates of each other’s demands. He spent two days traveling around Ohio and Michigan, gathering more than 2,000 signatures.
“People are so involved in the contract fight,” Pace said. “I've never gotten so many questions: ‘What's going on with this? What have you heard about that?’”
One hot topic was the market-rate adjustments. Pace talked it through with his fellow drivers, using TDU materials to help get the point across. “We want a set rate for part-timers,” he says. “The market-rate adjustments are actually bad. You don’t want a pay rate that’s inflated by the company based off the market, which UPS can raise or lower at any time.”
TEAMSTERS TEACHING TEAMSTERS
Indiana part-timer and shop steward Elbe Lieb heard about TDU through word of mouth and went to its 2020 convention, hoping to join the women's committee. In her 27 years at UPS, she had always seen herself as a fighter—but an isolated one.
“I was trying to fight management but I didn’t have the tools on how to do it,” she said. “Suddenly, the world opened up. Wait, they’re teaching classes on how to be a steward? There was this group out there that was educating Teamsters on how to enforce their contracts!”
At the convention she met other fighters from her 14,000-member local. She would join them and help elect a reform slate that won leadership of Local 135 last October.
Change was swift. The union teamed up with Local 89 in Louisville to strike the food distribution giant Sysco for two weeks, with picket lines extending all the way to California, winning for both bargaining units. Another strike in January at packaging manufacturer MonoSol scored big gains too.
Now Local 135 UPS delivery drivers are out practice picketing, whereas the previous administration would only have sent business agents to do it, Lieb said.
FROM 1997 TO NOW
Just a fraction of the Teamsters still working today were part of the last nationwide UPS strike in 1997, but Alano De La Rosa is one of them. He had just started as a part-time loader with Local 90 in Des Moines.
As thrilling as the strike itself was “the energy that people had afterwards,” he says. “I felt connected to everyone. We had accomplished something together.
“I got more and more involved after that. It’s why I became a steward. I wanted to be part of this thing that I was amazed by, that had improved my life and the lives of others."
Last August, the contract campaign kicked off with parking lot rallies marking a quarter-century since the landmark strike. De La Rosa, still a steward and part-timer, organized a rally as part of a group of members looking to revitalize Local 90.
“We took it on ourselves to get the message out and start building momentum,” he says, “showing that we’re united so the company can't divide and conquer, so they know they have to take us seriously.”
The contract activities dovetailed easily with their campaign for office—talking with members, distilling the issues. His slate won; De La Rosa is now principal officer.
Since January, the new leaders have cleared a backlog of hundreds of grievances and revived turnout at monthly meetings, where trainings are now offered. They’re visiting every shop once a month, and making sure the union hall stays open during business hours.
DECADES IN THE MAKING
The roots of this groundswell reach far back. Rank and filers built a network of resistance through the dismal Hoffa years.
“After membership surveys, [Teamsters leaders] would always come back and say, ‘Well, the members told us they want their pension and health care protected. That's what we did,’” remembers Greg Kerwood, a 19-year package car driver and steward in Somerville, Massachusetts.
“Their argument was a sort of a victory by a lack of loss. For those of us who wanted to improve our lives, it was an endless disappointment.”
In 2013, with TDU’s help, a vote-no movement grew to resist a bad deal at UPS. This fueled the first Teamsters United election campaign in 2016—which lost but came within a hair of unseating Hoffa, showing it could be done. It wasn’t long after that O’Brien broke ranks with Hoffa.
The 2018 contract was even worse, creating a lower-paid second tier of drivers. This time members voted it down by 54 percent—and union leaders found a constitutional loophole to impose it anyway.
“I can still remember vividly, hearing the vote totals and watching Facebook light up like a Christmas tree when everybody's shouting: ‘We did it! We did it! We did it!’” Kerwood said.
“UPS came out with a statement almost immediately, saying they understood and they were willing to go back to the table.”
But amid the euphoria, “[lead negotiator] Denis Taylor literally said in the same sentence: Two-thirds of the people didn't vote, so, therefore, the contract was ratified.
“That’s where it all flipped,” Kerwood said. “We were going to be proactive and not reactive anymore. We were going to change the constitution and change the leadership and change the approach.”
The Teamsters campaign at UPS is reverberating throughout the labor movement. United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, elected this year with the backing of a TDU-inspired rank-and-file movement, traveled to New York to rally with O’Brien.
“All of our paths are parallel right now,” Fain told Labor Notes. “It's the same issues—ending tiers, the abuse of temporary workers, and low wages.”
In Des Moines, De La Rosa expects a “ripple effect” from UPS to Teamsters at other employers, like Pepsi. “They want that kind of energy in their contract,” he said.
“We can do practice picketing, strike authorization, meetings on rotating schedules. We’re going to keep bringing this more intense UPS national model to all our local shops. It raises everyone else up, so that’s our plan.”