The successful February fight at UPS in Queens by Teamsters Local 804 shows that worker solidarity and innovative online tactics to win public support can be used to enhance the oldest strategy in the union playbook: shutting down production.
On the morning of February 26, UPS drivers arrived at work at the company’s facility in the Maspeth neighborhood of Queens and learned that Jairo Reyes, a respected union activist with 23 years at the company, had been fired. Believing that Reyes had been denied the due process to which he was entitled as a member of Teamsters Local 804, the drivers walked back out of the building and rallied in a parking lot across the street for 90 minutes, shutting down morning deliveries across Queens.
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This dramatic job action set off a major confrontation that echoed far beyond Maspeth. UPS announced that all 250 drivers who participated in the walkout would be fired as soon as their replacements could be trained. These mass terminations in turn inspired a widespread solidarity campaign that drew the attention of local politicians, national media and over 150,000 petition signers across the country and internationally. The uproar eventually compelled the leadership of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to broker a deal between UPS and Local 804 that resulted in the reinstatement of the “Maspeth 250” and Reyes.
The settlement came at a high cost to the union. Drivers who participated in the walkout will be suspended for 10 days, and the union must pay monetary damages. In return, the company “agreed to work with Local 804 to improve labor-management relations at the company and to handle disciplinary disputes more expeditiously under the new grievance procedure,” according to statement released by Local 804.
“There’s been a culture here of breaking the contract,”
Despite the suspensions, most 804 members and their supporters celebrated the settlement as a victory. At a time when workers – both union and non-union – face increasing insecurity, the fight of the Maspeth 250 inspired thousands across the country for a simple reason: Jairo Reyes did not simply get his job back. He and his union took it back from one of the most powerful corporations in the country.
“I feel tremendous about the settlement,” Reyes told Truthout. “I’m very happy that my brothers and sisters have retained their job and their dignity.”
Orwell meets Dickens
Tensions had been rising in the Maspeth hub for many months before Reyes’ firing. Drivers were forced to work long hours for weeks on end, despite provisions in Local 804’s contract that limit mandatory overtime. Other contract violations had been piling up as well. Like most collective bargaining agreements, the contract between the Teamsters and UPS calls for a grievance procedure to handle disputes. But the procedure is designed to allow the workflow to continue uninterrupted, which an aggressive management can exploit to exert their power over the workforce. “There’s been a culture here of breaking the contract,” says Liam Russertt, the union official assigned to Maspeth at the time of the walkout. “When it comes to guys wanting to come in early, and it’s in the contract, they violate it and say ‘grieve it.’ When you request your day off, they violate it and say, ‘grieve it.’ ”
Yes, UPS tells drivers how to walk.
Aggressive management is inherent to the UPS business model, which relies on a two-tier workforce: Warehouse workers are mostly part-timers, who make little more than the minimum wage (with health benefits and union rights), while drivers are mostly full-timers, whose hourly pay can be three times as high, but who are worked relentlessly and have their daily movements throughout the day timed to the nearest fraction of a second.
UPS is one of the foremost practitioners of “scientific management,” the business practice pioneered a century ago by Frederick Taylor that breaks down labor processes into dozens of distinct steps that are each timed for maximum efficiency. In the 1920s, Henry Ford adapted Taylor’s ideas to perfect the assembly line. Today, UPS develops its own GPS tracking systems and other technology to monitor drivers’ routes as well as their daily movements throughout the day. As company executive Jack Levis explained to NPR, “Just one minute per driver per day over the course of a year adds up to $14.5 million.” According to some drivers, managers even instruct them about the most efficient angle their legs should make in their stride as they deliver packages. Yes, UPS tells drivers how to walk.
Any company that tries to exercise this degree of control over its workers is going to incur some resentment, particularly if the workers have a union that fosters their sense of dignity. But management at Maspeth further inflamed tensions by combining its Orwellian system of control over workers’ every move with a Dickensian cruelty toward an injured driver. Domenick DeDomenico was hit last year by a car while delivering packages and put into a coma for nine days. DeDomenico’s return to work this January was hailed by his coworkers, many of whom had visited him repeatedly in the hospital. Within two weeks, however, UPS soured the celebratory mood by calling DeDomenico into the office and threatening to suspend him because he was delivering two fewer packages per hour than he had been doing before his horrific workplace injury. It was the accumulated frustrations over contract violations and the treatment of DeDomenico that led to Maspeth drivers’ explosive reaction to the firing of Jairo Reyes. “They were so fed up, not even for me, but in their personal experience – the pressure they’re getting from the company,” says Reyes.
After UPS announced the terminations of all 250 drivers, Reyes and his coworkers found themselves almost overwhelmed with support. Solidarity petitions put out by Local 804 and the Working Families Party, a union-backed coalition that works closely with Democratic Party candidates, received over 100,000 signatures within two weeks. UPS workers across the country gathered signatures in break rooms and union halls. Local elected officials, led by Public Advocate Letitia James, publicly warned that New York City might revoke the company’s tax breaks and parking ticket reduction deal.
For six weeks, the company held firm in the face of mounting pressure. The day after Local 804 held a rally outside the Maspeth gates, 20 drivers on the termination list were told that their replacements had been found and were fired on the spot. The union held a press conference at City Hall with dozens of elected officials, where Letitia James told the crowd that she had paid a visit to the company’s New York City headquarters and was “shown the door.” At the morning after press conference, with dozens of elected officials, 15 more of the Maspeth 250 were walked out the door.
The company’s hard line in the face of substantial negative publicity demonstrated how seriously it took the need to make an example out of the drivers who participated in the walkout. Teamsters locals across the country have voted down local supplements to the national UPS contract. Most significant among these is Local 89 in Louisville, the hub of UPS’s air delivery system. If Louisville Teamsters, frustrated over the company’s contract offer and perhaps other management issues similar to those in Maspeth, were to stage a walkout of their own, it would impact UPS operations across the country. (The day after UPS settled with Local 804, Louisville Teamsters overwhelmingly voted down UPS’ proposed contract for a second time, and Local 89 president Fred Zuckerman wrote a letter to Ken Hall, who leads Teamster negotiations with UPS, pressing him to support the local’s right to call a strike if necessary.)
It says something about the weakened state of the labor movement that Local 804’s settlement with UPS is widely seen as a victory, despite the monetary damages and mass suspensions without pay.
Local 804 continued the fight. Queens customers appeared on a video with their former delivery people urging UPS to rescind the terminations. Local 804 President Tim Silvester told Labor Notes that he believed the growing support from customers was the “tipping point” in the campaign.
Another key factor was the belated involvement of the international leadership of the Teamsters. Led by President James Hoffa Jr., the International was silent about the Maspeth situation for over a month, which might have emboldened UPS to pursue its hard-line strategy. As the solidarity campaign grew among rank and file Teamsters across the country, however, the Hoffa administration decided to get involved. On April 8, Hall flew to New York to meet with Maspeth workers. The next day, according to a statement put out by the International, “Hall and International Vice President Sean O’Brien met with . . . Local 804 officials and UPS management” and helped to negotiate the settlement.
It says something about the weakened state of the labor movement that Local 804’s settlement with UPS is widely seen as a victory, despite the monetary damages and mass suspensions without pay. A few decades ago, a union like 804 might have forced the company to back off any discipline by threatening to call further job actions. But that was a few decades ago. There were only 15 strikes involving more than 1,000 workers in 2013, a 99 percent decline from the annual average from 1947-1979, according to economist Doug Henwood. That 99 percent explains much about the declining fortunes of the majority of the population whom the Occupy Movement famously labeled the “99%.”
While there are no official statistics kept about mini-strikes spontaneously called at the workplace like the Maspeth walkout, their number is probably even lower. When the Teamsters and other unions were being built in the 1930s and 1940s, strikes of this sort were an important tool for workers to exercise control of work conditions. Over the next two decades, the right to call spontaneous strikes was bargained away by many unions in exchange for increased compensation and the creation of a legal process for calling strikes and handling grievances that transferred power from rank and file workers to union officials. Union activists in the 1970s fought to regain control over the strike weapon with a series of wildcat strikes (job actions called without official approval), but by the end of the decade these insurgent movements had mostly been defeated; the next three decades of layoffs, factory closures, and union-busting almost completely extinguished the tradition of spontaneous strike action in most unions.
There have been many false springs during labor’s long decline over the past four decades.
The walkout in Maspeth is therefore a cutting-edge strategy straight out of the past, and it contains important lessons for unionists elsewhere. There has been much discussion among those who hope for a revival of the labor movement about the important and exciting prospects of new union organizing in low-wage service sector jobs like fast food and retail. Less noticed, but just as potentially impactful, is the growing rebelliousness among many workers already in unions. Teachers have stood up to scapegoating and union-busting attacks with dynamic strikes and contract campaigns in numerous cities, most notably Chicago, but also St. Paul, Minn., and Portland, Ore. Health-care workers have occupied hospitals in Brooklyn and Western Massachusetts to fight their closures. Meanwhile, workers in the American Postal Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union have voted out their old leaderships in favor of progressive new teams, and anger over a recently passed contract with Boeing has led to the first contested national election in the International Association of Machinists in over 50 years.
These developments do not guarantee in any way that unions will make a decisive comeback. There have been many false springs during labor’s long decline over the past four decades. But many of those springs turned false because reformers put too much faith in the ability of progressive union leaderships and not enough emphasis on organizing power among the workers. The successful fight at Maspeth shows that innovative tactics to win public support like viral videos and online petitions can be used to enhance the oldest strategy the union playbook, shutting down production.
More than that, the walkout shows why the labor movement at its best can inspire millions not only with its power but also with its nobility. In Maspeth, 250 risked all and sacrificed some for the sake of one. In the process, Local 804 proved that there is still life in the old slogan of the Industrial Workers of the World: An injury to one is an injury to all.