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UPS Workers Disproved Corporate Media’s Narrative That Strikes Are Harmful

It was UPS workers’ willingness to strike — not corporate kindness — that earned them a new tentative agreement.

A UPS driver makes a delivery on June 30, 2023, in Miami, Florida.

The Teamsters Union and UPS have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract to cover the 340,000 Teamsters who work for the package shipping giant.

According to a statement released by the union, the new contract is “the most historic tentative agreement for workers in the history of UPS,” promising wage increases, an end to the two-tier wage system, new air conditioning in vehicles, Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a full company holiday, and more.

In the days and weeks to come, members will debate the pros and cons of the proposal as thousands of UPS Teamsters vote on whether to ratify the contract. But one thing seems undeniable: Any significant gains won by Teamsters against a reluctant employer will have come about because rank-and-file workers showed the company that they were prepared to strike.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a longtime member reform group pushing for more militancy and rank-and-file democracy within the union, noted in a statement, “UPS walked away from the bargaining table on July 5 after telling our union, ‘We have nothing more to offer.’” In the following weeks, members ramped up “practice pickets” across the country, making loud and clear their willingness to strike. “Management read the writing on the wall,” said TDU, “and went from ‘nothing more to offer’ to the most lucrative contract in Teamster history.”

While it will be up to members to decide on the contract, at least one lesson should be clear: Strikes, or the real threat of strikes, work.

But you wouldn’t know this if you only paid attention to the corporate media’s reporting, which has mostly contained doomsday scenarios on the potential strike that mimic the boss’s talking points. From CNN to The New York Times, from Fox News to MSNBC, the refrains have been constant: UPS workers will disrupt the economy by striking. What if a strike causes a recession? UPS Teamsters already have it pretty good. A strike will hurt the company and benefit competitors. What about the consumers!?

What the agreement shows, however, is that it was precisely because UPS workers were prepared to strike that they were able to extract new and important gains. Moreover, the corporate media’s criticism of strikes are not uniquely applied to UPS drivers. They’re deployed whenever workers threaten to strike. Teachers, nurses, railroad workers, screenwriters: they’ve all faced these attacks.

Prior to the announcement of the tentative agreement, Truthout spoke to several UPS Teamsters and their supporters about the corporate media narratives surrounding the potential strike. They offered starkly different arguments: of a corporate powerhouse that raked in over $100 billion in revenue last year forcing a strike on itself because it refuses to pay its mass of part-time workers a decent wage; of a company that prefers billions in stock buybacks over meeting reasonable demands from “essential” workers who bore the brunt of upholding the nation’s vital delivery infrastructure during the pandemic; of UPS workers fighting not merely for themselves, but to set a higher bar for workers across the U.S.

“This isn’t just for every Teamster family,” Justin Alo, a UPS driver in San Marcos, California, member of Teamsters Local 542 and TDU member, told Truthout. “This is for raising standards across the board.”

Blaming the Workers

“A massive UPS strike could devastate the economy.” So began one ominous CNN headline, expressing the most ubiquitous talking point coming from the corporate media: that UPS workers would throw the U.S. economy into crisis if they went on strike.

According to company estimates, UPS transports around 6 percent of the U.S. GDP daily. (Teamsters President Sean O’Brien says the number is 7 percent.) A strike would halt nearly all of this.

UPS workers and supporters that Truthout spoke to acknowledged that a strike would temporarily impact the economy. Indeed, they say, that’s the point of a strike: to show the indispensability of workers’ labor and to use the withdrawal of that labor as leverage to win well-deserved gains for working people against powerful corporations.

But they viewed any strike as entirely avoidable if UPS, which took in $100.3 billion in revenue in 2022 and over $13 billion in operating profit, would meet the union’s reasonable demands.

Any significant gains won by Teamsters against a reluctant employer will have come about because rank-and-file workers showed the company that they were prepared to strike.

“It wouldn’t be a disruption brought about by UPS workers getting greedy,” said Sean Orr, a UPS driver, TDU member and Teamster shop steward with Local 705 in Chicago. “The disruption would come about because this company is owned by major Wall Street firms that aren’t willing to pay the workers, who move 7 percent of this country’s economy every single day, enough money to pay rent.”

More than half of UPS’s workers are part-time. Some currently earn as little as $15.50 per hour. In 2022, thousands of part-timers saw their wages slashed, even as the company took in record profits. According to the statement released by the union, the new agreement includes a wage increase of $2.75 more per hour in 2023 and $7.50 per hour over the length of the five-year contract for existing part-time (and full-time) workers. Existing part-time workers will immediately move up to no less than $21 per hour, and new part-time hires will start at $21 per hour and move to $23 per hour. According to the statement released by TDU, all current part-timers will make a minimum of $25.75 by the end of the contract.

Meanwhile, UPS CEO Carol Tomé raked in over $45 million in total compensation in 2021 and 2022. She holds 33,076 shares in UPS stock, worth over $6 million. In 2021, UPS’s CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 548-to-1, meaning a UPS worker making the median wage at the company would have to work well over half a thousand years to earn as much as Tomé.

UPS regularly gives out quarterly dividends to its investors, most recently a $1.62 dividend per share. The company spends billions on share buybacks to boost its stock price. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, it announced $5 billion for share buybacks, and in January 2023, it approved another $5 billion.

The company’s two biggest shareholders, The Vanguard Group and BlackRock, have a combined 17.3 percent stake in UPS, according to its most recent proxy statement. The two firms are the world’s top asset managers, together overseeing around $16 trillion in assets. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink is a billionaire.

Alo said the corporate media’s narrative around UPS workers wreaking havoc on the economy with a strike reminded him of the coverage surrounding the possible rail workers’ strike in 2022.

“They did the same thing to the railroad workers,” he said. “You kept hearing on the news that it was going to devastate the economy, almost as if the workers were the greedy ones. They’re raking in billions in profit, while the railroad workers were just asking for sick days.”

Orr said UPS workers “recognize that a $100 billion corporation” can afford to meet their demands.

“This comes down to corporate hubris, more than anything,” he said.

Lingering Anger Due to Company’s Pandemic Response

Barry Eidlin, a labor expert at McGill University and former organizer with TDU, told Truthout that lost in the media frenzy about a disruptive strike is the larger, ongoing disruption in workers’ lives perpetuated by employers.

Strikes are temporary, but workers’ lives are thrown into constant chaos because of poverty wages that force people to work multiple jobs or unpredictable scheduling that disrupt family life, he said.

“We need to weigh the potential inconvenience of a week or two weeks of a UPS strike versus the potential benefit that could come from pushing back against these incredibly disruptive trends that have devastated workers’ lives,” said Eidlin.

In preparing for a potential strike, a huge motivating factor for UPS workers has been restitution for the pandemic, when UPS workers were deemed “essential.” UPS workers that Truthout spoke to grew audibly upset when discussing what they went through during the pandemic.

Orr said UPS workers were forced to work during the pandemic without “a penny of hazard pay,” all while the company was earning record profits and CEO Carol Tomé was taking in tens of millions in compensation.

“Workers got sick. We had coworkers die,” said Orr. “Coworkers quit because they had autoimmune disorders and they didn’t want to die. They didn’t have an option.”

Alo remembers fearing that he could infect his family members, some of whom were high-risk, with COVID-19. Every time he returned home, he’d remove his UPS uniform and spray it with disinfectant before going inside.

“It was that serious,” he said. “We almost forget about what we went through.”

Alo wants UPS to remember what workers sacrificed during the pandemic. “Our trucks were full almost the entire year, which is only supposed to take place during the holiday season,” he said. “But that was our workload for the entire year.”

“This is payback from the pandemic, essentially,” noted Eidlin.

Desperate Conditions

Another media talking point around a potential strike was that it would hurt UPS and benefit competitors. This was echoed by people like New York Times business writer Peter Coy, who wrote that, “FedEx sees the threat of a strike at UPS as an opportunity to get new customers.”

Orr dismisses this possibility.

“UPS is such a juggernaut,” he said. “We are as integral to the economic infrastructure of this country as the railroads and airports. No single competitor of UPS will benefit from a strike because none of them can absorb our volume.” Outside experts and even FedEx also point to clear limits in absorbing UPS deliveries.

Another media narrative is that UPS workers already have it good, implying that workers are just being greedy. News outlets commonly invoke the company’s claim that drivers earn $95,000 per year.

But Alo said those numbers are misleading because they refer to full-time drivers who have been with the company for years and work significant overtime — upwards of 65 hours a week, according to Teamsters President O’Brien.

Alo stresses the desperate conditions of many UPS workers, especially part-timers who make up the bulk of the company’s employees. “A lot of us work multiple jobs just to make ends meet,” he said. He also points out how physically demanding the work is at UPS. Drivers have been hospitalized and died from heat exposure while on the job. Workers are under pressure due to company surveillance.

Insofar as Teamsters have decent wages and benefits, said Eidlin, it’s come through struggle — and indeed, strikes — not company beneficence.

“They have what they have because they fought for it, and because they have a union that can help them fight for it,” he said.

“They did the same thing to the railroad workers…. You kept hearing on the news that it was going to devastate the economy, almost as if the workers were the greedy ones.”

While part-timers get health care after nine months on the job, their wages have stagnated for decades. “There’s no reason that these workers should be doing the backbreaking work they do for barely over minimum wage,” Eidlin said.

A Moment of Political Education

Eidlin also said that the media’s obsession with how a strike could hurt consumers is a part of a larger corporate “playbook” aimed at “trying to scare people into supporting the employer’s point of view.”

“We need to remember that we’re not just consumers, and that a lot of us are workers,” he said. Part of building a stronger labor movement involves “powerful, disruptive strikes,” that “can lead to long-term benefits for large groups of workers that far outweigh the disruption that results from a strike.”

Other groups of workers have seen this same anti-worker “playbook” from the corporate media — and perhaps none more than teachers.

Jackson Potter is the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which has waged major strikes, most recently in 2019. While the political establishment and the mainstream media demonized teachers for disrupting the lives of students and parents, the CTU framed its fight as one for communities as well as teachers, and subsequently garnered mass support within Chicago. CTU’s current contract, won through the 2019 strike, includes historic gains, such as better services for homeless students, more nurses and social workers in schools, and raises for the district’s lowest paid workers.

“I would say the most important changes that have occurred, that are historic, to help students, are a result of our strikes,” Potter told Truthout.

Potter sees clear parallels between UPS workers and teachers, both deemed essential workers during the pandemic and were “putting their lives on the line to deliver critical supplies.” He’s spoken to UPS drivers at rallies who are graduates of Chicago public schools and were inspired as students by the 2019 CTU strike.

“They see that as a moment of their own political education,” he said, “on why it’s so important to fight a struggle against the 1 percent on behalf of the many, not the few.”

The CTU came out in full force to show solidarity with UPS workers, issuing a statement of solidarity and attending practice pickets and rallies. Potter said the outcome of the current fight at UPS will impact all workers, from Amazon and Starbucks to Hollywood and the auto industry.

“This is a moment of truth,” said Potter. “Our success as workers in America is very much dependent on the Teamsters negotiating a strong agreement and those drivers having a standard of life that can lift all boats and serve as inspiration to others.”

Potter points to the historic 1930s CIO strike wave that paved the way for mass industrial unionization that vastly improved the lives of millions of workers. “Those were high water marks because we supported people’s right to organize, disrupt production and right-set the economy in ways that reflect our collective interests rather than just the big bosses and the wealthy,” said Potter.

Striking for a Better Future

As UPS Teamsters get set to vote on the new contract proposal, one thing feels clear: Any significant gains were won because they were willing to use their main source of leverage — the strike. That willingness to withdraw their labor, and the militant energy behind it, stretches well beyond UPS. Indeed, Orr believes that we’re in the middle of “a great awakening in this country” that is reviving the labor movement.

“Working people are realizing through this UPS fight, from what’s happening in Hollywood and Amazon, that we don’t have to accept what Wall Street is deciding to do with this country,” he said.

“We don’t have to accept the way that this economy is run and the direction this country is going in. We have the ability to say ‘No, this isn’t the future we want for ourselves and for our kids. We want something that works for us.’”

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