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UPS Workers Prep to Strike for Demands That Would Improve Lives of Over 340,000

Negotiations have stalled after the company and the union failed to reach an agreement.

United Parcel Services (UPS) workers walk a 'practice picket line' on July 7, 2023, in the Queens borough of New York City, ahead of a possible UPS strike.

UPS workers are practicing picketing for a historic strike if the Teamsters and package delivery giant do not reach an agreement before their contract expires on July 31. Negotiations stalled after the company and the union failed to reach an agreement. Ninety-seven percent of Teamsters have voted to authorize a work stoppage.

The contract applies to 340,000 full- and part-time workers. Practice pickets, where workers assemble outside a workplace as though they are on strike, have taken place recently across the country including in Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Oregon and California, where workers held signs that read, “just practicing for a just contract.”

“Each side is blaming the other for what happened at the negotiating table,” Richard Hooker Jr., secretary-treasurer and principal officer for Philadelphia Teamsters Local 623, told Truthout. But to Hooker, it’s clear which side is at fault. “[UPS] chose to drag this thing out and now at the 11th hour, they want to point the finger at the Teamsters when we’ve been ready, willing and able to negotiate from the very start. So this is just them trying to make it look like the working class or the working families are the bad guys when it’s them. They’re the ones that caused all these issues.”

A job at UPS can be rough. Workers have to deal with soaring temperatures due to the climate crisis, for example. They also did not have the luxury of staying home during COVID-19 lockdowns. Instead, the burden fell on them when people avoided shopping in person.

The Teamsters had a big win when the company agreed to put air-conditioning in trucks beginning next year, but the changes have not met all of the union’s core demands. These demands are mainly economic, such as wage increases for all workers, including for people who have worked at the company for a long time, as well as for part-time workers. The Teamsters are also demanding improved pension benefits and protections for health and welfare benefits.

“This multibillion-dollar corporation has plenty to give American workers — they just don’t want to,” Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien said. “UPS had a choice to make, and they have clearly chosen to go down the wrong road.”

One of the demands that UPS and the Teamsters could not agree on is higher wages for part-time workers.

“We are probably $6 to $7 per hour apart on where these part-timers need to be for starting rates of pay, but also where they need to be for the long-term employees,” O’Brien told Supply Chain Dive.

“Part-time workers get screwed over, taken advantage of, and forgotten about,” said Teamsters General Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman. “The Teamsters Union must put an end to this once-and-for-all at UPS. If the company’s pattern of exploitation doesn’t end now, it never will.”

O’Brien told Bloomberg that another issue in negotiations is that a UPS full-time worker might make $93,000 a year, for example, but that is only when they work 60-65 hours a week.

Hooker told Truthout he would like to see “high wages, more full-time jobs for part-timers, better and safer working conditions” along with “a more responsive grievance procedure.” He said the company retaliates against workers who speak out about conditions through disciplining or firing them, adding, “Above all, we need to really get rid of the harassment.” Last year, four workers told The Nation that UPS fired them for their involvement with the union.

In 2022, UPS reported a record $11.3 billion in profits on $100 billion worth of revenue. UPS CEO Carol Tomé told investors on an earnings call in April that the company is working to “protect in the unlikely event of a work stoppage.” She made $19 million in total compensation in 2022.

During the call, Tomé compared the negotiations to a disagreement she had with her husband about a puppy.

“Like any negotiation,” she said, “it’s going to be noisy and a few bumps along the way. And I just had this argument with my husband about a puppy. It was noisy, it was stuffy…. But in any negotiation, that’s going to be the case, and it’s certainly the case here. And that’s why I go back to our sales strategy of these high-impact executives putting their arms around our customers and making sure they’re comfortable with us because we are confident we’ll deliver our contract.”

“Got it. Thank you. Good luck with the puppy,” a participant with Deutsche Bank on the call responded.

The Teamsters have made some progress in the negotiations. In June, they won air-conditioning for UPS trucks, which will begin being installed next year.

“We made progress with the [tentative agreement] for [air-conditioning] and heat mitigation and other non-economic items,” Teamsters Department of Strategic Initiatives Assistant Director Kara Deniz told Truthout. “This tentative agreement is subject to the ratification of the national agreement, and UPS needs to deliver the contract with the wages UPS part- and full-timers deserve.”

But the tentative agreement did not come soon enough. Last summer, UPS worker Esteban Chavez Jr. collapsed after delivering packages on a hot day in the Pasadena, California, area. The temperature was in the upper 90s, and it was even hotter in his truck. He died in the heat just a day after turning 24 years old.

“It hurts, it’s a pain that’s never gonna go away. And that’s something I wish on nobody, having the experience to lose your child,” Chavez’s father, Esteban Chavez Sr., said last year.

Data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) show a case from August 2021 where an employee died at 2 am after lifting and carrying boxes in the heat. According to local news media, the worker was named Jose Cruz. He was 23 years old.

Truthout’s review of data from OSHA has revealed many disturbing incidents at UPS, making clear that workers are carrying out dangerous jobs. Truthout looked at 219 cases in the United States, open or closed, with violations, in the past five years. At least 24 of these incidents were related to working in the heat. In at least six of these cases, the worker was taken to the hospital.

Viviana Gonzalez, a driver and shop steward for Teamsters Local 396 in Palmdale, California, works in the desert and said she does not have any heat relief. She said some of her coworkers have kidney problems, which she attributes to dehydration from working in the desert. Air-conditioning, Gonzalez told Truthout, is “a big win.” She added, “That’s the power of having a union: That after so many years we’ve become so strong in our unity, … these are the results of actually having a union versus not having a union.”

UPS told Truthout the company cares “deeply about our people, and their safety remains our top priority. Heat safety is no exception. We have reached an agreement on heat safety with the Teamsters, which includes new measures that build on important actions rolled out to UPS employees in the spring, including new cooling gear and enhanced training developed in partnership with the sports science experts from the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, and MISSION, a performance apparel company.”

UPS apparently has no plans to put air-conditioning in warehouses, though. These warehouses only have air-conditioning in management offices, Teamsters Local 623’s Hooker said. “Air-conditioning is a good step in the right direction, but we also have to make sure that our warehouse workers also have some type of relief from the heat,” he said.

UPS did not comment on air-conditioning in warehouses.

In one case from June 2019, according to OSHA, a worker in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was delivering packages in the heat and began experiencing cramps. Rather than allow the worker to get medical attention or go home, his supervisor joined him on the truck and helped him deliver packages. When the employee was done with his shift, he was in too much pain to get to his personal vehicle. He was hospitalized for heat exhaustion and was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissues that can be fatal or result in permanent disability. UPS was penalized $9,282.

Truthout also identified six OSHA cases related to COVID safety regulations. While these incidents are not detailed, they show requirements for companies to establish a written COVID prevention procedure. UPS workers had to continue working in person while many people stayed home during COVID lockdown.

“We’ve given the company billions of dollars and we work tons of hours,” Teamsters Local 396’s Gonzalez said. “We put ourselves at risk for COVID, our families at risk for COVID. And I just think it’s pretty sad that the company wants to hoard all the profits, and that’s a big problem because if you were to take care of your employees, we would be grateful.”

Teamsters President O’Brien told Breaking Points that union members transported vaccines when “they weren’t even eligible for them.”

OSHA data also reveal several incidents of amputations of fingers and toes resulting from working at UPS. In a case from February 2022, an employee’s toe was surgically amputated after the seal on the bottom of a box gave w and a heavy item fell on the employee’s foot. UPS was given an $18,646 penalty.

Truthout identified six incidents where a worker has died in the past five years. In 2018, an employee in Kentucky died when he was sucked into a conveyor system, according to OSHA. UPS was given a $14,000 penalty.

Hooker said there was a case where a worker, Cynfiah Burnell, fell from a ladder and broke her wrist. UPS allegedly had her “sit there for hours on end and waited until the packages were out before they took her to get medical treatment.” He said she got money for the incident, but that did not fix the root issue of indignity in the workplace.

In April 2021, Robert Cowie, former director of labor relations for the Chesapeake District of UPS, wrote Hooker a letter about the incident and a subsequent rally. “I want to be clear that UPS agrees with you that it could have been handled better,” he wrote. “We own that. We don’t believe that our management team acted with malice. However, again, it could have been handled better, and we commit that we will do our best to make sure future situations are handled in a way that matches up more fully with UPS’s values.”

Hooker wasn’t satisfied with this response. “UPS has made so much money,” he said, “and has made so much money, they can just pay these violations…. They’ll just throw money at the issue instead of fixing the issues because they have so much money.”

Gonzalez likewise said the company does not take care of its workers. “This company will not touch their heart and say, ‘Let’s take care of our people. Let’s take care of them because they just gave us billions of dollars. They will just continue to hoard the profits,” she said.

In a statement, UPS countered that the company has “invested more than $343 million in the U.S. in 2022 on safety training,” and involves its “front-line employees in the process.” “We comply with all applicable OSHA standards. We appreciate any opportunity to review and improve the safety policies and standards that protect our workforce.”

Gonzalez, meanwhile, spoke at an OSHA event in San Diego recently. “I had voiced it that these companies will do the bare minimum of what the laws require,” she said. “I told them: It’s very important for you guys to establish laws because these companies will do the bare minimum to provide us with what you guys say.”

UPS and the Teamsters still have some time to reach an agreement. “Refusing to negotiate, especially when the finish line is in sight, creates significant unease among employees and customers and threatens to disrupt the U.S. economy,” UPS said in a statement.

The strike could position workers at other companies such as Amazon to demand better working conditions as well. The Teamsters have been organizing at the e-commerce giant, which works with UPS. Workers in four states have gone on strike, including in Palmdale, where Gonzalez works.

“In this moment of heightened labor solidarity,” the Teamsters posted on Facebook, “UPS Teamsters are fighting for all working families — and battling to reclaim what it means to be a worker in America. We are fighting for a future in which all workers share in the profits they create, with dignified working conditions in stable, middle-class jobs that support their families. No more gigs, no more fighting for crumbs.”

“The [strike] possibility, as of right now, is very, very strong,” Hooker said. “As of right now today, I don’t see any other way [but] for us to go on strike.”

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