UPS Teamsters cast their strike authorization vote at a Bay Area local (Photo via: the Party for Socialism and Liberation)
United Parcel Service (UPS) workers, organized under the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, have begun strike authorization votes across the US in anticipation of the expiration of their contracts on July 31, a vote which is widely expected to pass overwhelmingly. Teamsters leadership is urging members to vote yes to “give our UPS Teamsters National Negotiating Committee even more leverage to take on the company.” By authorizing a strike, workers are empowering themselves to use the most powerful negotiating tool at their disposal: a work stoppage. Strike authorization results are set to come out on June 16.
If workers do end up striking following failed contract negotiations on August 1, this would mean a strike of 350,000 workers, who collectively move 6% of the US GDP each day. It could bring the US economy to its knees.
“I’m voting yes to strike because we need to come to an agreement that will benefit workers,” said Max Aguayo, a member of Local 177 Teamsters in New Jersey and a UPS worker for 15 years. “We get raises, but they don’t make par with what the economy and the billions of dollars that the company makes on our backs, because we are the workers, and we are the hands and the muscle that moves that work.”
Contract negotiations have been progressing, as the union has now finished negotiations on almost all supplemental contracts and is now on to the nationwide UPS contract. This type of national, single-employer contract is unique in the US, where contracts rarely cover all corners of the country.
In this contract fight, the Teamsters are recycling an old slogan from their 1997 strike, the size of which the country hasn’t seen the likes of since. Workers are once again holding up signs that read “Part Time America Won’t Work.” This represents a fundamentally different vision of a US workplace than the reality of increased precarity and gigification of work. UPS workers are not just fighting for economic issues or working conditions, they are fighting for stable jobs.
“UPS wants to keep everybody part time, so they don’t want you to ever make 40 hours,” said Fakhar Salam, shop steward at Teamsters Local 177 for 22 years and UPS worker for 26 years. “We are the backbone of this company. We need better wages for new hires. We need better benefits for new hires. America can’t live on part time jobs no more. Nobody could live off USD 18 an hour minus the taxes.”
UPS workers are fighting for a USD 25 per hour pay minimum for part-time workers, the elimination of the unfair two-tier wage system called 22.4, an end to forced six-day workweeks, an end to the surveillance regime of worker-facing cameras, more full-time jobs, and air conditioning in UPS trucks.
Kyle Horstmann, a UPS driver for 12 years in West Chester, Pennsylvania and a member of Teamsters Local 384, says the 22.4 system, forced through undemocratically into the current UPS contract, is extremely unpopular among workers and is a central issue. “Roughly we have a second tier class of drivers who don’t get equal pay for equal work. These guys make a fraction of what I make.”
“In practice, we just have these guys, 22.4s, working a full shift out on the road, making a fraction of what regular package corps drivers make,” Horstmann added. “They don’t have excessive overtime protection. So they’re really abused. And there’s no possibility for them to get on the same pay scale as a regular package corps driver.”
As Teamsters members and UPS workers Sean Orr and Elliot Lewis write in Jacobin, “UPS was once a hallmark of secure union jobs. Now, 60 percent of the workforce is part-time, making around the minimum wage in many regions. Drivers in many locations are forced to work six days a week and up to fourteen hours a day in forced overtime. Managers follow drivers in personal vehicles and relentlessly harass workers to scare them into working faster.”
UPS is splitting the shifts of workers in ways that make adequate sleep, let alone family time, impossible. Fabrizio Mattracia, a worker at Local 804 in New York, spoke at a Brooklyn Teamsters rally about split shifts at his distribution center, where bosses are forcing some workers to work from 4 am to 8 am, then return for a 4:30 pm to 8:30 pm shift. Mattracia said some workers with split shifts, “don’t even go home.”
“They sleep in their cars,” he said “They can’t even go home, see their wife, their kids. It’s the most inhumane thing I’ve seen this company do.”
Horstmann says that for workers, the key issues somewhat transcend economics or working conditions. “We were treated as heroes during the pandemic in 2020, and afterwards there were signs in front of our barns: Heroes work here,” he said. “I delivered my share of vaccines to pharmaceutical companies and everything, so people could get vaccinated. And now as soon as it’s no longer profitable, [UPS is] doing the biggest layoffs I’ve seen… they’re just laying people off because they’re saying we’re not profitable anymore.”
“I think [lack of] respect and harassment is a major issue everyone faces at UPS.”
Teamsters leaders have said that if UPS does not concede to workers’ contract demands, they will essentially “put themselves on strike.” In April, Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien wrote, “UPS’s piss-poor planning & unpreparedness does not constitute an emergency on the Teamsters behalf during negotiations. This company has 12 weeks to either settle the deal or put themselves on strike. We’re not playing games, [the] ball is in your court.”
O’Brien is leading the Teamsters in a contract fight that could culminate in a historic strike. He was elected in 2022 on a platform which broke with the Teamsters leadership status quo. Jimmy Hoffa Jr., O’Brien’s predecessor, had grown unpopular after pushing through a UPS contract that union members had voted down in 2018, which contains the 22.4 provision which guarantees some workers less pay than others for equal work. Since assuming office, O’Brien has taken a bold pro-worker stance in regards to national politics.
He made headlines when he told conservative Senator Markwayne Mullin, a multimillionaire, that Teamsters “[hold] greedy CEOs like yourself accountable.” In response to the Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters Local 174, a recent Supreme Court decision that could threaten the right to strike, O’Brien said, “the American people cannot rely on their government to protect them. They cannot rely on their employers. We must rely on each other. We must engage in organized, collective action.”