Why 340,000 UPS workers are preparing to strike in the US

United Parcel Service workers and the company are in negotiations over a new contract. The workers, who are vital to the country’s economy, often don’t have time to return home for a full night of sleep or are forced to rest in shelters because their pay is too low to afford a room

April 27, 2023 by Natalia Marques
In Canarsie, Brooklyn, UPS Teamsters from Local 804 rallied in front of a UPS Customer Center on April 21

United Parcel Service (UPS) workers are gearing up for a potential strike as they hold contract negotiations with the company. Talks between the company and the union representing UPS workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, opened on April 17. Teamsters President Sean O’Brien says that workers are ready to walk off the job if UPS fails to reach a deal on a strong contract before the current one expires on July 31.

Workers are demanding better pay, more full-time work, better job security, and an end to the two-tier “22.4” job classification. The deeply unpopular “22.4” provision creates a lower-paid tier of workers who essentially perform the same work as senior drivers, but for lower pay.

The workers are also demanding an end to excessive overtime, better protections against company harassment, the elimination of driver-facing cameras, and protection from hot weather. Drivers reported extreme temperatures inside their delivery trucks in posts that went viral last summer, and workers, like 24-year-old Esteban Chavez, have died due to extreme heat. 

“Part-Time America Won’t Work”

A strike may have a formidable impact. UPS workers move 6% of the US GDP in their trucks every day. The last time UPS Teamsters went on strike was in 1997, when 185,000 workers walked off the job in one of the largest strikes in US history. The work stoppage cost the company USD 850 million despite only lasting for 15 days. The US has not seen a strike of this magnitude since.

Today, after e-commerce has grown exponentially, UPS employs over 340,000 Teamsters, who deliver over six billion packages every year. UPS workers were declared “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic due to their critical role in distributing goods throughout the country. If these workers were to strike, the effects would be astronomical.

A potential strike is leverage in the tough negotiations over the contract and workers are mobilizing in various parts of the country.

In Canarsie, Brooklyn, UPS Teamsters from Local 804 rallied in front of a UPS Customer Center on April 21, to build momentum. A crowd of hundreds gathered while passing trucks honked in support.

“[In] ‘97, I was a part timer on strike,” said Chris Williamson, Local 804 Vice President, addressing the rally. “The thing was, part time America does not work. It still doesn’t work.”

“Part-Time America Won’t Work” was a key slogan during the 1997 strike. The slogan highlighted resistance to UPS’ push to split stable full-time jobs into far more precarious part-time positions. The strike was successful, winning raises for workers and around ten thousand full-time jobs.

Teamsters reiterated the slogan “Part-Time America Won’t Work” several times at last week’s rally, because over two decades later, it remains relevant as unionized workers push for more full-time positions.

Peoples Dispatch spoke to Ronald Jeffrey, a part-time worker from Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. Jeffrey works at a Wendy’s because UPS does not provide him with enough hours to be able to survive off of that job alone. UPS is meant to guarantee part-timers at least three and a half hours each day, but Jeffrey says this is not always the case. “They rather you get off the clock before that.”

Jeffrey believes he is being treated unfairly, despite being declared an “essential worker” by the US government. “I definitely worked the whole two years. Without a day off. And got the medicine, and all these things, and food to people. [I] just got nothing for it,” he said. “Other companies gave their workers incentives and initiatives, and we got nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Local 804 workers also reported having full-time shifts split into two part-time shifts, severely disrupting sleeping schedules and ife outside of work. Fabrizio, a full-time driver who was made to work in split shifts, spoke to the gathered workers about being forced to come in to work from 4 am to 8 am,  go home, then head back to work from 4:30 pm to 8:30 pm. 

“Guys are getting 4 hours, maybe 5 hours of sleep a day,” he said, “We’re coming in exhausted already and they’re giving us tons of work…We’ve got guys that have lived in [New] Jersey that are coming all the way [to Brooklyn]. They don’t even go home. They sleep in their cars. They can’t even go home, see their wife and their kids.” The union is fighting to end this practice, said Fabrizio.

Dave Loobie, who worked part-time in the building for 22 years and is now a business agent for the local, addressed gathered workers. “Inside this building here, I worked alongside brothers and sisters who live in the shelter,” he said. “While UPS is making billions of dollars of profit, there are people living in the shelter working for them  [who] can’t afford a room.”

Pay is a major issue for UPS workers across the US. Some part-time workers are paid as low as USD 15.50 per hour. The Teamsters union is working to push starting wages above USD 20 per hour for part-timers.

Meanwhile, UPS reported record profits last year, generating USD 100 billion in revenue for the first time. UPS CEO Carol Tomé was compensated USD 19 million last year—a far cry from workers sleeping in shelters.

“We have to maintain this unity”

Teamsters President Sean O’Brien took the helm of the union in 2022, after running for office with an endorsement from Teamsters progressive caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union. O’Brien beat Steve Vairma, the successor to the previous Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, whose popularity had plummeted after he undemocratically forced through a UPS contract that a majority of workers had voted against in 2018.

This contract included a number of unpopular provisions, and many workers felt that Hoffa had cut a deal with the company, not with workers. One of the most unpopular parts of the contract was the “22.4” provision. Measures such as this serve to strengthen divisions between workers and undermine unity.

O’Brien promises to break with Hoffa’s example and offer no compromises: he wants to do away with the 22.4 provision altogether. “[O’Brien] said forget that, he [wants 22.4s] gone,” Williamson said. “And we’re going to do it if we stand together.”

“The company has created the 22.4 position and they are displacing full time helpers to divide us,” Brooklyn UPS driver Antoine Andrews told gathered workers. “But today, again, we demonstrate that we are united. We have to maintain this unity so that we can survive.”