As the countdown to a possible monumental strike at UPS ticks away, the stakes are high, and the air is heavy with anticipation. The inaction by UPS, the global courier giant, to meet its workers’ needs is threatening to ignite what might become a historic strike, with the potential to improve the lives of over 340,000 employees.
Rumblings of discontent among UPS employees have been brewing for some time, spurred on by stalled negotiations between the Teamsters union and UPS. Union members – 97% of whom have voted in favor of a strike – have taken to picket lines across the nation, in an act of anticipation and solidarity, displaying signs with potent messages like, “just practicing for a just contract.”
For Richard Hooker Jr., secretary-treasurer and principal officer for Philadelphia Teamsters Local 623, the responsibility for the impasse in negotiations rests solely with UPS. “They’re the ones that caused all these issues,” he emphatically states. It’s a standoff; each party blaming the other for the lack of progress, while the workers bear the brunt.
Working at UPS isn’t for the faint-hearted. Delivering packages in the scorching heat exacerbated by climate change, being on the frontline during the COVID-19 lockdowns while most enjoyed the safety of their homes, and dealing with health hazards resulting from unsafe working conditions are just some of the challenges the workers face.
The recent promise by UPS to install air-conditioning in their trucks is seen as a small victory, but it falls short of the union’s main demands. The Teamsters union wants economic justice: wage increases for all employees, improved pension benefits, and fortified health and welfare protections. As Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien states, “UPS had a choice to make, and they have clearly chosen to go down the wrong road.”
The wrangling over wage issues particularly for part-time workers, is a bone of contention between the union and UPS. The dispute centers around wage disparities, with a yawning gap of $6 to $7 per hour, in relation to starting pay and long-term employment. “Part-time workers get screwed over, taken advantage of, and forgotten about,” says Teamsters General Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman, rallying the union to put an end to this exploitation.
Tragic tales like that of Esteban Chavez Jr., a UPS worker who died after a day’s work delivering packages in unbearable heat in Pasadena, California, only intensify the union’s resolve to fight for better conditions for workers. The need for safer work conditions is compounded by several disturbing incidents reported by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which include workplace accidents, fatalities, and violations of COVID-19 safety regulations.
The response of UPS to these accusations has been disappointing at best. Even after amassing a record $11.3 billion in profits last year, the company continues to stall on negotiations, leaving workers frustrated and discontent. Teamsters Local 396’s Viviana Gonzalez comments, “This company will not touch their heart and say, ‘Let’s take care of our people…’ They will just continue to hoard the profits.”
As the deadline looms, the call for a strike grows louder, with the potential to disrupt not just UPS, but also ripple across to other companies like Amazon, where workers’ rights are increasingly coming into focus. The UPS workers’ fight is a symbol of the larger battle for the rights of workers across 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 Teamsters state on social media.
The moment of truth draws near and the stage is set for a potentially seismic shift in the labor movement. As Hooker surmises, “The [strike] possibility, as of right now, is very, very strong.” Will UPS step up or will it face an historic strike that could ripple across the nation, demanding better for America’s workers?