31 May ‘Everybody’s Mad’: UPS Workers Prepared to Strike
Two UPS delivery drivers listen to a co-worker speak about the company’s ongoing labor disputes at a fundraiser in Richmond.
Story and photos by Joe Porrello
The more than 300,000 people who work for the United Parcel Service, including 1,500 in Richmond, may go on strike this summer — if the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union and UPS management can’t reach an agreement by July 31. A strike could have major economic consequences.
The Teamsters and UPS management began negotiations in Washington, D.C. last month. The workers’ contract expires Aug. 1.
According to the Teamsters, UPS is the single largest employer in the union and holds the largest private sector collective bargaining agreement in North America. So a strike could have adverse effects for many.
“It’s scary because everyone would miss out on a lot of money,” said Emile “Zach” McDonald, a five-year UPS employee.
The only previous national UPS strike was in 1997. It lasted 15 days, costing the company approximately $850 million.
If an agreement is not reached by the July 31 deadline, it could send ripples through the economy. UPS says it transports 6% of the U.S. gross domestic product.
Some employees at Richmond’s North Bay Hub currently earn $15.50 per hour — less than the local $16.17 minimum wage. The Teamsters Union wants the base pay to rise $5-10 per hour.
“Having your labor contract be below the minimum wage is ridiculous,” said Teamsters for a Democratic Union founder Ken Paff. “It’s not like they’re tipped employees.”
Paff started TDU in 1975. It is a nonprofit organization independent from the union.
“We’ve been working for decades to reform the union and really make it a model to reform the whole labor movement,” said Paff.
The union is also pushing for more full-time work, as the ’97 strike slogan “Part-Time America Won’t Work” reverberates.
“There’s a lot of turnover because of people being desperate for money and then leaving as soon as they find something that pays better,” said McDonald.
“It’s unsafe to have a bunch of untrained people working in the warehouse and loading trucks.”
Part-time employees guaranteed only three and a half hours of work daily make up more than half the workforce.
“The full-timers are the engine because they’re more the longtime workers, the leaders, the stewards of change,” said Paff.
In addition, Teamsters and UPS employees want to end the two-tier system added in the last contract that requires roughly four years of employment before workers reach the higher tier.
“We’ve seen other unions use tier systems, and over time, it brings everyone down,” said McDonald. “It’s intolerable.”
Employees in the bottom tier make less money, have fewer benefits and protections, and in some instances, replace more experienced top-tier workers to save the business money.
“Everybody’s mad, including the ones on the top tier,” said Paff.
Eliminating driver-facing cameras and nixing excessive overtime are part of the desired agreement as well.
Protection from hot weather is also being pursued after the 2022 death of a 24-year-old UPS worker who collapsed on the job. And last summer, delivery drivers shared posts that went viral of severe temperatures in their trucks.
“Even at McDonald’s, employees have air conditioning and at least make minimum wage,” said Paff.
At a “Teamster Rebellion” fundraising event in Richmond earlier this month, donors, activists and UPS employees gathered to spread awareness.
According to Paff, employee involvement in the union is at an all-time low. That’s not true only of UPS. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that 10.1% of U.S. workers were unionized in 2022, making the union membership rate “the lowest on record.”
“We are trying to put the ‘movement’ back in ‘labor movement,’ ” said Paff. “The reason inequality has spiraled out of control in this country is, in large part, due to the weakening of unions.”
UPS broke a company record by generating $100 billion and CEO Carol Tomé took home $19 million in salary.
“(UPS) is making record profits every quarter, and it’s really disgusting they would take somebody’s wage and cut it just to buy back more of their stock,” said McDonald. “These are the people that do the work that actually makes them money.”
The Teamsters seek an agreement sharing the lump sum of pandemic profits with employees.
“Not unlike a lot of workers in this country, they’re sick of being pushed around,” said Paff.
If a strike happens, the Teamsters have a $300 million fund to help with worker-member pay and healthcare costs.
UPS as a company is predicted to be damaged more financially. “If it comes to a strike, I predict it will be short because (UPS) will be sweating,” said Paff.
While some businesses can continue to provide service during a strike, UPS would be unable to meet customer needs. “Even the pilots and jet mechanics are committed not to work,” said Paff.
UPS also cannot outsource its work. The auto industry, for example, can build cars abroad and ship them overseas; UPS can’t deliver packages to your door if it doesn’t have truck drivers in the U.S.
The 1997 strike resulted in higher pay and the addition of 10,000 full-time jobs. And it’s predicted a big win for UPS employees could change the U.S. business landscape, influencing other companies to unionize, like Amazon.
“Organizing Amazon is important because they serve as an example for other businesses,” said Paff.
McDonald echoed Paff’s sentiment: “We would like to see Amazon and FedEx unionize and show them what that means.”
“This contract is more than UPS Teamsters; it’s a contract of choice for the labor movement of America,” said Carlos Silva, a 25-year UPS employee. “We want to raise the bar high for other workers.”
“By July 31, we will be ready to hit the streets if we have to strike,” said McDonald.
In January, Tomé, the UPS CEO, said she expects a deal to be made before the deadline.
McDonald disagrees, saying there’s still significant distance between the two sides. “There’s a very good chance we’ll see the largest strike in the U.S. in my lifetime,” he said.
Some expect UPS management to try convincing employees not to strike or start laying them off early in July to set an example.
But McDonald and his co-workers say they will not be deterred.
“We believe if we show the company we’re ready to strike and we’re united, that’s going to get us the best offer and best chance of avoiding a strike,” he said.