Last week, 25 years after UPS workers last went on strike in 1997, the UPS Teamsters kicked off their contract negotiation campaign with rallies around the country. Their current contract expires in July 2023 and negotiations for a new contract will begin in February. In New York City alone, rallies and actions took place across 14 UPS facilities.
Workers are demanding an end to excessive overtime, an end to the two-tier system, higher pay for part-time warehouse workers, more full-time jobs, job security for feeders and package drivers, ending the surveillance and harassment from the bosses, and a heat exhaustion and injury prevention plan to combat against the extreme weather we have been experiencing.
For UPS Teamsters, this contract struggle is an opportunity to roll back the defeats of the current contract, including the two-tier system, which was undemocratically imposed by the Hoffa leadership onto members, the majority of whom had voted no of the tentative agreement. Since then, the two-tier system has created two categories for drivers, with a new “second-class” of drivers who do the same job as long term drivers but are paid up to ten dollars less per hour. But the imposition of a two-tier system isn’t unique to UPS alone — such a strategy has been forced by bosses across industries in order to undermine the historic conquests of the working class, and they’ve hired new workers under new categories that have cut wages, benefits, and rights.
For UPS, this contract battle will be one where they not only will want to maintain the conditions as they are, but will also want to deepen the exploitation of workers. For the bosses, Amazon’s growth especially marks a new threat, with Amazon on track to outpace UPS in volume within the industry. Yet, UPS is still a highly profitable company, having made $6.8 billion in profits in just the first two quarters of this year.
If a new contract doesn’t meet workers demands, it is expected that the more than 350,000 full- and part-time UPS workers will go on strike, which could be one of the biggest strikes in recent decades in the U.S. As a company that moves more than three percent of the global GDP and six percent of the U.S. GDP, a strike by UPS workers would be felt across the board.
At the rally in Maspeth in Queens, workers demanded justice for Esteban Chavez Jr., a 24-year-old UPS driver, who died on the job on June 25 after collapsing in sweltering heat. Last week, at a rally in Brooklyn, almost a hundred UPS workers came together to demand a solution to the high temperatures inside UPS trucks.
Kioma Forero, a driver and shop steward at the Metro Queens facility in Maspeth, highlighted the importance of including warehouse workers in this fight. Workers in the warehouses form the majority of the union, but have historically been the most neglected. They work part-time in grueling conditions and for minimum wage to prepare the packages every morning that are later delivered by the drivers. During the rally, Forero pointed out how the lockers for warehouse workers are outside the building, on the sidewalk. Warehouse workers also suffer from extreme heat exhaustion in the building due to the high temperatures and lack of air conditioning and fans, and their body temperatures are constantly high because of the fast pace of work and the lack of easy access to cold water, electrolyte drinks. Their work is essential in UPS operations but these workers are treated as second-class workers.
There is a new air in the workers movement. Workers in companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, and Trader Joes, among others, are putting up a strong fight to unionize their workplaces. Our working conditions and wages have been eroded by economic crises, the pandemic, high inflation, and the thirst to maximize profits by corporations. The struggle at UPS has the potential to become a point of reference for the working class, especially among this new, energetic sector emerging within organized labor. This sector of workers, many of who are already expressing solidarity to each other by attending each other’s rally and actions, must be ready to also join in more combative actions like strikes and picket lines.
For this to happen, it is essential to increase the involvement of rank-and-file UPS workers and for workers to develop democratic shop-floor organizations where they can discuss the next steps during the year-long negotiation and prepare to be strike-ready. At the same time, it will also be important to extend our solidarity through this process — the closer the contract expiration date gets, the more this struggle will heat up and workers have to face a powerful corporation that is more than willing to put profits over lives.