Teamsters set stage for union contract battle with UPS



Around midday, UPS driver Donnie Henry starts to feel the Atlanta heat in the back of his un-air conditioned truck as he searches for the right package to deliver to each doorstep.

By 4 p.m. on a hot day, “it’s a cooker back there,” Henry said, with the package compartment hitting 125 or 130 degrees. The company trains drivers — who might make 150-170 stops a day — to spend no more than 19 seconds selecting each package, he said, “so when we’re in the back of the truck, we’re not getting overheated.”

Henry is one of hundreds of thousands of unionized UPS workers gearing up for a contentious battle to seek higher pay, less surveillance of drivers, cooling systems to reduce the risk of heatstroke on the job and other measures in a new labor agreement.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, under the leadership of a militant new union president, is taking an aggressive approach as it prepares for negotiations next year of its massive labor contract with the shipping giant.

The Teamsters represent 350,000 workers at Sandy Springs-based UPS, with a national master contract that is the largest collective bargaining agreement in the United States.

Amid a resurgence of the labor movement nationally — including a push to unionize workers at Amazon — the UPS negotiations set to begin early next year have become pivotally important for the storied union and its aspirations.

“It’s coming at a time when labor is already on the rise. ... Unions are actively organizing” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations’ director of labor education research.

Over a six month period ending March 31, the number of union representation petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board increased 57%. Labor shortages are putting workers in demand, giving them leverage to seek higher pay and better working conditions.

And, “everybody loves their UPS driver,” Bronfenbrenner said. “They know that they work hard, they’re working longer hours, they helped us survive the pandemic.”

Credit: Source: Teamsters

Credit: Source: Teamsters

Teamsters president Sean O’Brien, who took the helm of the union in March, is pushing to make gains in pay, benefits and working conditions at UPS — and to then use that to try to prove the union’s mettle to hundreds of thousands of others at Amazon and elsewhere. While UPS has unionized drivers and warehouse workers, FedEx and Amazon are mostly non-union.

With about a year to go before the UPS labor contract expires on July 31, the Teamsters are holding events with UPS workers to discuss priorities for a new contract. The union is already threatening to strike if they don’t reach agreement with management before the deadline next summer.

“We are sending a message to UPS that the days of concessions and walking all over our members are over,” O’Brien said in a written statement. “We’ll either have a signed agreement that day or be hitting the pavement.”

The union is pushing for higher pay for the part-time package handlers in warehouses, more full-time jobs, less required overtime, reduced surveillance of drivers and the end of a two-tiered pay system designed to enable weekend deliveries to handle the surge in online shopping.

UPS, which saw its pilots on Friday ratify a new contract extension, said in a statement: “We believe we’ll continue to find common ground with the Teamsters and reach an agreement that’s good for everyone involved.”



The push for protection from heat stroke for UPS workers has become another pressing issue.

Amid record heat this summer, news reports said the family of a UPS driver in Southern California believe he died from heat stroke. A Scottsdale, Arizona, homeowner saw a UPS driver collapse on his porch on his doorbell video camera.

The Teamsters this month sought information from the company on plans to combat heat illness and install relief equipment.

UPS said it has accelerated installation of fans in UPS vehicles, and said when a driver needs help due to extreme heat, it has protocols for an employee to respond to their location to get assistance or drive them to their UPS facility.

Henry, the delivery driver, said he sometimes dumps water on his head or uses cooling towels to beat the heat.

Matt Higdon, president of the Teamsters Local 728 in Atlanta, calls UPS trucks “crock pots on wheels” and said drivers often work 12 hours a day or more in them delivering packages. The long hours also lead to drivers more often knocking on doors when it’s dark — which he says is dangerous.



‘Itching to fight’

The Teamsters noted that their union contract campaign kickoff coincides with the 25th anniversary of its historic 16-day strike against UPS in 1997.

“I’m sure UPS management is very nervous,” Bronfenbrenner said. “They haven’t had that kind of fight in years, in decades.”

From 1998 until earlier this year, the Teamsters under the leadership of James P. Hoffa, the son of Jimmy Hoffa, took a more conciliatory approach with management — to the chagrin of more aggressive Teamsters like O’Brien.

“Hoffa was not interested in a national strike.” Bronfenbrenner said. Now, “the UPS members are itching to fight.”

O’Brien led a Teamsters local in Boston during the last round of master contract negotiations. He harshly criticized the deal, which included the two-tier pay system that created a new group of lower-paid weekend workers at UPS.

In 2018, O’Brien said the Teamsters’ decisions on that labor deal would “set back not only the Teamsters but the labor movement (by) 40 years.”

Now, the union under O’Brien is pushing for $20 an hour starting wages at UPS and advising members to start saving money to prepare for the possibility of a strike next year.

For a company, just the threat of a strike carries the risk of lost business from customers worried about a work stoppage.

UPS CEO Carol Tomé recently told analysts the company is still winning business from customers who know about the upcoming negotiations, and added that UPS drivers with seniority can make nearly $100,000 a year.

Tomé, a former chief financial officer at Home Depot, also said UPS is “building contingency plans and we are going to take care of our customers.”

Tomé's comments mean the company is readying plans to have replacement workers in the event of a strike — “but you can’t replace 100,000, 200,000 workers,” Bronfenbrenner said.

Still, she noted: “You shouldn’t underestimate UPS.”

“They will inevitably try to convince UPS workers that if they hold out on the strike, they will lose out on something they would get if they settled,” Bronfenbrenner said. “UPS fights hard.”

Teamsters at UPS

Teamsters members at UPS: 350,000 drivers, loaders, unloaders, sorters, clerks and mechanics

Labor contract expiration date: July 31, 2023

UPS 2021 profit: $12.9 billion