Summary: Reviewing the potential for a UPS Workers Strike and the Teamster Union’s Position — Editors
The current contract negotiated by the Teamsters Union on behalf of many UPS workers expires August 1, 2023, with negotiations for a new contract to begin in the spring. Since last year, there has been increasing worker dissatisfaction and a rising militancy in the larger labor movement that has been developing since last year. Last October was termed “Striketober” due to the resurgence of the working class’ resistance against some of the largest corporations in the U.S., from Kellogg’s to John Deere to Amazon and Starbucks – all in the wake of COVID-19.
The immediate catalyst for the UPS Workers discontent is the lethal temperatures they are subject to in the delivery vans. Representatives of UPS claim air conditioning would be ineffective as the drivers must frequently turn off the engine and open the door. In fact, some vans reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit as stated by a spokesman per Business Insider, and in reality, internal temperatures can reach up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Air conditioning, however much of a loss of investment for the capitalist, is a physical necessity for employees who work with metal equipment that becomes too hot to touch – one worker baked cookies, not in an oven but in a UPS van.
In the same article a UPS spokesperson is quoted as saying that the drivers are specially trained to deal with the heat. Such training includes suggesting drivers make stops in places with air conditioning. At the same time, the number of deliveries is closely monitored. A Florida driver with the company for almost four decades says, “You can feel yourself baking and unless you have places to stop along the way for air conditioning there is no relief, not until your shift ends 10 or maybe 14 hours later.”
UPS workers say they are criticized for taking excessive breaks and their numbers are scrutinized. Counter Punch reports that, this summer, (at least) two UPS workers suffered severe injury and one died. One of those injured was driving a delivery van and crashed into a restaurant. Many more have likely suffered similar fates, tragically. These conditions are similar to the conditions Amazon workers face in the Amazon fulfillment facilities across the country.
This is the reality of the capitalist mode of production. Altruism and benevolence are punished in a society so obsessed with economic growth. The accumulation of capital drives production and necessitates the extraction of greater surplus value. It is dogmatically followed as if it were the word of a deity. For if adhered to religiously, the capitalists’ worst fear will be realized: they will become a worker.
In August 2022, the Teamsters fired a “warning shot.” This was on the 25th anniversary of a 1977 strike where some 200,000 UPS workers stopped working. CNN reports 350,000 of the 534,000 global employees are unionized with an additional 72,000 new union jobs. Sean O’Brien, the current Teamsters Union President, campaigned on taking a more militant approach than his predecessor. In April, O’Brien restructured the Package Division covering UPS workers in order to provide more accessible channels to union report grievances, an increase in the number of staffers, better coordination between the local chapters and regional offices, and regular meetings between regional leaders to better coordinate nationally and anticipate problems proactively.
UPS moves some 21.5 million US packages daily, moving 6% of the U.S. GDP annually. At the end of 2021, due to the increase of online orders due to COVID-19, corporate earnings were up by 50% and another 10% for the first half of this year. UPS CEO Carol Tome supports the current contract, negotiated by the prior Teamsters President, but told CNN the company is “building contingency plans” in the event of a strike. O’Brien has also made clear the Teamsters’ preparedness, particularly their $300 million strike fund. The stakes continue to rise as this contradiction sharpens. While he does not think UPS employees are looking for a strike, O’Brien has stated the union will refuse any contract extensions beyond August 1, 2023. Further, O’Brien said, UPS needs to “understand we’re not going to be afraid to pull that trigger if necessary…” The new contract will include substantial wage increases for UPS workers.
The hardships of the pandemic have helped workers to better understand their power globally. Capital cannot be generated without them, and the mode of production is practically entirely dependent on them as labor is the source of all new value. This has contributed to what I see as the Renaissance of the U.S. Labor Movement. In addition, Gallup reports 71% of those polled in the U.S. supported labor unions, the highest level since 1965. This is up from 48% in 2009.
The contradiction between the drive for better working conditions and wages and the need to extract ever greater surplus value from already exploited workers will perhaps manifest more immediately in the form of unionization before a strike becomes tenable or necessary. Hopefully, the increased militancy of workers seeking to unionize through organizations such as the Amazon Labor Union may feel connected to the UPS workers’ strike and stand in solidarity with them. Class militancy is on the rise across the country, I believe, and the workers exploited by some of the largest corporations in the country – UPS, Amazon, Kellogg’s, and Starbucks – have resisted and begun to unionize. Such unions and others have gone on to take a militant stance once unionized. I was able to participate in the UC-AFT labor resistance on my college campus last year, which, to me, was yet another example of increased consciousness among the working class. May it only continue to grow! Happy Striketober 2022!
IMHO: ‘Stirketober’ Persists