Working at UPS: Prospects and Challenges for DSA

The recent DSA convention sparked one of the most robust debates about labor strategy and workplace organizing in a long time on the U.S. Left. If you haven’t had a chance to read the debates on labor strategy and other convention resolutions, they are available here. The convention ultimately passed two convention resolutions on labor strategy—“the Rank and File Strategy” and the “Multifaceted Strategy”—that most delegates saw as complementing each other. Time will tell. Each resolution is posted here.

Clearly, the DSA is in a new place when it comes to labor strategy but most of our members are also new to this type of political work. Since the convention, some DSA members are discussing what type of union jobs to look for or what non-union workplaces seem ripe for organizing. So, modesty, patience, and comradely collaboration should be the watchwords. This work will take some time to see to fruition.

Renewed Interest in Big Brown

One workplace that regularly comes up for discussion, among many, as a potential place for rank and file organizing is United Parcel Service (UPS), the largest private-sector, unionized employer in the United States. Nick-named “Big Brown” back in the seventies, there are over 280,000 Teamsters—with some seasonal fluctuations—across the various divisions of UPS, the largest being the package delivery division with nearly 260,000 Teamsters. The package division is easily recognizable by the chocolate brown delivery trucks that dot the urban and suburban landscape.

Ever since the near defeat of old guard Teamster General President James P. Hoffa, Jr. in the 2016 Teamster election, there’s been a renewed interest in the Teamsters, after many decades of stagnation and retreat following the Carey reform years of the 1990s. Last year’s 90% yes vote by UPS-Teamsters to authorize a strike further peaked interest in developments in the Teamsters. It raised the specter of a nation-wide strike against UPS, the first since the historic 1997 strike. Though the national contract was voted down by the membership—a first in Teamster history—Hoffa relied on previously unused authority in the union constitution to declare it ratified.

I worked at UPS for nearly a decade. My first time was in the mid-1980s at the Watertown, Massachusetts hub, where I worked for a year as a part-timer. My second time was a much longer tenure at Chicago’s Jefferson Street hub. At ‘Jeff Street,’ as we called it, I worked a variety of part time jobs (unloading and loading trailers, sorting packages, and air driving), along with several ‘combination’ full-time jobs (air driving and sorting, sorting and driver helper), and, finally, my last year as a package car driver, mostly in the south Loop.

Though I haven’t worked at UPS in well over a decade, I’ve continued to write on developments there and in the Teamsters, because of their political importance to the working-class movement and socialist politics. The Teamsters are the most important transportation union in North America, including the railroads. My writings on UPS, the logistics industry and the Teamsters are available, here and here. My book The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service will be published by Haymarket Books in the spring of 2020.

What I want to do here is give DSAers some idea of what it’s like to be a part-time worker in UPS package division, the entry point for most new hires. If you decide to apply for a job and are hired, you should be aware of the challenges of working and being an activist inside the package delivery behemoth.

Inside the Brown Machine

UPS is one of the most fabulously profitable and exploitative corporations to work for today. Founded in 1907 in Seattle, it is one of the oldest industrial corporations in the U.S. The workplace is run by a cult-like management that aggressively pushes its workers’ productivity beyond the human limit all the time. It has been the site of two mass shootings in the last five years in Alabama and San Francisco. Both times the perpetrator was a package-car driver.

It has a long history of ringing concessions, without much difficulty, from the Teamsters. UPS is also one of major bastions for the reform movement in the union during the last forty years: From the short-lived UPSurge movement of the late 1970s to Ron Carey’s upset election in 1990 to the UPS strike of 1997 and the 2016 Teamsters election, where seventy percent of UPSers voted for the reform slate Teamsters United. It’s no accident that the only reform leader of the Teamsters in history was a former UPS driver, Ron Carey.

UPS is one of the most racially integrated workplaces in the United States. The package car and feeder (over-the-road) drivers are generally one-third black, white, and Latino. Most part timers are however overwhelmingly black and Latino, at least in the big metropolitan areas. It is still a largely male-dominated workplace, with the all too frequent accompanying macho, sexist, and homophobic attitudes that go along with it. However, as each year passes by, women make up a larger percentage of the workforce, including package and feeder (semi-tractor) drivers.

Two-thirds of the UPS workforce are part timers, and depending on the hub you are working at, many will not be in the Teamsters. The annual turnover rate for UPS part timers is a whopping ninety percent, but that is more-or-less the industry standard. Many will be in their probationary period of thirty to forty days before they “make” the union, while others will have been recently hired. Many of UPS’s biggest hubs are located near or in metropolitan areas to take advantage of the high levels of unemployment among black youth that bring large numbers of new hires in on a regular basis. It’s a fast-moving revolving door.

One of the most glaring examples of this is the Chicago Area Consolidation Hub (or CACH) that straddles the suburbs of Willow Springs and Hodgkins southwest of Chicago, on the former site of a GM truck assembly plant. CACH employs 6,000 to 8,000 workers at any point in time. It is the largest ground package facility in the world. When it opened in 1995 it expected to draw its workforce from the southwestern and western suburbs of Chicago. Instead, CACH draws heavily from the African-American South Side, West Side, and south suburbs. UPS got PACE, the regional transport authority, to create bus routes that transport workers from the city and south suburbs to it, but the cost is shouldered by the workers not UPS.

While UPS hires large numbers of workers year-round, it is still true that it is during peak season (or the Christmas rush) from October to the middle of January that it puts on 90,000 part-timers temporarily to handle the explosion in package volume. This is the time of the year when UPS, along with all the other logistics giants, are desperate for workers. Most will be hired to work in the hubs but a small number will be hired as seasonal driver helpers. UPS recruits worker predominately online but it will resort to old-fashioned billboard advertising and newspaper ads during peak season. Sometimes, though very rarely these days, it sets up recruitment tables at college campuses.

Wages for part timers are low, starting at $14 an hour as of August 1, 2019. For nearly thirty years start pay was $8 or $8:50 an hour; it was an incredible subsidy provided by the Teamsters to UPS. It should be noted that UPS’s starting pay of $13 at the time of ratification was $2 less an hour for some of non-union Amazon’s workers. Sometimes UPS gives bonus pay for good attendance during peak season and also college tuition offers. However, part timers don’t get paid for holidays during their probationary period, and those hired during peak season can’t accrue any time towards making the union until it is over—only then do you start your probationary period. When I was hired in October 1997, for example, it wasn’t until the end of March of the following year, six months later, that I was considered a union member!

Work in the hubs is unrelenting, dirty, and dangerous especially when you’re loading and unloading trucks or sorting packages. There is a constant push to keep the belts running. Handling bulk items (over seventy pounds) can lead to serious injury, and hazardous chemical spills are quite common. Most of the hubs are badly ventilated with the summer heat as the biggest threat to your health and life. When you’re hired, UPS will place you where they need you, which almost always means being placed on the midnight (10 or 11 PM start time) or sunrise (2 AM to 4 AM start time) shifts. These are the absolute worst shifts to work. You never sleep right, and it difficult to find another job to complement it.

The part-time supervisors are your immediate boss. They run the gamut from incompetents (hence called “stupidvisors”) to people who are sarcastic idiots who respond to any complaint about working condition with barbs like, “What do you want? A hug?” Some workers become supervisors because they are deceived by the company into thinking it will lead to bigger promotions or they’ll get their college tuition covered. They soon realize they are stuck and leave. There is a big turnover rate among part-time supervisors.

The Teamsters

All part-time loaders, unloaders and sorters are represented by the Teamsters. The Teamsters-UPS package division is covered by the National Master United Parcel Service Agreement that runs from August 1, 2018 to July 31, 2023; it is available here. There are two dozen supplements and riders, along with two ‘independent’ local contracts (Local 705 and 710) in Chicago that supplement the national contract. Wages are uniform throughout the country. There are 440 Teamster local unions in the United States. UPS workers are in a variety of local unions from big city locals like Local 804 in New York City to state-wide locals like Local 200 in Wisconsin.

The Teamster officialdom is a bloated, overpaid bureaucracy. The distance between many Teamster officials that make over $200,000 a year and part-timers is enormous. Part-timers are low on the priority list for local unions. Some local unions have lower dues rates for part timers—but many part timers will be shocked to see an enormous amount of money taken out of their pay checks for several months to cover “initiation fees” and dues. This has led to public relations blunders where whole pay checks go to the local union to the great pleasure of anti-union forces. Initiation fees should have been abolished a long time ago.

Despite the racial diversity of the work force and lower management, racism is endemic to UPS. In one of the most egregious recent class action lawsuits, the Washington Post reported:

The lawsuit claims that, among other incidents going back to at least 2013, nooses were once hung above the workstation of a black employee, Confederate flags were displayed, a monkey doll was dressed to look like a UPS worker and the n-word was frequently used. The employees also allege that the discriminatory behavior “permeated” employment decisions, resulting in minority workers being “systematically denied job opportunities” at the distribution center.

Sexism, sexual harassment, and homophobia are all present at UPS, though, of course, UPS denies this. But where are the Teamsters to deal with these issues? Nowhere in most cases. Too many Teamsters officers and staffers give these issues a pass, while, in other cases, they are as racist and sexist as anyone in management. In one of the most notorious incidents in the last decade, Boston Local 25 picketed the location for the Top Chef television series to demand that they hire union labor. Fair enough. Instead of focusing on that issue, the union pickets—made up of staffers and the then Secretary-Treasurer Mark Harrington—let forth a barrage of sexist, misogynist, and anti-Indian bigotry. Watch the video.

A  Modest Perspective For DSA

UPS is one of the most important workplaces in the United States. The 1997 UPS strike was one of the most important strikes in modern U.S. history. Logistics are now more integrated into the heart of the modern economy on a scale that couldn’t be imagined two decades ago. Last year’s no vote on the national contract threw the media into panic over the prospect of another nationwide strike. Yet, it is also a very stratified and divided workforce with a myriad of job classifications, wage rates, and a very high turnover rate. For those thinking about applying for a job at UPS, I want to people to be very clear-eyed about what they will be dealing with.

The prospects for getting hired at UPS are good but the odds are stacked against many who are hired for part-time hub work. Working in the middle of the night and in the middle of nowhere is not good for anybody and making very little money on top of that adds a sting to it all. I would suggest that the better jobs to apply for are the part-time and full-time driving jobs, which have their own challenges and difficulties but you’ll certainly make more money. You’ll need to get an upgraded license, and definitely know how to drive a standard transmission to even consider these jobs. Most importantly, the feeder and package car drivers remain the heart of the union at UPS—and that’s the place to be a long-term activist.

I want to suggest a two-prong approach: 1.) Those members interested in working at UPS meet and discuss what the first steps are and develop a small network of activists with very modest goals; and 2.) Use Bernie’s campaign to reach UPS-Teamsters. UPS hubs are some of the largest concentrations of workers in the United States. Branches or chapters could adopt one or many UPS hubs for tabling and canvassing. I’m sure we would meet a lot of people interested in socialism and union militancy.

These are just suggestions. There are many political questions related to the future of organizing in the logistics industry, the Teamsters, and the future of the Teamster reform movement that DSA needs to discuss at the national level. Hopefully, we can start that discussion soon.