color photograph of a small protest of UPS workers standing on the right side of the frame holding posters that read "ups: don't cut part-time pay." a large ups freight truck passes by on the left
SPARKS, NEVADA, UNITED STATES - 2022/01/27: A UPS truck drives past protesters holding placards during the demonstration. United Parcel Service employees and supporters gathered to protest wage cuts for part-time employees. (Photo by Ty O'Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Unionized UPS workers across the country are prepared to strike if UPS and the union cannot come to an agreement by Aug. 1. In today’s economy, package delivery is more important than ever, and UPS handles about a quarter of all parcel delivery volume nationwide. More than half of UPS workers are unionized under the Teamsters, which has been negotiating with the company since April over working conditions and wages for full-time and part-time workers. 

The Teamsters are calling for starting pay for part-timers to be increased to $25 an hour, up from the current minimum wage for package handlers of $15.50. They are also asking for the abolition of a class of lower-paid full-time workers known as “22.4s,” new drivers who earn significantly less and have less control over their schedules compared to senior UPS drivers. They’re additionally calling for an end to mandatory overtime, unfair disciplinary procedures, and the use of surveillance cameras in delivery trucks. 

Teamsters announced on July 5 that negotiations between union leadership and UPS had collapsed. While neither the union nor UPS has publicly expressed specific reasons for the standstill, a key sticking issue is pay for part-time workers. 

“Part-timers have been looked down upon for too long,” said José Francisco Negrete, a part-time warehouse worker at UPS and member of Teamsters Local 952 in California. “We’ve been exploited by UPS for far too long, our pay has been miserable for far too long, and that’s how UPS profits.”

While these issues have existed for a while, workers say the last few years have been especially trying. Longer and more frequent heat waves have made the job increasingly difficult when many delivery trucks do not include air conditioning. More than 143 UPS employees have been hospitalized for heat-related injuries on the job between 2015 and 2022.

During the pandemic, as Americans increasingly relied on online purchases and delivery services, UPS workers delivered record numbers of packages without hazard pay while UPS made record profits. Multiple UPS employees died of COVID-19, another factor that fired up the membership. 

“After COVID slowed down, members realized their true capabilities and what kind of power they truly have when it comes to the economy and the existence of America,” said Richard Hooker Jr., secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia. “If we don’t go to work, there is no America.”

If hundreds of thousands of UPS workers go on strike, package delivery in the U.S. would be severely disrupted, causing delays and higher shipping costs from other companies. UPS could lose $170 million in revenue a day. Brick-and-mortar stores will also struggle to maintain their stock, as about 42% of UPS shipments go to businesses.

However, workers and union leaders say that if negotiations fail, they will strike to secure basic economic stability and dignity for UPS workers. Securing a strong contract could also help non-unionized workers at competitor companies like Amazon and FedEx, which will be pressured to raise wages and benefits to compete for employees. 

A change in union leadership has also led to the Teamsters taking a more hardline stance against UPS. During the last few contract negotiations, a more conciliatory union leadership agreed to health care and classification changes that many rank-and-file union members strongly opposed. In 2018, when the majority of voting UPS union members rejected the proposed contract between the Teamsters and UPS that included the controversial 22.4 provision, Teamsters leadership invoked a loophole that allowed them to override the vote if turnout was under 50% and if less than two-thirds of members rejected it. The contract was adopted, including the wage-cutting 22.4 section.

Workers furious at Teamsters then-President James P. Hoffa voted to remove the loophole at the 2020 convention and mandated that all contract bargaining committees include rank-and-file members. Soon after, they elected President Sean O’Brien, who ran on a campaign of negotiating a strong UPS contract that abolished the 22.4 tier and aggressively organizing Amazon. 

A fair contract is key to combating intimidation and helping communities of color achieve economic stability, said Hooker, who is the first Black man to lead his local. About half of UPS employees are people of color, predominantly Black and Latinx. The company has repeatedly come under fire for racism, including a 2021 incident where UPS allegedly wrongfully terminated 10 part-time warehouse workers of color who declined to work overtime and a 2019 racial harassment case

“These jobs are middle-class jobs,” Hooker said. “You can afford a home, send your kids to school, support yourself, support your family, and that’s something that in our community we don’t have a lot of access to. This contract gives us that access to be on an equal playing field with everyone else.”

Negrete said UPS likes to portray itself as a socially and racially progressive organization, pointing to a recent clip the company put out featuring a Black employee telling her story of how UPS gave her a job when she was homeless and living in a shelter. But Negrete questioned whether UPS is really doing anything to help workers of color and homeless employees.

“They parade them around, but it’s just propaganda,” Negrete said. “When it comes down to the root of it, you’re not paying them a thriving wage; you still have to wait nine months at some places to get health care. You are not providing economic stability for workers.”  

The last UPS strike was in 1997 and lasted for two weeks, severely hamstringing the company and forcing them to agree to make major concessions. A strike in 2023 could be even more devastating for UPS’ leadership and profits.

“When America was ordering everything they needed online, we delivered it,” Hooker said. “We are asking for the public in America to deliver for us. Stand with us as we stood with America and its citizens through a very difficult time in American history.”

Sravya Tadepalli is a freelance writer based in Oregon. Her writing has been featured in Arlington Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and the textbook America Now. Sravya...