Heat Waves Are Putting Teamsters in Danger

UPS workers say the company is not doing enough to protect employees from scorching temperatures.

Mindy Isser

A UPS driver leaves with his truck from a UPS facility that is delivering vaccines to Washington, DC, and Maryland areas March 15, 2021 in Landover, Maryland. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters kicked off its campaign, on August 1, for its next big contract with United Parcel Service in 2023 — but the Teamsters have some other UPS fights along the way.

Teamsters tell In These Times that workers are being pushed to the brink as temperatures around the country hit 100 degrees and higher, and myriad heatstroke stories abound. According to some UPS workers, management has so far turned a blind eye to the danger and even goaded workers for not being tough enough to handle the heat.

But as profits soar at UPS, workers are falling ill and even dying. On June 25, 24-year-old Esteban Chavez Jr., a UPS driver outside of Los Angeles, passed out in his truck while temperatures were the upper 90s; he could not be revived.

Workers say their trucks need air conditioning to do their jobs safely, but UPS is focused instead on installing truck surveillance cameras. The driver-facing cameras can record audio and video, making some workers feel they’re under constant watch for supposed safety reasons — while their true safety needs are going ignored.

According to Teamsters who spoke with In These Times, unless something changes, more workers are going to face negative health consequences from heat waves.

The problems are inside the warehouses too, workers say, as Teamster package handlers lift heavy boxes at a frantic pace. Many older UPS facilities across the country have no air conditioning and bad ventilation, employees report. To make matters worse, industry-leader UPS offers some of the lowest wages to part-time warehouse workers, and warehouse workers say the company can afford a raise.

Lindsey, who didn’t want her last name used for fear of reprisal, is a UPS loader in Chicago and a member of Teamsters Local 705. She’s been with UPS for 9 months and claims, We’re severely understaffed. We get paid less than Amazon, $15 an hour.” 

Teamsters Local 804 in Brooklyn held a rally July 28 to call for safety not surveillance.” UPS worker and local member Matt Leichenger tells In These Times, Multiple drivers [in my local] have been hospitalized for heatstroke.” He says he’s had coworkers who worked 14 hours last week, when it was almost 100 degrees.” But when workers have requested fans in their trucks, he says, the area UPS management has said no by calling it a corporate decision” and acting as though their hands are tied.

Local 804 President Vincent Perrone, a Teamsters trustee as well as its Eastern region package director, says he sent a message to every member of the local, writing, They want to make us work like machines, and otherwise threaten our job security… [we] demand that the company remove all cameras that have already been installed, negotiate with the union in good faith before any future technological changes (as is legally required), and commit to installing air conditioning in every truck. If they do not listen now, we will make them listen when we come to the table for contract negotiations in 2023.”

The Teamsters’ current UPS contract expires July 31, 2023, and the national launch of the Teamsters’ contract campaign August 1 marks the 25th anniversary of the union’s most recent strike at UPS. UPS being the largest unionized private employer in the country, the next Teamsters contract is a huge litmus test not just for the strength of one of the country’s largest unions — but for the whole of the working class.

When asked about the dangers posed by heat, and a host of worker complaints about conditions, Matthew O’Connor, the director of media relations for UPS, told In These Times, These, and many others, are important topics that we will discuss as part of our negotiation. UPS and the Teamsters have worked cooperatively for almost 100 years to meet the needs of UPS employees, customers, and the communities where we live and work. We have built UPS into the world’s leading package delivery company together, which has also bolstered Teamsters membership over the years. We believe we’ll continue to find common ground with the Teamsters and reach an agreement that’s good for everyone involved.”

UPS has made well over $10 billion in profit during the pandemic, which helped to spur a more militant Teamsters slate — Teamsters United — into leadership in March. Led by Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman, Teamsters United is affiliated with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which led the fight against the 2018 UPS contract imposed on membership.

Teamster locals across the country are rallying in late July and early August to kick off the year-long contract campaign — and committing to strike in summer 2023 if their issues go ignored. Organizers are pointing not just to the lack of fans and air conditioning, but stressing other allegedly abusive conditions at UPS. No one wants a strike, but if the company is unwilling to address these issues, we will be forced to put them on the street,” says Richard Hooker Jr., principal officer of Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia. Local 623 organized a rally for August 1 to protest new cameras in UPS package cars and to stand up against any concessions.”

Teamsters President Sean O’Brien alluded to a potential UPS strike during his leadership campaign, promising workers,​​ We’re going to be a more dynamic, more militant organization. We’re going to take on the fights.”

With nearly 350,000 Teamsters at UPS, a strike could shut down the delivery behemoth. The 1997 strike lasted just over two weeks and cost the company more than $600 million. And some of the issues Teamsters faced then are still issues today, namely, so-called part-time employees doing full-time work — just at a lower rate and with fewer job protections.

The UPS job position known as 22.4” — named for the article and section number referenced in the contract — was intended as a flex position, combining part-time work as a package driver with part-time work as a warehouse worker, paying a wage between the two full-time positions. In practice, however, 22.4 work tends to often be full-time drivers, just paid less, and without protections against unlimited forced overtime.

It’s tantamount to a two-tier system — similar to the type that union workers at General Motors have fought the past few years — and Teamsters say they’re tired of it.

Leichenger, a 22.4 who started in the midst of the pandemic hiring rush (from the huge volume of packages) in October 2020, says he had warehouse work for just a few weeks before essentially becoming a full-time driver — and has since only driven a package vehicle. He says he has the same duties as regular package drivers, just gets paid at a lower rate. He says he currently makes $21.25 per hour as a 22.4.

As Leichenger tells In These Times, There’s a lot of talk about ending the 22.4 position with a potential strike happening.” If it comes to a vote, he says he’ll vote yes to strike.

Other issues include forced overtime and excessive hours. UPS Teamsters report working 12-hour days, sometimes five days a week. Then, at the end of an exhausting workweek, they say they are sometimes told they are being forced in” on Saturday. The existing contract offers some protections against excessive work, but today’s Teamsters say they need better language to defend all members against that forced sixth punch” on Saturdays.

According to Mark Miranda, a package car driver in Philadelphia and a member of Local 623, “[Management] threatens to write you up if you don’t want to come in on your day off. Once I worked 52 hours in five days and they threatened to write me up. It’s only federal law that stops them from doing more.”

Miranda tells In These Times that one big issue is the refusal of UPS to hire enough workers, forcing overtime on current workers instead. The lives of all UPS workers would be exponentially better if there were more of us across the board, and UPS would be paying way less overtime on top of it. But God forbid more workers had healthcare for their families, which is why we don’t have more Teamsters — and instead we have a smaller number with ungodly amounts of overtime.”

Like Leichenger, Miranda is voting to strike — no matter what.”

Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.
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