UPS Has a Racism Problem

Joe Allen

UPS is one of the largest employers of African Americans in the United States, especially in the big metropolitan areas. (WFIU Public Radio/ Flickr)

This arti­cle was first post­ed at Social­ist Worker.

Ear­li­er this year, Unit­ed Par­cel Ser­vice (UPS) boast­ed that it was rec­og­nized as a World’s Most Eth­i­cal Com­pa­ny for the 10th con­sec­u­tive year by the Ethi­sphere Insti­tute, a glob­al leader in defin­ing and advanc­ing the stan­dards of eth­i­cal busi­ness practices.”

UPS is one of the world’s most rec­og­niz­able cor­po­rate brands, known for many decades by its famil­iar nick­name Big Brown” because of its famil­iar brown pack­age deliv­ery trucks. It has a glob­al work­force of 440,000 and is one of the top 10 employ­ers in the U.S.

Why has UPS been described as an eth­i­cal com­pa­ny? In a press release, Big Brown stressed that the World’s Most Eth­i­cal Com­pa­nies des­ig­na­tion rec­og­nizes those com­pa­nies that align prin­ci­ple with action, (and) work tire­less­ly to make trust part of their cor­po­rate DNA.”

But there’s some­thing else engrained deep in UPS’s cor­po­rate DNA”: racism. Across the U.S., UPS has sin­gled out and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly harassed African Amer­i­can work­ers, lead­ing to civ­il right law­suits, protests by the NAACP and, in one case, a pick­et against racism by a local Team­sters union.

Here are some exam­ples of the expe­ri­ences endured by peo­ple of col­or work­ing for UPS:

Riv­iera Beach, Flori­da: Mar­vin Mer­ritt, who has worked for UPS for three years, told a local tele­vi­sion sta­tion about the con­stant abuse he endured from a for­mer super­vi­sor. He’s walk­ing right behind me, over my shoul­der, harass­ing me.” He shook his head, and he just called me a lazy n***** and walked away, which was so wrong.”

In March of this year, 70 of Mer­rit­t’s co-work­ers and fel­low Team­sters ral­lied out­side the UPS hub, protest­ing what they called a pat­tern of dis­crim­i­na­tion at the Riv­iera Beach hub. The offend­ing super­vi­sor was removed from the build­ing, but not fired from the company.

Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky: In April, a jury found UPS liable for cre­at­ing a hos­tile work­place envi­ron­ment, for explic­it­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ing against one Black employ­ee, and for retal­i­at­ing against three oth­ers. The jury award­ed dam­ages of $1.5 mil­lion to one man, $1 mil­lion to a sec­ond, and between $100,000 and $810,000 for six oth­ers, for a total of $5.3 mil­lion,” report­ed the Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Leader.

Dur­ing the tri­al, the paper report­ed, “(t)estimony was heard and evi­dence was introduced…that an effi­gy of a Black UPS dri­ver was hung from a ceil­ing for four days.”

Noos­es, of course, are his­tor­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fied with the lynch­ing of Black men, most com­mon­ly in South­ern states. UPS’s defense of its super­vi­sors’ actions were that it a safe­ty demonstration.

Chapel Hill, North Car­oli­na: The News and Observ­er inter­viewed UPS work­ers in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and found that Black and His­pan­ic work­ers are com­mon tar­gets of abu­sive lan­guage and over-super­vi­sion. One long­time work­er said mul­ti­ple super­vi­sors would fol­low him as he made his rounds, look­ing for vio­la­tions. Anoth­er work­er pro­duced cer­ti­fied let­ters sent over a two-year peri­od inform­ing the work­er of sev­er­al discharges.”

One 28-year employ­ee, Dianne Edwards, said she had been dis­charged 33 times!

In all of these cas­es UPS’s actions vio­late not only var­i­ous anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws but the com­pa­ny’s nation­al con­tract with the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Team­sters, which rep­re­sents near­ly 250,000 work­ers at UPS across the U.S.

The Nation­al Mas­ter Unit­ed Par­cel Ser­vice Agree­ment specif­i­cal­ly pro­hibits dis­crim­i­na­tion against any indi­vid­ual with respect to hir­ing, com­pen­sa­tion, terms or con­di­tions of employ­ment because of such indi­vid­u­al’s race, col­or, reli­gion, sex, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, nation­al ori­gin, phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ty vet­er­an sta­tus or age in vio­la­tion of any fed­er­al or state law.” It also clear­ly states, The Employ­er will treat employ­ees with dig­ni­ty and respect at all times.”

Yet in the midst of this epi­dem­ic of racism, UPS CEO David Abney chose last month to express pride in his Mis­sis­sip­pi her­itage” in an inter­view with the BBC.

What­ev­er that may mean for Abney, for many of us, Mis­sis­sip­pi’s her­itage is one of big­otry, racism and extreme inequal­i­ty, backed up by state vio­lence and state-spon­sored vig­i­lante violence.

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UPS is one of the largest employ­ers of African Amer­i­cans in the U.S., espe­cial­ly in the big met­ro­pol­i­tan areas. The com­pa­ny’s most vis­i­ble Black work­ers are the pack­age car or air dri­vers who deliv­er or pick up pack­ages at homes and busi­ness, fol­lowed by the trac­tor-trail­er dri­vers — called feed­er dri­vers” in the com­pa­ny lin­go — on the highways.

How­ev­er, the largest con­tin­gent of Black work­ers at UPS is among the hid­den army of part-timers work­ing all hours of the day and night in sort­ing facil­i­ties or hubs across the country.

The largest of these sort­ing facil­i­ties is the CACH” — the Chica­go Area Con­sol­i­dat­ed Hub — that strad­dles Chicago’s south­west­ern sub­urbs of Hod­gins and Wil­low Springs. Dur­ing the end-of-year hol­i­day sea­son, it can employ up to 8,000 work­ers. Thou­sands of African Amer­i­cans dri­ve or ride pub­lic trans­porta­tion from Chicago’s South Side or the pre­dom­i­nate­ly Black South­ern sub­urbs every day.

Accord­ing to UPS’s 2015 Cor­po­rate Sus­tain­abil­i­ty Report, 23 per­cent of the com­pa­ny’s U.S. employ­ees are African Amer­i­can, near­ly dou­ble their per­cent­age in the U.S. pop­u­la­tion. Some 14 per­cent of its U.S. work­force is Lati­no. UPS’s fig­ures don’t give a break­down accord­ing to job cat­e­gories, but the vast major­i­ty of African Amer­i­cans work in non-super­vi­so­ry positions.

UPS was­n’t always a large or even a small employ­er of African-Amer­i­cans. In the mid-1960s, at the peak of the civ­il rights move­ment, UPS had an over­whelm­ing­ly white male work­force. Greg Nie­mann, a for­mer UPS man­ag­er-turned-com­pa­ny his­to­ri­an, wrote in his oth­er­wise fawn­ing his­to­ry Big Brown: By a long­stand­ing tra­di­tion many com­pa­nies did not hire minori­ties, and UPS was one of them. UPS found it eas­i­er to go along with the major­i­ty of white Amer­i­ca, and its man­agers indulged in stereo­typ­ing minori­ties rather than hir­ing them.”

A big moti­vat­ing fac­tor in chang­ing UPS’s hir­ing poli­cies was a fear of expen­sive law­suits. The Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion (EEOC), led by its Chair William H. Brown, a well-known Black attor­ney from Philadel­phia, won a land­mark case against cor­po­rate goliath AT&T in 1973, lead­ing to a very expen­sive con­sent decree,” Nie­mann wrote. It was a wake-up call to Amer­i­can industry.”

UPS tried to put a more pro­gres­sive face on the com­pa­ny, mov­ing sev­er­al men with rep­u­ta­tions for being lib­er­al” into exec­u­tive posi­tions. Brown, the for­mer EEOC chair, became the first African Amer­i­can to serve on the UPS Board of Direc­tors in 1982.

These changes from above clear­ly had an impact on UPS’s hir­ing poli­cies. How­ev­er, many of them occurred dur­ing the 1970s, when the com­pa­ny was mas­sive­ly expand­ing its nation­al work­force and would had been forced to hire out­side of its tra­di­tion­al pool of white men in any event.

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While UPS today can claim to have a racial­ly diverse work­force, that clear­ly has­n’t meant an end to racism on the job.

Today’s exam­ples of racist abuse and retal­i­a­tion are remark­ably sim­i­lar to events 20 years ago in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia. Black UPS dri­vers went to the local NAACP to ask it to inves­ti­gate their com­plaints of big­otry and harassment.

Some 500 peo­ple, most­ly UPS work­ers, attend­ed a pub­lic forum where Black dri­vers tes­ti­fied for four hours that they were rou­tine­ly assigned to the most dan­ger­ous routes with­out pro­tec­tion, lead­ing to one dri­ver being killed and four oth­ers robbed; called boys” and mon­keys” when they returned unde­liv­ered pack­ages; over­looked for pro­mo­tions and ignored when they bid on safer routes, despite hav­ing seniority.

Tim­o­thy Map­fu­mo, a 14-year UPS employ­ee, tes­ti­fied that a super­vi­sor told him that white dri­vers can relate to peo­ple in the (Oak­land) hills bet­ter and that Black dri­vers can relate to peo­ple in the ghetto.”

A class action law­suit was lat­er filed against UPS on May 1, 1997 on behalf of African Amer­i­can dri­vers and part-timers from Oak­land and beyond, as far away as San Bernandi­no. Racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in this com­pa­ny is like humid­i­ty,” William Lewis, a dri­ver and 23-year UPS vet­er­an, told the media. You can’t see it but you can feel it.”

UPS lost the suit — and while it did­n’t admit guilt, it did agree to a wide-rang­ing set­tle­ment to be mon­i­tored by the fed­er­al court for three years. The agree­ment includ­ed a large mon­e­tary award for all African Amer­i­can part-timers who worked for UPS in the North­west and Pacif­ic regions from Jan­u­ary 1996 to Feb­ru­ary 1999, as well as new pro­ce­dures for post­ing the avail­abil­i­ty of jobs, jobs loca­tions, mon­i­tor­ing of pro­mo­tions and dri­ver training.

The com­pa­ny paid more than $3 mil­lion in fees and costs to the plain­tiffs’ attor­neys and anoth­er $150,000 for future costs of mon­i­tor­ing the set­tle­ment. Such a humil­i­at­ing defeat and the stiff price tag should have been deter­rent to racist behav­ior. But has it been?

If William Lewis was right that racism at UPS 20 years ago was like the humid­i­ty,” then the effi­gy of a black dri­ver that hung from a ceil­ing for four days in Lex­ing­ton is a bad sign that racism has grown more open instead.

This isn’t to say that UPS does­n’t have promi­nent African Amer­i­cans in its man­age­ment hier­ar­chy. For exam­ple, Noël Massie, who is Black, is pres­i­dent for UPS’s South­ern Cal­i­for­nia dis­trict, which includes Hawaii and part of Neva­da, where over 20,000 UPS employ­ees work for him.

But hav­ing Black faces in high places at UPS has meant very lit­tle for the work­ing con­di­tions of Black dri­vers and hub workers.

This isn’t the excep­tion, but the rule at U.S. com­pa­nies. The last four decades have seen both a grow­ing inequal­i­ty and mil­i­ta­riza­tion of U.S. soci­ety and an increas­ing­ly total­i­tar­i­an work­place — they are two sides of the same coin. Thus, Black com­mu­ni­ties have suf­fered fright­en­ing police vio­lence while Black work­ers are among those — undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers are anoth­er — who face the brunt of man­age­men­t’s wrath, scorn and abuse on the job.

This process has cre­at­ed wors­en­ing con­di­tions for all work­ers, expressed at times in men­tal health issues, sui­cides and peri­od­ic explo­sions of vio­lence. That was the case for Joe Tes­ney, a white UPS pack­age car dri­ver who shot and killed two super­vi­sors and him­self in Sep­tem­ber 2014. Tes­ney, a vet­er­an at UPS, told his min­is­ter that he had been trou­bled” over work. He was fired after a long peri­od of harass­ment and was fac­ing eco­nom­ic ruin.

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Unlike most work­places, UPS has been union­ized for more than eight decades, and its work­ers are over­whelm­ing­ly rep­re­sent­ed by the Team­sters. Twen­ty years ago, dur­ing the strug­gle in Oak­land, UPS dri­ver Daniel Dugar declared, If the union had done their damn job, we would­n’t be here now.”

So where have the Team­sters been on these issues? The sad answer is: miss­ing in action.

For the past 17 years, the Team­sters have been led by James P. Hof­fa Jr., son of the infa­mous Team­ster leader Jim­my Hof­fa who dis­ap­peared and was pre­sumed mur­dered by his for­mer Mafia friends in 1975. Hof­fa Junior has shown no inter­est in con­fronting racism — or much of any­thing at all — at UPS, even though it is the largest employ­er of Team­sters in the country.

That’s no sur­prise giv­en Hof­fa’s inac­tion at oth­er Team­ster-rep­re­sent­ed companies.

For exam­ple, in 2010 and 2012, it was the Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion (EEOC), not the Team­sters, that chal­lenged work­place racism at freight giant YRC, the cor­po­ra­tion cre­at­ed in the merg­er of Road­way and Yel­low Freight in 2008. The EEOC charged that YRC and its pre­de­ces­sor Yel­low had cre­at­ed a racial­ly hos­tile work­place at its for­mer Chica­go Ridge and cur­rent Chica­go Heights facilities.

Had the case gone to tri­al, the EEOC report­ed, the pro­ceed­ings would have revealed:

evi­dence that Black employ­ees were sub­ject­ed to mul­ti­ple inci­dents of hang­man’s noos­es and racist graf­fi­ti, com­ments and car­toons. The EEOC also would have pre­sent­ed evi­dence that Yel­low and YRC sub­ject­ed Black employ­ees to harsh­er dis­ci­pline and scruti­ny than their white coun­ter­parts and gave them more dif­fi­cult and time-con­sum­ing work assignments.

The Team­sters were absent in anoth­er case were racism took a dead­ly toll. In one of the most con­tro­ver­sial mass shoot­ings of the past decade, Omar Thorn­ton, a Black dri­ver and Team­ster at Hart­ford Dis­trib­u­tors in Man­ches­ter, Con­necti­cut, shot and killed eight cowork­ers before killing him­self. Thorn­ton was accused of theft and was offered the choice of res­ig­na­tion. As he was leav­ing the build­ing, he went on a killing spree. All his vic­tims were white.

Thorn­ton told the 911 oper­a­tor that the mas­sacre was moti­vat­ed by racism at work­place. Thorn­ton’s girl­friend claimed that she saw pic­tures, pre­sum­ably tak­en by Thorn­ton, of a hang­man’s noose and racist graf­fi­ti on bath­room walls.

This all could have been avoid­ed,” Thorn­ton’s uncle, Will Hol­l­i­day, told the media. He went to the union a cou­ple of times with issues con­cern­ing what was going on, and it was not dealt with appropriately.”

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UPS has suc­ceed­ed Gen­er­al Motors as the largest pri­vate-sec­tor, union­ized employ­er in the U.S. What hap­pens at UPS and at oth­er large union­ized employ­ers like YRC sets the stan­dards not only for wages and ben­e­fits, but for dig­ni­ty and respect on the job for all workers.

In a time of a grow­ing aware­ness about the depths of racism in U.S. soci­ety, the Team­sters, the fourth-largest union in the coun­try and one of the largest union rep­re­sen­ta­tives of African-Amer­i­can work­ers—near­ly 450,000 men and women, or one-third of the union, are Black—should be in the lead con­fronting employ­er racism espe­cial­ly at UPS. This would require a more aggres­sive stance on a broad range of issues, from sup­port for the Fight for 15 cam­paign to greater chal­lenges on pen­sion and health care concessions.

It’s hard to see that hap­pen­ing with­out a change in the nation­al lead­er­ship of the Teamsters.

A rad­i­cal change is nec­es­sary in the orga­ni­za­tion of Black work­ers inside the Team­sters. The long­stand­ing Team­ster Nation­al Black Cau­cus (TNBC) acts more like a social club than a mil­i­tant advo­cate for one-third of the membership.

Found­ed in 1971, the TNBC was a pre-emp­tive action tak­en by a hand­ful of Black offi­cials, with the con­nivance of then-Team­ster Gen­er­al Pres­i­dent Frank Fitzsim­mons, to stop the for­ma­tion of some­thing more inde­pen­dent and mil­i­tant, like, for exam­ple, the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers in the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. The TNBC’s found­ing con­fer­ence was­n’t even held until four years lat­er, after Fitzsim­mons, a long­time asso­ciate of Jim­my Hof­fa and orga­nized crime, appoint­ed an ally to be its chair.

The TNBC has always been a use­less crea­ture of the Team­ster Old Guard. A new Black Lives Mat­ter-ori­ent­ed cau­cus is long over­due in the Team­sters union.

Hav­ing a strong union means con­fronting and defeat­ing the racism that employ­ers use against Black and Lati­no work­ers and to divide the whole work­force. It also means con­fronting racism among members.

We have to say to UPS and to all employ­ers: Black Lives Mat­ter and Union Lives Matter.

Joe Allen is the author of The Pack­age King: A Rank and File His­to­ry of Unit­ed Par­cel Ser­vice, Viet­nam: The Last War the U.S. Lost and Peo­ple Was­n’t Made to Burn: A True Sto­ry of Race, Mur­der, and Jus­tice in Chica­go (Hay­mar­ket, 2011). He has writ­ten for Jacobin, Social­ist Work­er and elsewhere.
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