UPS Workers Aren't Afraid of a Fight
“[UPS management] love nothing more than to reward productive workers with more productivity. And people that keep up with that, by the time they’re 20 years in, they’re getting knee replacements, they’re getting hip replacements, their quality of life plummets.”
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Read the full transcript below.
The largest private sector labor contract in the US is set to expire at midnight on July 31; as negotiations continue to play out, we will soon see whether or not the nearly 350,000 Teamsters working for United Parcel Services (UPS) will hit the picket line and wage one of the largest strikes in US history. As Sean Orr, a UPS package-car driver and elected shop steward for Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, and Elliot Lewis, a UPS package-car driver and alternate shop steward for Teamsters Local 804 in New York City, recently wrote in Jacobin, “This contract fight is about two visions of work in the twenty-first century. One is promoted by workers: equal pay for equal work, dignity and autonomy on the job, and a stable work-life balance. The other is promoted by Wall Street: hypersurveillance, low pay, subcontracting, gig work, and ‘flexible’ scheduling practices that hurt workers and benefit bosses.” In this episode, we talk to Sean Orr about growing up in a de-industrializing Milwaukee, his path to becoming a Teamster and working for UPS, why the current contract fight is such a pivotal moment for the Teamsters and the labor movement, and what we can all do to stand in solidarity with all UPS workers.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Sean Orr: Hey everyone, my name is Sean Orr. I am a package car driver with UPS here in Chicago. I’m an elected shop steward with Teamsters Local 705. I’m a member of the 705 bargaining committee with UPS, and I am a co-chair of Teamsters for Democratic Union.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today, brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. So if you are hungry for more worker and labor focus shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out and support the other great shows in our network. And of course, please do support the work that we are doing here at Working People so we can keep growing and keep bringing y’all important conversations every week. You can support us by leaving us positive reviews on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. You can share these episodes on your social media, and share them with your coworkers, your friends, and your family members.
And of course, the single best thing you can do to support our work is become a paid monthly subscriber on Patreon for just five bucks a month. If you subscribe for 10 bucks a month, you’ll also get a print subscription to the amazing In These Times Magazine mailed to your door every month. So we got a lot of goodies for you guys over on the Patreon feed. And I genuinely mean it when I say it is because of our Patreon supporters that we are able to do the rest of the show. Thousands and thousands of people listening to the show every week, and less than 1% of those listeners are subscribers on Patreon, so they’re really carrying the load for the rest of us. So we got lots of great bonus episodes on the Patreon feed for you guys. I know we didn’t have as many in the spring because I was traveling all over the place for work at The Real News Network, but we’ve really come back in full force with some killer bonus episode conversations with great guests.
We did a great crossover with our friends in Comrades over at the Work Stoppage pod. We talked to Alyssa Court from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project about her great new book. So that’s just a taste of the great bonus content that you’ll get. If you want to listen to more Working People episodes, go subscribe on Patreon right now, and you’ll immediately unlock a whole lot of awesome bonus episodes that we’ve published over the past five seasons of the show. My name is Maximilian Alvarez, and I am very excited to get to sit down and chat with our guest, Sean, today. As you guys know, as we’ve mentioned here on the podcast, as you’ve no doubt been seeing in the news, we are at the precipice of potentially one of the largest strikes in US history. And as we speak, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are in bargaining with UPS, where we’ve got nearly 350,000 Teamsters and a contract representing around 350,000 Teamsters that is being negotiated right now.
And we know you guys got a lot of questions about this contract fight, what the state of things is right now, what things may look like as we approach the deadline at the end of July, after which we may see picket lines across the country. So we’re going to try to break all of that down with Sean today. And of course, if you guys aren’t all ready, you should definitely go check out the podcast by our friends over at The Upsurge. They’ve been doing really great work. And we’ve actually syndicated The Upsurge over at The Real News Network, so you can listen to new episodes over on the Real News podcast feed. But if you want a deeper dive on the UPS contract fight, you should definitely go and binge all of the episodes of The Upsurge. They’re doing really, really great work over there.
So Shawn is doing really, really great work over where he is as well. And there’s just so much I want to talk to you about, man. And I guess to maybe set the table a little bit for listeners, we are recording this on Sunday, June 11th. The episode’s going to come out a little later in June. But as we speak right now, your union is holding a strike vote, a strike authorization vote. And the results of that strike authorization vote are going to come out later this week. So by the time you guys hear this, we’ll know the results of that. I’m going to go ahead and assume that we can kind of take it as a given that it’s going to be a yes vote. If not, color me shocked and surprised, but that is something that’s going to change by the time that you guys listen to this episode.
But to give you sort of a bird’s eye view of why this is such a crucial struggle and why we should all be paying attention, and why we should all be supporting our brothers, sisters, and siblings at UPS and with the Teamsters, I’m going to read a couple of passages here from a great piece that Sean co-wrote with another UPSer and shop steward Elliott Lewis. This was published in Jacobin this past week. We will link to in the show notes, it’s called UPS Teamsters are Ready to Strike. So in this piece, Sean and Elliot write:
“With the largest private sector labor contract in the United States set to expire at midnight on July 31st, the eyes of the American labor movement are on United Parcel Service, or UPS and the nearly 350,000 Teamsters like us that work there. Talk is coming from all corners of a potential strike.
International Brotherhood of Teamsters general president, Sean O’Brien, made it clear on day one of his presidency, if UPS does not meet the demands of the Teamsters, picket lines will go up on August 1st. If this happens, the strike will be one of the largest in American history. As the contract expiration looms less than two months away, other workers across the country are also standing up to demand more. From a wave of successful union elections at Starbucks, trader Joe’s and other retail stores to walkouts from Amazon to Hollywood, American workers fighting for dignity and fighting compensation through collective action have momentum on their side. In return, employers have intensified their union busting.
The UPS contract fight therefore comes at a pivotal moment for US labor. What happens here could shape the direction of the movement for years to come, not only because this contract covers several hundred thousand workers who move 6% of US GDP daily, but also because the issues at stake in this fight are representative of those faced by workers across the country. This contract fight is about two visions of work in the 21st century. One is promoted by workers. Equal pay for equal work, dignity and autonomy on the job, and a stable work-life balance. The other is promoted by Wall Street, hyper surveillance, low pay, subcontracting, gig work, and ‘flexible scheduling practices’ that hurt workers and benefit bosses.”
So as I said, we’ve got a lot to talk about. I’ve got a lot of thoughts firing after reading just that introduction from the great piece that Sean and Elliot wrote, but not from me. Sean, I want to bring you in here and want to… Before we really dig into your time working at UPS and what’s really at stake in this high stakes contract fight, I wanted to get to know more about you and your winding path into doing this kind of work. So you said you’re in Chicago now, right? Are you originally from the Midwest?
Sean Orr: Yeah, I’m from the Midwest, born and raised. I moved to Chicago almost five years ago, but I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about 85 miles up the road, born and raised in the city up there. And I think that growing up in Wisconsin when I did was really… It really did kind of set me on the path that I’m on. Milwaukee, when I was coming up in the world, was considered… For a long time, it was considered one of the best places to live if you were a working person. It was a ton of union manufacturing jobs, high pay. People were able to afford a home, a little cabin up north for their holidays. They were able to pay for their kids to go to college. They were able to have two cars. It’s a real kind of middle class dream, right? And in Milwaukee, like a lot of the rest of the country, at least the part of the country I’m from, the high days are behind us.
We kind of live in the relic of the past, of a better kind of life. Instead of driving around a city full of pretty well off working people, you drive around a city full of abandoned factories that are turned into strip malls, which have now been abandoned and been replaced by Amazon warehouses. The median income in that city is around the poverty line. People really suffer. And there, the people who are working are struggling to get by, and then there’s plenty of other people who just, they’re not even in the economy. They’re not even making it. I think growing up around that, knowing people who had seen their parents lose their homes during 2008, 2009, seeing the impacts of just not… I’m 30. I’m not from the generation that the American dream happened to. You know what I mean? We’re in the aftermath of that. I had a lot more of my buddies in high school have issues with drugs and alcohol.
People go off and fight in the military, come back and have to deal with wherever that is. A lot of people get to go to college because that’s where a whole education system is set up to do. And then you come out the other end of it and you don’t know what kind of job you can have. There’s nothing for those careers that you spend tens of thousand dollars for. So maybe you end up being a barista, or maybe you end up working in a kitchen or whatever and just kind of struggling to get by. So that’s kind of the broad framing, right? But then there was definitely a big igniting moment for myself and for a lot of other young people. My generation, that was when Scott Walker took over as a state governor in 2010. I remember in 2011, when Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans introduced Act 10 to strip away collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, I went to Madison like over a hundred thousand other Wisconsinites did, and participated in the protests and occupations demonstrations.
I remember that was the first time that I saw… I had family who were in the Teamsters, but that was the first time I saw the Teamsters because they had all their tractor trailers pulled up in front of the Capitol building with all the rest of the unions and stuff like that. You had farmers parade in there, tractors through the city streets. It really was a people’s uprising. The people of Wisconsin flooded the streets of the capitol to try to defend the rights of unions, and we lost. We lost that fight. But for me, I was 18 at the time. That fucking set the spark, and I’ve been running with it ever since. I was in college at the time. I spent more time protesting in school sometimes, but I kind of came out the other end really committed to being a part of labor, being part of the labor movement. I ended up working at a meatpacking plant for a while in Wisconsin. Then I ended up over at UPS in 2017. I’ve been with the company ever since, so over six years now.
Maximillian Alvarez: I have so many thoughts firing off from that. So I want to start by jumping back to the beginning. Because I think this is something that I find myself thinking about more and more these days, because in many ways, I do think that a lot of the generational discourse is kind of bullshit. The media creates these sort of generational categories that are held together by scotch tape, and it depends on, I don’t know, what class you’re in, what state you grew up in, what gender you were, what language you speak, right? There are all these kinds of variations within existing generations that kind of make the experience different for all of us. But I do think there are a couple things that really do sort of connect millennials as a generation that experience something distinct.
So I’m an elder millennial. You’re a younger millennial, right? But we’re still that particular generation that straddled the digital divide. We grew up with an analog childhood, and then a digital adulthood, and that does something to you. That messes with your brain. I think it makes us uniquely positioned to remember what it was like before, but still be digital natives. I think there’s actually a lot of good things that come from being in that position. Because if folks who grow up digital natives and don’t have that sort of analog experience, it can be hard to even imagine what that was like, or imagine a future without all these digital technologies in our pockets and our homes, so on and so forth. But also, when you were talking, it made me realize it’s like, yeah, we also, as a generation, sort of grew up in the tail and the sort of last gasps of 20th century American prosperity.
It still did feel like we… You had the.com boom. You had the real estate bubble in the nineties. And with the end of the Cold War, it felt in our childhoods the future was still going to be open for us. And that if we buckled down, worked hard, went to college, who knew where we could go. And it just felt like from 9/11 to the market crash to everything that’s happened then, we’ve just been getting reminder after reminder that, as you said, the American dream is more or less dead. That promise, that future promise is no more. And I say all this to say, I was wondering what to you, as you were describing growing up in Milwaukee and experiencing that decline, what does that look like for you as a native growing up? Because I guess I’m hearing it more and more. People are talking about how… I just had a conversation with an older person this week who was like, “I remember when you saw more homeless people on the subway in New York.” It wasn’t always that way.
It happened after key policy decisions. I remember when college was affordable for people, or you could support, as you said, a family. You could buy a home working a job with a decent wage. That all seemed possible. And then but it’s like gradually, that’s been stolen away. And so I was just curious what that looked like in your neck of the woods, or when you started to notice that maybe the future wasn’t continuously opening onto a more prosperous horizon, but in fact, things were starting to fall apart and gradually go to shit.
Sean Orr: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. For me, I was born in 1992, a lot of Milwaukee’s heyday manufacturing, good jobs. This was a city that had, I think top three manufacturing output in the whole country. There was so much made in Milwaukee. Obviously, Miller and Harley Davidson, all those big name brands, but just a ton of stuff was made there. It was like over a quarter of the city worked in factories. And by the time I was born, a lot of that had been shuttered. It was from the mid seventies through the late eighties, was just one place after the other just shuttering and workers fighting like hell to try to hold on, and it didn’t happen.
But those buildings are still there. You know what I mean? So my whole life, growing up in Milwaukee, you’re driving around the city, you’re driving through the poorest neighborhoods, and these were neighborhoods that you could tell… You just got to look at stuff. This neighborhood obviously wasn’t always poor. These are nice houses. This is a three-story house. They’ve got a front yard, a backyard, they’ve got a driveway… That’s a good house, but it’s falling apart, and now it’s divided up into eight or nine little units and stuff like that. It’s definitely not well kept, right? The neighborhood’s falling apart. People are poor. A lot of people aren’t working.
Right in the middle of the neighborhood is an empty factory or an empty flat lot, where there once was a factory that they just demolished. You really do see those relics all around you. In the city of Milwaukee, you’ve got Allen Bradley. They made these automated control systems, these panels for factories, for assembly lines and stuff, and their factory is huge. It’s this nine-story cement concrete structure, just plopped that down in the middle of the south side. It’s got the biggest clock tower in the world on it. And it was a place that had, at the height, I think 12,000 full-time union jobs, and those were good jobs. That was a UE local, United Electrical workers, really militant union, really involved in the neighborhood, in the city, in local politics. I think the last union workers retired from there, 2009, 2010, something like that.
And now this massive nine-story structure, it’s still there, and there’s some engineering firm that’s in there or something like that, but they only use a little corner of it. You can drop a nuclear bomb on that thing. It’s not going to go anywhere. You know what I mean? But that’s still standing over the neighborhood where all the people in that neighborhood used to work there, and all that is gone. People are scrambling to find jobs, and I think there’s a permanent sense of we’re in this left-behind space in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee in the late ’60s was considered one of the best places to be an African-American in the United States, because African-Americans had access to great jobs. You could have a good house. It was a high standard of living. Now it’s considered one of the top two poorest cities for African-Americans in the entire country. Now, literally people are record-high poor now than they were in the past. The present is worse than the past, and you live in a city that looks like that. And I think that that rings true to a lot of people of my generation growing up across the Midwest, across the Rust Belt, I’m sure even in Baltimore and cities like that out on the East Coast.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I was going to say, the story here is Bethlehem Steel is the one that everyone talks about. But it was wild to me moving out here from Michigan… So I’m originally from Southern California, but I was living in Michigan during my graduate program. But it felt like a mini Detroit coming out here. Just tons of vacant households that, like you said, you’re looking at them, and some of the row houses, they look small from the front, but like in Detroit, you also have whole neighborhoods of big houses that are just boarded up, or maybe they’re propped up with these big planks of wood. It just feels like the city’s being desiccated, and it is. The city’s been losing population for decades. It’s slowly dying. So the people who stay get taxed more.
The city’s entire philosophy on generating economic development is to give huge tax breaks away to already-wealthy developers using financial instruments. They’re supposed to be incentivizing development in blighted areas so that they can generate investment in areas that don’t normally generate a lot of investment. But of course, with the way that city corruption goes, private industry corruption goes, all that money is just… As my colleagues Stephen Janis and Taya Graham and the great Jane Miller have reported in a recent documentary, it’s like all that money’s just going to build up high rises on the waterfront. It’s not going back into poor and working communities. In fact, those poor and working communities are financing these massive developments that they’ll never be able to enter themselves. I mean, it’s just a cruel, sick joke that I see playing out in cities around the country.
But like you said, like over there in Milwaukee, we do have the hollow husks of industry past dotting the landscape here. I saw it in Bessemer when I went down there to report on the Amazon union campaign. That Amazon facility in Bessemer sits on top of the former site of a steelworker shop. Once the center of production, the economic heart of the working class community there was ripped out, now we see that Bessemer has twice the national poverty rate. It’s also a majority Black town. Those good union jobs were not really replaced with anything comparable, until along comes Amazon that’s paying better than the minimum-wage service jobs in the area, but still paying less than the union warehouse jobs in the greater Birmingham area.
So it’s just all part of this picture of decay and of, I think, deliberate destruction of our communities by profit-seeking entities that have the power to just destroy entire communities, states, generations, and they get a pass as if, well, that’s what they got to do for their business, so great. So this is how we organize a society. This is how we organize the way that people provide for themselves and their families, just hoping that an industry won’t pick up and leave your entire area in ruin, apparently.
Sean Orr: Well, I think you really hit the nail in the head with the word deliberate, because I think that that’s something that gets lost a lot. People talk about the Rust Belt as if it’s a natural phenomenon, like a famine that came through or a plague of locusts. It’s like, “Oh yeah, this sucks, but now that’s the way the world goes. You just got to live with it.” No, this was deliberate. This was a conscious effort. There were human beings that made conscious decisions that it was better to wreck all of this social and economic destruction on hundreds of thousands of people in Milwaukee, and you extrapolate that across all these other regions. It’s better to have that than to continue to have these people be our employees, because these working people in this country and in Milwaukee, all over this country, have high expectations of what they expect for the fruit of their labor.
And in a city like Milwaukee… Milwaukee was a manufacturing city, but it was a militant city. All of these shops were union to the core. They would strike for whatever they needed, and there was that real sense of a militant working-class culture. There’s a reason why in the city of Milwaukee, for over 50 years the city government was run by the Socialist Party, because there was this level of organization on the job, in the neighborhoods, throughout society, where people felt and knew that they were a part of a class of people, the people who are exploited, and they wanted to have all these institutions, these organizations to fight back. And the people who owned those factories, the people who worked in those financial firms that own most of these factories, most of these companies now, they made a conscious decision: it is better to devastate this than to continue to extract profit from this.
Those factories are still up there. They’re empty. You could reopen a factory in the middle of Milwaukee tomorrow to make car parts and make whatever. You could reopen all sorts of these places tomorrow. You’ve got the people there. You’ve got the instruments there. You got everything. They don’t do it because they would rather make the money elsewhere and deny us power here. And I think that that’s really important for people to realize this was deliberate. All of this stuff is deliberate, and it’s something that we’re bringing up a lot in our UPS contract fight: what Ellie and I raised in the article.
We can’t just keep our blinders on. We have to see that what’s being done to us, it’s not just some natural thing. It’s a planned thing. It’s something that’s planned. There’s deliberate ideas behind it. And if it’s human ideas, if it’s deliberate ideas, then that means we don’t have to accept it. It means that, you know what? That might be wrong. That might not be right for us. Maybe we can actually do something different. And we’re seeing the new plans, the plans around how our logistics industry needs to be run, around how our economy needs to be run after COVID. We’re seeing that play out in our contract fight, and we’re fed up with it. We think we should have a different vision for how our lives should be in the future.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah, man. And I think that that’s one of many reasons why people should be invested in this fight, and also why they should be invested in the labor movement, right? Because it wasn’t always this way. I guess that’s really what I was trying to get across with me and Sean going down memory lane here, talking a bit about our experience witnessing American decline, is I don’t want folks listening to this to end up feeling like, “Well, this is just the way things are. This is the best that we can get. This is the natural order of things.”
No, no, no. This is a world created by policymakers. This is a world that we have inherited from the tycoons of our day, and they’ve bought off politicians and their friends in the media and stuff. The people in positions of power have made choice after choice after choice that have laid the groundwork for the path that we’re currently on, and that includes decimating the organized labor movement. That includes deregulating industries left and right so that even though working people have been working longer and harder for the past 40 years, we have seen our wages by and large stagnate as the cost of living continues to go up.
And as all of that excess productivity that is coming off of our backs, all of the profits, all the revenue generated by that, it is not, as Ronald Reagan promised it would, trickling down. We’ve got 40-plus years of data to prove, no, that’s bullshit. It’s all been going into the pockets of executives and their shareholders. So these are deliberate decisions that were made. This is a future that was created not by, as Sean said, natural processes or acts of God. This is a manmade decline of a society that is capable of so much more.
And I guess by way of getting us to your time at UPS and the current contract fight, you mentioned another crucial historical moment that gives us a window onto those decisions that are made and the impacts that they have, which was Scott Walker in Act 10. And so I was actually in your neck of the woods two years ago, reporting for The Real News Network, talking to and filming with and recording with a lot of educators across the state about the state of the labor movement and the plight of public-sector workers 10 years after the devastating passage of Act 10 under Republican Governor Scott Walker. I was wondering, because I know we got a lot to get into with UPS and the contract fight, but I wanted to just ask if you could say a little more about what that moment was and what it meant for you, what it taught you about the people who are actively making our lives worse, and what the antidote looks like?
Sean Orr: Yeah. That’s a great question. I mean, I think we all learn from experience. We all learn from our experiences in life: things that we’ve read, things that we’ve seen. But I think that a lot of times, we learn collectively when we all engage in something together, and coming out the back end of it, win or lose, there’s a lot to digest. And I think it took me and my whole generation up in Wisconsin that went through that fight… We learned a lot of lessons out of that. A lot. Obviously, we lost, like Act 10. We fought that. People occupied the State Capitol, a hundred thousand protestors outside for weeks, and it still passed and we still lived with it.
But I think some things that we did learn… We learned that we don’t have to just keep going through the motions. When wrong is being done to us, we can stop what we’re doing and go act. To see all those working people come out, skip work… There was talk of a general strike in Madison, just to go to be at the protest to shut it down. That was incredible. I think we learned that there’s people in the Republican Party that have an absolute commitment to wringing every last penny out of us and to making us as broken down and as unable to defend ourselves as working people as possible.
I think we learned that the leadership of the Democratic Party don’t have any answers for the current moment and they still don’t. The big idea coming out of them at the time was, “Hey, the guy who just lost an election was Scott Walker for governor. Let’s run him again for governor and let’s see if we get a better result.” And we didn’t, and he lost. But I think that we all got to see, “Oh, this party, the Democrats, that’s supposed to be there to have our backs, they’re not up for the challenge. They’re not up for this moment. They’re using talking points from 25 years ago.” Now they’re using talking points from 35 years ago. That’s the reason why they’re all 80-plus years old, because young people, we don’t believe that. That doesn’t click. They’re not talking about the current moment. They’re stuck in the past.
And I think that we learned the absolute vitality and importance of our own organizations as working people, our own unions, our own organizations, right? Because if this state government was doing that much just to bust up teachers’ unions, well, then teachers’ unions and other unions must have a lot that they’re afraid of, and they do. Any space where ordinary working people come together and realize, “We can change the world. We can change our workplace. We don’t have to accept things as what they are,” that’s a danger to them. That’s terrifying to them.
Going back, that’s why they busted all of the manufacturing in all these places, because that class-consciousness, that awareness that comes out of people every day struggling with each other in their unions against their bosses, that creates a different working class than the capitalists want to have. They want docile people. They want people to feel defenseless, to feel like little atoms, little pieces of driftwood floating around in the ocean. That’s what they want, and anything that’s not that, they’re scared shitless of it.
So I think my biggest lesson coming out of that was we need a full-on revitalization and transformation of the labor movement, because we got to go to fucking war with these people. We got to stop what they’re doing. We got to stop the direction they want to take our country in, because we all deserve better. We all deserve better, and we got to fight like hell and make that happen.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah, brother. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I think that is beautifully and powerfully put, and really tracks with what we hear week in, week out on this show. It tracks, I know, with my own experience. I say this a lot, because it’s something that I’ve realized later in life, looking back at all the low-wage non-union jobs that I’ve had, from service-industry work, pizza-delivery driver, retail, restaurant, waiter, warehouse temp, factory temp. What I realized is that in the American workplace… a lot more than work happens there, or a lot of work is done on us like you’re saying. There’s a lot of social conditioning that happens in the workplace that serves the interests and needs of the people who are in power and who are determining the shape of our society and need us to be compliant, exploitable, powerless, cogs in the machine in order to make the rest of the machine run the way that they want it to. And so I think when it comes down to it, the most basic fact is that low wage non-union jobs are social factories or schools, places where we as working people and as citizens are educated in accepting our own powerlessness, educated to just accept that there are going to be undemocratic hierarchies, layers of management that determine our lives, our schedules, our pay, whether or not we get to keep our job with or without just cause that we just have no real say over and we just have to accept.
We start to look over our shoulders at our fellow workers and see their success as our loss. All of these things, they don’t just stay in the workplace, they stay with you. They carry over into how you see yourself and how we see ourselves and our relationship to things like government or anything, any of the big companies whose products we consume. We just accept that we have no real power or say over the quality of those products, things like that. All of that powerlessness that we just learned to accept, I think a lot of it comes from and is forged in our brains through our experience of work in this country. And like you said, it’s something completely different, or at least you see the pathway to something completely different when you are in a union or when you are fighting to build a union.
And when you were seeing how scared shitless you were making your boss at the very thought that you and your coworkers are working together to exercise your democratic rights to unionize and advocate for yourselves, to refuse unsafe work, so on and so forth. I wanted to ask about that. I know you mentioned that you had some family members in the Teamsters, but what was it like for you coming to work at UPS and how was that experience perhaps becoming part of the union, how was that different from what you were used to? I guess just walk us through those early weeks. What was it like for a young Sean entering that job and that union?
Sean Orr: Yeah, I think that Teamsters at UPS are different, and I think it’s because there’s been such a counter force to what you’re talking about there. That constant daily, hourly, minute by minute push of management to just make you into the perfect cog in the machine and just break you down, dehumanize you, make you just into this machine. There’s such a counter force at UPS or because of the militancy of the union, because of this long history of the union, because of the 1997 strike. My coworkers who are the highest senior guys, gals, they were strike veterans and they carry that memory with them. You got stuff like TDU, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, that’s a militant rank and file reform movement in the union that’s really active on the job in a lot of places. That just creates a different work environment.
For me, coming in there, and this wasn’t my first union job, but when I started at UPS, you walk in and you see people wearing teamster shirts, you hear people talking about the contract. You see more coworkers than I’ve ever seen before, I remember I was shocked by this. I was shocked by how many coworkers of mine were getting right in the face of a supervisor or manager and telling them exactly how they felt about what that manager or sup was doing. People, they walk in with their heads up and they’re able to look the boss in the eye and tell the boss, “No.” And that creates such a different environment. And I think that helps to provide a little bit of a context to where we are in this contract fight and why the expectations are so high, why the militancy is so high, why this really is a transformational moment. UPS Teamsters, we have this level of organization, this commitment to each other and to this fight that it makes things different. It makes things different.
It makes management way more confrontational because they are confronting something. They’re not just facing off against, “Yes sir, no sir,” docile workers. They’re up against people who … What we as stewards tell our coworkers is, “You argue with the manager until he instructs you to do something.” They’re like, “Hey Scott, I need you to go take 20 stops off this guy.” Now you can say no. Just say no. And they’re like, “No, come on. I need you to do me a favor, blah, blah.” “No, nope. Not doing it. Not doing it. Not doing it.” Argue with them, be combative. Up until the point that they’re, “I am instructing you to do this, otherwise you’ll be discharged under this part of the contract.” It’s like, “all right, then go do it.”
But that rebelliousness and that willingness for us to assert our humanity on the job, it makes us a different place, and it makes UPS management act differently. It makes the company act differently and it makes us act differently as workers. We have a higher standard of how we expect to be treated and how we carry ourselves at work. And I think that that’s a project of a lot. It’s not perfect. There’s a lot more that we can be doing and there’s a lot more I want to see happen. But I know that we are in a lot different of a place in a lot of other workplaces in the country. And I would like to see us spread that beyond UPS into the rest of the economy.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. And I guess even on top of that very different kind of relationship that you have with management A, when you’ve got a union, and I don’t want to pretend that it’s the same everywhere. Of course we know that there are plenty of workplaces where the union’s been chipped away at. You guys know, we talk to folks every week who are working to revitalize their unions, working to vote out business-friendly intransigent leadership that’s not serving the members, or bringing in these reform administrations, like the Teamsters did, the UAW has done, like some of the railroad unions that we were talking to last year who were not happy with how the leadership handled the contract negotiations. You got these really crucial leadership elections happening where incumbents are getting unseated. That’s important. For folks to democratically engage in their union and make it what they need it to be and be part of that change. That’s also really important and that’s happening in union locals across the country, and that’s also another important crucial part of this story.
But Sean, I wanted to ask, having that kind of relationship to the union and to management walking into UPS, I guess that doesn’t mean that also the job’s not very demanding and that you don’t face a lot of backbreaking labor. We interviewed some of your colleagues last year about the dangerous and ridiculous heat in those package cars, the lack of air conditioning in there, the front facing cameras surveilling you guys on your routes. COVID has just exploded the already growing … What’s the word I’m looking for? Just the Amazon type economy, where people are ordering their goods to their door instead of going to the mall or going to the store.
We’re doing that more now than we ever have been. And so who do you guys think is delivering all those packages? It’s the boys in brown and also USPS and FedEx and so on and so forth. I was wondering, Sean, if you could talk to us a bit about the work side of it? What does a typical week look like for you and what was it like learning those ropes and getting accustomed to being a full-time UPS worker?
Sean Orr: Well, on package car side, being a package car driver, I think one of the first things that people learn when they start as a package car driver is that you don’t need a gym membership anymore. Most of my coworkers, myself included, you lose between 20 and 30 pounds your first six months on the job because it is a very physically demanding job. The company, and they think this is a cute term, but they like to call us industrial athletes, which the more you think about it, the more awful that is, but it’s a very physically demanding job.
For me, an average workday is delivering around 300 packages a day and picking up maybe 100 packages a day. That’s not just constant. You pull up, you’re driving this eight ton truck around your neighborhood, you park, you get in the back, you grab every package you need for that block, and that could be a tiny little Amazon envelope or it could be 120 pound dresser that somebody ordered, and you got to deliver them all. Every package in there, you personally are delivering. You have to get it out of the truck. You have to walk to the house, into the apartment complex, whatever it is, load it on the hand cart, do whatever you got to do. You’re usually walking, for me here in the city of Chicago, I’m usually walking about nine to 10 miles a day on the route. On top of doing all that lifting and lowering of all those packages, on top of driving this big hunk of steel around the neighborhood.
It’s pretty physically demanding, and it gets worse and worse. We’ve got things that most people in my sector of the economy don’t have. We don’t have a production standard. I cannot get disciplined for not delivering X amount of stops an hour. There’s a lot of factory jobs where it’s like, “You need to make 100 widgets an hour, otherwise you can get written up for it.” We don’t have a production standard at UPS. You work at a safe pace, you get the job done. We also don’t have a cap on overtime until 14 hours a day. Take your time, work at your pace, but you can be out there until 10:30. You can be out there making deliveries that late and you can be picking stuff up.
It’s a lot of hard work. People that work a little too fast, we call my coworkers who do that runners. If you’re a runner, it might mean that today you get home at like 5:30. But the next day, you come into work, the company’s got 20 more stops on your truck because you turned out to be a real productive worker that day and they love nothing more than to reward productive workers with more productivity. And people that keep up with that, by the time they’re 20 years in, they’re getting knee replacements, they’re getting hip replacements, their quality of life plummets, especially after retirement because they’re falling apart. Human beings aren’t made to do that job for that long and that intensely.
We really try to set as many controls on it as we can. It’s a big fight in the current contract right now around mandatory overtime, around making sure that we have ACs in the vehicles, around making sure we can take breaks during hot days, extra breaks, all this sort of stuff. Because that’s the other thing, all of that work, those 300 packages you’re delivering, that 10 miles you’re walking, those 100 packages you’re picking up, you’re doing that in sunshine, rain, snow, sleet, ice. I’ve worked in blizzards, I’ve worked outside when it’s negative 20 below wind chill. I worked outside when it’s 100 degrees in the shade.
We work no matter what. And we all found out that we work during global pandemics too. I remember that day very vividly because we weren’t sure if we were going to be working or not, and then we all get a message on our little DIAD as we’re watching the city of Chicago, people’s businesses starting closing up, people putting signs in their windows being like, “I don’t know when I’ll reopen,” because it’s March, 2020. None of us get what’s happening. And we all got a message on our DIAD saying, “UPS is considered an essential business. You all are expected to report to work tomorrow.” That was it. Point, point, period. That was when we all found out that we are a part of the essential army of workers in this country. We work no matter what.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. And like you said, at great cost to yourselves. We had that panel recording with three other UPSers last summer after a poor guy died in his package car in LA. Imagine dying that way. Imagine your future slipping away while you boil in the back of a package car and no one finds you. Or like you said, imagine not being able to play with your grandkids because you’ve had two knee replacements from getting in and out of that damn package car and trying to hustle. Every day your boss tells you, “you got to hustle.” Or you tell yourself, “Oh, you got to hustle. You got to hustle.” But then decades later when you can’t enjoy your retirement, when you can’t play ball with your kids, who else is going to remember how much you hustled that day?
There’s that great saying that years from now, the only people who are going to remember you worked late are your kids, and I think about that a lot. And of course a lot of us as working people, we don’t have much of a say over that. We’ve interviewed so many people who are working forced overtime and missing their remaining years with their parents before they pass away, or they’re missing tee-ball games and barbecues with their families because the coal mine that they work for in Alabama is forcing them to stay underground for longer. The production plant at Frito-Lay mistreats its workers so badly that the few people who still stay get all that extra work piled on top of them and they’re pushed into forced overtime, so on and so forth. I say this to really hook things back to that great passage in the Jacobin piece that I read from at the beginning of this episode where Sean and Elliot really talk about why the UPS contract fight is so pivotal, not just for UPSers but for all of us, for the labor movement.
We are pushing against the boss’s vision for society, and I think we’ve all seen what that vision is, what that direction goes in, and what it would mean for us and our society to continue to go down this route where human bodies are just grist for the mill, where we are nothing but numbers on a spreadsheet. We are nothing more than just faceless meat bags to be discarded when we have nothing left to give. That is Amazon’s entire business model. It’s just chew people up and spit them out when they have nothing left to give. That’s why they have a turnover rate at some of those sorting facilities of 150%. That’s insane. I’ve worked in those warehouses, not Amazon, but warehouses like that. I cannot imagine working somewhere where the turnover was that high, and we had a high turnover at my warehouse.
But if you have 150%, you have no one to work with. The guys to your left and your right are going to be gone by the end of the week. Anyway, I digress. Point being is I wanted to talk about the contract fight, roll this over into a discussion of how this is all culminating in the current contract fight and what’s really at stake in that fight. And I was thinking maybe by way of getting us there, if you could connect to what you were describing in your day-to-day work as a package car driver. All those packages that end up in your truck, someone’s loading them in there. There are also folks sorting those packages. There are people delivering those packages. There’s a big operation here. There are full-timers, there are part-timers. I was wondering if you could just give folks a little more of an insider’s view of how big this operation is and what sort of key issues in that larger workplace ecosystem are really rallying you and your fellow Teamsters and UPSers in this current contract fight.
Sean Orr: Yeah, for sure. So, me, as a package car driver, I’m the one that people see out in public. I’m the UPS employee driving a delivery truck in the neighborhoods, making deliveries, making pickups, bringing them back into the warehouse at the end of the night. That’s just a corner of UPS. UPS, we’re as integrated into the U.S. economy as the railroads are. And we have people who are doing things, who are doing a job in every corner of that to make that happen.
Over half of my coworkers around the country are part-timers. These are people who work in the warehouse, either loading or unloading trailers, working on sorting belts or sorting lines, or loading or unloading packaged cars. They are paid next to nothing for their work here in Chicago. They’re paid just above the minimum wage right now. They deal with the worst levels of harassment.
The thing with us package car drivers, we’ve got that hyper surveillance, you got stuff on the trucks and stuff like that, but when you’re out on the road, you’re by yourself. You know what I mean? You don’t have a supervisor standing right next to you, screaming at you every minute to work faster, work faster, work faster. Our brothers and sisters that work in the building have that every single day. They deal with massive amounts of harassment. People who basically crack a whip on their backs to make them work faster. The levels of harassment are terrible, absolutely terrible. I’ve had coworkers who have been in prison say that it feels like the exact same place.
So for the part-timers, the biggest issue we’re facing right now is just poverty. People are not making nowhere near enough money. And the company, I think they know that, right? I think they like that. But it’s at such a point where you’ve got people who rather than get forced to come in to work, and the company right now, they’re trying to save money, so they’re cutting down on overtime for part-timers.
So basically, they’re trying to make them do seven hours worth of work in three and a half hours, because that’s their daily guarantee per the contract. They are guaranteed three and a half hours of work. Anything over five hours is overtime. So the companies save money. They’re like, “Hey, how about you do the same amount of work you would do starting at 1:00 AM, but we’re going to have you start at 4:30.” You’re doing that, you’re paying someone just above the minimum wage, and you’re going to yell at them the whole time, a lot of people don’t take that, so they’re just not coming into work. They’re quitting. Massive turnover that we have. At my building alone, we’ve got dozens of vacancies because nobody wants that job.
So I know here in Chicago and around the country, getting a significant raise for part-timers is one of our top priorities. Making more full-time jobs on the inside is a top priority, because we believe that people want a full-time job, they should have it. We can’t accept part-time America as a reality. We should push back against that, right?
Obviously, some people want to work part-time, and that’s totally fine, but if you’re doing that, you should be comfortable. I don’t think that anything less than $25 an hour is acceptable at a company that can make $13.9 billion in profits last year, and since they didn’t know what to do with that money, they weren’t going to give it to us in raises, they decided to give it a stock buybacks to all their rich buddies in Wall Street. So part-time issues are significant.
We’re also looking for AC inside the facilities and more cooling options inside the facilities because it’s hot. These big warehouses, managers have AC in their offices, but us workers on the line, we don’t.
We’re looking for stronger stuff to fight back against harassment on the job as well and all sorts of that kind of stuff.
Beyond that, you’ve got the tractor trailer drivers, which in UPS lingo we call feeder drivers. Those are the folks who are CDL operators. They’re driving the semi-trucks on the freeways. They’re bringing packages in and out of the warehouses in the tractor trailers. They’re going to big companies. They’re going to Amazon. They’re going to all sorts of places. Those folks are dealing with insane amounts of overtime, usually working 12 hours a day, if not longer.
We are also dealing with a lot of issues of subcontracting the company, constantly subcontracting feeder work to non-union competitors. We want to put a stop to that.
And then, obviously, we’ve got the issue with package car drivers. In our last contract, we had a second wage tier and job tier forced on us, 22.4 drivers. Those are package car drivers who are package car drivers. They make deliveries, they do pickups, but they make about $9 less an hour at top scale. They don’t have protection from forced overtime, like package car drivers can get, and they are also able to be forced to work inside the building. If the company deems it necessary to cut down on the number of routes, they can force you to go work: “This week, you’re doing package car work starting at 9:00 AM, working whenever. But next week, we need you starting at 1:00 AM in the warehouse, and you’re going to do that on a week by week basis for as long as we want.” That’s not acceptable. That kind of flexibility helps the company, but it breaks us as people.
I’ve got so many coworkers that have had to deal with issues with their families, who have to deal with issues of loss of sleep, of exhaustion at the end of the day, of just that constant…
A company that has that much control over you, that they’re like, “Hey, you think of yourself as a delivery driver, or you think of yourself as a truck driver, but you are whatever I want you to be. You’re going to work whenever I want you to. You’re going to do whatever work we want you to do,” and that wears on people. That breaks people down. We want to eliminate that entire job classification totally, day one of the contract.
We want everybody who’s a package car driver to be a package car driver, point-blank, period. We don’t want to give the company any level of flexibility when it comes to determining what kind of job we’re going to do and how much money they’re going to pay us. We want guarantees, we want controls over our own labor, and we’re aiming to get all of that in his next contract.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell, yeah. Well, I mean, I think that was a really great rundown. Made my job very easy, so thank you. But I think that you really hit the nail on the head. Because that’s the thing that I think a lot of people forget — of course, not people who work, not people who experience this every day. I think we all get that on a gut level, because we’ve been through it.
When you are trying to build a life around your work schedule, because you need to work to live, how do you do that when you don’t know what your schedule’s going to be until the night before? Anyone who’s ever worked in service can tell you what that’s like. How can you plan events with your family? How can you plan… I don’t know, maybe you want to take a vacation. Anything that gives you a sense of agency for planning your life outside of work, because as a human being, you should have a life outside of work. We only get one turnaround, like this mortal coil. You get one life to live and you should be able to live and enjoy life outside of your workplace.
But yet, so many workers that I talk to on this show are living, breathing proof that our employers do not give a shit about that, do not even think that we should have that type of control, or even much of a life outside of work to enjoy in the first place. This is the constant thing that I’ve heard from so many people working in service, working in manufacturing, working in mining, working in healthcare, working in education, working on the railroads. They keep piling more work onto fewer workers. People missing time with their families because they’re doing all that forced overtime or they’re dealing with hectic scheduling, erratic scheduling that changes week to week, when it would make a lot more sense for workers to have a set schedule. But then you start to see all the ways it benefits the bosses to keep playing shuffle with people’s schedules every single week. It makes it so that you yourself don’t have any sort of regularity, really are just living at the beck and call of your employer.
Again, remember what Sean and I were talking about earlier, about how we are conditioned to be certain kinds of people in the workplace. So what kind of person are you conditioned to be when you just basically wait until Sunday to plan your whole life around whatever your boss tells you your work schedule’s going to be that week?
I can go on and on and on about this, but I think this is why if we can all understand and relate to what Sean is telling us about these issues that are really central to the UPS contract fight, if we can identify with those very same issues, the response is not to say, “Well, I don’t get any say over that, so why should the UPSers get it?” Or, “Why should the Teamsters get it?” It’s like, no, we should all be fighting for that. So we should want the Teamsters to win this fight, so that we can then learn from them how to win that fight. We can build on that momentum and keep pushing back in the other direction, demanding that we have more of those kinds of guarantees with our work, that we know what kind of work we’re going to be doing, when we’re going to be doing it, and how much we’re going to get paid for it, instead of just being at the mercy or lack thereof of our bosses.
I want to end on that note, man, because it’s been so great talking to you about all of this, and I could talk to you about this for hours, but I don’t want to keep you for too much longer, because I’ve already kept you for an hour here.
Sean Orr: Appreciate it.
Maximillian Alvarez: But I guess, I just wanted to sort of… Two questions — you mentioned that two tier system. This is also a big issue that we hear from workers in different industries week in, week out on this show. It was a big issue with the John Deere workers. It was a big issue with the Kellogg’s workers. It’s an issue with all the academic strikes that we’re seeing in higher education. Higher ed is like the poster child for multi-tiered employment systems. You got tenured professors, non-tenured professors, lecturers, adjuncts, grad students, undergrad teachers, all that kind of stuff. So we’ve seen these different fights in different industries over two or multi-tiered employment systems.
But I want to sort of ask, the last contract fight was a very contentious one that left a bitter taste in a lot of people’s mouths. And this, something feels very different right now. It’s been a year, a little over a year since the reform administration headed by Sean O’Brien kind of came into the leadership role at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. I wanted to ask, has that galvanized people? I guess, have you seen that difference over the past year on the shop floor level? And just rounding us out on what do you think’s going to happen between now and July. Or what should folks be looking for? What should they be paying attention to? And what can folks ultimately do to show up and stand in solidarity with our siblings at UPS and with the Teamsters?
Sean Orr: Yeah, no, for sure. I appreciate this opportunity, brother, for this conversation. I think this has been phenomenal and I’m really glad to share it with coworkers.
So, I think that the effect of that 2021 international election in our union was that it put my coworkers, the rank and file, put people into motion, and they haven’t stopped being in motion ever since. People are having high, high, high expectations of what we will accept in this contract if we do not get rid of 22.4s day one of this new contract. This is a strike issue. If we do not get a significant raise for part-timers, it is a strike issue. If we do not do something to stop UPS from trying to Giggify our jobs, it is a strike issue. We are not willing to accept the tide of history in this fight. We are here to push things back and to get things flowing in our direction for us.
My coworkers have been all involved in this fight. I mean, the level of engagement’s incredible. People are strike ready, and not just in my building, but in every UPS hub around this country. You’ve got coworkers who are not just fighting the boss every day, but they’re connecting with each other around the country through TDU, through UPS Teamsters United. We’ve got workshops where thousands of coworkers on their days off are calling in to learn about their contract, where we’re at, to learn the next steps of the contract, to campaign. You’ve got people handing out flyers and leaflets, collecting signatures at the gates all over the place. You’ve got Teamsters rallying in their parking lots at the UPS facilities all over this country. People are in motion. Things are happening. The ground’s shifting beneath our feet.
We’re coming into this with both fists ringing, and I think that we’re going to come out the other side with the best contract that we could ever possibly imagine in the current moment, right? There’s going to be more to fight for after this, but we’re coming to take everything that we possibly can, and I think that people should be expecting to see.
August 1st, if things are looking good, it’s because we fought the company like hell and we got a contract that 350,000 Teamsters with very high expectations are good with. Or you’re going to be seeing picket lines, you’re going to be seeing stores up and down this country trying to figure out how they’re going to ship their goods out because UPS, it’s not running, and you are going to see a lot of fun happening out there on those picket lines, because we are taking the fight to the streets and we are going to get that country this contract won in the streets.
So I would say if you are looking to get involved, there’s a lot of ways to get plugged in. If you’re not a Teamster, there’s all sorts of ways to get involved. Get your union involved, put out a solidarity statement with the Teamsters. If you’re out there in the community, in cities and towns all up and down the country, I would say reach out to your local DSA chapter. DSA has this incredible campaign, DSA Strike Ready, to build support for the Teamsters in this fight. We’ve got dozens and dozens and dozens of chapters working with rank and file Teamsters, working in the community, going to do community canvases, community rallies, really building the level of public support and public solidarity that we need to win this fight. So I would say get connected up with DSA, get involved in that. But most importantly, come out in August, show some love to the Teamsters if we’re on the picket line, and help us transform the labor movement and transform this country.
- Sean’s Twitter page
- International Brotherhood of Teamsters website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Teamsters for a Democratic Union website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Sean Orr & Elliot Lewis, Jacobin, “UPS Teamsters Are Ready to Strike“
- Sean Orr & Elliot Lewis, Labor Notes, “UPS Teamsters Start Strike Authorization Vote”
- Working People, “Teamsters in Boston Have a Message for UPS (w/ Thomas Mari, Jane Fallon, Rob Atkinson, JJ Rodriguez, Fred Zuckerman, Julie, & Sean M. O’Brien)“
- Working People, ““If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Keep Working” (w/ Zakk, Gabriela, & Steve)“
- The Upsurge podcast Spotify page, Twitter page, and Patreon
- Alex Press, Jacobin, “Inside the Teamsters’ Preparations for a UPS Strike“
- J.J. McCorvey, Adiel Kaplan, & Annie Probert, NBC News, “UPS Drivers on Track to Get Air-Conditioned Trucks for the First Time“
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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.