On June 25, 24-year-old UPS driver Esteban Chavez Jr. collapsed in the back of his truck while working, and died. Temperatures in the Los Angeles area that day were in the high 90s.
Hundreds of other UPS workers around the country suffer from heatstroke every summer, as UPS refuses to install air conditioning in its trucks or warehouses.
In our own Teamsters Local 804 in New York City, a supervisor even told a driver who was suffering heatstroke while working not to call an ambulance, and tried to keep him from filing a workers comp claim. Later that day the driver was hospitalized for heatstroke.
And, though we have a contractual right to have at least fans in our trucks, in New York City UPS refused to install fans for months.
At the same time, the company began installing something else: driver-facing surveillance cameras with audio and video capabilities, to ratchet up the already intense monitoring we are subjected to and ensure they can squeeze the most out of our workday.
So as the summer heat wave crested, drivers fell ill, and public concern rose for people working in the heat, we decided to organize for collective action.
The demand for fans and A/C instead of surveillance cameras is not only a big deal with our co-workers, but has also attracted sympathy from the general public. So we decided to take a two-pronged approach to push the issue—organizing both in our workplace and in the public eye.
HATCHED A PLAN
The idea for the Safety Not Surveillance rallies came from the rank and file. Many members were talking about how outraged they were at the new cameras—installed in the middle of a heat wave, no less.
Some of us stewards came up with a plan to fight back and proposed it to our local president, Vinnie Perrone, in early July. He agreed.
Perrone’s statement announcing rallies for July 28, published as an image on Facebook and Twitter and shared in WhatsApp chats, caught a decent amount of traction. Local leaders from around the country re-shared it, expressed support, and committed to taking similar action.
We called through lists of our co-workers to talk about the issue and encourage them to attend the rally, emphasizing the importance of collective action.
After phone-banking, we designed a flyer that included dates for both the Safety Not Surveillance rallies and our 2023 Contract Campaign Kick-Off rally. We wanted to emphasize that these were related, because we knew our more ambitious safety demands would likely only be met in our contract fight next year.
While flyering, we also circulated “fan request lists” and encouraged members to exercise their right to have a fan installed.
In the past, individuals had requested fans on their own. We decided to collectivize the request so people would feel that the issue was a general one, and to build pressure against the company.
Signing members up on the list also gave us an opportunity to discuss our upcoming contract fight, where we can negotiate over cameras and safety rules.
STORY WENT VIRAL
Our efforts paid off, and we got solid turnout. Hundreds of members showed up at simultaneous rallies at two of the biggest hubs on the day of action. News outlets picked up the story of the events—and the coverage gained momentum after a photo of a denied fan request went viral on social media.
In a viral tweet we asked the public to call the UPS 1-800 complaint number about the issue. Pretty soon dozens of reporters were reaching out to us. Fox5, CBS, Telemundo, CNBC, Business Insider, Vice, The Guardian, QZ, Jacobin, Fox26, and several other outlets ran stories.
All this media interest encouraged members to speak out, and built their confidence that the public was supporting our fight.
In the midst of the coverage of Safety Not Surveillance, the UPS-Teamsters 2023 Contract Campaign Kick-Off rallies happened all over the country the first week of August.
The agitation and momentum we had generated through Safety Not Surveillance brought hundreds more members out to our campaign kick-off events, along with some reporters who had initially reached out because of our safety campaign.
UPS has now installed fans in some trucks and apologized publicly for failing to install them before.
The campaign gave the public a glimpse of the intransigence of UPS and what’s at stake in our potential strike next year. We’re going to need their support.
One lesson we take is that even private sector workers can attract community support and make our bargaining relevant to the “common good” of workers across the economy when we publicize workplace issues that are outrageous yet also relatable to many.
Elliot Lewis and Matt Leichenger are shop stewards in Teamsters Local 804.
UPS: The Countdown Begins
One year out from contract expiration, UPS Teamsters at hundreds of locations kicked off their contract campaign with parking lot rallies.
Teamsters President Sean O’Brien pledged to win a contract that will “reset the standards for wages and benefits in this industry by August 1, 2023.
“We won’t extend negotiations by a single day,” he said. “We’ll either have a signed agreement that day or be hitting the pavement.”
The actions also marked the 25th anniversary of the last national UPS strike, in 1997, when Teamsters declared “Part-Time America Won’t Work” and won 10,000 new full-time jobs.
This year, delivery drivers want to put a stop to excessive overtime and subcontracting, end the two-tier wage for delivery drivers, and remove new driver-facing cameras.
Inside workers who sort, load, and unload packages want higher pay for part-timers—and once again, more full-time jobs. The average UPS worker gets paid 600 times less than CEO Carol Tomé.
Both groups want to rein in persistent harassment by management.
UPS Teamsters delivered an unprecedented volume of packages during the pandemic. They’re still working 10- to 12-hour shifts under punishing conditions, like extreme heat. Meanwhile over the past two years UPS has raked in $11.2 billion in net profits.
—Labor Notes Staff
Click here to see more photos from the rallies held around the country.