Interview with a Teamster: Union Busting & Corporate Maneuvers at UPS

by Nicholas Marcotte

Ronan Foley has worked as a part-time package handler at the UPS hub in Shrewsbury, MA for over a year and is a member of Teamsters Local 170 and the Independent Socialist Group. UPS is not only one of the largest logistics companies in the world, but also is one of the largest unionized private sector workforces in the US. 350,000 Teamsters members are fighting for a good contract. 

As reported in the last issue of Socialism Today, UPS drivers are ill-equipped to deal with the summer heat, with one driver, Estaban Chevez Jr. passing away on the job due to heat stroke. With this in mind, are there safety concerns being raised by the union in the contract fight?

As of July 2022, the IBT submitted a formal information request to UPS management, citing a multitude of OSHA documents, requesting paperwork that details UPS’s plans and methods for driver and warehouse worker safety. With this request, the union proposed multiple actions that could be taken by the company to ensure safety, specifically heat-related, which included fans in trucks, cooling uniforms, and more full time positions to accurately account for the increased volume, allowing workers to work at a safe and healthy pace. 

During this public fight between workers and the management, we have heard terms like “22.4” and “PVDs” that seem essential to the negotiations. Could you explain what they are and why rank-and-file workers should be willing to take action to end these practices?

Both of these positions within the company are meant to divide the workers within the union, screw union workers over, and put more money in the company’s pocket. “22.4s” are one part of a two tier system for package car drivers, usually new to the driving gig, which gives them lower pay and strips them of control over their schedule, usually forcing them to come in on a sixth day of the week. 

PVDs, or personal vehicle drivers, are hired during peak season. They are paid more, given routes that senior Teamsters should be choosing, and make the company more money, considering they are paid less than full time Teamsters and have no benefits. By dissolving both of these union-busting positions, and transferring those workers into other positions, all workers would have union rights including more control over their workplace and working conditions, attaining positions they’ve waited for, and receiving the equal pay and benefits we work so hard for. Current 22.4s and PVDs could be reached out to and brought into the campaign by making it clear what they stand to gain.

Are members of your local talking about a potential strike? If so, what are rank-and-file members doing during these negotiations?

At the union meetings that I have attended, which has been the majority of them in the past seven months, there has been barely any discussion about the strike. There have been meetings for contract proposals, and brief discussions about the strike fund, but other than that, no word on how we are to proceed. Because of this, many in the building fear that our business agent is not ready, or worse, not willing to strike. It is obvious, especially after the union leadership refused the members’ demand to strike in 2018, that workers are frustrated and want a way to fight back effectively. 

What would you say to your fellow UPS Teamsters apprehensive about the prospects of a strike this summer? 

The entire world is built upon the hard work of people like UPS workers. Your essential medicine, gifts, everything is shipped using our labor. We deliver up to 24.3 million packages a day all in an effort to ensure that people’s needs are met. 

Without the backbreaking work we do, not only would these customers not receive their essentials, but UPS would not have made the profit it has. They have made over $13 billion in profit for 2022, and we see a fraction of that in our paycheck every week. Considering the hard work we do, and the profits we make, why don’t we deserve to live on a stable income? Why don’t we deserve to know that our safety is above all else for this company? Why don’t workers deserve to see their families after work, or make time to take care of themselves? 

We have already seen what will happen if we refuse to fight for better treatment and pay. 2018 is the perfect example. Hard work alone will not make the company shell out bonuses, much less a significant portion of the profits as wages. 

We must point out that we, as workers, are only “guaranteed” an 8 hour work day and paid leave because of past strikes, not from the generosity of CEO’s; these very rights are being stripped from us already by corporate greed. To cement our rights within the workplace, the only power the working class has is to strike. 

Leading up to the potential strike, there are things that people should be doing to prepare themselves mentally, physically, and financially. We all know that one of the biggest factors here is finances. I encourage all members to save as much as they can, but on top of that there is one thing that I just recently learned. By opening an account with the Teamsters Credit Union, once members go on strike, their credit card payments are frozen until the strike is ended. 

Another thing to note financially is the strike fund. If members are on a picket line for the same amount of time as their scheduled shift, starting day one they will receive strike pay, equal to 5x what they pay in union dues, per week. So, for example, if you are a part timer who makes $15 an hour and your dues are $38 per month, during the strike you will receive a weekly stipend of $190. 

But on a more personal note, I think it’s important for my brothers and sisters to understand that the people who step up to that picket line are not just fighting for themselves. They have rent to pay, cars to fix, and mouths to feed. But against all odds, they understand that winning this fight against a company as large as UPS will not just secure safer and higher paying jobs for them, or the rest of the Teamsters for that matter, but winning this fight will also set the tone for the rest of the working class across the globe. A victory could spark renewed momentum in the Teamster’s campaign to help organize the nearly one million US logistics workers at Amazon. We all sacrifice to uplift each other, and I encourage every union member to do the same. Otherwise, we all lose. 

In 2018, despite the majority of rank-and-file Teamsters voting against the then-proposed contract, union leadership forced UPS workers into the harmful  agreement. Does this possibility exist under the new leadership on the IBT?

Of course it does. But there are many factors at play here. Sean O’Brien was James Hoffa’s right-hand man before 2018. After the contract was forced through, O’Brien (along with many other union leaders) jumped ship. This was a crushing blow to Hoffa’s leadership, which is why O’Brien’s pro-strike campaign defeated the Hoffa-backed candidate in the most recent union election. O’Brien knows that if he were to follow in Hoffa’s footsteps this year, his era would end in shambles. But, even if O’Brien is truly willing to fight, the pressure from our government, corporations, and the media may urge him to concede. 

However, it is important to note, this potential strike comes on the heels of a major defeat for railroad workers rights, seeing as our “most union friendly president in history,” along with “labor friendly” and “progressive” members of Congress like AOC, voted to block the rail workers’ right to strike. While UPS does not fall under the Railway Labor Act’s jurisdiction, the US government will do whatever it can, locally and nationally, to defend corporate profit. That is why I believe it is important to stress the need for rank and file members to organize local, regional, and national days of action to demonstrate their support for a strike, and have nationwide pressure on leadership to strike, despite the potential for government opposition. 

Recently you attended a Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) meeting in Providence, Rhode Island. What did you learn at this event? Leading up to the possible strike, how are TDU members preparing?

It seems as though members across New England, in most of the locals, are dealing with the same inaction, from both union leaders and rank-and-file members, as I am. The union isn’t educating new hires on their rights and responsibilities within the union, many locals aren’t organizing events for upcoming “weeks of action” to build support for the contract, and there is a lot of hesitancy within a portion of the membership about whether or not we are ready to strike. 

However, I think it’s important to note that everyone who attended this meeting is ready to do whatever they can to ensure a victory, and has already been doing so. Many proposed ideas, or ongoing efforts, to show management that we aren’t messing around. Past practices included blowing whistles at management for contract violations, “just practicing” picket lines before a shift, pins showing solidarity across job positions, and workers marching in at the same time at the start of the work day. 

Considering the threat the potential strike poses to UPS’s profits, one could safely assume that the company is doing whatever it can to protect its and its shareholder’s interests. With that in mind, have you noticed an uptick in repressive tactics from management? For example, has management been cutting hours? 

I, personally, am a victim of union busting. This October, after weeks of planning for a union steward election, and with a history of filing grievances against management, I was fired for educating new hires on their union rights. As I was working, I stopped a group of new hires and told them, “After your 30 days of training, the union grants you a certain number of rights. One of those rights being that a supervisor cannot tell you to go faster, or that you’re not going fast enough, and if they try to fire you for your performance, that is against the contract.”

I was quickly sent to the conference room, where I was interrogated by management, accused of creating a hostile work environment and gross insubordination. I was promptly fired (which does not follow the contract, in which they are supposed to give me a verbal and written warning before termination), and was not allowed back until six days later. The union got me my job back, but I was only given two days worth of back pay. I filed for wrongful termination with the NLRB, but was told the union did all they could. 

I am not the only one to experience these tactics. Earlier this year, UPS CEO Carol Tome told consumers to switch to Amazon and Fedex during the third quarter, to prepare for the strike. Because of this, our volume has ground to a halt. Before peak season, part-timers would normally be getting four to five, to almost six hours of work, with volumes being around 110-115K packages a night. For the past month now, however, part timers are lucky to be getting above the contractual 3.5 hours, with management calling for the end of the work day for all part-timers around that mark. 

I have seen an even more sinister tactic by management that targets new hires who lack union education. Other than being laid off, some part-timers are given an ultimatum: you either get laid off and not know the next time that you will be scheduled to work, or become a supervisor. Of course, with people already struggling to pay rent with meager hours as part-timers, they take the higher paying supervisor position. The company is doing everything it can to weaken the union, and all members must be prepared to fight against it. 

How can non-UPS workers, unionized or not, support you and your fellow Teamsters if a strike occurs on August 1st?

On an individual basis, I encourage members of the public to walk the picket line. Do small things like bring food and water, or just come to talk, because knowing that you have people who have your back will do wonders to maintain morale, which is the one thing we need to win. 

To speak in broader terms, everyone should boycott UPS. If members of the public were to stop sending and receiving through UPS, if the railroad unions stopped the shipment of our goods via the railway, this strike would be over and won before we knew it. 

I also encourage other unions and labor groups to establish solidarity committees, with the express purpose of collecting donations, organizing mass pickets, and being in constant contact with the Teamsters to decide what the next best move should be. And on a more all-encompassing level, the best way for not just Teamsters to win the best contract we can, but for all workers to win, is to call for a national work stoppage. If every member of the working class were to withhold their labor, the benefits that would follow would be immeasurable.