A walkout for respect at UPS

Danny Katch reports on a mass firing of Teamsters by UPS, and the outpouring of support they are receiving in response.

Members and supporters of Teamsters Local 804 rally in defense of 250 fired workersMembers and supporters of Teamsters Local 804 rally in defense of 250 fired workers

"UPS WORKERS around the country are fed up...What happened here on February 26 was a culmination. You can't put a tea kettle on, turn on the flame, and expect it not to boil over!"

Those were the words of Tim Sylvester, president of Teamsters Local 804, at a rally outside the gates of a UPS facility in Maspeth, Queens, on the morning of March 21. What had "boiled over" on February 26 was the type of action not often seen in the U.S. labor movement these days, a 90-minute walkout of over 250 drivers in response to the unjust firing of Jairo Reyes, a driver of 23 years.

"They were so fed up, not even for me but in their personal experience, the pressure they're getting from the company," says Reyes, adding:

Put yourself in that situation, [management is] telling you're fired and you walk about anyways...Here's a decent paying job in America working for a very competitive company. To feel inside you that, my choice is either stay here and continue putting up with the garbage or just walk out and giving myself a sense of dignity--it hits home. There is a lot of unfairness and a lot of inequality.

UPS responded to the walkout in the only way that anyone who has ever worked for "Big Brown" (including this author) would expect: by raising the stakes. The company put hundreds of drivers who participated in the action on notice of termination.

But if UPS was hoping to intimidate its workers, it miscalculated. Local 804 put out a call for support and has received an overwhelming response, getting over 100,000 signatures in just two weeks on petitions sent out by the union and the Working Families Party. An incident that started with one driver in one building has snowballed into a fight involving thousands of workers with grievances of their own in one of the country's largest unionized companies.

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UPS DRIVERS are widely considered to have one of the few remaining decent working-class jobs. With good pay and benefits, union protections and friendly customer interactions, it's no wonder that drivers are frequently asked by customers if the company is hiring.

But UPS has long been a pioneer in using science and technology to squeeze the most work possible out of the bodies of its workers, which can create a pressure cooker atmosphere.

"[Management is] scrutinizing everything you do with all the technology they have," according to Reyes. "They know if you left the truck idle and if you turned at a certain speed. They live on the computer and then they try to catch you. And they ask you how many stops done and how many stops left. And god forbid--if you answer in the wrong way, they bring you into the office."

Reyes told me that when he returned to work after missing a lot of time due to an accident, he made the mistake of coming back like "a normal relaxed person--like you're not working in a hostile environment."

In Maspeth, that hostility has lately been focused on the issue of forced overtime. Like many corporations, UPS divides its workforce between underemployed part-timers and overworked full timers, a system that is horrible for its employees but great for its profits. Maspeth drivers routinely work 12-hour days, staying on their routes past 9 p.m.. Because of the lack of affordable housing in New York City, many of them have long commutes to outer suburbs, which means they only get to see their loved ones on weekends.

According to Local 804's contract with UPS, workers have the right to limit their amount of mandatory overtime, a right that the company has flagrantly ignored.

"There's been a culture here of breaking the contract and not honoring what they agreed to," says Liam Russertt, Local 804's business agent assigned to the Maspeth hub.

When it comes to work rules they're very big sticklers. If you don't hold your handrail getting in and out of the truck and have your keys on your pinky they'll write you up for discipline. But when it comes to guys wanting to come in early and it's in the contract, they violate it and say "grieve it." When you request your day off they violate it and say "grieve it."

This was something many workers at the rally talked about: every time they try to stand up for their contractual rights around mandatory overtime or seniority, they are told by supervisors to file a grievance later and keep working. In other words, management has flipped the power dynamic of the union's grievance procedure. Something that was supposed to be a tool for workers to hold the company accountable to the contract is now being used by the company to do the opposite: to keep violating the contract and then letting the union staff have to deal with the enormous pile of grievances. "Grieve it" has become another word for "get back to work."

The anger that's been boiling up in the Maspeth UPS hub is the anger of workers who know their rights and yet are treated as if they don't have any. Every worker I spoke with at the rally used the word disrespect.

"Anyone in the country if they have an agreement or contract with any type of company and they violate it, you get angry," says Russertt. "If they violate it twice you never use them again. These guys are violating it every day to the extreme. And the workers just feel like...they love their customers, they love their jobs, but the way management treats them like they're property, and a commodity, and they just treat them until they're broken down."

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UPS MANAGEMENT in Maspeth looked at this atmosphere of growing tension and decided to turn it up about 10 notches. A month earlier, Jairo Reyes had started clocking in earlier on some days--with management's approval--so he could make sure to get a spot at the loading dock on his delivery route. Management initially agreed, but when Reyes, a longtime union activist, signed his name to a mass grievance against the company's violations of seniority rules with start times, it decided to retaliate.

On the morning of February 26, Reyes was told that his new start time had never been approved and that he had therefore been "stealing" time for the past month by reporting to work too early. For this supposed crime, Reyes was immediately fired; his ID was taken from him and he was escorted out of the building.

To understand why Reyes's termination had such an explosive impact in the building, you need one more piece of information. Local 804 has long had an "innocent until proven guilty" clause which allowed terminated workers to stay on the job through the process of their being defended by their union representatives. Local 804 members are protective of this provision because while the concept of "innocent until proven guilty" is supposed to be a universal right in this country, it rarely exists at the place we spend most of our time--at work.

The only exceptions to "innocent until proven guilty" in the Local 804 contract are cases that involve "dishonesty," which is supposed to refer mainly to package theft. Not surprisingly, management is always looking for ways to stretch the meaning of "dishonesty" to cover all sorts of disciplinary issues. But even by UPS standards, applying dishonesty to a worker who had changed his start time with management's approval is a ridiculous stretch.

"It was just the last straw," says Russertt. "Even when we were out here for a little bit, people didn't want to go back in until he went back in. We thought we were going to send a message and we ended up sending a message for 90 minutes or better."

To get a feel for the walkout, check out this video of Reyes addressing the workers and this one of Russertt.

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AFTER THE walkout, UPS hit back hard with its mass termination notices, but the company may not have counted on the outpouring of solidarity that Reyes and his co-workers would received.

Cell phone videos like those above were posted on social media networks of UPS workers across the country. When Local 804 started a petition in defense of the terminated workers, networks of Teamster activists sprang up across the country to get signatures. "I was never a Facebook person," says Russertt, "but I'm getting all these messages looking at the petition...To get 100,000 signatures in two weeks, we've definitely gotten a feeling of solidarity. It almost reminded me of 1934 Minnesota [Teamster general strike]."

The campaign was joined by the Working Families Party, a union-backed coalition often affiliated with the Democratic Party, which publicized an online petition and helped get statements of support from elected officials. Most notable was Letitia James, the city's new public advocate, who pledged at the rally that if UPS didn't rescind its terminations that she would have the city look into its contracts with UPS.

UPS has used its hardball style of management to wrest enormous profits out of its impoverished part-time, and stressed-out and exhausted full-time workforce. But in this case, it may have gone too far and provoked a response that could awaken a sleeping giant. The walkout in Maspeth is inspiring a UPS workforce around the country that has already demonstrated its growing frustrations by voting down a series of local supplements to the Teamsters' national contract.

Walking Jairo Reyes off the job wasn't just a cruel and illegal act; it was a slap in the face to every driver in the building. And it led to what UPS and every company in the world fears the most: workers taking direct action and shutting down production. Companies like UPS don't like union grievances, but they have figured out how to live with them and not let them affect their relentless squeeze on their workforce.

Now, the Local 804 walkout has reminded UPS workers in New York and across the country about the type of actions it took to build the union in the first place, starting with that general strike in Minneapolis in 1934. At a time when a number of locals still haven't approved their local contract, this is a potentially explosive situation.

Local 804 has an important historic place in Teamsters and the entire labor movement. This is the home of Ron Carey, the Teamster president who led the 1997 UPS strike, the most successful national strike in the past 30 years. That strike sought to address the gap the company's part-time and full-time workers, and galvanized public support with the slogan "Part-time America won't work."

UPS got its revenge after the strike when Republican lawmakers and Carey's rival Jimmy Hoffa Jr. united to get Carey removed from office based on corruption charges that were never proven in court. Carey's handpicked successors in Local 804 saw which way the wind was blowing, allied with Hoffa Jr., and let the local stagnate into passivity until they were unseated in 2009 by Sylvester's team of reformers, who campaigned on a pledge to restore Carey's tradition of member education and standing up to management. Now Local 804 once again has a chance to lead the way.

For the rest of us, Jairo Reyes and the rest of the Maspeth UPS drivers need our support. Sign the petition, pass it around to coworkers, and take the opportunity to talk about why workers walked of the job that morning in Maspeth--and how we can build a stronger labor movement so that more of us can rediscover the power to shut down production to stand up for our rights.