The UPS empire strikes back

April 8, 2014

Danny Katch reports from New York City on the stakes in a battle pitting one of the world's most powerful corporations against union workers defending their contract.

FOR AS long as anyone can remember, there has been a cold war at United Parcel Service, between labor and management. This spring, in Maspeth, Queens, a hot war has broken out.

Long-simmering frustrations among UPS drivers exploded into a morning walkout at the Maspeth hub on the morning of February 26. The company responded with termination notices for all 250 workers who participated in the job action.

UPS claims the walkout violated the contract signed between UPS and the union, Teamsters Local 804. In fact, it's management that violates the different sections of the contract on a daily basis, including an agreement that limits mandatory overtime. It was this issue that drivers in Maspeth had spent months trying to resolve through the grievance procedure--to no avail. The walkout happened after they reached their breaking point--hen management fired Jairo Reyes, a respected union activist, on a trumped-up charge of punching in too early.

Since then, the war has escalated. Local 804 released a petition demanding UPS take back the termination letters and got an overwhelming response: 100,000 signatures in less than two weeks. Local elected officials pledged support at a union rally outside the Maspeth hub; New York's elected Public Advocate Leticia James promised to review the city's contracts with UPS if the company didn't rescind the pink slips.

Teamsters of Local 804 protesting outside UPS
Teamsters of Local 804 protesting outside UPS

UPS responded by upping the stakes. Three days after the union rally, 20 of the 250 Maspeth drivers were--according to the company--chosen at random and fired, stripped of their company ID and escorted out of the building. The company announced that more drivers who participated in the walkout would face the same fate as soon as their replacements could be trained. When Leticia James paid an unannounced visit to the company's New York City headquarters, she "was shown the door," she says.

Local 804 countered two days later with a fiery press conference on the steps of City Hall that demonstrated the union's considerable support from other unions and politicians. The next day, UPS fired 15 more drivers. The message from the company is clear: it wants to make an example of the Maspeth 250, and it is betting that it can beat the union.

THE STAKES are high, not only for the fired drivers but for UPS workers across the country and for the entire labor movement. If members of a strong union like Local 804 can be victimized for standing up for their contract and a co-worker, it will send a message to other companies that union contracts no longer matter. "If UPS is allowed to fire us, that would set a precedent," says Maspeth driver Nick Fadael. "I don't think unions would survive."

Local 804 is mounting an energetic campaign against the terminations. Over 100 people showed up to the union's press conference on April 3. Along with dozens of UPS drivers and warehouse workers from hubs across the city were representatives from many prominent New York City unions, including Transport Workers Union Local 100, SEIU 32BJ, Communication Workers of America and the New York State Nurses Association. Also present was the head of the local Teamsters Joint Council, George Miranda, who gave his support to Local 804, but didn't mention the silence of the International union president, James Hoffa Jr.

Most of the time at the press conference was given to elected officials--so many turned up to speak that that Letitia James joked the City Council had a quorum. The purpose of this show of political strength was to warn UPS that New York City can hit the company in the wallet by ending the company's contract with the city, divesting the city employees pension from UPS stock, and ending the company's special deal that reduces parking tickets payments by millions of dollars a year.

Local 804 members have been encouraged by this political support, but there is no guarantee that city officials will follow through on their threats. UPS has surely noticed that Letitia James' boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio, has gotten off to a shaky start when it comes to standing up to rich and powerful interests. For example, de Blasio last month backed down from his modest challenge to charter schools after Eva Moscowitz and her wealthy backers attacked him with some negative ads.

If de Blasio backed down so easily to Moscowitz, who owns a few schools, it's hard to imagine he's going to take on UPS, one of the most powerful corporations in the country, without nervously asking himself, "What can Brown do to me?"

UPS has a lot at stake in this fight. This is a company that is a darling of the business community because it excels in the corporate sciences of worker efficiency and relentless management.

At the union press conference, a Maspeth driver named Dominick DeDomenico explained just how low the company is willing to go. Last year, DeDomenico was delivering packages when he was hit by a car and put in a coma for 10 days. This January, DeDomenico finally made it back to work, where he was soon threatened with termination because he wasn't working as quickly as he had before the accident. "I'm up to a one-day suspension," DeDomenico said," because I have to deliver two more packages an hour."

This is the ruthlessness that Local 804 members are up against in their fight to stop the terminations. UPS knows that its relentless management style creates the conditions for workers' rebellion. Across the country this past year, UPS workers angrily voted down their union locals' contracts with the company.

In this tense atmosphere, UPS knows that the Maspeth walkout has the power to inspire more job actions across the country. That's why it wants to send a firm message to victimizing the workers who took part.

WE HAVE to defend the Maspeth 250 and force the company to back down. That starts by insisting that the drivers were right to walk out on the morning of February 24. The only reason we have unions today is because workers have taken risks to stand up for each other and for future generations. By contrast, the number of strikes today is at an all-time low, and that's a major reason that unions are making concessions and losing members.

This isn't the first time that members of Teamsters Local 804 have taken on UPS and gotten national support. In 1997, Teamsters leader Ron Carey, a former Maspeth driver and Local 804 president, "shut down Big Brown" with a national strike that won the conversion of thousands of part-time jobs into full-time ones. Carey mobilized the union for the strike by sending organizers across the country to prepare workers and win public support with the slogan "Part-time America won't work."

After the strike, UPS got its revenge by working with other corporations, Republican politicians and conservative Teamster officials to get Carey removed from office on trumped-up corruption charges. Carey was replaced by Hoffa Jr., who remains the International president today.

Meanwhile, Local 804 is led by Tim Sylvester, a union reformer whose team came to office five years ago on a promise to revive Carey's focus on member education and organization. Hoffa has yet to make a statement about the firings at Maspeth, which sends a dangerous signal to UPS that they have the green light to mess with Local 804.

UPS workers can't afford to let that happen--nor can anyone who supports labor. If UPS is allowed to routinely break its contract and then fire workers who it claims have violated that same contract, it eliminates the point of having contracts and unions. "This is a throwback to the time before unions," said state Sen. Tony Avella at the press conference. "Unions exist to protect workers. UPS seems to have forgotten about that."

Of course, UPS is well aware that unionized workers have contractual rights; they've been scheming for decades to get rid of them. If they succeed in firing the Maspeth 250, they will a big step closer to that goal. On the other hand, if we can win those jobs back, it can show workers at UPS and other companies across the country that you can take a job action and win, which might inspire others to do the same.

UPS has made its latest move. Now it's up to the members and supporters of Local 804 to respond.

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