Inside the Teamsters’ Preparations for a UPS Strike

This summer could see 350,000 UPS workers walk off the job, the United States’ largest strike in the 21st century thus far. The Teamsters are getting ready. Here’s a look at how.

A UPS driver sits in a delivery truck on January 31, 2023 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

On Super Bowl Sunday morning, outside a union hall in Nassau County, New York, the Teamsters had run out of parking. The members of Teamsters Local 804 had gathered at the Local 282 building because their own headquarters, in Long Island City, weren’t large enough for a general membership meeting. Local 804 represents roughly eight thousand United Parcel Service (UPS) workers in New York City, Westchester, and Long Island, making it one of the Teamsters’ largest UPS locals. As members kept arriving, proper spaces filled up, and workers left their cars wherever they could — a problem for the union’s neighbor, an ambulance company, whose vehicles were now having trouble navigating the shared parking lot. Upon hearing that their cars were blocking ambulances, the offending union members trudged back to the lot to move. When this many Teamsters are preparing for a strike, it can be tough to find a spot.

Inside the union hall, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” blared over the speakers as some six hundred members waited for the meeting to begin. Local 804 president Vinnie Perrone, who began working at UPS nearly thirty years ago, said that he hadn’t seen a membership meeting this well attended since Ron Carey was reelected for a second term as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT).

Teamsters president Ron Carey speaks on CBS’s “Face The Nation” on August 10, 1997. (Photo by Karin Cooper / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

That was in 1996, and Carey ran as a critic of weaknesses in the UPS contract; he was backed by a coalition that included the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reform caucus founded in 1976 to push for greater rank-and-file democracy within the then-mob-infested union. Carey had started out as a UPS driver in Queens, and before becoming IBT president in 1992, he served as president of Local 804. In 1997, he led the 185,000 UPS Teamsters out on a nationwide strike that lasted fifteen days before the union declared victory. The United States has not seen a strike of that magnitude since.

That may soon change, which is what the Local 804 members were gathered on Long Island to discuss.

“UPS’s opening position is crystal clear: all the company wants after a year with $101 billion in revenue is more money off your backs,” said Perrone from the dais facing the members, flanked by his executive board and business agents.

The UPS contract is the largest private sector union contract in the United States, and UPS CEO Carol Tomé has said she doesn’t believe the company and the union are far apart as they prepare to negotiate a new five-year contract. Union members aren’t so sure. They are preparing for a strike.

Perrone, who is also an IBT trustee and its Eastern Region Package Director, laid out the numbers: heightened delivery demand during the pandemic has been good to UPS, which reported a record profit in 2022. Annual revenue is up 11 percent on average for each year of the pandemic. The company delivers more than twenty million packages a day in the United States, making it the second-largest ground courier after the United States Postal Service (USPS). An estimated 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product moves through UPS; though they are sure to try, competitors like USPS, FedEx, and Amazon would likely be unable to fully pick up the slack.

Many of the Local 804 members were angry. UPS has been laying off and displacing them, cutting hours and splitting shifts. One worker accustomed to working a straight eight-hour day says that he is now being told to work for four hours in the morning and four at night, upending his ability to get a good night’s sleep, much less do anything else. Other UPS locals report the same problem.

To Perrone, it’s a scare tactic by UPS, one that has the potential to sow disunity among the union members at a critical time: if a worker has their hours cut while their coworker voluntarily works overtime, the former would surely come to resent the latter. The local’s president wants to keep the workers together, focused on who he says is responsible for their grievances: UPS.

“UPS is trying to piss everyone in this room off,” said Perrone. “Every year, they try to scare and intimidate us.”

Just before noon, after workers who had formed a long line behind a microphone in the center aisle finished voicing questions and comments, Perrone recited a definition that may become relevant should UPS workers from Local 804 and across the country walk off the job in August: “A scab takes the job of a striking worker. He has no allegiance to anything and is only concerned with himself.” With that, the meeting was adjourned.

High Stakes

There are now around 350,000 Teamsters at UPS, a mix of drivers and warehouse employees who work inside the buildings where packages are loaded and unloaded. The national master contract expires on July 31; negotiations for the new contract are set to begin on April 16. That makes for a shortened negotiation window compared to prior years, in which bargaining began well in advance of the contract’s expiration. Current Teamsters general president Sean O’Brien has vowed that if the union doesn’t have a tentative agreement by the end of July, workers will strike.

The union has several sticking points. Foremost are “22.4s,” named after the 2018 contract provision that created a tier of lower-paid full-time workers. That process was led by then IBT president James P. Hoffa, son of the man whose name is synonymous with the union. While the average annual pay for a UPS driver is $95,000 — making it the rare job that offers livable pay, a pension, and benefits without requiring a college degree — newer drivers who are slotted into the 22.4 category do the same work as more senior drivers, but while the latter’s pay tops out at $41 an hour, 22.4s’ ceiling is $6 per hour less. Importantly, these newer drivers also lack comparable control over their schedules. Such a situation creates higher turnover among 22.4s, another benefit to the company given the greater compensation that seniority brings. O’Brien has also pledged to lead his members out on strike if the company refuses to eliminate the tier.

Fewer than half of the Teamsters at UPS are drivers; the rest work inside UPS distribution facilities, and many of them are part-time. Some part-timers are paid as little as $15.50 — meager enough that in some parts of the country, the local minimum wage is higher. The Teamsters want to raise the starting wage above twenty dollars an hour.

Another disagreement concerns UPS’s recent incorporation of a fleet of personal-vehicle drivers (PVDs) during peak delivery season (roughly November to January). PVDs deliver packages in their own cars, constituting a nonunion gig workforce whose existence poses a threat to its unionized counterpart. The lack of air conditioning in full-time drivers’ vehicles and the company’s push for driver-facing cameras are also matters of contention. (UPS insists that it has begun updating the temperature regulation systems in its vehicles after one driver died and several more were hospitalized during a recent heat wave.) Forced overtime, including six-day workweeks (what workers refer to as the “six-day punch”), has been one of the major stories of the pandemic and is a key issue at UPS as well.

The past few years have seen increased energy in the US labor movement, even if it has not yet translated into greater union density. Starbucks and Amazon workers have grabbed headlines for their surprisingly successful union drives. A sea change is underway in the United Auto Workers (UAW), whose contracts at the Big Three automakers, covering 150,000 workers, expire on September 1. Other potential strikes are in the works, too: the Writers Guild of America’s contract expires May 1, and another contract, covering some seventy-five thousand health care workers at Kaiser Permanente, expires on September 30. A UPS strike this summer would have political effects beyond its immediate economic impact — it would be a national sign of workers going on the offensive, refusing a status quo that has seen them get poorer as the rich accumulate more wealth than ever before.

A Contract Forced Down Drivers’ Throats

Sean Orr was driving his UPS route in 2018 — the last time the Teamsters were negotiating a new contract — when news broke that Teamsters leadership would invoke an arcane article in the union’s constitution to force him and his fellow UPS employees to accept a contract that the majority had voted against.

The “two-thirds rule” allowed IBT officers to impose a contract after a majority of voting members voted no if less than a majority of members participated in the vote. While 54 percent of the votes on the national master contract had been against ratification, fewer than 50 percent of eligible UPS employees voted, allowing Hoffa to invoke the loophole. Workers were shocked; few had even been aware of the possibility of such an outcome. (I hadn’t been aware of it, either; writing in the Washington Post, I had argued against the contract, laying out why UPS would want it ratified. I failed to consider that Hoffa might want its ratification as much as the company.)

“I was talking to my shop steward on the day that Hoffa and Denis Taylor [Hoffa’s lead negotiator] said that even though UPS had said they had heard the members and would return to the table, the contract would be imposed as is anyway,” Orr told me. “We were driving our routes and totally stunned.”

Orr is a member of Local 705 in Chicago and a TDU cochair, but at the time, he lived in Wisconsin. As members prepared to vote on ratifying the tentative agreement, he joined a rank-and-file movement to vote no on the contract, believing that certain provisions were unacceptable — the 22.4s most of all. The vote no movement argued that accepting a lower-paid tier in the contract wasn’t just bad for those slotted into that new category; it was kryptonite for the union. Lesser pay for equal work breeds resentment, mistrust, and anger between members of the same union. Condemn newer members to a lower tier, they argued, and you all but ensure the spirit of solidarity that is at the heart of trade unionism will rot from within.

UPS workers rallying against the two-tier 22.4 employment category.

After Hoffa imposed the contract, Orr says he realized that Hoffa was “going to finally lose his next election. You don’t do that to hundreds of thousands of your own members and get to have a career after that.”

It wasn’t only Orr who viewed Hoffa’s imposition of the contract as a betrayal. Rather than being on the workers’ side, the IBT president had proved that his foremost commitment was collaborating with the employer to get a deal that strengthened UPS’s position in the market. Workers were furious.

In short order, members of TDU and other Teamsters outraged by the imposition began organizing to ensure such a debacle would never happen again. At the 2021 IBT convention, delegates voted to amend the constitution, removing the two-thirds rule. They made other changes, too, mandating that all contract bargaining committees must include rank-and-file members and voting to distribute strike benefits on day one rather than day eight, as had been the previous policy. The latter move reflected a growing openness to using the strike as a weapon to get a strong contract, whether at UPS or elsewhere.

Breaking With Hoffa, Burying the Hatchet With TDU

Sean O’Brien broke with Hoffa over the UPS contract. The longtime close ally of the IBT president had led Boston’s Local 25 since 2006 and was the national union’s chief negotiator against UPS. But in 2017, as the Teamsters readied themselves to negotiate their largest contract, O’Brien suggested that the national negotiating committee include Kentucky’s Local 89 president Fred Zuckerman. Zuckerman, whose local includes UPS’s massive Worldport air freight facility, had run against Hoffa in the previous IBT leadership election on the Teamsters United slate and nearly won. Hoffa took O’Brien’s suggestion as an attack. Soon, O’Brien was fired from his position and replaced with Taylor.

Teamsters president Sean O’Brien meeting with UPS workers.

It didn’t take long for O’Brien to return the favor. Criticizing Hoffa’s approach to both Amazon — whose nonunion expansion in logistics work similar to UPS’s undermines the standards won by Teamsters members — and UPS, O’Brien announced that he would run against Hoffa or his chosen successor in the 2021 IBT leadership election as a part of the Teamsters United slate, with Zuckerman running as secretary-treasurer. TDU endorsed the duo.

O’Brien had long been an opponent of the reform caucus — indeed, in 2013 he was suspended from his union positions for threatening some TDU members during a local election that his opponents nonetheless won. But as O’Brien’s election slate came together, Matt Taibi, a member of TDU and one of those opponents, was on it. Despite past differences, the two sides would work together to defeat Hoffa’s candidates: Steve Vairma and Ron Herrera for the presidency and for secretary-treasurer, respectively.

During the campaign, O’Brien took a militant tone toward UPS, vowing to strike to remove the hated 22.4 tier. He has promised to win “the best contract ever negotiated at UPS,” and in a September 2021 debate with Vairma in Las Vegas, vowed to make the Teamsters “a more dynamic, more militant organization.” As for Amazon, he pledged to create an aggressive organizing program targeting the company. The two are connected: if the Teamsters want to organize Amazon — and they must if they want to protect the standards they’ve won at UPS — the ability to point to a strong UPS contract with no concessions would make for a convincing argument when speaking with Amazon workers.

When the ballots were counted, O’Brien won handily, with about two-thirds of the vote electing him as the head of the 1.3 million–member union. Now it was time to make good on his campaign promises.

When I first met O’Brien in the summer of 2022, the lifelong Bostonian was in a surprisingly good mood despite the Celtics’ NBA finals loss to the Golden State Warriors the previous night. When I asked him if he’d watched the defeat, he said he’d caught the game in his hotel room after speaking at a rally alongside Senator Bernie Sanders, Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America president Sara Nelson, and then-incoming Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Stacy Davis Gates. We were all in Chicago for the Labor Notes conference, a gathering of rank-and-file union members from across the country and world. Labor Notes works closely with TDU — they share a Detroit headquarters, and O’Brien’s presence at the conference is a testament to the alliance. The presence of President Hoffa at the conference, much less his speaking at the gathering’s plenary session, would have been unimaginable.

“I need TDU just as much as TDU needs me,” said O’Brien. In a sign of the coalition’s continuance, some TDU leaders now hold key roles in the union. O’Brien noted that while TDU had long agitated for the reforms won at the latest Teamsters convention, it took a broader movement — one that includes him and his supporters in the union — to win them. Zuckerman, too, had once been a Hoffa ally before becoming fed up with union givebacks to UPS. But when O’Brien broke with Hoffa, enough of the old guard came with him to move the votes needed to win.

“There’s no running from the fact that I was with Hoffa at one point in time,” said O’Brien. “But whether you choose to be affiliated with TDU or you’re considered a staunch socialist, how different are we? We have common goals and objectives.”

O’Brien is a fourth-generation Teamster. He was born in Charlestown, the neighborhood north of downtown Boston that is home to Local 25’s headquarters, and he is quick to point out that unlike his predecessor, he began his career as a rank-and-file Teamster. He learned about the union at the dinner table: growing up, every member of his family was a member of the union except his mother, who was a member of the Office and Professional Employees International Union.

O’Brien and I had met in his hotel lobby at 9:00 a.m., but the IBT president had been up since before sunrise. He’d gone to a picket line at Breakthru Beverages Group in Cicero, just outside the city, where more than one hundred Teamsters had been on strike for four days. When I asked how the excursion went, he grinned.

“We brought a little Boston style,” he said, by which he meant that they’d prevented scabs from crossing the line, keeping pickets tight outside of the two entrances to the building. “We made the cops earn their money today.” He had a good time walking the picket line. “That was fun. I’d rather do that stuff than sit on my fat ass in Washington.”

The outing is a sign of O’Brien’s professed commitment to greater engagement with rank-and-file members. He said that he visits worksites at least three days a week, noting that Hoffa was rarely if ever seen at a workplace or on a picket line, “except maybe at a meet and greet or cocktail hour.”

“We should be at the workplaces, talking to members and seeing what they’re going through every day,” said O’Brien. If he stays in touch with workers, the people who experience an employer’s unreasonable demands and exploitation on a daily basis, it can also help keep him from wavering when pressure mounts at the bargaining table.

Later that day, in a conference room at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, O’Brien stood before TDU at a fundraiser, flanked by rank-and-file members and expressing a debt of gratitude.

“When we decided to take back our union, we knew that one group was very important to help do not only what was in the best interest of leadership, but of the rank-and file-membership,” said O’Brien. “I want to thank you for having the courage and conviction to believe in what we did. But our work is not done, our partnership with TDU is not done.”

At the plenary in the hotel’s ballroom, O’Brien sat on the dais alongside Sanders, the CTU’s Gates, Amazon Labor Union (ALU) president Chris Smalls, Starbucks worker Michelle Eisen, and John Deere striker Nolan Tabb. By way of introduction, Labor Notes staffer Al Bradbury reminded the thousands of assembled workers that O’Brien had pledged to strike UPS if that’s what’s needed to reverse the givebacks negotiated by the Teamsters’ prior leadership. The statement brought the crowd to its feet.

“We’re going to negotiate the best agreement at UPS with zero concessions, and we’re going to put that company on its knees if that’s what it takes,” said O’Brien from the stage, eliciting rapturous applause.

He offered CEOs his forecast for the coming years: “It’s gonna get bloody, it’s gonna get painful. So ice up, because when you take one of us on, you take all of us on. If you are corporate America and you want to take us on, put your helmet on and buckle your chinstrap, because it’s a full-contact sport.”

Warming Up for a Strike

A few dozen Local 804 members and a handful of their allies were standing around in a parking lot in Hempstead, Long Island. The local had voted down the 2018 UPS contract by 96 percent — the same percentage by which they voted for O’Brien over the Hoffa-backed slate — and now, they were preparing for a strike. Beginning with the Teamsters’ launch of a contract campaign in August 2022, when Local 804 held more than a dozen rallies outside UPS buildings, the local has looked to engage members so that should a strike come, those rank and filers will see themselves as the heart of the union.

That goal wasn’t necessarily obvious as the group, unmissable in their signature bomber jackets, waited for stragglers to arrive. They were officially gathered to canvass the neighborhood to gather support for State Senator Jessica Ramos’s “Raise the Wage” bill, which would bring the state’s minimum wage to $21.25 an hour by 2026 and index it to inflation. But canvassing is also an opportunity to build confidence among newer union members and create relationships across the persistent divides of UPS’s workforce — part-timer versus full-timer, inside worker versus driver, 22.4 versus veteran driver — so that in the event of a strike, members are unified.

Teamsters Local 804 UPS heat rally, July 28, 2022. (Teamsters Joint Council 16)

Militant rhetoric from Teamsters leadership means nothing if it isn’t backed by a credible strike threat. If UPS doesn’t believe workers are willing to endure the risk and hardship a strike entails, the company will have little reason to concede to the union’s demands. Most of the public would become aware of the union’s demands only once a strike starts, but the process of pulling one off begins long before any picket lines form. Calling a 350,000-person strike, especially with a workforce as geographically dispersed as that of UPS, is a momentous undertaking. It can only happen by ensuring rank-and-file workers are committed fighters.

Ramos, who chairs the State Senate’s Labor Committee, was in Hempstead to canvass, too. As members grabbed clipboards, Antonio Rosario, a full-time Teamsters organizer, passed out union beanies in the brisk February chill. “This is what it takes to make a movement like this happen: all of us working together,” Rosario told the group. After practicing the canvassing script, the workers divided into pairs and dispersed to their assigned turf.

Alease Annan and Angela Brown were one such pair. Annan is relatively new to the union: a year and a half ago, she was hired by UPS as an “inside worker” at the Maspeth, Queens building. As an unloader, Annan stands in a trailer, putting packages on a conveyor belt. As a sorter, her work consists of looking at packages’ zip codes and figuring out where to put them. As a part-time night-shift employee, she punches in at 10:45 p.m. and never knows for sure when she’ll get cut: part-timers are only guaranteed three-and-a-half hours of work, but during peak season, they sometimes stay until 6:00 a.m.

Brown, who works out of UPS’s main New York City hub on Forty-Third Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, has been at the company for twenty-nine years. Both she and Annan are members of Local 804’s newly formed women’s committee. Long-term priorities for the group include breastfeeding space and additional women’s bathrooms in the buildings. The committee became Annan’s gateway into more active union participation. As a part-timer, her pay isn’t much higher than the New York City minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour, and in January, she spoke at the State House in Albany in support of Ramos’s bill.

The pair was assigned to canvass a residential block. Everyone with whom Annan and Brown spoke offered their support for Ramos’s bill — raising the minimum wage is not a hard sell to working-class New Yorkers. A few residents already had the phone number of their representative, State Senator Kevin Thomas, and didn’t mind calling to urge him to cosponsor the legislation. The pair’s canvassing sheet filled up with names and phone numbers.

At the first few houses, Annan and Brown read mechanically from the script, occasionally stumbling over their words. But they quickly grew comfortable going off script, drawing on their own knowledge of how hard it is to get by on a low wage in New York. By the end of the canvassing session, both women were relaxed, enthusiastic. When they spotted a man walking by across the street, Brown ran over, hoping to get one more name before they called it a day.

“Unloading a box is my small contribution to what it takes to get a package to your door, and everyone involved in that process deserves a living wage,” Annan told me. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she hopes to own a home one day, and while she has a full-time job on top of her position at UPS, higher wages would help.

“I’m all for it,” Brown told me when I asked the pair about the possible strike. “When it comes up, I tell coworkers that I’m union because if we work together, we break bread together, and we need to stand together.”

But she and Annan are concerned about whether part-timers will cross the picket line. Annan has been saving money to endure the strike because she is engaged with the union, but she recently spoke to another part-timer who had no idea that a strike might be in the cards. “I doubt she’s alone,” she told me and Brown.

Part-timers are in a more financially precarious position than their full-time counterparts, and if they haven’t been putting money away to ride out a work stoppage, the hardship might push them to scab. A strike doesn’t require 100 percent participation to be won, but the more workers who stay out, the better. Plus, there’s the matter of what happens to relationships between coworkers when some strike and some don’t. Annan and Brown are concerned about that, too.

A UPS contract campaign kickoff rally, August 4, 2022. (Teamsters Joint Council 16)

As the sun began to set, the canvassers regrouped to report back on their time at the doors. One pair’s turf consisted almost entirely of union members — fellow Teamsters and some SEIU members — and few of the Local 804 members encountered resistance in their conversations (though one man told a pair of canvassers, “I’m a boss and I don’t want to pay my workers more money”). Rosario thanked the group for spending their Sunday looking out not only for themselves, but for all workers. He informed them of other legislative efforts backed by the local: socialist New York City councilmember Tiffany Cabán’s Secure Jobs Act, which would protect workers from unfair and arbitrary firings, and Senator Ramos and Assemblymember Latoya Joyner’s TEMP Act, which would require employers, including UPS, to protect workers in cases of extreme temperatures.

The group talked about how the next canvassing session for Ramos’s bill, scheduled to take place in a more conservative part of Long Island, might go. The state senator would attend that outing too.

“You Can Feel the Giant Awakening”

Rosario was twenty-two in 1997, when Carey led UPS workers out on strike. He had been at UPS since 1994 but had only just gotten interested in the union. During the second Teamsters meeting Rosario ever attended, at the Local 282 union hall in Nassau County, Carey made a bravura speech announcing that the union would strike.

“I remember him saying, ‘We’re gonna be out on those streets. We’re gonna be raising our voices. We’re gonna fight for everything we deserve. We’re gonna fight for what we’re worth,’” Rosario told me. “Everybody was going nuts.”

Antonio Rosario at a UPS contract campaign kickoff rally, August 2, 2022. (Teamsters Joint Council 16)

The strike’s slogan was “Part-Time America Won’t Work,” emphasizing UPS’s desire to split stable full-time jobs into part-time and combination jobs. The work stoppage cost the company an estimated $40 million per day. When it was over, the union had won raises and some ten thousand full-time jobs — Rosario’s own position was transformed into that of a full-time package-car driver. But it is that same push to undermine those jobs, building out a lower tier of drivers and increasing the use of gig workers, that might leave UPS workers with no choice but to hit the streets once again this year.

Rosario’s experiences on that picket line transformed him. He became a shop steward, the worker others go to for information and assistance in grieving or otherwise resolving workplace issues. Around ten years ago, Rosario joined TDU. Last year, after just under three decades at UPS, he became a full-time organizer for the IBT.

Shortly after the strike, Hoffa and his allies forced Carey out of the presidency on trumped-up charges of perjury, an allegation of which he was later cleared in court. Hoffa led the union for nearly twenty-five years. Rosario describes the Teamsters during that period as a sleeping giant, an era that he believes the union is leaving behind: “You can feel the giant awakening; you could already feel the morale improving among workers during the leadership election.”

When I asked him whether he thinks all of his fellow TDU members feel the same way — after all, O’Brien was a loyal Hoffa lieutenant for a long time — Rosario insisted that even the strongest skeptics he has spoken to feel good about the direction the union is going under O’Brien’s leadership. “The difference in the union is like night and day,” he told me. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

A Credible Strike Threat

No one knows for sure whether the Teamsters will strike UPS this summer, though some observers have already gone on the record saying it’s a certainty. Todd Vachon, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers, told CNN that the only question is how long the strike will be. It’s hard to imagine a 350,000-person strike — and one that is not concentrated in just one state or region but covers the whole United States — in a country with union density and strike activity at historic lows. But the labor movement wasn’t particularly strong in 1997 either.

O’Brien campaigned on militancy toward UPS. Even if he wanted to, it would be hard for him to back down on striking in the face of a membership willing to fight — and winning any of the union’s contract priorities, much less all of them combined, requires a credible strike threat. UPS CEO Tomé has told investors that the company is “building contingency plans”; workers say that management has been warned not to plan any vacations for August.

It’s hard to overstate the transformative potential a successful nationwide UPS strike would present. Many workers in the United States have seen little evidence that taking collective action with their coworkers can improve their lives, and this would be a chance to change that. A strike of this magnitude would not only create more Rosarios at UPS, but it would also be a point of coherence for the many workers at other companies who want to organize their own workplaces. The question of winning a strong contract is hanging over workers who have recently organized new unions — the ALU, Starbucks Workers United — and that, too, raises the stakes of this fight. A picket line is a point of unity, a place where the still-disparate parts of the labor movement can come together, building relationships and clarity.

UPS workers at a rally on April 28, 2021. (Teamsters Joints Council 16)

Yet the goal is a strong contract, and some UPS workers hope that the strike threat they are now creating will be sufficient to force UPS’s hand before the July 31 deadline. But there are bigger considerations, too: O’Brien built his political power on the message of striking UPS and members may demand he do just that.

At the moment, those workers are signing contract unity pledge cards, which list fourteen contract priorities including converting 22.4s into regular package-car drivers, addressing excessive overtime, raising part-time pay, and reining in subcontracting and PVDs. The hope is that when negotiations begin, O’Brien and Zuckerman will bargain with a towering pile of those cards on the table in front of them. The message to UPS of such a stack would be, “we aren’t bluffing.”

In the workers’ favor, too, is the place UPS drivers hold in the public eye. As Deepa Kumar writes in Outside the Box, her book on the 1997 UPS strike, the company had trouble vilifying the strikers because drivers are too sympathetic of figures. James Kelly, then CEO of UPS, even admitted, “If you were to pit a large corporation against a friendly, courteous UPS driver, I’d vote for the UPS driver, also.” Times may have changed, but many customers still know their drivers, and they’ve seen them work day in and day out through a yearslong pandemic. Plus, pro-union sentiment among the US public is at a fifty-year high.

Orr said that at the Jefferson Street UPS building where he works, his focus is on changing the idea that the union is only people like him, a shop steward. Workers need to know that they are the union, and that every UPS employee has the responsibility of enforcing the contract.

“A credible strike threat requires that the entire workforce is visibly, militantly fighting,” said Orr. That means enforcing the current contract to the letter, training members to know their rights, highlighting the ones that UPS is trying to whittle down, and holding weekly meetings at UPS buildings to keep members informed.

On August 1, 2022, a year before the contract’s expiration, Orr’s local handed out thousands of hats at the gates of all their UPS buildings. The front of the hat reads “Keeping the Workers’ Movement Alive,” and on the side is a graphic honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1997 strike. Orr said management hates the hats and threatened disciplinary action in his building if workers wouldn’t take them off. But when one regional manager told workers to do so, they refused, reciting the article in their contract that protects their right to wear union gear inside the building. “Creating that militant union presence on the shop floor is the best thing we can do right now,” he told me.

On the morning of the day we spoke by phone, Orr had been talking with a few veterans of the 1997 strike in his building. They told him they felt that the union was in a better place than it had been before the last strike.

“They feel really good,” he told me. “They’re confident that the union is going to have a big win against UPS.”