Teamsters Local 251 Treasurer Matt Taibi (right) speaks to UPS workers on the importance of collective action during the union’s Friday practice picket. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
WARWICK — Just practicing for a just contract. That was the message on signs carried by a group of about 30 United Parcel Service (UPS) workers — still clad in their brown uniforms — and supporters as they marched outside the company’s Warwick facility Friday morning.
These signs could soon become a familiar sight, as members of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 251 prepare for a potential strike if UPS cannot agree to a new contract by July 31 — a strike that could dramatically disrupt the nation’s supply chain. With 330,000 union workers across the country, UPS is the single largest employer of the Teamsters in the U.S.
In 2020, the delivery giant transported more than 6% of the United States’ gross domestic product on a daily-basis. Last year, UPS said it delivered 6.2 billion packages and had a revenue of $100.3 billion.
UPS announced Friday that it has begun training managers to handle deliveries should a strike arise.
About 1,200 unionized workers are at the company’s Warwick facility off Jefferson Boulevard – with around 400 working as package car drivers and 130 who operate tractor trailers. The rest are all part-time workers.
Preparations like Friday’s demonstration are happening around the nation as the Teamsters and UPS management remain at an impasse on wages for part-time workers. Negotiations stalled on July 5 and no additional meetings between the national union and company have been held since.
The local group is practicing picketing in the morning and in the evening twice a week workers are still under a contract. Workers parted to allow vehicles to come and go from the facility, and employees still reported for their shifts.
The tactic is getting noticed by lawmakers and congressional candidates, including Democratic 1st Congressional District candidates Aaron Regunberg, Rhode Island Sen. Sandra Cano, and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who joined Friday’s practice picket. State Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat, also joined the line.
‘This is a moment’
A UPS strike would bring about the largest walkout against a single company the U.S. has ever seen, said Erik Loomis, a University of Rhode Island labor historian.
“This is a moment in which a lot of people are quite sympathetic to the plight of unionized workers,” he said. “Everyone is being squeezed as part of the way the economy is being run right now.”
Teamsters Field Representative Corey Levesque said practice demonstrations will continue on Tuesdays and Fridays until the deadline to approve a new contract. If no contract is reached, the demonstrations will be held daily.
“Once it hits Aug. 1, that’s going to be the real deal,” Levesque said while marching with a megaphone. “Trucks aren’t going to be moving in and out as frequently.”
In a statement Friday, UPS spokesperson Mitch Polikoff said the company has “made great progress” and was close to reaching an agreement but is training managers to deliver packages in order to be proactive.
“We have a responsibility as an essential service provider to take steps to help ensure we can deliver our customers’ packages if the Teamsters choose to strike,” Polikoff said. “We remain focused on reaching an agreement with the Teamsters that is a win for UPS employees, our customers, our union, and our company before Aug. 1.”
Before negotiations broke down, UPS drivers in June won concessions that established Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a full holiday, ended forced overtime on drivers’ days off, and included air conditioning in new vehicles.
Another win was the end of a two-tier wage system in which part-timers get a lower hourly rate than full-time workers.
“Equal pay for equal work,” Matt Taibi, the treasurer for Teamsters Local 251, said in an interview Thursday.
But part-time pay remains the primary bone of contention between UPS and the union. Taibi said part-time workers are currently paid between $15 and $16 per hour. UPS, meanwhile, says “part-timers make on average $20 an hour after their first 30 days and are guaranteed annual wage increases and cost of living adjustments.”
“The company is putting out propaganda,” Taibi said. “In fact, 100,000 part-timers make less than $20 an hour nationally.”
Many part-time workers load vehicles and check inventories from the distribution center’s conveyor belts, Levesque said. “It’s time to reward those people,” he added. “No more second-class citizens.”
Robert Amoroso, a part-time worker at the Warwick facility who was marching, said that low wages are just part of the problem. Part-timers also see their hours cut by management.
“Sometimes you’re only guaranteed three hours a week,” he said.
Even at the maximum number of hours, Amoroso said many part-time workers are only bringing in between $200 to $225 a week. Boosting pay, he said, would help retain workers who could then become full-time UPS employees.
“Where else are you going to go to make that top lead in pay?” Amoroso said.
A new era for labor?
The last UPS strike was in 1997 when workers walked out for more than two weeks and cost the company $850 million.
“That was one of the only moments in which unions came out looking pretty good,” Loomis said. “Everything was against the Teamsters and they succeeded — the context is there for a significant victory.”
Loomis said showing a big victory against UPS would “tell a lot of workers to organize unions and to organize unions with teamsters.”
Bigger picture, Loomis said, what the Teamsters accomplish could carry over to unionization efforts at Amazon.
Levesque said many drivers from the union have tried to make inroads with Amazon workers, especially as the company prepares to open a fulfillment center in Johnston.
“If we stand together and we get everything that we want, Amazon will look at that,” he said.
What about packages?
If no contract is reached, many Rhode Islanders will see big disruptions to their deliveries.
Along with UPS drivers, the more than 3,000 UPS Airlines pilots who are members of the Independent Pilots Association (IPA) are also prepared to honor the Teamster strike, IPA spokesperson Brian Gaudet said in a phone interview Thursday.
“We will not cross those picket lines,” he said. “If we’re not flying, we can assume the airline will not be moving.”
Gaudet explained that many UPS planes will come in from Asia to Anchorage, Alaska, and that cargo will be split among three planes headed toward Kentucky, Illinois, and Ontario, Canada. Planes then depart to other airports across the nation.
Disrupting that supply chain is kind of the point, Loomis said.
“Going on strike will disrupt a lot of delivery culture in the country, but it also may serve the opportunity that the people who deliver their goods are workers who are out in hot weather carrying heavy packages and suffering disabilities from that,” he said.
UPS will announce its 2023 second-quarter results on Aug. 8.
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