One day before heading into work last week, I stopped into the bodega across from my apartment building to buy a Gatorade. It was going to be another hot day. The man in line behind me noted my UPS uniform and said, “Let me ask you a question: Is it true that you don’t have air conditioning in your truck?” I told him it was true, and that a driver in California had died recently due to heat exhaustion. He stared at me in awe. I held up the Gatorade and half-jokingly added, “They tell us to drink electrolytes.” He shook his head. Then I told him that our union had planned rallies to demand air conditioning, and that we may have a chance to win it in our next contract. He perked up and said, “I hope you do, brother.”
When the weather forecast shows temperatures pushing into the high nineties at the peak of New York’s humid summer, we UPSers brace for extreme conditions. But try as we might, it’s hard to stay cool. Many drivers bring coolers full of ice and put them in the back of the truck, but by lunchtime all the ice has melted and the cooler has become a bucket of warm water.
And we need that ice. The cargo area of the package car is like a sauna, with temperatures reaching 120 or 130 degrees. On any given day, we step into the cargo area over a hundred times to retrieve packages. All it takes is a few seconds before you’re sweating bullets. To make matters worse, packages are almost always loaded into the trucks out of order. Every package needs to be sorted in the order it is supposed to be delivered, which is technically the job of the preloaders, but the task is usually shifted onto us drivers. It can take an additional thirty minutes to an hour to complete, and if we don’t do it we can be disciplined. I have personally been issued a warning letter by management for not having my truck perfectly sorted when stopped during an observation. (Management personnel follow drivers in their personal cars and film us with their personal phones.)
When choosing between disorganized cargo and dangerous heat, many workers will sweat it out, even at risk to our own safety.
Some drivers blame the preloaders for the messy cargo area, but the issue can be better understood as a consequence of UPS’s management strategy. UPS chronically understaffs the preload shift and cracks the whip to get as much productivity out of each worker as possible. Instead of assigning preloaders one or two trucks each, they assign four or five. They run the belt at an unreasonable pace, and supervisors bark at workers, threatening discipline if too many packages go by and pile up at the end of the belt.
Just like the trucks, the warehouses aren’t air conditioned. So not only are the preloaders harassed and overworked, but they’re also trapped in a hotbox. Anyone who spent a day in the shoes of one of these inside workers would immediately understand why trucks go out with disorganized cargo. It’s impossible to load each package in order without letting a ton of other boxes go by and stack up at the end of the belt. The blame for messy cargo should fall not on preloaders, but on UPS management, who could fix the problem by hiring more workers and slowing the pace of the belt.
In the absence of these changes, however, the burden of organizing the work falls farther down the line of production onto us drivers, who are forced to sort the packages ourselves in the sweltering heat. We can open the back and bulkhead doors to air out the cargo area, but not all of the heat escapes. In addition, this extra effort extends our workday, which means more time toiling in the heat. While regular package car drivers have contractual overtime protections, management regularly violates said language by instructing drivers to stay out and finish their over-dispatched routes.
That extra time in the heat could make the difference when it comes to safety. I’m a 22.4, which is the second-tier driver job created in the last contract, and we don’t have any overtime protections other than the fourteen-hour workday limit enforced by the Department of Transportation. It doesn’t matter how healthy and hydrated we are; moving hundreds or thousands of pounds of cargo for up to fourteen hours in temperatures ranging between 95 and 130 degrees is dangerous. Period. In one week alone this summer, at least four drivers went to the emergency room from within my union Teamsters Local 804’s jurisdiction in New York and Long Island, and surely many more drivers suffered from heat exhaustion but didn’t report it.
Just as the warehouse shifts are understaffed, so too are the driver shifts. And just as preloaders are assigned more trucks to load than they can handle, so too are drivers assigned more packages to deliver. UPS chooses to force us to work overtime rather than hire more drivers because it reduces costs via benefit contributions for each additional employee. And just as they bark at the preloaders, they do the same with drivers, pressuring us to finish the over-dispatched routes as quickly as possible.
Every move that UPS makes is guided by a profit maximization strategy. The heavy workload and management-by-stress exacerbate the dangerously hot working conditions that already jeopardize our safety. Meanwhile, UPS is more profitable than ever before. Why can’t they spend some money on air conditioning? We know why. It’s because what matters most is not worker safety, but the corporation’s bottom line.
Safety Not Surveillance
Around the same time that news of UPS drivers collapsing and even dying from heat exhaustion began circulating, a picture started circulating on UPS driver WhatsApp chats and Facebook groups. It showed a driver facing a “Lytx” camera in the cab of package cars. The cameras arrived without notice to the union, catching drivers completely off guard. UPS also began installing forward facing cameras on the windshield of trucks. It is unclear whether or not they have audio recording capacity.
One morning during the heat wave, a driver approached me to ask if I had any idea what the camera does or if it is even working at the moment. Nobody in management had informed him that the camera would be installed or how it would work. One day it wasn’t there and the next day it was. He worried that the camera had a microphone allowing the company to listen to his conversations with his wife. Other coworkers have expressed concern that the company might be able to listen to them when speaking with their union representative. Drivers with the Lytx camera in their trucks have said that if they reach for their water bottle while driving, the camera sounds an alarm: “Distracted driving, distracted driving!”
Whatever its capabilities, the mere presence of the camera has stoked fear and paranoia among my coworkers, because we have all experienced how UPS management uses technology and surveillance to gain leverage over employees through the implicit threat or outright use of discipline. These cameras take that threat to the next level. A supervisor once told me during a disciplinary hearing, “The logistics industry is all about speed.” Most management personnel are more cunning with their choice of words, especially during disciplinary hearings, but this one said the quiet part loud: surveillance and discipline are used to make us work faster.
It’s not in our interest to work beyond a safe and steady pace. We are paid by the hour, so more work during the same period of time means the same amount in wages for us — plus more exhaustion and greater safety risks. But us working faster is in the interest of the company, which wants to maximize revenue while minimizing costs.
Insurance companies offer lower rates for commercial vehicles with cameras, so these cameras will save the company a lot of money. But where will this extra cash go? If UPS has their way, it will line the pockets of corporate executives and major shareholders. Workers will see nothing but a decline in our working conditions.
The Union Fights Back
This shameless prioritization of profit over people prompted Vinnie Perrone, Teamsters Local 804 president and IBT Eastern Region package director, to issue a statement calling for rallies across our local. The main rally took place at my facility on Foster Avenue in Brooklyn before work on July 28. Management peered out from their air conditioned offices while we demanded “Safety Not Surveillance”: no to installing cameras, and yes to installing AC.
Leading up to the rally, I and other stewards across the local created “fan request lists” and collected signatures and truck numbers from drivers who want a fan installed in their truck. As per our contract, such a request cannot be unreasonably denied. But when one driver made a written request for a fan to be installed in his truck last month, the mechanic responded that UPS corporate had decided that fans could not be installed. We understood that the demand for AC may be a longer-term fight than fans, but we wanted to take action on both short- and long-term goals.
On July 29, New York City–based UPS driver Elliot Lewis and I tweeted a call for the public to make complaints to the UPS customer service hotline, demanding UPS take worker safety seriously. Our tweets received thousands of responses. When I called, a customer service representative nervously said that she had heard many complaints about the topic and, before hanging up, informed me that UPS planned on installing air conditioning in the trucks next week. I took her words with several grains of salt, but I do believe that UPS is beginning to get the message: we are a new, fighting Teamsters union and the public is increasingly supportive of our struggle as essential workers.
This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1997 UPS strike and one year out from the expiration of our current contract. Despite the great success of the 1997 strike, the years following Ron Carey’s ousting from Teamster leadership have been marked by Jimmy Hoffa’s class collaboration. Our current contract, which established a two-tier system for drivers despite majority opposition from the rank and file, was undemocratically forced upon members by Hoffa, who utilized an archaic bylaw in the Teamsters constitution to get the contract ratified.
But times have changed. Decades of organizing by militant rank-and-filers and members of the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union have finally started to bear fruit. At the 2021 Teamster National Convention, workers won the eradication of the two-thirds rule that Hoffa used to force the 2018 contract, strike benefits on day one, and the inclusion of rank-and-file members on the bargaining committee. In November of 2021, we elected Sean O’Brien and the Teamsters United slate to International leadership in a landslide vote. O’Brien campaigned on issues such as the elimination of the two-tier system and higher part-time wages in our 2023 contract. He has said that if UPS won’t give us what we want in 2023, we will strike.
This week we kicked off our contract campaign with rallies held outside UPS facilities across the entire country. We are finally feeling the power of a union ready and willing to stand up and fight against the greed of corporate America.