In Refusing to Prioritize Drivers’ Safety, UPS Risks Major Strike

Yves here. With supply chain disruptions rampant and more companies than ever relying on UPS, USPS, and Fedex for deliveries, a UPS strike would be a major event. But those brown trucks are bake ovens. In an time of rising sympathy for worker protests, the drivers at UPS look to be in a good position to win press and public sympathy.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

In late August, as temperatures soared around the United States, a driver for United Parcel Service (UPS) took before-and-after photos of chocolate chip cookies on a baking sheet. The delicious-looking confections were baked on the dashboard of a UPS truck whose internal temperatures shot to dangerous levels—not in an oven. It was an ingenious way to showcase the modern-day horror of the climate crisis intersecting with corporate greed.

Business Insider, which republished the photos, explained that “drivers are documenting extreme heat conditions in their vehicles by sharing photos of thermometers clocking 150 degrees and cooking steaks and baking cookies on their dashboards.”

It’s not just cookies and steaks that are baking in the trucks. Drivers are collapsing and dying from the extreme temperatures.

Twenty-four-year-old Esteban Chavez Jr., who had worked for UPS for four years, died on a hot day in June in Pasadena, California, after passing out in his truck while he was delivering packages. About 20 minutes after he fell out of the driver’s seat, a homeowner nearby noticed and called authorities, but it was too late. Chavez’s family believes he died of heatstroke.

In late August, a UPS driver in Paso Robles, California, had a heatstroke while driving and crashed into a restaurant, causing serious damage to the entire building.

In July, another UPS driver was caught on a doorbell video camera stumbling toward the entrance of an Arizona home to deliver a package and falling down in apparent exhaustion. He eventually managed to stand back up and return to his truck. The homeowner was so alarmed that he called the police. One Las Vegas-based UPS driver, Moe Nouhaili, told the Guardian that the incident was just the tip of the iceberg: “People are just dropping weekly here. It’s not something where that one driver in Arizona is going viral.”

UPS released a statement in response to the Arizona video saying that drivers “are trained to work outdoors and for the effects of hot weather,” as if the company has unlocked a physiological secret and trained its drivers to become impervious to extreme heat. In fact, all it means is that the company has instructed drivers to stop working and seek medical help when they feel unwell.

UPS also told Business Insider in response to the photos of the dashboard cookies, “We never want our employees to continue working to the point that they risk their health or work in an unsafe manner.” Again, such a response is insulting and akin to the company saying, “We want them to work until they can’t work.”

In response to the untenable conditions of driving without air conditioning in extreme heat, UPS drivers are demanding that their employer outfit delivery trucks with air conditioning—a direct and easy protection against heatstroke. UPS ought to be able to afford it. In July the world’s largest transportation company reported nearly $25 billion in revenues, up significantly from last year.

UPS CEO Carol Tomé rightly attributed her company’s massive profits to the hard work of employees, saying, “I want to thank UPSers around the world for delivering outstanding service to our customers.” She added, “While the external environment is ever changing, our better not bigger strategic framework has fundamentally improved nearly every aspect of our business, enabling greater agility and strong financial performance.”

But “every aspect of our business” does not include the most basic one: safe working conditions for the employees who reap those massive profits.

Instead of outfitting trucks with air conditioning, the company used some of its profits to create a slick-looking and condescending training video called “Cool Solutions” that lasts barely more than a minute and offers such basic advice as “getting rest,” “eating right,” “staying hydrated,” and—with no sense of irony whatsoever—“staying safe and cool from the heat.”

The video also suggests that drivers seek out cool spaces like grocery or convenience stores and office or government buildings to bring down their temperatures. “The key is to know your cooldown locations as they will have air-conditioned air where you can pause and cool down.”

Apparently, the multibillion-dollar corporation refuses to consider turning the trucks themselves into cool spaces.

The good news is that UPS drivers have had union representation with the Teamsters for many decades, and the unsafe working conditions of summer deliveries in non-air-conditioned trucks are set to be a central negotiating point in next year’s contract negotiations. UPS Teamsters in August kicked off a campaign on the 25th anniversary of a historic strike in 1997 when nearly 200,000 drivers stopped working.

The campaign kickoff also took place exactly a year before the current contract expires. One worker, Andrew Hancock, said at the campaign launch, “UPS has been making huge profits off of our backs and we are coming to collect what the company owes us.”

This warning shot to UPS’s executives comes at a time when several critical components that can foster the rights of drivers have lined up. Not only are we living through a time of historically high union activity, especially among well-known, name-brand companies like Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s, but also the Biden administration has ensured that the National Labor Relations Board is staunchly on the side of unions—as it was meant to be. And, a new Gallup poll has found that more than 70 percent of American support unions—up several points from a year ago, and the highest support since 1965.

Most importantly, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has a new president, Sean O’Brien, after more than two decades—and he’s ready to take on corporate America. O’Brien said in a May 2022 speech, “We’re going to strike hard, we’re going to strike fast… we’re going to demand what we’re worth.”

Like other corporations facing aggressive unionization, UPS already appears to be engaging in union busting, and is accused of firing two New York-based drivers over their labor activism.

O’Brien told that while no one desires a strike, UPS needs to “understand we’re not going to be afraid to pull that trigger if necessary.” It is hard to overstate the significance of such fighting words. CNN pointed out, “A UPS strike now would be the largest in decades—and perhaps the largest U.S. strike ever against a single corporation.”

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  1. jackiebass63

    Not that long ago when a UPS driver delivered a package the driver would visit with you for a short time. Things have changed. Now the driver runs up my drive leaves the package and quickly leaves. If I happen to be outside it is like pulling teeth to get the driver to say anything other than hi.I feel sorry for them because the seem to be under a lot of pressure.In the past the same driver would deliver to the house. Often for several years.Now it seems there is a different driver each time.

    1. petal

      At my last address 12 years ago, our driver(always the same guy for many years) would give my new puppy some loving and a biscuit or would always wave if we were out for a walk. This became regular and as soon as the dog heard the truck even if a distance away, he’d get all excited and go bananas. Then maybe 5 years ago or so the drivers kept changing, they were always in a major rush to the point of speeding through the complex, and they’d be running. The whole …culture seems to have changed. It’s like night and day.

      If the UPS drivers strike, and FedEx’s system collapses, could be an interesting Fall-Winter.

    1. responseTwo

      Ever since I heard about two-tier wages being accepted it seemed unions were being marginalized. I see articles that point out how unions are not really doing much for workers.

  2. Sue inSoCal

    I live in an unbearably hot low desert. Ordering anything via truck or email for delivery is out of the question. Anything, including the poor deliverer in the truck, is baked. Just a cursory look into this issue it seems there are tiers (insert eye roll): gig or temp/seasonal workers and “employees” for UPS/FedX etc. It may take 10 to 12 years to become an “employee” according to several sites. Someone may be able to advise if this is correct, but it seems so. It’s been many years since I’ve practiced employment and insurance law. If an an employee, this would be a death claim and a claim for serious and willful conduct of the employer under California workers comp laws. Employers know this serious situation exists and they’re doing nothing.

    The rules are rigged in favor of business. However, it seems work comp would be less expensive than direct plaintiff lawsuits, since historically, workers comp was the trade off to eliminate direct lawsuits against the employer for workplace accidents. (There are cases that may involve a third party to sue directly with a company lawsuit. Who leased the trucks, etc.) Once the cause of death is established, regardless of union involvement, are these drivers and families suing directly? They should, in spite of any documents the driver/deliverer may have been forced to sign for their employment. There are drivers that go out on their own. They sue and can be determined to be employees. Che soprisa. Here’s one.

  3. JBird4049

    Those are some delicious looking cookies; I realize that adequately cooling the inside of a delivery van is difficult, but when you can see such cookies, it shows just how dangerous it is. Instead of acting like entitled psychos, maybe they could spend some of their profits on finding practical and effective solutions? I am sure that it would be cheaper than a strike.

  4. Copeland

    Anecdata, so ignore at will: Wife and I attended my nephews wedding in Montana in July. Has has worked for UPS for about 6 years, driver for at least 4. Seems happy as a clam, his boss performed the wedding(!) and is his best friend and mentor. His boss also offered his position to my nephew but he declined, didn’t want the added responsibility. Apparently his current income is perfectly acceptable.

  5. RockTaster

    My UPS driver unfortunately died this year from injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident, on his free time. He was a great guy, always had a minute to chat. He seemed to love working for UPS, had good benefits, he used the medical plan successfully for some big surgeries, treated out of State. Teamsters bargaining seemed to work in his favor. He always seemed more pro UPS then Teamster though. Glad to have known him for so many years. He gave me a positive impression of UPS. His former coworker who took over his route though is equally impressive, couldn’t have been easy having to spend her first weeks delivering bad news and sharing tears.

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