In 1997, the central slogan of the Teamsters’ UPS strike was “Part-Time America Won’t Work.” Today, as the Teamsters weigh another UPS strike, part-time workers at the company say their pay and working conditions are still unbearable.

An employee sorts packages going out for delivery on Cyber Monday at a UPS distribution facility in New York on November 30, 2015. (John Taggart / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In late August 1974, thousands of Teamsters Local 804 members in New York went on strike against their employer, United Parcel Service (UPS), for the third time in six years. A decade earlier, UPS had begun laying off full-time package sorters in its distribution warehouses and hiring part-time workers, who were paid roughly the same wage but lacked fringe benefits like pensions or vacation days, as their replacements. UPS wanted to expand the practice, but workers saw the demand for what it was: an existential threat to their good-paying, full-time union jobs.

Led by their charismatic, thirty-eight-year-old local president Ron Carey, Local 804 members hit the picket line after contract negotiations broke down. By the end of the bitter walkout, a Teamster from a nearby New Jersey local had plowed their truck through 804’s picket line, killing one of Carey’s closest friends, and the federal government was called in to mediate a settlement. But in the final agreement, Local 804 successfully slowed, though they could not completely stop, the proliferation of part-time work in UPS facilities. That would soon change — for the worse.

In 1982, the national Teamsters union agreed to a “two-tier” system that divided the pay of part-time and full-time UPS workers. The company permanently cut part-timers’ starting pay nationwide by 25 percent, down to $8 an hour, which would be raised only fifty cents over the next thirty years. The company steamrolled ahead in its expansion of part-time work, building a package empire on the back of a workforce that, by the mid-1990s, was 60 percent part-time workers.

By the 1990s, UPS workers looked to halt the backsliding. With the support of reform-minded forces like the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Carey won the presidency of the international Teamsters union in 1991, taking over the union after federal anti-corruption measures produced the union’s first-ever direct democratic election; after the contract expired in 1997, 185,000 UPS workers hit the picket line nationwide, declaring that “Part-Time America Won’t Work.”

The strike was a resounding victory: the union won a commitment from the company to create ten thousand full-time jobs by combining tenty-thousand part-time positions. But shortly afterward, Carey and his reform-minded, militant leadership was chased out of the union by the old guard on trumped-up (and later dismissed) charges, and the corrupt, antidemocratic unionism of the old guard soon returned in the form of President James P. Hoffa, son of legendary (and legendarily corrupt) Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa.

But today, militancy has once again risen in the union under Sean O’Brien, elected general president of the union in 2021, again with the help of groups like TDU. And the unfinished battle for part-timers at the company has been rekindled.

In what could be the most important labor fight in a generation, over 340,000 UPS Teamsters are poised to launch the largest single-company strike in US history in August. UPS workers voted 97 percent in favor of strike authorization earlier this month. In ongoing negotiations, the Teamsters have pressured UPS to present their last, best, and final offer on economic proposals by July 5; otherwise, the union says a strike is “imminent.”

In what could be the most important labor fight in a generation, over 340,000 UPS Teamsters are poised to launch the largest single-company strike in US history in August.

The national negotiating team has already made headway on several key demands: the abolition of the two-tier wage system among drivers that created a kind of second-class, lower-paid worker classification; protections from forced overtime on workers’ days off; Martin Luther King Jr Day as a paid holiday; and lifesaving heat protections, including air conditioners, heat shields, and ventilation in new package cars. Still to be negotiated are wages, pensions, health and welfare benefits, and ridding the company of nonunion subcontractors and gig workers.

But perhaps the biggest question mark is what will happen with the company’s largest classification of workers, part-timers. Substantially increasing part-timers’ pay and creating more full-time warehouse jobs, known as 22.3s per language in the national master agreement, would be the most costly demand for the company to meet. And decades of concessions under Hoffa Jr have left part-timers feeling like second-class Teamsters.

“There’s a general sentiment among part-timers that we’ve kind of been forgotten about in the last few contracts,” said Jenny Bekenstein, a part-time preloader and shop steward with Teamsters Local 396 in downtown Los Angeles. “But I think it’s the number one issue for this contract, and I know a lot of the drivers agree too.”

“A Different Breed of Cat”

As Carey told journalist Steven Brill in 1977 for his book The Teamsters, UPS part-timers are “a different breed of cat” from the full-time drivers. These part-time workers — mostly “package handlers” in warehouses, sorting small and large parcels, unloading and loading package cars and trailers — are the backbone of the company but rarely acknowledged. The hidden majority of UPS, they comprise over half of the workforce. While CEO Carol Tomé boasts to the press that “[UPS] drivers make $93,000 a year . . . and they pay nothing for health care,” part-timers often make less than half their full-time counterparts — as low as $15.50 per hour in some areas.

“That’s poverty wages,” says José Francisco Negrete, a part-time small package sorter out of Local 952 in Anaheim, California, who has worked at UPS since 1998.

With low pay, high inflation, and only three to four hours guaranteed per shift, many part-timers work multiple jobs while living in their cars, Negrete said — or worse, in homeless shelters. “We saw with COVID in 2020, and we see right now with inflation and interest rates being so high, not even $20 [per hour] is going to cut it.” According to TDU, if part-timers’ wages had risen with inflation since 1982, starting pay would be over $25 an hour.

UPS package car drivers, the public face of UPS, have rightfully garnered public sympathy over the past year working on the frontlines of the pandemic and climate crisis. But part-timers have received little media attention, despite performing work that is just as “essential” and can be just as dangerous. The extreme heat full-time drivers endure, for example, has recently grabbed nationwide headlines, but the lack of air conditioning and sufficient ventilation in warehouses means heatstroke and even death are also fixtures of life on the inside.

Interior of a Boston UPS warehouse. (Local 25 part-time UPS worker)

Wearing their personal clothes rather than the iconic brown uniforms worn by drivers, part-timers, who are made up of more women than any other job classification at UPS according to TDU, work shifts at all hours of the day and night, hidden from the public eye in warehouses that workers allege are plagued by managerial harassment, unsafe equipment and work paces, unbearable summer heat, and noxious truck exhaust. Workers say the intensity of their three-and-a-half-hour shifts can make them feel like an eight-hour day.

“I would get off work at 8:30, 9:00 a.m., and I would go home and sit down, and that was it,” Holly Baca, an eleven-year part-timer out of Local 886 in Oklahoma City, said of her nine years working “sunrise” shifts preloading package cars. “That was all the energy I had. . . . I wasn’t even cooking.”

UPS’s replacement of full-time workers with part-timers accelerated in the 1980s and ’90s as the company expanded rapidly. As activist and former UPS worker Joe Allen wrote in The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS, “The ‘savings’ in part-timers’ wages was an important factor in subsidizing the company’s massive expansion.”

A report released by the Teamsters research department leading up to the 1997 strike, “Half a Job Is Not Enough,” found that 83 percent of the 46,300 workers UPS hired between 1993 and 1997 were part-time, and that creating full-time jobs was a top priority for the rank and file. Public polls found overwhelming support for the strikers’ demands. UPS was seen as a leader in the broader “lean and mean” trend of corporate restructuring, which included trimming down full-time work.

In place of reliable full-time jobs, part-time, temporary, gig, and other contingent labor was on the rise. According to Rand Wilson, a TDU organizer and a communications coordinator of the 1997 UPS contract campaign, the slogan “Part-Time America Won’t Work” was used precisely for that reason.

“We saw that it was resonating as a public message,” he says. “It tapped into a sense of the deterioration of job quality in America and growth at that time.”

Striking UPS employees at the downtown Chicago processing center, August 6, 1997. (Jeff Haynes / AFP via Getty Images)

That deterioration has continued since 1997. While the total number of US workers working part-time who want a full-time job has declined significantly in the past two years, involuntary part-time workers have nearly doubled from 3.2 million in 2000 to 6.1 million in 2021. Meanwhile, the rise of the pro-business leadership of James P. Hoffa meant concessions became the norm at UPS again.

UPS’s promise of ten thousand full-time warehouse jobs (and ten thousand more from the 2002 agreement) went partially unfulfilled. According to union reform activists, per secret memoranda of understanding with the company signed by Teamsters general secretary-treasurer Ken Hall in 2008, the union allowed UPS to renege on nearly six thousand of the promised twenty thousand full-time jobs inside the warehouse. And the five thousand full-time inside positions promised in the 2018 contract were mostly diminished by a loophole left open by Hoffa.

“I used to want to go full-time” inside a UPS facility, says Baca of Local 886, who now works part-time as a preloader. “I had my name on several bid lists, but of course, being part time, I never won any of them.” Baca says that most part-timers have a tough time winning full-time inside jobs because drivers get priority for the few that exist. But like many of her warehouse colleagues, for personal or physically restrictive reasons, Baca wanted a 22.3 job precisely because she didn’t want to be a driver.

For decades, UPS has profited handsomely from the “flexibility” part-timers have afforded it. Many even work full-time schedules, but for part-time wages and benefits.

As sociologist Jamie K. McCallum has pointed out in Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream, the irony of the expansion of part-time and other contingent labor in recent decades is that, because pay remains low, workers are working substantially more hours as they are forced to take on multiple jobs.

It’s no wonder then that while winning more full-time jobs is a top priority for the Teamsters, the union’s loudest demand for part-timers in 2023 is a substantial increase in pay.

Poverty Pay

From 1997 to 2013, part-time base pay only increased by $1.50 per hour to $10, reaching $12.50 by the contract’s end. And in 2018, pressured by TDU and New York City Fight for $15 movement activists, UPS raised the floor more quickly to $13.50, eventually reaching the current starting pay of $15.50. While the Teamsters have not yet publicly announced a concrete contract demand, TDU is pushing for $25 per hour starting pay for part-timers and ten thousand full-time inside jobs.

“They’ve been sold out in previous agreements,” said John Palmer, a longtime TDU activist and the international Teamsters’ vice president at-large and deputy director of organizing. “They deserve $25 per hour.”

With six years under her belt, Jess Leigh, a Local 728 part-timer in Griffin, Georgia and a single mother of two, makes $17.85 per hour and works roughly thirty hours a week. “I have to have other streams of income,” she says. “You can’t raise kids on an income like that.”

UPS provides decent benefits to part-timers, including health care and a pension, if they stick it out for nine months. Baca, who is the primary caretaker of her grandmother, noted that a lot of mothers and people with caregiving responsibilities appreciate the benefits and part-time hours.

“But at the end of the day, your healthcare doesn’t pay your bills,” Leigh said.

Decades of low pay at UPS come despite consistent growth at the company, including record-breaking profits at the height of the pandemic’s e-commerce boom.

Decades of low pay at UPS come despite consistent growth at the company, including record-breaking profits at the height of the pandemic’s e-commerce boom. Part-timer frustration came to a head last year when, without warning, UPS slashed thousands of workers’ market rate adjustments (MRAs), the noncontractual wage increases offered to some new hires in an attempt by UPS to remain competitive in the market. Some workers saw their pay decline by up to $6 an hour, according to the Guardian, prompting protests around the country.

“If they can afford to just arbitrarily decide to raise everyone’s wages without even having it in the contract, then that tells me that they have the money to pay us,” said Baca.

Harassment and a Breakneck Pace

Corporate restructuring at UPS not only meant slashing wages and hours. The “leaning” of production over the decades also meant that warehouse working conditions deteriorated, and UPS’s management, already known for its militaristic style, turned tyrannical.

Workers say yelling, ridicule, and pressure to pick up the pace is a way of life in the warehouse. “Flow it hard! Flow it hard! Come on!” Leigh mimics her supervisors during a shift. If a conveyor belt is turned off, she says, they will begin shouting, “Who’s got the belt off?” But the question is rhetorical. “You can literally look and see the massive package with yellow tape, where somebody’s trying to get a hundred pound package off the belt. . . . What they’re really saying is, ‘hurry the hell up.’”

In roughly four hours, preloaders are instructed to fill up to four package cars, totaling seven hundred to a thousand packages. Workers say that supervisors will keep facilities on skeleton crews, sending people home early or laying people off no matter how slight a decline in volume or delay in package flow.

“People are getting slammed because UPS wanted to save thirty bucks or whatever by getting a handful of people off the clock,” says Leigh.

Workers told me that the physical stress of the job deteriorates the body. A 2019 Bloomberg Law investigation found scores of injuries and ailments may go unreported at UPS due to a “culture of fear” of retaliation. “I developed plantar fasciitis,” says Baca of her time as a sunrise preloader. “I could barely stand up long enough to take a shower, my feet hurt so badly. . . . It’s because of how hard they work people, and the working conditions of the building itself.”

According to Baca, outbursts on the shop floor are also common. “[Supervisors] don’t communicate in an understanding tone of voice,” she explained. “They talk to you like you’re stupid, you’re lazy, and you need to just work harder to get this shit done. That’s what drives people over the edge.”

Indeed, the Guardian reported that some workers at UPS’s massive Worldport facility in Louisville, Kentucky believe that the dire working conditions and constant hounding by supervisors helped drive one pregnant part-timer to take her own life at the facility in October last year.

Organizing Part-Timers

Strategically, UPS workers understand that part-timers may be both the union’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability. If the union does decide to strike, will these precarious, low-wage workers hold the line alongside full-time workers? The answer lies in the degree to which they are organized. But the task isn’t easy.

If the union does decide to strike, will these precarious, low-wage workers hold the line alongside full-time workers? The answer lies in the degree to which they are organized.

While all full-time drivers generally start at the same time, part-timers work multiple shifts in a diversity of positions and work areas, making meetings and actions logistically arduous. The low wages and harsh working conditions on the shop floor ensure that turnover is sky high, and part-timers’ low pay makes saving money for a strike difficult.

For those that do stay, a concessionary Teamsters union under previous leadership has produced cynicism and feelings of abandonment. Meanwhile, workers believe that widespread layoffs and schedule adjustments across the country this year are a deliberate ploy by UPS to put workers on edge. During the height of the pandemic, many part-timers worked full-time schedules, but now they struggle even to receive their minimum guarantee.

“I do think that some of it is a way to make people feel so broke that they have to cross the picket line,” Baca said.

Despite the challenge, over the past month, the Teamsters union, TDU, and rank-and-file UPSers of all classifications have ramped up their organizing around part-time issues. Much as they did during the 1997 contract campaign, Teamsters are holding parking lot meetings targeted to inside workers, distributing contract-campaign toolkits, holding online and in-person trainings, collecting thousands of signatures for a number of part-timer demands, and hitting the gates at all hours to rally their coworkers. In the past week, locals have set up practice pickets around the country to organize the ranks.

Teamsters told me that while their current leadership has helped breathe new life into part-time demands, some locals’ organizing muscles haven’t fully recovered from old-guard atrophy. Teamsters Mobilize, a grassroots, rank-and-file network of part-time UPSers, was formed by a number of rank-and-file UPSers last summer, many of whom are TDU members, to increase part-timer engagement in the contract campaign. They have been pushing for $25 hourly base pay, 5 percent annual increases, as well as seventy-five-cent raises for each year of part-time service.

A UPS practice picket in Oklahoma City, June 29, 2023. (Zakk Flash)

Following the lead of Minneapolis Teamsters from Local 638, Teamsters Mobilize successfully encouraged locals around the country to adopt Red Shirt Fridays, acknowledged by members in a UPS contract update by the national union, to display worker unity in the contract campaign. Less visible have been the months of members trading organizing strategies and informational campaign materials, as well as tips on holding supervisors accountable.

Winning for inside workers may be the most consequential task of the Teamsters’ contract campaign at UPS. The union will have a rough time organizing nonunion companies, particularly Amazon, which employs thousands of warehouse workers, if they have nothing to show for better standards among the majority of the UPS workforce.

Still up in the air is whether, come August 1, part-time America won’t work again. Regardless, “the bill is due,” said Negrete. “And it will be paid.”

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