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Solidarity with fired UPS Teamster

Reports from the front

Thomas Hummel interviews UPS Teamster and socialist Ben Douglass about their firing and the campaign for reinstatement.

Thomas Hummel: What’s the status of your case? What led up to you being fired and what are your expectations going forward?

Ben Douglass: I’ve been a Teamster at UPS for almost two years, and I’ve been active in the union for about a year and a half. One of the first things that got me organizing with my coworkers was over safety in regards to COVID-19. There were only very minimal safety measures in place. The UPS facilities were not socially distanced, there were no temperature checks, there were no on-site COVID-19 tests, basically nothing like that. Only some surgical masks and minimal sanitizing, but that was about it. We had a petition to get on-site testing, and we had the first step for a shop floor rank-and-file safety committee. It didn’t fully develop, but it got me involved with the union and organizing with my co-workers. That was about a year ago, since then I’ve been an alternate shop steward and have been tackling issues around seniority and retaliation. Basically any issues that come up in the workplace, I’ve been trying to play a role in helping coworkers navigate and deal with them.

I faced my first retaliation about nine months ago. They threatened me in a pretty direct way, saying that if I didn’t kind of shape up, they were gonna “pound me into submission.” That was the phrase the supervisor used. And this kind of policy of UPS management is pretty widespread. UPS stewards, anyone that is active in the union, anyone that puts in grievances, or challenges management in the workplace, they will be targeted with harassment and disciplined sooner or later, oftentimes sooner.

Previously I took what I would consider some unjust discipline in retaliation for my union involvement. This recent attempt to discipline me consisted of some flimsy accusations ranging from not following the workplace methods to not wearing the uniform because I didn’t have brown socks on, to falsifying a document, all sorts of nonsense, but the sort of nonsense that’s very much par for the course in terms of how the company accuses workers of doing wrong. The company had to backtrack a little bit, and I got back pay for the six days I was out of work, but I’m still facing numerous charges. I’m currently on a working discharge and my case is set to go in front of an arbitration law judge. The union will present our case, the company presents theirs, and the judge will rule what they think is fair.

TH: Do you have any sense of how that arbitration will go?

BD: The charges are really flimsy and bogus, so we’re pretty confident that we can put up a good defense and win, but nothing is guaranteed when your fate is in the hands of a single judge. That’s part of the reason why coworkers and myself, Left Voice and other union activists, participated in a militant rally against retaliation, demanding that the company reinstate not just me but also Rob Becker, another alternate steward in New York who was fired on the same day as me. Rob has still not returned back to work. We had a rally to denounce this intimidation and retaliation and to get Rob and I reinstated unconditionally.

TH: You mentioned that this is a tactic that UPS has frequently used. Do you think that UPS’ intimidation of rank-and-file organizers has stepped up with the launch of the union’s contract campaign? Do you think this is likely to be an effective tactic, or is it more likely to backfire?

BD: The contract negotiations are set to begin sometime next year, and the union leadership organized “contract campaign launch” rallies that were pretty successful. We’re asking for the end of the two-tier system, a living-wage for part-time workers, improved safety conditions, AC for the trucks, and a bunch of other stuff. I suspect that if retaliation hasn’t been ramped up already, it will be as we get closer to the contract. It is a systematic policy coming down from the very top level of UPS.

During the last heat wave, the company was really exposed for the abysmal working conditions in terms of heat, with drivers falling sick and brother Esteban Chavez Jr. dying in California. The public does not yet know how rampant the culture of intimidation and relation is at UPS. Just to give you an example, my local president has been fired multiple times and reinstated, my business agent, as well as my shop steward. Basically every active union member has faced retaliation in some form at some point. It’s definitely a long-standing strategy that the company uses to scare people, but also to tire people out. A lot of people want to come to work and they just want to do their job and live a normal life. They don’t want to have a daily struggle with management and to be constantly looking over their shoulder. UPS’ plan is to tire people out, and to scare the workforce so that we’re less ready to fight back, and less strike ready.

I do think that retaliation has the potential to backfire, and I think there’s a lot of pent up frustration against management and against the culture of harassment, but we’re yet to totally overcome that fear. Overcoming that fear and drawing out the righteous indignation of the workforce against management is one of the central tasks in the upcoming fight for the contract.

TH: What can you tell me about the mood of your co-workers? Do you have a sense of how people are feeling about the upcoming contract negotiations, both locally and at a national level?

BD: I think probably 99% of UPS drivers support having air conditioning in the package trucks. It’s just such a minimal, basic union, or just even human right. Many of the package trucks don’t even have something as simple as a fan. They’re supposed to but they often don’t. There’s a total disregard for the safety of us workers. So there’s overwhelming support for better safety, and better climate control in both the facilities and in the trucks. There’s also overwhelming support to end the “22.4” tier system, where a section of the drivers do the same tasks but make significantly less than the regular drivers with fewer benefits and no overtime protection. A 22.4 driver can be forced to work six days a week, twelve hours a day, and there’s nothing contractual to prevent the company from doing that.

There’s also overwhelming support for improving the wages and conditions of the inside workers that work at the UPS hubs, those who load the trucks and sort the packages on the conveyor belts. That’s a sector that has historically gotten the short end of the stick in terms of the contract and it’s a more heavily exploited sector of the workforce. Drivers can make a pretty decent living but inside workers are typically forced into a sort of dead end career path where they remain impoverished even if they’ve been working for UPS for numerous years.

Overall, there’s a lot of anticipation and a lot of excitement for the union to take up the issues and wage a militant fight for a quality contract that rights some of the wrongs that have been put on us.

TH: What kind of solidarity has been shown to you by your co-workers, the Teamsters more generally, and other labor organizers?

BD: One of the things we did after Rob Becker and myself were fired was to table in front of my building and the UPS building across the street. We made a petition to collect signatures and we would take solidarity pics with other workers to highlight that there was popular support for us being reinstated, as well as popular support for telling UPS to back off with the intimidation. So we collected 150 signatures of co-workers, took dozens of photos and then we had a rally last week that included union workers, many of our co-workers from my building as well as the Maspeth building across the street. We had solidarity coming in from all over the place, from Connecticut there was Teamsters Local 1150, from Massachusetts Teamsters Local 404, and then a bunch of other union activists like nurses and teachers. We linked up with fired Amazon workers Tristan Lion, as well as Austin Locke who is a fired Starbucks worker. So we’re trying to link up the issues we’re dealing with in regards to union busting at UPS with the struggle Amazon and Starbucks workers are also waging against their bosses. We are all in this fight together.

TH: I know that you’ve been involved in linking your union activism with struggles against oppression. You marched in PRIDE with some coworkers, and have been taking up the fight for reproductive rights. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how that’s been.

BD: The Teamsters has 1.2 million members and the UPS division has about 350,000 workers, so you can imagine that every kind of political thought and every demographic is represented in that workforce, simply because it’s so massive. The union is about one third women, and also has many LGBTQ people – some who are “out,” but many who aren’t.

I was very proud to march with some coworkers this recent Queer Liberation March, as part of Pride month. Some of us just talked and decided we’d go together as a group. Issues like trans rights, the right ot abortion, and the fight against racism were all common themes. We didn’t all agree on every issue, but we agreed on the basic fight for equality. And we were there as Teamsters.

More recently, there was a sort of a coalition formed of the Women’s Committee, a newly formed body in 804, along with a handful of activists who together raised the importance of reproductive rights. The Women’s Committee actually wrote a resolution that they read aloud at the last general membership meeting of the union and that was met with overwhelming support. There was a standing ovation. The majority of New York Teamsters do see that women, trans people, and gender non-conforming people have been attacked, that the overturn of Roe v. Wade is a historic setback, and that it’s not going to end there, that it also poses a threat to other gains that could be attacked by the Supreme Court such as same-sex marriage. So we have been making the argument that this is a labor issue. When we have Teamsters that are facing jail time for ending a pregnancy, that is a union issue. We have members, particularly low income members, part-time inside workers for example, that might have to cross state lines to end a pregnancy, or that may end up having to be a parent when they’re not ready in either a general or financial sense. It’s imperative that the labor movement takes this up.

The Teamsters did play an important role, at least to some extent, in supporting the civil rights movement in the 60s. There’s a famous picture of Jimmy Hoffa Sr. and Martin Luther King together, where Hoffa is giving King a check for $25,000. There were many marches where Teamsters and civil rights activists linked up. Even the famous sanitation strike that Martin Luther King was supporting when he was assassinated – that was a Teamster struggle, but it was also a struggle for racial equality. It wasn’t just a union struggle, but it did affect the labor movement. All of these issues are connected. It benefits the labor movement not to turn a blind eye to injustice. If we want to make the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” a meaningful reality, we have to stand up for a lot more than our own members or just our own members wages. We have to take a stand on social issues that affect working class people.

TH: There’s been a lot of talk about the increased militancy of the new Teamster leadership. What are your expectations for this leadership in the coming contract negotiations? What role can rank-and-file organizers play in this process?

BD: The first thing here is to explain the context of the Teamsters, as well as the decline of the labor movement since the beginning of the neoliberal period going back to the late 70s or the early 80s. That’s of course affected UPS as well, with concessionary contracts being imposed every five years for the most part. The challenge is to change course and overcome the apathy and demoralization that has affected the labor movement, rebuild a sense of self confidence and militancy. This militancy has been eroded over the years but it can be redeveloped.

The fact that Sean O’Brien was elected is a sign that Teamsters want a more militant leadership. The fact that he has raised expectations is a good thing. The fact that more UPS workers are tuning in and talking about a potential strike in 11 months, which would be a nationwide strike of a third of a million people, probably the biggest labor struggle in decades, all of that is a really positive thing.

Now, do I believe that O’Brien leadership will follow through on its rhetoric of militancy, and take that fight to the end? I don’t know, the truth will be in the pudding, but I would say that from the point of view of socialists, one of the most urgent tasks is to develop the self-organization of the working class, in this case the UPS workforce, with this upcoming fight. If we are to defeat multi-billion dollar companies like UPS and Amazon, it can’t be done with a top-down leadership where the membership just comes out periodically when they’re called by the union leaders. We have to develop the self-organization of the workers so they can take this fight into their own hands.

One thing that would be an example of that is an elected bargaining committee. I would argue that this is needed in the upcoming contract fight to ensure that the needs and the wishes of the workers are actually fulfilled and that a subpar contract is not agreed to behind the scenes.

Self-organization is key so we can hold the leadership accountable. Sean O’Brien has promised to secure a good contract and we need to mobilize whenever he’s fighting, but UPS workers primarily need to trust in their own power to organize as co-workers, organize on the shop floor, organize democratically and have a perspective of taking over control of the contract struggle. Every UPS facility could have democratic worker led meetings, there’s nothing that’s stopping that.

I would also say that one of the problems of the labor movement has been its alliance with sectors of politicians, usually Democrats, who are actually serving the interests we are fighting against. So in addition to workers taking leadership over our own struggles and developing shop-floor structures, I believe we need to start discussing the idea of our own political party and a different kind of society. Teamster leaders like Ron Cary have led very important strikes like the 1997 shut down at UPS for ten days. There is a long tradition of militant trade unionism, militant strikes, that we should make our own. But I think it’s also time we go beyond the union struggle.

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Thomas Hummel View All

Thomas Hummel is a member of the Tempest Collective living in New York City.