Is UPS Retaliating Against Union Activists?

Is UPS Retaliating Against Union Activists?

Is UPS Retaliating Against Union Activists?

The UPS contract covering nearly 350,000 people expires next year. According to some workers, management has already launched its anti-labor fight.

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When Dan Arlin left the military in 2000, he saw an ad in the newspaper for a position at the United Parcel Service (UPS) in Western Massachusetts. It wasn’t his dream job, but the pay and benefits were good, so he applied, got the gig, and never left—that is, until UPS fired him in March.

For the first 19 of his 22 years on the job, Arlin was a delivery truck driver in West Springfield, Mass. In 2019, he switched to driving tractor trailers, but decided to return to his old position earlier this year. On his first day back, supervisors followed him. E-mails show that they even trespassed on private property to watch him as he drove around a neighborhood. The next morning, his supervisor fired him without a clear explanation and walked him off the property.

A proud member of Teamsters Local 404, Arlin told me that he believes he was terminated because of his union activism. “The intent of following me was never about the customer. It was about getting rid of me,” he insisted. “The company likes to rule with fear, and because I’m the loudest mouth in my building, they’re trying to make an example out of me.”

Arlin, who ran for local president and has served as a shop steward, has organized protests to fight for the safety and rights of his coworkers. In August, he and his coworker Lillian Zavatsky rallied for better pay for part-time workers and reduced overtime. In 2020, when UPS wasn’t supplying sufficient personal protective equipment, Arlin filed a grievance through the union for unsafe work practices, called the media, and held a press conference. Shortly thereafter, management distributed more masks, wipes, and other PPE.

“I’ve always stood up for my rights,” Arlin said. “But it was probably the last four or five years that I went beyond fighting for rights and started being more of an activist and holding the company accountable for everything.”

And it’s not just happening in West Springfield, Arlin told me. “Harassment is happening across the country.”

Arlin is one of at least four Teamsters who say UPS fired them for their union work, and one of several who told me that, although harassment is common at the company, retaliation against activists is intensifying ahead of a new labor contract campaign. The current collective bargaining agreement covering the nearly 350,000 workers in the largest private-sector shop in the country will expire in July 2023. The newly elected Teamsters leadership has said the union is willing to strike if its demands aren’t met. (The last national strike by UPS workers, in 1997, brought the union significant wins, including the largest wage increases in the company’s history.)

When reached for comment on each workers’ accusations, a UPS spokesperson stated in an e-mail that the company does not share its employees’ personal information, but “UPS does not tolerate comments or actions that are considered retaliatory, and we offer several ways for our employees to report and resolve issues with confidence.”

Led by Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien and the Teamsters United slate, the union will be fighting for higher starting pay for part-time employees, more full-time positions, and an end to worker misclassification, excessive overtime, harassment from supervisors, surveillance cameras in delivery trucks, and the two-tier wage system. It is also pushing for better worker safety. UPS truck drivers and their warehouse counterparts—who, as was covered widely by the media, languished this summer in the swelter of climate-change-fueled heat waves—are demanding air-conditioning and other heat protections.

Arlin joked that management did a poor job of trying to get rid of him. He said that when he asked why he was being fired, his boss rattled off a number of charges, including falsifying records and not working in the company’s interest. But Arlin said his supervisor didn’t give him any specifics, which is a breach of the test of fair notice for just cause.

At his local arbitration hearing the following week, they gave him the reasons, which Arlin called false and “super petty.” One of the charges accused him of recording 40 package pickups when there were only 37.

To get his job back, Arlin asked for the two reports on which the charges against him were based. It took five months for UPS to provide one of two reports, and it came only after Arlin filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. While Arlin was out of work, he and his son lost his employer-based health insurance, and he struggled to receive unemployment benefits. Arlin’s correspondence with the Department of Labor indicates that UPS informed the DOL that he was suspended rather than terminated, which disqualified him from benefits until Arlin could prove he was fired. Arlin said he believes it was a deliberate attempt to block him from receiving unemployment. “I didn’t do anything wrong, but they’re still trying to bankrupt me,” he said.

Arlin is optimistic that he’ll get his job back, but the process is ongoing. The report that UPS eventually turned over appears to clear him of falsifying records. UPS claims that the other report was automatically deleted by their computer software after 30 days. Arlin told me this document would clear him of his last charge, “stealing time,” or not working while on the clock. E-mails show that Arlin and his local made several requests for the report within a month of the incident, including two days after Arlin’s firing.

Joe Allen, a historian, activist, and truck driver who used to work for UPS, stressed that the corporation has always been an aggressive employer. For decades, the company has employed a punitive, militaristic management style. But the threat of a strike next year may be persuading the company to ramp up its harassment of union activists. Allen, who authored The Package King: A Rank-and-File History of the United Parcel Service, explained that UPS didn’t see the 1997 strike coming, but it’s bracing for one now, and the fight will have consequences for all of organized labor. Allen said, “The global ramifications of a UPS strike and what that means around the world for organizing in the logistics industry and for Amazon is potentially quite dramatic.”

UPS is the largest package courier in the world, transporting more than 3 percent of global GDP and 6 percent of US GDP on a daily basis. A strike by the Teamsters in the United States would be the largest against a single company in the country’s history, disrupting the flow of goods to households and businesses. In 1997, the 15-day strike caused 80 percent of UPS packages to go undelivered. Since then, the company’s operations have expanded significantly—and so have its profits, surging to nearly $13 billion last year.

“UPS is used to a predictable relationship with the Teamsters union,” Allen said. The previous leadership of James P. Hoffa, who pushed through a highly concessionary contract in 2018 despite rank-and-file opposition, was more conciliatory toward the company. O’Brien wants to make up for the ground that he says the Teamsters lost under Hoffa. “Now, we’re in an unpredictable moment led by the rank and file,” Allen added.

Arlin isn’t the only union activist accusing UPS of retaliation. As first reported by Left Voice, UPS fired Rob Becker, a driver and union activist in Long Island, N.Y., on August 24. He had been working for UPS for eight years, and the company terminated him for stopping for a cold beverage during his shift—and a heat wave. In fact, UPS had recommended that drivers stay hydrated, after refusing to install air-conditioning in its delivery trucks. Extreme heat this summer made hundreds of drivers sick and killed at least one person.

Becker said he was targeted for helping his coworkers resist forced overtime. He had informed his colleagues that they had a contractual right to opt out of over-dispatching by joining the so-called “9.5 list.” Workers who join the list can file a grievance if they’re called more than two times in a week to work more than 9.5 hours. It’s more profitable for the company to force its employees to work overtime than to hire more workers. “I guess I was costing the company too much money,” he told The Guardian.

Ben Douglass is a “22.4,” a delivery driver at the bottom end of the two-tier system who earns less money for the same labor as his coworkers. UPS fired him the same day as Becker for not completing a route he was unfamiliar with—also during the heat wave—and allegedly falsifying records and lying to management. He denies the charges, insisting that he was targeted for his activism.

Douglass, who has worked at the Metro Queens facility in Maspeth for almost two years, is outspoken at work and has organized his coworkers over a number of issues. During the summer, he fought with management for air-conditioning and fans, as well as better pay and working conditions. He’s also participated in broader social movements, pushing the Teamsters to stand up for abortion rights after the fall of Roe v. Wade. He told me he believes that UPS is increasing its retaliatory attacks to neuter worker activism before the contract fight. “It’s a type of economic and psychological warfare against union activists,” Douglass said. “I believe the targeted harassment is a part of UPS corporate strategy. They will try to grind us down. It’s part of their goals of weakening the union, weakening workers’ self-confidence.”

Doug Hilse, a feeder driver at a small UPS center in Lawton, Okla., was fired in January, after just shy of 35 years on the job. He was a Teamsters Local 886 shop steward for 22 of those years. Like Arlin, Hilse was allegedly fired for “stealing time,” but he believes he was terminated for sticking up for his coworkers. In July 2021, he filed a grievance against the company for retaining a supervisor who had been convicted of assault in the facility. In September, he was approached and questioned about the grievance by supervisors at a separate facility in Oklahoma City where he would pick up packages.

Then in December, Hilse claims that he and his coworker found themselves with some downtime during their shifts over a two-day stretch, because management had overstaffed the Lawton center. “I believe I was targeted,” Hilse told me. “They made it out to be a conspiracy to defraud them.”

Hilse’s attempts to get reinstated through the union grievance process failed, and now he is suing the company. Karl Howeth, a 17-year UPS veteran and the shop steward who handled Hilse’s grievance, told me, “Retaliation is a way of life at UPS. [Management] makes it so that you have to have a certain amount of courage to come forward.”

On September 1, Arlin made the three-hour drive down to Maspeth, Queens, where Douglass organized a rally in front of his UPS facility. Wearing their brown uniforms, dozens of workers showed up before their shifts to protest what they say is management union-busting. As workers and allies spoke before the crowd, Douglass greeted UPSers coming in and out of their shifts, persuading many to join in. One worker waved a large blue Teamsters flag, while a comrade waved a red one of the Industrial Workers of the World. Supervisors watched, at times laughing, as the crowd chanted, “Reinstate fired workers!”

Fired union activists from a Starbucks in Queens and Amazon’s first unionized facility in Staten Island made the trip to stand in solidarity. Tristan Dutchin, who said he was fired for being an Amazon Labor Union organizer, remarked, “Workers at Amazon, Starbucks, UPS—all these companies—need to come together to fight the same enemies.”

Also present were members of the Maspeth 250. In February 2014, 250 UPS workers at the Maspeth facility led a wildcat strike—a strike not authorized by their union—to protest the firing of Jairo Reyes, a union activist who had worked at the company for 24 years. Management fired all the strikers, but Teamsters Local 804 fought back and eventually got the terminations of all 250 workers and Reyes reduced to 10-day suspensions.

Douglass announced to a cheering crowd that the company had withdrawn some of the charges against him, and he could return to work that day. UPS also awarded him six days of back pay. Since the protest, UPS has dropped another charge against Douglass but tacked on another two for allegedly harassing supervisors during the rally. Douglass filed charges of retaliation with the NLRB and will still need to stand before a disciplinary panel that will determine whether he will be fired.

The company also offered Arlin his job back—but at first only if he withdrew his complaints and accepted no back pay. Arlin refused. In August, the company offered him his position back without conditions. He accepted, but it never gave him a return-to-work date and postponed the disciplinary panel to November.

Arlin isn’t stopping his public fight for his job. He planned a rally for his reinstatement in front of his facility on September 23. But just three days before the scheduled protest, police showed up to his front door and served him a harassment prevention order filed by his former boss. To avoid potential arrest, Arlin canceled the rally. “I’ll lose this battle to win the war,” he told me.

Wearing a blue Teamsters polo at the Maspeth protest, Arlin declared over a megaphone, “They know they can’t win this case. They don’t care about having to back-pay me for all that time. They’re using that as a fear tactic to tell all these young guys that are afraid to say something that if you stand up for yourself, then this is what’s gonna happen.”

“But,” he added, “I’m gonna fight this to the end to show these guys that they can’t push you around.”

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