Unionized UPS Workers voted overwhelmingly to authorize the strike as contract negotiations continue, clearing the way for a potential work stoppage as early as August 1.
About 97% of workers who cast ballots voted in favor of the move, Teamsters leaders said Friday after more than a week of voting ahead of Tuesday’s tentative heat safety deal that would affect 340,000 delivery and package drivers at the nation’s largest carrier. .
Teamsters President Sean O’Brien said in a statement that the vote showed workers “are united and committed to getting the best contract in our history at UPS. If this multibillion-dollar corporation cannot deliver the contract our hard-working members deserve, UPS will strike alone .”
UPS acknowledged the result of the vote, noting that Friday’s strike authorization would not automatically trigger a work stoppage.
“The results do not mean that a strike is imminent and will not affect our current business operations in any way,” the company said in a statement. “We continue to make progress on key issues and remain confident that we will reach an agreement that is a win for our employees, the Teamsters, our company and our customers.”
The decision comes days after union leaders and UPS reached a handshake agreement in which the company pledged to introduce air conditioning to its fleet of iconic brown delivery vehicles for the first time.
Drivers and labor advocates welcomed the deal as an unexpected step forward on a key issue in the current round of labor negotiations.
“People are very excited,” said Zakk Luttrell, a UPS driver and union steward in Norman, Okla. “This is something they’ve been saying isn’t going to happen. We’ve heard for years that it’s not going to be effective.”
UPS has long resisted calls to air-condition its trucks and vans, even though at least 145 of its workers have been hospitalized for heat-related illnesses since 2015, according to an NBC News analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data. Luttrell welcomed the shift as long-awaited confirmation from the company that record summer temperatures required a change in approach.
“With the heat being what it is … it’s no longer just about what’s cost-effective and efficient,” he said, “it’s about keeping people alive.”
Amit Mehrotra, managing director and research analyst at Deutsche Bank who covers the transport sector, described progress on heat mitigation as “one piece of the puzzle” that was “probably in the top five overall issues” in the contract negotiations.
“From a cost standpoint, it’s a drop for UPS, and it’s a tremendous quality-of-life benefit for the union, so I think it’s a win-win,” he said.
Mehrotra expressed optimism about the overall direction of the talks’ progress, saying he expected the parties to “seal it up and get it done by the end of July” and avoid a strike.
A UPS work stoppage would be the largest single-employer strike in US history. Logistics experts say even a few days of UPS deliveries halted would disrupt the flow of more packages than top competitors such as FedEx or the US Postal Service could absorb and threaten to disrupt the back-to-school shopping season.
“The success of UPS is really tied to the success of the Teamsters because what they do in terms of service is really important,” Mehrotra said. “The other side of that coin is that UPS’s success is so critical to the viability of the Teamsters because it’s really the only place that has seen massive growth in Teamsters employment,” after membership declines in other major unions left UPS “literally the only oasis in this vast desert’ for the labor movement.
He added: “I don’t know how the strike isn’t a lose-lose.”
While many UPS union members cast their votes to authorize a strike before the thermal safety deal was announced, some drivers said afterward that other big priorities remain. For his part, Luttrell said his main concern was the “excessive” overtime demands.
“We make good money because we have a union, but all my time shouldn’t belong to this company,” he said.
Mehrotra said he expects UPS to close the gap on compensation issues such as establishing pay parity between different classifications of workers, which he described as an “incremental cost” to the company.
Heat safety experts praised the tentative agreement on air conditioning, but warned that addressing the threat of extreme temperatures would take time.
“Even if those doors are opening and closing a lot, it’s going to make sure those vans don’t continue to heat up and become ovens throughout the day,” said Juley Fulcher, an advocate for the consumer rights nonprofit Public Citizen. which focuses on thermal safety.
But in part because the changes will initially only affect newly purchased vehicles, she said, “that’s something that’s not going to be an immediate fix for workers,” adding, “These fleets take time to turn around.”
Some Teamsters advocates and leaders have also called for a more dynamic scheduling system that could better space out driving routes on very hot days, reducing the number of packages each driver must deliver.
“Work volume has to be part of the discussion,” Fulcher said, “because when we talk about heat stress, heat comes from two sources — it comes from inside your body and outside your body.”
Seth Harris, a law and policy professor at Northeastern University who served as President Joe Biden’s chief labor policy adviser, said the thermal safety progress at UPS could have broader implications.
“The preliminary thermal protection agreement will put enormous pressure on UPS’s competitors to meet or exceed these standards,” he said. “Drivers looking for work will want to know that their employer will look after them and keep them safe.”
But the concessions have already given UPS workers and their allies a dose of optimism.
“We’re so excited, you have no idea,” said Theresa Klenk, a nurse and wife of a UPS driver from New Jersey, who in 2016, he suffered a severe heat illness at workwhich led her to start a petition for air-conditioned trucks that has been ongoing ever since received more than 1.3 million signatures.
The newly announced changes, if ultimately approved as part of the new contract, are “huge,” Klenk said. “I think it’s a great start.
— Annie Probert contributed.