Union Gang

A former UPS worker recounts using direct action, and then the grievance process, in addressing issues at a sorting hub, 2016-2018.

Deonte and James were sorting up in the pickoff. They stood perched in their little cubbies, each standing on a steel grate on either side of the belt at the top of a 15-foot ladder. The belt was barely visible under a never-ending flood of cardboard boxes. Little Sephora packages fell off the sides and piled up at their feet. It was the middle of July. It was hot as balls.

“This that bullshit,” Deonte muttered. “They need to give us a motherfucking BREAK. Ain’t this illegal?”

“What do you think would happen if we all just took a break?” James asked cautiously. To his surprise, Deonte caught on right away.

“YO KYLE!!!” he bellowed down to the floor. “You need to give us our fifteen, Kyle! We gon’ go on strike! We gon’ go on strike!”

Kyle’s weaselly little face popped into view at the bottom of the ladder. “Uhhh, do you guys need a break?” he yelled up nervously. James was stunned.

For the rest of that summer, package handlers on Green Belt got 15-minute smoke breaks every day. Loaders and sorters alike. Maryland doesn’t have any law mandating 15-minute breaks. Neither does the Teamsters’ contract with UPS. Most workers don’t believe this is true, probably because it’s such bullshit. They know they should be entitled to a fifteen, so it must be the law. Right?

At the UPS warehouse in south Baltimore, we discovered we could will this fictional rule into being by enforcing it.

* * *

When James and I started working at UPS in 2016, we had the idea that we would start a dual card organizing campaign. We wanted to form an IWW committee within the UPS Teamsters. We soon realized that on Day shift, the union pretty much only existed on paper.

James worked in Green Belt, one of five color-coded belts where packages were loaded onto outbound semis. I split my time between the No-Lift and Irreg Belt. The No-Lift is a relatively cushy job–you stand up on catwalks near the ceiling, and sort parcels by plucking them off one belt and throwing them down one of several chutes onto another belt, depending on the zip code. In a more modernized warehouse, this job would be automated. Irreg Belt is down on the floor, and it sucks. It’s where they send “irregular” packages: anything heavier than 70 pounds, or anything made of metal or wood. Sometimes we got 50 pounds barrels of bull semen that looked like Daleks from Doctor Who.

Day shift was unique in that it was only a few years old. All the other shifts were well established, and had a mix of highly paid full-time workers and low-paid part-time workers. The company had started Day shift in 2013 as a part-time-only shift to save on labor costs. They worked us harder than any other shift, squeezing higher production numbers out of us than anybody else. The median age of a Day shift worker was much younger than on Twilight, Night shift, or Preload. A lot of our coworkers were felons.

We were also the only shift without a strong union presence. Nobody knew who the shop steward was. The other shifts all had multiple active stewards; on Day shift, nobody even knew how to file a grievance. Some people didn’t know they were in a union. Nobody ever talked about the Teamsters, except maybe to complain the first week of the month when dues came out of our checks. The company broke the contract with impunity. Supervisors did bargaining unit work every day. Unloaders got sent home before they got their guaranteed three-and-a-half-hours. People got fired without just cause. It was the Wild West.

This was the environment Deonte spontaneously threatened a “strike” in. On the other shifts, it would have been impossible. The steward would have just told you “work now, grieve later,” and that would be that. But in the chaos and lawlessness of Day shift, it worked.

* * *

Six months later, we had started to organize the skeleton of a committee. We’d each started doing some one-on-ones outside of work with our immediate coworkers. James had recruited two guys from Green Belt, and I’d got two guys from Irreg Belt. We started having committee meetings after work at the Mondawmin mall. Then one day we saw a notice up on the bulletin board about a shop steward election on Twilight shift. This could be our chance, we thought. We decided to crash it.

Our crew waited until after work and showed up unannounced to the election. It was a pretty no-frills affair: an older dude from Twilight volunteered, the Teamster business agent asked for a show of hands, and he got elected unanimously. We could tell they thought it was weird for a bunch of young part-timers from Day shift to be there.

The business agent was really apologetic about the sorry state of working conditions on Day shift. He eagerly told us about the benefits of having a union–like how if we caught a supervisor stealing bargaining unit work, we could grieve it and collect double-time pay. That got everybody’s attention. He had us do another impromptu show-of-hands “election”. When we left, James and I had been appointed shop stewards. The rusty, neglected machinery of the union was in our hands now.

We commenced laying down the law. James usually acted as steward, and I filled in for him when he wasn’t there. We stayed late after work every day, teaching people how to file grievances and get the most bang for their buck out of their dues money. Grievance hearings on Day shift became a normal occurrence. We prevented a few firings, and we got a couple of sups (UPS slang for supervisor) transferred out of our building for harassment. But once word got out that you could make extra money by talking to us, the vast majority of our work was processing grievances for sups stealing bargaining unit work.

The sort manager, the top boss in the building who we were negotiating these settlements with, was easygoing enough. He was a little contemptuous of us, but he was smart enough to know it was easier to offer us low-ball settlements and pay them than it was to let the grievances move up to the next level and risk owing more. The lower-level sups were not so reasonable. Most of them took it personally: “Those union assholes wrote me up!”

Our shop committee had grown into a little group of workers in our orbit who were especially militant about enforcing the contract. After we clocked out each day, we would get a few of them together and patrol around the building with a clipboard looking for contract violations. One supervisor named Saul really hated our guts. He would see us coming and sneer, “Look, union gang!”

The name stuck. I loved it. “That’s EXACTLY who the fuck we are,” I told our committee. “Union gang.”

* * *

I was very aware that enforcing the contract was a trade-off. The purpose of the grievance procedure is to take class conflict off the shop floor and lock it away in a file cabinet. As the means we used became increasingly legalistic, we sacrificed a degree of freedom. We gained job security, more hours, and extra penalty pay, but we had given up the ability to pressure management by spontaneously refusing work. The ad hoc fifteen minute breaks on Green Belt were a distant memory.

As a package handler, I was happy we had managed to establish a new status quo. Life at work was easier in a lot of ways. As a radical, I was uneasy that job action was drifting further out of our reach. The contract was set to expire in August 2018. Negotiations on the national level weren’t looking good. Were our people ready to walk out? I doubted it.

The committee’s activity then was mostly related to the national contract fight. Everything people cared about was being decided at the bargaining table in Atlanta, far away from our building. Our raises and health benefits and future full-time opportunities were all at stake. In our hub, we were circulating a petition for contract proposals for a $15/hr starting wage, guaranteed 15 minute breaks, and other improvements for part-timers. We screenprinted t-shirts that said “VOTE NO: READY TO STRIKE”, handed them out, and wore them every Tuesday.

By this time, the company had figured out what to do with Union Gang: break our backs. They quarantined the troublemakers and the most frequent grievants on Irreg Belt. We were determined to make them regret it.

I had long conversations with the other Irreg guys about putting on-the-job action back on the table. We came up with the idea of a “Fuck Red Belt” day. Red Belt was the highest-volume department in the building. Sometimes they kept working for more than an hour after everybody else had gone home.

I wrote up a totally frivolous grievance demanding 15-minute breaks. The building was short staffed and lots of us were working double shifts, and the heat was agitating the hell out of people. Legally, I didn’t have a leg to stand on; I claimed that breaks were “past practice”. Everybody in Irreg and most of the No-Lift signed it. We made sure to do it conspicuously in front of our sup, Leo.

That same day, we fucked Red Belt. We loaded up their cart with lots of mis-sorts, which were intended for different belts. We made sure to send them the heaviest, most unwieldy, and weirdest irregs. Air conditioning units, swing sets, truck tires, I-beams, barrels of bull semen.

Leo ran up on us more than once. “Who’s throwin’ the mis-sorts?!” he would snarl. The five of us just shrugged and played dumb. “Why would we do that?”

At the end of the day, Leo went down to Red Belt to help them sort out the mess we had made. He brought two other sups with him. We clocked out, followed them down there, and filed grievances on each of them for stealing union work.

The next day, Leo brought in a full-timer from the Twilight shift. He had him switch out with every sorter in the No-Lift, one by one, allowing everybody to take a fifteen-minute break. This became the new normal for our department, from then until the end of peak season in December. We never even handed in the grievance we had all signed.

* * *

As the reader may already know, the Teamsters screwed us over at the bargaining table. We didn’t win a single one of our demands for part-timers. The starting wage will finally reach $15 in 2021. The new contract created a new, substandard job classification called “hybrid driver,” robbing thousands of UPS warehouse workers of the higher-paying full-time opportunities that our predecessors won in the 1997 strike.

As for Union Gang, it fell apart. Morale was at an all-time low. Some of us gave up and went into management. James transferred to Twilight, where he is only one steward among many. Deonte got fired. I broke my finger, and never came back to work after using up my sick leave.

There are a few lessons I think you can take from our experience. It’s not a success story, but it’s also not quite a cautionary tale.

Taking on a role in the union bureaucracy as stewards created a buffer zone between our committee and the Local, which allowed us to get away with things that other rank-and-file militants could not. We succeeded in creatively mis-using the grievance procedure by combining it with on-the-job action. But in the final analysis, it also forced us into the uncomfortable position of holding back our coworkers’ militancy.

The most remarkable thing about UPS is the nakedness and rawness of the class struggle there. It’s how I imagine workplace culture must have been in the 1930’s. Before we became stewards, if somebody had a problem, we could stop the belt and cuss out the boss. There was a non-zero chance of physical violence. After we got elected, stopping the belt became almost impossible. If somebody came to us with a problem, we handed them paperwork, and told them to keep their head down and talk to us after shift. We channeled their anger into slow-moving channels that may have gotten results…but at the cost of taking immediate power out of their hands.

Most importantly, we learned that direct action on the shopfloor can exceed the letter of the law. With enough disruptive activity, combined with enough imagined legitimacy, workers can enforce rules that don’t even exist.