The Power of a Unionized Workplace: Reflections from two Former UPS Teamsters

In honor of the DSA Strike Ready 2023 campaign, DSA members Hunter Cohen and Will O’Dwyer write about their experiences working as UPS Teamsters and illustrate that unions go beyond winning better wages, hours, and conditions. They also create a supportive workplace based on solidarity and care for coworkers. 


Hunter Cohen: Middlesex County UPS Center

My first day on the job at UPS was both exactly as expected and completely surprising. As my supervisor led me down the warehouse conveyor belt to the truck I would be working in, he introduced me to my coworkers, explained the ins and outs of which trucks went where, and told me to stay hydrated so that I would not pass out in the heat. I suddenly noticed how hot it was getting in the un-air conditioned facility as we neared the end of the conveyor belt. 

I was introduced to my coworker (we’ll call him Prince for the sake of anonymity) and the work day began. As I awkwardly began stacking boxes in the truck, Prince, a veteran employee, gave me pointers and tips, occasionally interjecting, “look busy,” which he explained was crucial to avoiding getting yelled at by supervisors. As I got ready to toss a bag into the truck, Prince said, “It’s just like tossing a body bag.”

Work continued and I gradually was introduced to all of my coworkers over the next few months. You meet all walks of life at a UPS warehouse, from old head truck drivers with decades of experience who only work an hour a week for health insurance, to part-time college students working just for the summer looking to make a little bit of extra money, to parents trying to support their families. Despite our differences, we talked baseball, about our weekends, and joked about some of the odder packages we had to stack.

We were united by the conditions we faced on the job. After every shift, we all walked off with bruises all over our bodies from bracing heavy packages. Most days that summer the trucks would reach temperatures of over 120 degrees fahrenheit, so we also often walked off the job delirious and nearly burnt to death from the heat. The UPS website says the package handler job, “is a workout like no other!” Wish I could meet the guy in management who wrote that, because that’s not how I would put it. 

We didn’t just commiserate, we had each others’ back. One day when I was working with my coworker (we’ll call her Joni for the sake of anonymity) she told me about a particularly bad supervisor she had to deal with. Joni is a black woman and a mother, and that supervisor mistreated her because of those identities. She told me that she did not feel like she could report this racist and sexist supervisor because they would not take a black woman contesting her white supervisor seriously. Instead, she told her predominantly white coworkers, and the entire shop banded together and filed a grievance against that supervisor, who UPS then fired. That’s solidarity in action.

Unions don’t just win better wages, hours, and working conditions; they create a workplace culture that encourages camaraderie, collaboration, and solidarity. We’re not worried about a boss firing us for talking with our coworkers on the job, so we form friendships. We know that the union will protect our jobs, so we don’t feel the need to compete against each other; instead, we fight for each other. As the Teamsters prepare to go on strike against UPS, they’re fighting for better conditions, but also to preserve the union workplace culture that we love. I’ll be on the picket line to support the fight against a company that would take this away from us and reduce our workplaces to a modern sweatshop — like Amazon warehouses — and I hope you will too.  

Will O’Dwyer: Barnstable County UPS Center

It was June of 2020, and I had just graduated from high school in the miserable circumstances of the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was working excessive hours at a dead-end retail job with a management who couldn’t or didn’t care about the treatment of their workers. COVID-19 was running rampant. I was looking for an out. 

At that time, UPS was reeling under the stress of the pandemic. I saw an opening listed for my area with pay that I, just out of high school, couldn’t ignore: $21 dollars an hour, plus overtime. While I didn’t know much about unions or a workplace like this, I signed up and was practically hired on the spot. From the first day I was thrown into the thick of things: working in the warehouse on the belt, and then recruited onto the trucks as a “driver assistant,” pushing out packages as quickly as possible. 

The center was a disaster. Multiple trailers sat filled to the brim, their contents rotting in July heat. Some had been there for over a month. Piles of loose packages were scattered everywhere you looked, blocking your path. People were beating down the doors every morning looking for answers, while drivers, handlers, and everyone in between was being worked to the bone.

I understood quickly that this work wears you down. It doesn’t take much to imagine what decades of handling packages and driving all day for a living does to your body. I came home often with bruises in places I’d never thought possible, having breathed in ten hours worth of dust and grime. You don’t stay at UPS for twenty years because you feel valued and fulfilled: you stay because you (theoretically) have the compensation you deserve and job security. 

There’s too many stories to detail here, but I have fond memories of passing time with tales of ridiculous bosses, scary deliveries, and petty workplace mishaps. Back then, these mishaps didn’t strike me as more than occupational hazards, but I’ve since come to realize that similar things would’ve gotten me fired at any job I’d worked before. 

In my retail job, I lived in fear of the boss and customers, but at UPS, the Teamsters protected you from being fired for a bad day. The work at UPS was tougher and the bosses were meaner, but you didn’t have to be afraid if you put in the work, and everyone did. My time at UPS taught me what solidarity in the workplace looks like, how people of many backgrounds and perspectives can come together to defend their interests and have each others’ backs.  My coworkers brought me under their wing, and one in particular (Joe, for anonymity) is someone that I’d call a friend to this day. 

Joe had been working at the same warehouse for over twenty years, and was an established driver and man-about-the-building. Drivers have their routine set, and introducing new people into that isn’t always easy. But we worked through it, and grew to respect each other. I could lift the heavy packages, and do it quickly, so Joe showed me the ropes. The chance to go out on the delivery trucks was a welcome change of scene from the conveyor belt. Cape Cod’s summer sun is unforgiving under plexiglass, and winter brought its own problems. To distract ourselves, we talked about music, movies, food, and our lives. His life hadn’t been easy, and he’d been scraping by before he found work at UPS. That work that let him live without precarity and raise a family. That UPS was unionized and had those hard won benefits and wages that it did was the foundation of his livelihood. Joe wasn’t the most active union member, but he knew his rights, exercised them, and didn’t let anyone else get pushed around. More than once he expressed his frustration at the UPS contract, over how new drivers were getting a raw deal or how they wouldn’t be able to live like he did. 

Before I left for college, Joe’s son died. He lost access to the insurance that allowed him to afford his medication — healthcare that kept him alive. This would typically have been occasion for canned condolences from management, nothing more. With these coworkers, it was different. People from all over the warehouse carved out time at the start of the day to collect donations for Joe and his family. Teamsters could do this because they knew each other and were organized. That act of solidarity remained in my mind for a long time afterward. I wasn’t a socialist then, and frankly I barely understood how a union workplace operated by the time I left, but I knew then that it was something worth more than the extra money I saw at the end of the week. 

The Teamsters are currently negotiating a contract with UPS on the basis of better pay and an end to divide-and-rule tactics. They’re also defending an alternative vision of labor and collective power that too many in the United States  have forgotten about in the past several decades. Contract negotiations represent a chance to defend that vision and demonstrate the power of the growing rank-and-file movement. If it comes to a strike in August, I’ll be out on the picket lines with them, as I hope you will be too.