For most, Christmas is about spending time with family, getting a few deserved days off work, or exchanging gifts. But others have stories of mind-numbing, exhausting work and death on the job. For the big logistics giants — Amazon, FedEx, the Post Office, and UPS — packages come first, even if it kills workers.
Death on the Job
Earlier this month, UPS, the largest private, unionized logistics company in the United States, imposed a seventy-hour workweek on its package car delivery drivers. Illegal? Not according to the company:
UPS appreciates exceptional effort of all employees during our peak holiday shipping season, when delivery volumes near double the normal level. Our employees’ scheduled workweek is in compliance with Department of Transportation requirements. Union-represented employees are paid time and one-half for work above forty hours per week and they receive the industry’s most attractive compensation and benefits program.
You’d almost get the impression from the statement that the Department of Transportation requires delivery drivers to work this seventy-hour week. But, in fact, UPS is exploiting a loophole to reset the clock, forcing drivers to work past the usual legal maximum of sixty hours.
In response, Sean O’Brien, president of the Boston-based Local 25 and a former Hoffa protégé, issued a statement from New England’s Teamsters Joint Council 10, denouncing the company’s actions:
While the union and our members realize this is an extremely busy time of the year, we also realize that UPS is again putting “profits ahead of people.” As Teamsters, we put our members’ safety and health as our foremost concern. And implementation of a seventy-hour workweek jeopardizes our members and the general public’s safety and health.
Several locals rallied against the new hours at hubs across New England, forcing the company to reverse its policy. Matt Taibi, a former UPS driver and Secretary-Treasurer of Teamster Local 251, told me:
Coordinated collective action by UPS members in New England was able to force UPS to back down on making seventy-hour workweeks mandatory in Local 251 and some other locals. We need to continually educate our members on safety issues, injuries, and fatigue to protect our members and the general public.
With a few other exceptions, UPS has implemented the extended workweek across the country.
Predictable as the winter snow, death arrived at UPS on December 14, less than two weeks after the policy change. William Stubbs, a fifty-one year old with seventeen years at UPS, was crushed to death at the Pleasantdale Road hub in Atlanta, Georgia. Stubbs either stepped or fell off a dock when a trailer suddenly thrust into reverse, mortally wounding him.
One Pleasantdale UPS driver, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me:
While I’m shocked and upset, I can’t really say I’m surprised. I didn’t know him personally, but this “accident” has to be seen as a direct result of UPS’s decision to push its workers to the most extreme physical limits possible.
In fact, there still has been no official acknowledgment of the death to employees. When I returned to our office from my route Friday night, our supervisors were all crowded together watching a football game, enjoying themselves, not bothered at all that someone was just crushed to death a few dozen feet away a few hours earlier.
It was only leaving the hub, talking to other drivers who read the news, that any of us found out about the death of our coworker.
Is there a connection between the new workweek and Stubbs’s death? UPS doesn’t see one. In his email to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, UPS spokesman Matthew O’Connor wrote: “UPS is saddened by the loss of a seventeen-year employee at the company’s facility on Pleasantdale Road in Atlanta. We express our deepest condolences to his family and friends.”
His statement doesn’t even reach the level of the PR-generated non-apologies coming from executives accused of sexual harassment. UPS clearly won’t use Stubbs’s tragic death as a moment to reflect on its policies and working conditions.
Santa or the Grinch?
Death or serious injury is never far away at UPS. This past June, a worker at the San Francisco hub killed three coworkers and himself — the second mass shooting at a UPS facility in less than three years. Foreshadowing Stubbs’s death, a part-time supervisor was pinned against a dock by a trailer at UPS’s Bedford Park hub near Chicago this October. Fortunately, he survived.
It’s hard to describe these events as “accidents” — as somehow beyond human control — because the system is rigged to cause injury and death.
The difficult working conditions that produced these deaths only intensify during “peak season,” which runs from the beginning of October to mid-January when holiday shopping sends package volume skyrocketing.
UPS’s contract with the Teamsters allows the company to implement unique policies during this period, including hiring an army of part-time, temporary employees (usually around ninety thousand of them), whose hours don’t count toward union membership and who receive no holiday pay or benefits. When I worked at UPS, supervisors and managers gleefully referred to peak season as the “free period,” the time when they can literally rip up the union contract.
Adding to this frantic pace, UPS fears repeating the disaster of Christmas 2013, when it failed to deliver millions of packages on time. An avalanche of boxes, especially from Amazon, overwhelmed the company’s system, making a mockery of its guarantee of on-time arrival.
It was the company’s biggest public-relations black eye since the 1997 Teamsters’ strike, which revealed UPS’s miserable working conditions to the rest of the world. In 2013, a snarky Wired article declared, “Santa can deliver millions of packages in time for Christmas, but apparently, UPS can’t.” The British Daily Mail told its US readers, “The United Parcel Service has turned into the Grinch that stole Christmas for thousands of families who didn’t get their packages in time for the holiday.”
Larry Ledet, a fifty-five-year old and veteran driver of twenty-seven-years, turned to Facebook to defend workers against the torrent of complaints. He wrote:
I’m a driver, got off at 1010 last night, 60hr weeks, I’m tired, Mother Nature, a booming economy and no one visiting malls any more caused this… no reason 4 anyone to be mad … Merry Christmas.
To prevent another Christmas fiasco the following year, UPS spent over $500 million to modernize its facilities and hired an additional 95,000 seasonal workers. It made its holiday deliveries on time but soon faced criticism from financial analysts for excessive spending.
UPS highly values its brand. In 2015, the company ranked thirty-fourth on Fortune’s list of “America’s Most Admired Companies,” far below its archrival FedEx, which came in twelfth. UPS’s problems over the two previous Christmas seasons impacted its rating. Fortune lamented:
The Georgia-based delivery company makes deliveries in more than 220 countries and territories. The busy 2015 holiday season turned out to be a mixed blessing: While the company is delivering more packages than it used to, that also means it has higher costs, which led to charging customers surcharges for peak shipping.
Why can’t UPS get the Christmas season right? Soon after Black Friday this year, the company announced that volume was so high that it might once again miss its deadlines. Boston Teamster leader Sean O’Brien points to “poor planning,” but Christmas comes every year — why the surprise?
Even though it struggles over the holidays, UPS is extremely efficient at subcontracting Teamster work to nonunion contractors the rest of the year. In 2015, it purchased Chicago-based Coyote Logistics for $1.8 billion. Coyote provides UPS with over twelve thousand shippers and a network of thirty-five thousand local, regional, and national carriers. Stand outside any major UPS hub, during peak season or not, and you’ll see nonunion drivers pulling trailers, work that should go to union members.
But UPS won’t hire the thousands of delivery drivers necessary to alleviate the yuletide crush because it is at war with its unionized workers.
Soon after peak season ended in February 2014, UPS fired 250 full-time package car drivers who had walked out in support of a popular union steward fired by the company. It took a broad-based, community-focused campaign led by then–Teamsters Local 804 President Tim Sylvester to win back their jobs — much to the chagrin of UPS.
Since then, the company has made drivers’ daily work a living hell by introducing new technology to surveil their every action and discipline them for minor infractions.
Dickens in the Digital Age
Working seventy hours a week is about close as you can get to being back in the nineteenth century without a time machine. When most people hear about this situation, they immediately think of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who only reluctantly gives his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit a day off for Christmas.
Dickens portrays Scrooge’s miserliness as a personal flaw, and his redemption comes through personal choice. Scrooge changes his ways after he’s visited by three ghosts, who force him to confront unpleasant truths about himself. UPS has also seen Christmases past, present, and future, but, for the company, they’re just pure gold. It won’t have a change of heart.
Karl Marx recognized the power of Dickens’s fiction. He wrote to Frederick Engels that the novelist had “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists, and moralists put together.”
According to Marx, the secret to understanding the capitalist is recognizing that the he “is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital”:
Capital is dead labor, that vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the laborer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes labor-power he purchased of him.
We see this struggle play out in battles between capital and labor over the number of hours worked. From the capitalist’s perspective, “If the laborer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.”
The calendar tells us that we are distant from Victorian England, but our work life — despite the digital-age veneer — closely resembles it in many ways. If several local unions can push UPS back from a mandatory seventy-hour workweek, imagine what the full power of the union could do: it could literally save lives.