On June 25, 24-year-old UPS driver Esteban Chavez Jr. collapsed in the back of his truck while working and died. Temperatures in the Los Angeles area that day were in the high 90s.
Hundreds of other UPS employees across the country suffer from heatstroke each summer because UPS refuses to install air conditioning in its trucks or warehouses.
In our own Teamsters Local 804 in New York, a supervisor even told a driver who suffered heat stroke while working not to call an ambulance and tried to stop him from dropping off a workers compensation claim. Later that day, the driver was hospitalized with heatstroke.
And, although we have the contractual right to at least have ventilators in our trucks, in New York UPS has refused to install ventilators for months.
At the same time, the company has started installing something else: driver-facing surveillance cameras with audio and video capabilities, to bolster the already intense surveillance we are subject to and ensure they can shoot the best out of our working day.
As the summer heat wave peaked, drivers fell ill, and public concern grew for people working in the heat, we decided to organize for collective action.
The request for fans and air conditioning instead of surveillance cameras is not only a big problem for our colleagues, but also attracted sympathy from the general public. So we decided to take a two-pronged approach to moving the issue forward: organizing both in our workplace and in the public eye.
FAILED A PLAN
The idea for Safety Not Surveillance rallies came from the grassroots. Many members said how outraged they were at the new cameras, installed in the heatwave, no less.
Some of us stewards developed a response plan and proposed it to our local president, Vinnie Perrone, in early July. He accepted.
Perrone’s statement announcing rallies for July 28, posted as an image on Facebook and Twitter and shared in WhatsApp chats, drew strong support. Local leaders across the country shared it again, expressed their support and pledged to take similar action.
We called lists of our colleagues to talk about the issue and encourage them to attend the rally, emphasizing the importance of collective action.
After doing some phone banking, we designed a flyer that included the dates of the Safety Not Surveillance rallies and our Contract 2023 campaign kick-off rally. We wanted to emphasize that these were linked, as we knew our more ambitious security requirements would probably only be met during our contract fight next year.
While distributing flyers, we also circulated “fan request lists” and encouraged members to exercise their right to have a fan installed.
In the past, individuals asked for fans themselves. We decided to collectivize the request so that people would feel that the problem was general and to put pressure on the company.
Signing up members to the roster has also given us the opportunity to discuss our next contract fight, where we can negotiate over cameras and security rules.
THE STORY WENT VIRAL
Our efforts paid off and we got a solid turnout. Hundreds of members showed up in simultaneous rallies at two of the biggest hubs on the day of the action. The media picked up the story of the events and the coverage gained momentum after a photo of a denied fan request went viral on social media.
In a viral tweet, we asked the public to call the UPS 1-800 complaint number about the issue. Very quickly, dozens of journalists contacted us. Fox5, CBS, Telemundo, CNBC, Business Insider, Vice, The Guardian, QZ, Jacobin, Fox26and several other outlets published stories.
All of this media interest encouraged members to speak out and boosted their confidence that the public supported our fight.
LAUNCH OF THE CONTRACT
Amid Safety Not Surveillance coverage, UPS-Teamsters 2023 contract campaign kick-off rallies were held across the country the first week of August.
The excitement and momentum we had generated through Safety Not Surveillance brought hundreds of additional members to our campaign launch events, as well as journalists who had initially reached out because of our safety campaign.
UPS has now installed fans in some trucks and has publicly apologized for not installing them before.
The campaign gave the public a glimpse of UPS’s intransigence and the stakes of our potential strike next year. We are going to need their support.
One of the lessons we learn is that even workers in the private sector can attract community support and make our negotiations relevant to the “common good” of workers across the economy when we publicize issues. in the workplace that are outrageous but also linked to many.
Elliot Lewis and Matt Leichenger are stewards with Teamsters Local 804.