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To protest the unfair firing of a co-worker, on Tuesday morning 150 UPS drivers in Chicago took a simple action: they didn’t go into work early.
Instead, they gathered outside with an inflatable fat cat. They grilled food, played music, and then walked in together, right on time.
This departure from routine was enough to throw their management into a panic.
“Every day is a battle on the shop floor over who’s got power and who doesn’t,” said driver Sean Orr, an elected shop steward in Teamsters Local 705. “Management loves to throw in our face the fact that they’ve got the power to fire. They’ve cost a lot of people precious income to prove a point.
“A lot of times we feel powerless to do anything about it. But we have a stronger weapon than that. It’s organization.”
‘DAMAGING THE COMPANY’S IMAGE’
Here’s the story on the fired co-worker: A few weeks earlier, a customer had called to complain about how a package was delivered. A supervisor notified the worker of the complaint and instructed her to deliver a different way at that address from then on. So far, so unremarkable.
But then the customer, apparently unsatisfied with UPS’s response, took her doorbell-camera video footage to local TV news. They bit.
The footage shows the worker heaving a package over a fence. “Nothing was broken. There was no damage done to her products or her property,” said UPS driver Sean Orr, an elected shop steward in Teamsters Local 705. “It was a box of clothes. There was a locked fence, and a sign saying, ‘Please leave packages on other side of fence.’
“Our co-worker was just doing what the lady asked of her, just doing her job. Of course none of that gets in the story.”
And on December 16, UPS fired her—not for the delivery, but for “damaging the company’s image.”
NOT SO FAST
“For us the issue is, we have a union contract,” Orr said, “and it spells out what management can and more importantly cannot do.”
A few “cardinal infractions” can justify immediate firing, like coming to work drunk or getting into a fight. This incident wasn’t a cardinal infraction. UPS should have followed progressive discipline.
Unfair firings are an unfortunately routine occurrence, and “usually we can get the person back to work quickly,” Orr said. The steward’s first step is to set a meeting with low-level management. But when management wants to prove a point, they’ll stall on scheduling—oh, we can’t meet this week, we can’t meet next week—and that’s what they did here.
“Meaning one of our co-workers, who did nothing wrong, was dragged through the mud by the local media,” Orr said, “and instead of coming to the defense of their employee, they threw her under the bus at Christmastime, and she would be unpaid through the holidays. For us that was too much to accept.”
NO EARLY START
So Orr and the other stewards, plus the union business agent, sprang into action. The facility has about 300 drivers. “We just phone-tree’ed all our co-workers,” Orr said, “first to see if people would be willing to do something like this, and once that response was very enthusiastic, we picked a day and called it.”
Typically the drivers arrive about an hour ahead of their 9:30 start time to get a cup of coffee and socialize while they wait for their trucks to be loaded. “We have a strong social culture,” Orr said. “We hang out with each other before work. We’re all by ourselves the rest of day, so that’s our time.”
Management likes this practice because, if some trucks are ready, they can get drivers out the door early—something they’re desperate to do during the busy holiday season. They can’t require the early arrival, though. After all, this is unpaid time, before the clock starts. “We have the ability to deny them that,” Orr said.
So the stewards’ request of co-workers was simple: don’t go inside until 9:15 or so. The objective was to force management to schedule the meeting.
IT GOT RESULTS
The stewards blew their turnout goal out of the water. This was the first time they had organized an action like this, and they had hoped 70 to 80 drivers would participate. Twice that many did—including both regular and hybrid drivers.
Orr believes after seeing how well it went, even more will join next time. “A lot of people are very proud to be Teamsters,” he said. “The union is us taking collective action together. We all got to experience that right before the holidays, and that’s very meaningful for us.”
Managers were scared enough to be unusually nice to drivers all day. And they agreed to hold that meeting about the fired worker today, after all. “Hopefully we are able to have her back to work before Christmas,” Orr said. “Otherwise, we’re ready to keep organizing on this issue.”