WORKERS’ HEALTH - In late August, as temperatures soared around the United States, a driver for United Parcel Service (UPS) took before-and-after photos of chocolate chip cookies on a baking sheet.
The delicious-looking confections were baked on the dashboard of a UPS truck whose internal temperatures shot to dangerous levels—not in an oven. It was an ingenious way to showcase the modern-day horror of the climate crisis intersecting with corporate greed.
Business Insider, which republished the photos, explained that “drivers are documenting extreme heat conditions in their vehicles by sharing photos of thermometers clocking 150 degrees and cooking steaks and baking cookies on their dashboards.”
It’s not just cookies and steaks that are baking in the trucks. Drivers are collapsing and dying from the extreme temperatures.
Twenty-four-year-old Esteban Chavez Jr., who had worked for UPS for four years, died on a hot day in June in Pasadena, California, after passing out in his truck while he was delivering packages. About 20 minutes after he fell out of the driver’s seat, a homeowner nearby noticed and called authorities, but it was too late. Chavez’s f
amily believes he died of heatstroke.
In late August, a UPS driver in Paso Robles, California, had a heatstroke while driving and crashed into a restaurant, causing serious damage to the entire building.
In July, another UPS driver was caught on a doorbell video camera stumbling toward the entrance of an Arizona home to deliver a package and falling down in apparent exhaustion. He eventually managed to stand back up and return to his truck. The homeowner was so alarmed that he called the police. One Las Vegas-based UPS driver, Moe Nouhaili, told the Guardian that the incident was just the tip of the iceberg: “People are just dropping weekly here. It’s not something where that one driver in Arizona is going viral.”
UPS released a statement in response to the Arizona video saying that drivers “are trained to work outdoors and for the effects of hot weather,” as if the company has unlocked a physiological secret and trained its drivers to become impervious to extreme heat. In fact, all it means is that the company has instructed drivers to stop working and seek medical help when they feel unwell.
UPS also told Business Insider in response to the photos of the dashboard cookies, “We never want our employees to continue working to the point that they risk their health or work in an unsafe manner.” Again, such a response is insulting and akin to the company saying, “We want them to work until they can’t work.”
In response to the untenable conditions of driving without air conditioning in extreme heat, UPS drivers are demanding that their employer outfit delivery trucks with air conditioning—a direct and easy protection against heatstroke. UPS ought to be able to afford it. In July the world’s largest transportation company reported nearly $25 billion in revenues, up significantly from last year.
UPS CEO Carol Tomé rightly attributed her company’s massive profits to the hard work of employees, saying, “I want to thank UPSers around the world for delivering outstanding service to our customers.” She added, “While the external environment is ever changing, our better not bigger strategic framework has fundamentally improved nearly every aspect of our business, enabling greater agility and strong financial performance.”
But “every aspect of our business” does not include the most basic one: safe working conditions for the employees who reap those massive profits.
Instead of outfitting trucks with air conditioning, the company used some of its profits to create a slick-looking and condescending training video called “Cool Solutions” that lasts barely more than a minute and offers such basic advice as “getting rest,” “eating right,” “staying hydrated,” and—with no sense of irony whatsoever—“staying safe and cool from the heat.”
The video also suggests that drivers seek out cool spaces like grocery or convenience stores and office or government buildings to bring down their temperatures. “The key is to know your cooldown locations as they will have air-conditioned air where you can pause and cool down.”
Apparently, the multibillion-dollar corporation refuses to consider turning the trucks themselves into cool spaces.
The good news is that UPS drivers have had union representation with the Teamsters for many decades, and the unsafe working conditions of summer deliveries in non-air-conditioned trucks are set to be a central negotiating point in next year’s contract negotiations. UPS Teamsters in August kicked off a campaign on the 25th anniversary of a historic strike in 1997 when nearly 200,000 drivers stopped working.
The campaign kickoff also took place exactly a year before the current contract expires. One worker, Andrew Hancock, said at the campaign launch, “UPS has been making huge profits off of our backs and we are coming to collect what the company owes us.”
This warning shot to UPS’s executives comes at a time when several critical components that can foster the rights of drivers have lined up. Not only are we living through a time of historically high union activity, especially among well-known, name-brand companies like Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s, but also the Biden administration has ensured that the National Labor Relations Board is staunchly on the side of unions—as it was meant to be. And, a new Gallup poll has found that more than 70 percent of American support unions—up several points from a year ago, and the highest support since 1965.
Most importantly, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has a new president, Sean O’Brien, after more than two decades—and he’s ready to take on corporate America. O’Brien said in a May 2022 speech, “We’re going to strike hard, we’re going to strike fast… we’re going to demand what we’re worth.”
Like other corporations facing aggressive unionization, UPS already appears to be engaging in union busting, and is accused of firing two New York-based drivers over their labor activism.
O’Brien told CNN.com that while no one desires a strike, UPS needs to “understand we’re not going to be afraid to pull that trigger if necessary.” It is hard to overstate the significance of such fighting words. CNN pointed out, “A UPS strike now would be the largest in decades—and perhaps the largest U.S. strike ever against a single corporation.”
(Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.)