At UPS Worldport, union members rally — and worry — ahead of threatened strike

Teamsters leader says he expects company to return to negotiations next week

by Liam Niemeyer, Kentucky Lantern

LOUISVILLE — It’s been more than 25 years since Gilbert Pendleton, 62, was on the picket line with his local Teamsters union in Louisville, a time before online commerce and deliveries had changed the world. 

In 1997, when some 185,000 Teamsters went on strike in a fight to make more full-time jobs available and keep existing pension plans at United Parcel Service, Pendleton said there were “a lot fewer employees, a lot less volume” of packages. 

“Then to now, it’s a whole different beast,” Pendleton said, wearing a brown shirt featuring the phrase “pay UP” that incorporates an altered UPS logo. 

United Parcel Service, more commonly known as UPS, started operating in Louisville with a small facility that handled 2,000 air packages a day in the 1980s. Over the decades, the company has transformed the site into its Worldport hub that processes more than 2 million packages a day

Fred Zuckerman with the Teamsters holds a megaphone.
 Fred Zuckerman, the general secretary-treasurer of the national Teamsters union, answers questions from the Louisville crowd on Tuesday. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

Pendleton is now facing the prospect of another strike as more than 340,000 unionized truck drivers and package handlers at UPS are about two weeks away from the end of a contract that expires on July 31.

Teamsters leadership told rallying union members outside the Worldport hub on Tuesday that a tentative new contract is about “90% done.” 

UPS and the Teamsters have come to major agreements on ending a dual wage system for delivery drivers and equipping newly purchased small package delivery vehicles with air conditioning to protect drivers from summer heat.

A remaining sticking point is the union’s push to raise wages for part-time workers, including those in Louisville who worry about getting enough hours to support themselves and their families. 

Pendleton, who has worked for UPS for 29 years, said he was offered full-time work only after about 18 years with the company. He declined to take it because he was offered the full-time shifts only during the night, interfering with other family obligations. 

“It hasn’t been a job that you just work this job, and that’s what you do. You’ve always had to supplement one way or another,” Pendleton said. “It would be so nice if we could get it to a point to where we could survive just on this job.”

Teamsters point to profits the company has made since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying there’s plenty of money to share. According to the shipping firm Pitney Bowes, UPS in 2022 saw a 5.5% increase in revenue year over year reaching about $73 billion.

Teamsters’ official predicts UPS will resume talks next week

Pendleton joined about 100 people Tuesday morning just outside the Worldport hub for a rally. UPS truck drivers honked their horns as they drove by the crowd while UPS planes took off and landed nearby. Union members blew whistles and waved signs that said they were “united for a strong contract.”

Fred Zuckerman, the general secretary-treasurer of the national Teamsters union, grabbed a megaphone to update local union members. “With the record profits they got, and they don’t have any more money to take care of the employees that make them the money in the first place — there’s not much talking to them left,” Zuckerman said. 

Teamsters had accused UPS of walking away from the negotiating table earlier this month, something the company denies. UPS has said its part-time employees earn an average $20 an hour after 30 days with the company and receive the same health care and pension benefits as full-time employees. 

In a July 14 news release, UPS stated it was starting “business continuity training” for employees in order to “deliver our customers’ packages if the Teamsters choose to strike.”

“These activities also will not take away from our ongoing efforts to finalize a new contract that increases our employees’ already industry-leading wages and benefits, allows UPS to remain competitive and provides certainty for our customers and the U.S. economy,” the company said in its release. 

Zuckerman said he expects UPS to come back to the negotiating table next week in Washington D.C. “What we need to do is to make sure we take care of our part time” employees, he said. 

“They got to show us the money. They’ve got to bring it to the table, and we can get a deal,” Zuckerman said. 

Camron Tyler, 29, who’s worked at UPS’ hub in Louisville for almost three years as a part-time package handler, admits he’s a bit nervous looking to the weeks ahead. But he also knows that some of his co-workers already are struggling to make ends meet. 

“You hear about a lot of people having to go on to assistance programs and the like even though they’re working here, and it isn’t tenable for a lot of people, you know — bills, food, everything,” Tyler said.

He said his and his co-workers’ hours recently have been reduced, creating a tighter financial crunch at the grocery store and elsewhere. Tyler said part-time shifts that used to average around five hours a day have dropped to about three hours. 

The crowd at the Teamsters rally on Tuesday, some holding up signs.
 The crowd attending the Teamsters rally on Tuesday. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

“I think the main thing most people want is to be able to be self-reliant in their work, to be able to take care of themselves,” Tyler said.

When asked about whether UPS employees at the Worldport have seen reduced hours, a company spokesperson in a statement said it made some “operational changes” that allow it to maximize its air deliveries.

Pendleton is also worried about the uncertainty of the potential strike, saying the union could lose “the teeth” it has if UPS is able to break a potential strike. But he’s reassured that other unions, including pilots for UPS, are backing the Teamsters if the union does walk off the job.

“All these other unions that are standing behind us and telling them flat out, ‘We won’t cross the picket line for you guys.’ And that helps a lot more than they can know,” Pendleton said.

A warehouse with a UPS logo.
 UPS’ Worldport hub in Louisville. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer).

Photo: Attendees at a Teamsters rally in Louisville listen to speakers. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)