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UPS workers threaten a strike after contract talks break down


United Parcel Service workers are threatening to go on strike. Contract negotiations between their union and UPS management broke down this week. They're running out of time to reach an agreement. The deadline is at the end of the month. The Teamsters union represents 340,000 UPS workers. That's over half of the company's workforce. Here to talk to us about what's at stake in these negotiations is Teamsters general president Sean O'Brien. Good morning.

SEAN O'BRIEN: Good morning, sir. How are you?

SCHMITZ: Good. Thank you. What do UPS workers want?

O'BRIEN: Well, UPS workers want to be rewarded for their hard work, especially in light of making - UPS making record profits during the pandemic. You know, our members went out there and sacrificed their well-being to provide goods and services, and UPS made record profits, paid out record dividends. And now it's time for them to pay the people that actually make them the success, and that's our 340,000 Teamster members.

SCHMITZ: So NPR reached out to UPS for comment. In a statement, the company said, quote, "we are proud of what we've put forward in these negotiations, and the Teamsters should return to the table to finalize this deal." So UPS management's saying here the union has walked away. What has been the main sticking point between the union and UPS leadership?

O'BRIEN: Well, first off, the union did not walk away. At 4:15 a.m. on July 5, the company, when we got into the part-time wage rates for starting wage rates and also existing part-timers - you know, we made it clear that poverty - part-time poverty doesn't work, especially at UPS. And people don't realize this. You know, the drivers you see in your neighborhood, the men and women that are delivering packages - you know, UPS is saying they make $93,000, and they may, but they're working 10, 15 hours or overtime, no quality of life, missing Little League games and et cetera.

But what they don't tell you is that there's unsung heroes in those facilities, part-timers that - you know, these trucks do not deliver packages unless they're loaded. And these part-timers are working at poverty wages. They need to drive the starting wage rate up, reward the people that have been there a long time and provide full-time opportunity for these folks. And, you know, when we got into the negotiations over the part-timers, UPS simply said there's no more to give and said we're not going to go any further, and that was it. So, you know, their story's compelling but highly inaccurate.

SCHMITZ: Got it. So if UPS workers do go on strike, this could lead to the biggest private sector strike since the 1950s. What would this mean for customers, and what would it mean for the economy?

O'BRIEN: Well, it's unfortunate that if UPS chooses to strike themselves and not concede to our demands that they could be putting their business, customers at risk. And, you know, like, people say to us all the time, well, isn't that going to, you know, impact your members? It will, but, you know, like anything else, there's a little short-term pain for a long-term gain. And, you know, UPS has to, you know, reward the people that have made them a success. And if there is a labor dispute and/or a strike, that's going to be on UPS. They've chose to go down this road.

SCHMITZ: So you hinted at this, but are you worried that under such a scenario that UPS competitors would take advantage of this strike and then taking - you know, taking market share out of UPS's business?

O'BRIEN: Look, the one good thing is in the short term, I think, you know, there could be some competition gaining some volume. But at the end of the day, the 340,000 Teamsters provide the best service in the industry, and customers will come back just like they did in 1997, when UPS chose back then to - similar situations, was fighting for part-timers. And, look, this is a team effort. There's still some full-time issues out there that we need to address. And, look, we're prepared to get back to the table, but UPS needs to know that their last offer wasn't adequate, and they know what they need to do to get us back to the table.

SCHMITZ: That's Teamsters general president Sean O'Brien. Sean, thank you.

O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you very much.

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