For many UPSers, this is their first union job. Unity Breakfast is a place to build solidarity and discuss practical questions like, “How are strike benefits paid?” and “What will happen to second-tier workers if the tiers are eliminated?” Photo: Evan Peppers
Originally published in Labor Notes on April 6, 2023
At Duke’s Hawaiian Coffee Shop and Deli in San Marcos, California, Friday mornings are abuzz with organizing talk—building unity among fellow Teamsters ahead of a potential strike at UPS.
We began meeting in February, just a few of us. Soon enough, word spread about what we called “Unity Breakfast,” and the coffee shop filled up.
At the first meeting, my co-worker Tim Peppers defined the main purpose: to educate members about the contract campaign and potential strike. We talked about how we are part of a movement much bigger than our own building, and why it’s important to build unity across our differences in seniority and classification.
Classification was one sticking point—many people wanted to know what might happen to us if the 22.4 position was eliminated. Those of us in these jobs, named for Article 22.4 in the last contract, are second-tier drivers. We deliver packages for less money than regular drivers and have fewer contractual protections against things like excessive overtime. A major union goal is to eliminate the two-tier system this year.
Another popular question was how strike benefits would be paid. Our brother Jason Mendez, a veteran Teamster, talked about what it was like to walk the picket line in the 1997 UPS strike.
Everyone left the meeting with a lot of energy and solidarity, and they’ve kept coming back ever since. By our fifth meeting, we had 45 members attend and had to move to a bigger space to accommodate the surge in participation.
BRIDGING THE GENERATION GAP
My building in San Marcos, like many others across the country, suffers from gaps between generations and classifications. Growth in the logistics industry, especially during the pandemic, has brought in so many new hires.
For many of us, this is our first union job, and we’ve never had any experiences of collective power or solidarity at work. Coming from a background playing football, though, I have always been inspired by teamwork. The unity and strength demonstrated by the Teamsters in 1997 reminded me of playing football, but with higher stakes. It wasn’t just a game—it was about men and women providing for their families, and standing up against corporate greed.
I started at UPS in 2018 as a part-timer, sorting and loading packages, before moving up to the 22.4 position three years later. I didn’t know much about the union at the time, but my older brother, a member of the United Steelworkers, told me never to cross a picket line.
Over time I learned more about enforcing the contract from activists at my building, part of the Members for Members movement, who educate members about our rights on the job and in the union.
During the Teamster week of action last August, marking one year until our contract expiration and 25 years since the last big strike, I started to do some research. I found a YouTube video about the 1997 strike, which sparked my curiosity and deepened my respect for the Teamsters who participated.
I looked at a seniority list to identify which of my co-workers had stood on that picket line, and started asking them about their experiences. That’s how I got closer with Peppers.
When I asked him about 1997, he realized that he was the veteran now. It was his turn to educate the younger members about the meaning of being a Teamster and what it will take to win a strong contract.
Peppers had only a year and a half seniority at the time of that strike. He told me how veterans took him under their wing and educated him about what it meant to be a Teamster, giving him the confidence to stand on the picket line and win a strong contract. After the strike victory, though, management began to divide workers by seniority and classification.
That day, talking over management’s divide-and-conquer tactics, we decided to form Strike Force, a rank-and-file-led movement to get strike-ready.
ENTER STRIKE FORCE
The name “Strike Force” came from a vision Peppers had one night when he couldn’t sleep. He said, “If UPS forces us to strike, then we are going to strike back in force with unity.”
We have held Unity Breakfasts every week since February 10, and the community has been there to support us every step of the way. If the turnout is too big for Duke’s, we meet next door to the coffee shop at Knowhere Games & Comics, where the owner, Ken, has opened up a big room in the back for us to meet.
Our union hall is down in San Diego, about a 45-minute drive from San Marcos, so meeting by our UPS hub is easier for members. Sometimes we have guests, like officers from the local, but this is a movement led by the rank and file. We want to spread the message that the union is the members—and wherever the members are in motion, the union is in motion.
We’ve made Strike Force T-shirts and stickers to hand out at the gates as an effort to turn members out to the Unity Breakfasts.
In addition, Peppers and I had an idea to make brochures with information from Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) about the contract campaign, a potential strike, and our favorite YouTube channels and podcasts covering UPS Teamsters issues, like Roswell Hub and The Upsurge.
Designing and creating brochures and gear has created another opportunity for our union brothers and sisters to use their skills and get involved.
We have used the momentum built through Strike Force to participate in the union’s contract unity pledge drive. And since we recognized that a different work schedule was preventing the part-timers from attending the Unity Breakfasts, we decided to hit the pre-load early in the morning with donuts, coffee, and the brochures. We’re doing everything we can to bridge the gap between classifications.
By flyering at the gates, speaking on podcasts, and speaking on TDU national UPS Zoom calls, we’ve been spreading the word about Strike Force with one goal: to help rank-and-file members at as many buildings as possible start their own weekly meetings. Organizing is for everyone—you don’t need any special title or credentials.
We are looking forward to a regional UPS Teamsters solidarity rally, weekly 22.4 meetings on Saturdays, bi-monthly parking lot rallies, and continuing to educate members across every classification with our brochures and Unity Breakfasts.
If a picket line goes up on August 1, you know we will be ready!
Justin Alo is a member of Teamsters Local 542.