Chicago UPS Drivers Fight to Keep Talking
UPS tried to ban its tractor-trailer drivers from using CB radios and hands-free headsets, but Chicago-area drivers were having none of it—and they used the opportunity to draw attention to the real safety problems the company is ignoring.
Managers arriving at the massive Chicago Area Consolidated Hub (CACH) on January 30 were greeted by an inflatable rat and a fat cat 12 feet tall. Teamsters held a banner: “UPS Does Not Care about Employee Safety.”
Teamsters Local 705’s local agreement with UPS has language that explicitly allows the use of CBs, and hands-free headsets are legal in the state of Illinois.
“UPS is attempting to impose this policy unilaterally,” said Assistant Business Agent Eric Redinger. “They have not approached the union to bargain this new rule.”
Instead, UPS announced the new policy in pre-work meetings. Feeder drivers, who move packages from one facility to another in tractor-trailers, were asked to sign statements that they would no longer use CBs or headsets while driving—and threatened with discipline if they disobeyed.
“Members are refusing to sign these statements, and the union has filed unfair labor practice charges,” said Redinger.
The company claims the new policy will cut down on distractions—but drivers argue that their ability to communicate with one another by CB actually prevents accidents and injuries.
“Drivers can warn each other about upcoming hazards, or stop a driver from hitting something they may not see,” said Local 705 feeder steward Bill O’Connor. For instance, one driver might use CB to alert another that his trailer’s back door has swung open.
“The company has failed to provide a single incident of CB radios or hands-free headsets causing an accident or injury at CACH,” O’Connor said.
From drivers’ point of view, a more pressing safety concern is the use of subcontractors to move UPS trailers.
“They are paid by the load and are always in a hurry,” said O’Connor. “They drive recklessly and bring in equipment that is not road-worthy, including containers that are not properly locked onto the chassis. They could kill someone.”
During the busy Christmas season, the CACH yard alone saw multiple accidents caused by contractors. “We have video footage of a contractor running over a stop sign in our yard,” O’Connor said. “He just kept driving, dragging it for hundreds of feet.”
Another contractor was found at a remote lot, dead in his cab, with a needle in his arm. The driver had been at the CACH facility earlier in his day. “Those are the real safety issues,” O’Connor said, “but the company doesn’t want to deal with it because they want to keep moving those loads.”
ALWAYS IN A HURRY
UPS is notorious for its grueling production standards. The company has a phonebook-sized manual detailing methods to do each job most efficiently.
The union does not recognize these production standards; they are not contractual. Nevertheless, employees who fail to meet them are often harassed by managers who use constant surveillance and write-ups for petty infractions.
Supervisors on the dock—themselves under pressure to keep the packages flowing—will sometimes open the trailer doors while the driver’s tractor is still coupled to the trailer. That’s another safety hazard.
“Trailers shouldn’t be opened until the driver is fully unhooked,” said feeder driver Esteban Cruz. “Even if the trailer is backed in, the driver may pull up to adjust it.”
For instance, he said, “a few weeks ago I backed a trailer into a bay door, and before I unhooked I could hear the doors opening. I went inside and there were dock workers already in the trailer loading packages.
“If I had moved the trailer with them in it, someone could have been killed.”
In December a UPS employee in Atlanta died when a trailer was moved with him inside. Another was seriously injured in October, just a few miles from the CACH facility, when he was pinned against the wall by a trailer.
“Drivers take this seriously,” said Cruz. “But when I told the dock supervisor he needed to close the trailer before I unhooked, he yelled at me and said to just unhook while the trailer was being loaded, because they were behind. I refused until they closed the doors.
“And this is happening all the time at CACH.”
THE COMPANY REACTS
After the union protest, management met with drivers on the safety committee to hear their concerns. The facility is retraining all dock supervisors on the procedures for opening and closing trailers. And despite the new policy, so far the company hasn’t disciplined anyone for using CB radios or hands-free headsets.
“We have been raising these issues for a long time,” said O’Connor, “but it wasn’t until the local put up an informational picket line that they really started to react.”
Local 705 plans to keep the pressure on management to make safety a priority. The union has filed grievances on safety-related contractual violations and members are continuing to document hazards when they see them.
The local’s contract with UPS expires on July 31—as does the separate national master contract—and the local is prepared to fight for stronger language to prevent subcontracting and to bring subcontracted work in-house, as well as other safety-related issues.
Dave Bernt is a feeder driver at the CACH facility and a member of Teamsters Local 705.