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“Profit Over People”: UPS Workers Say Company Not Prioritizing Safety as Workers Test Positive

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The White House is now estimating 100,000 to a quarter of a million people could die from the coronavirus pandemic. Some of those most concerned about exposure to the highly infectious virus are workers on the frontlines of grocery stores and delivery services. On Monday, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island walked off the job, and the company fired one of them in response. At least three employees at a large UPS facility near Boston have tested positive, and two dozen more have been quarantined. Details about the infections were shared by the workers’ union because they said the company refused to provide the critical information to its employees. We speak with Richard Hooker, secretary-treasurer of the Philadelphia Teamsters Local 623, and David Levin, lead organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the coordinator of the UPS Teamsters United campaign.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House is now estimating that between 100,000 and a quarter of a million people could die from the coronavirus pandemic. Some of those most concerned about exposure to the highly infectious virus are workers on the frontlines of, well, grocery stores and delivery services. This is in addition to all the attention to the doctors and nurses and the staffs of hospitals across the country.

On Monday, workers who fulfill orders for Instacart staged a protest to demand better working protections and hazard pay. Also Monday, Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island walked off the job. Amazon fired one of them in response, and we’ll get his response later in the broadcast. Amazon says they fired him because he wasn’t doing social distancing. He tells a different story. On Tuesday, Whole Foods workers organized a national sick-out protest demanding double normal wages for workers as hazard pay for working on the frontlines during a pandemic. This comes as three workers at a large UPS facility near Boston have tested positive and two dozen more have been quarantined.

For more, we’re joined from his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by Richard Hooker, secretary-treasurer of the Philadelphia Teamsters Local 623, the first African American to ever lead the 101-year-old union, after being elected secretary-treasurer in November. Richard Hooker has worked at UPS for 20 years.

We welcome you, Richard, to Democracy Now! Can you describe what was happening where you worked? What kind of access do you have to protective gear, to washing your hands? Describe the scenario.

RICHARD HOOKER: Well, in the beginning of it all, there was no access to being clean, no soap in the bathrooms. Some bathrooms had no running water, no hot water.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you work?

RICHARD HOOKER: At the airport facility in Philadelphia.

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going in describing what was happening there.

RICHARD HOOKER: So, what was happening was, like I said, the bathrooms were not clean, no running water, dirt everywhere. The facilities were a mess, trash everywhere, dirt everywhere. We took pictures. We sent them to the company, let them know, “Hey, this is the issues that we’re having here, and we need some help.” And all the response that we would get was that the government deemed UPS essential, and we were to keep working. So we kept going.

We filed grievances. Under our contract, you know, sanitation and safety are big issues. So we filed grievances against the company with that. Still no response, no communication. We sent letters to our governor here in Pennsylvania to get some help. Since we’re deemed essential, we need to make sure that our people are protected during this pandemic. That wasn’t happening. So that’s why we sent letters to the governor. Still no response from the company — same old, same old, business as usual.

And so, we did a interview on a national news network. It got a little traction. But still the company refused to communicate what they were doing. And the members were very, very upset, anxious, concerned, because if we are so essential, then we need to make sure that our people are protected and not feel like we’re disposable.

So, we did another national news broadcast, and we laid it all out on the line. We told them, hey, this is what was going on — the bathrooms, pictures, video of the water not even being able to be turned on, trash everywhere, the facilities not being clean. We kept doing that. We talked about it on live TV everywhere. Then, all of a sudden, now the company wanted to sit down and talk and come up with some ideas and plans.

So, this past Monday, we had a sit-down meeting with the president of our district, Mrs. Kim, and she gave us her commitment and the company’s commitment that they would communicate with us everything they were doing. Cleaning the bathrooms will be a priority, making sure there was going to be social distancing, making sure the water was running, making sure there was multiple cleaning crews coming in to clean the facilities constantly.

Unfortunately, even though there’s been some progress, it’s not enough. There’s still no social distancing, some of our members still not getting the supplies that they need. The communication has gotten better, so I will be relaying some more information to the powers that be to keep this thing going. But again, there’s still a big disconnect between what they’re saying and then what’s really going on in the operation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Richard — 

RICHARD HOOKER: And our members are at risk. We just —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Richard Hooker, I wanted to ask you —

RICHARD HOOKER: Yes, go ahead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Given the fact that so many millions of Americans are being forced to stay home, I would assume that there has been a huge increase in the work that UPS and other delivery companies have. Did you notice any change from the time that most Americans were told to stay in place and stay at home in how the company dealt with the workers before and after the pandemic exploded?

RICHARD HOOKER: There has been an increase in the residential deliveries, not so much in the business, because a lot of businesses, as you guys know, are closed. But when people are sitting at home, they do a lot more ordering. So the residential part has really skyrocketed.

Now, there hasn’t been a big difference on what the company has done before this pandemic or during it. It’s still business as usual. It’s not a lot of “Let’s try to get our members the supplies they need.” There’s not been a really — there’s not been a concern on their part. Even though I know they come out and they say it and they try to downplay what’s really going on, from our standpoint, it hasn’t been enough. And to our members, it’s definitely not enough, because, like you guys mentioned, there has been three confirmed cases up in Boston, but we have two confirmed cases here in Philadelphia, one in the Oregon Avenue building and one in the PHL building. And again, we had to fight to get that information. Before, they weren’t telling us anything. And so, we had to keep fighting and fighting and fighting, and pushing and pushing and pushing, just to get the information so we can let our members know what’s going on.

So, it’s still been that same — they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing, it seems, and it always has been profit over people. Profit over people. But us, as a union, we’re not profit-based. We’re membership-based. We care about our members. And that’s what this is all about, protecting our members. So, if they’re not protected —

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Hooker, we want to thank you so much for being with us. We’re going to continue this discussion on the other side of the break, as well, with David Levin. Richard Hooker is secretary-treasurer of the Philadelphia Teamsters Local 623, has worked at UPS for 20 years. When we come back, David Levin, lead organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union and coordinator of the UPS Teamsters United campaign. Stay with us. And stay safe, Richard.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Alone Together” by jazz trumpeter and composer Wallace Roney, who died March 31st of COVID-19. He was 59 years old.

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman in New York. Juan González is in New Jersey. And as we’ve reported, at least three workers at the large UPS facility near Boston have tested positive, two dozen more have been quarantined. Details about the infections were shared by the workers’ union. Teamsters Local 25 union President Sean O’Brien said in a statement UPS was, quote, “refusing to provide critical information to its workers regarding positive and presumptive positive COVID-19 cases in the facility.”

For more, we continue to look at organizing efforts by workers on the frontlines. We’re joined from his home in Philadelphia by David Levin, lead organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, coordinator of the UPS Teamsters United campaign.

David, we just have a few minutes, and we’d like you to link what’s going on with UPS and the union negotiations with United Postal Service — rather, with UPS — with what’s going on at Amazon and Instacart, the people who are protesting outside, demanding that they have to have a safe workplace, too.

DAVID LEVIN: Well, thanks for having me, so much. You know, Amazon workers are raising the exact same worker — the same issues that Richard was just talking about and that UPS workers across the country are raising: a lack of personal protective equipment, unsanitary conditions, not being informed when a co-worker tests positive, the workplace not being sanitized properly after someone tests positive. These are all CDC and OSHA guidelines. They’re not being followed, and we need to hold these corporations accountable.

You know, UPS and Amazon are competitors, but UPS workers and Amazon workers are not. We share the same concerns. We have the same corporations that we have to hold accountable. So one of the things that we did as Teamsters for a Democratic Union and our UPS Teamsters United campaign, last night we launched a national petition specifically reaching out to UPS Teamsters around the country to call for the reinstatement of Chris Smalls, who I guess you have coming up on the show later, who was fired for organizing a protest around these issues at Amazon. We’re all in this together. We’re demanding for these health and safety issues to be addressed both at UPS and at Amazon and for all workers.

AMY GOODMAN: David, very quickly, what do say — I mean, what do you say to — Amazon wrote to us last night and said he wasn’t fired for organizing, but for not maintaining social distance and not going home and quarantining since he was near someone who tested positive.

DAVID LEVIN: Yeah, well, the next time that a corporation admits that someone was fired for organizing will be the next time that Democracy Now! gets a million-dollar donation from Amazon. It’s not going to happen. Everyone knows what happened.

The difference in the situation is that if you’re a union worker, you have more protections to be organizing and taking action. A lot of Teamsters are doing that. When their unions are — when their local union isn’t helping, Teamsters for a Democratic Union and UPSTeamstersUnited.org, we’re here — people can reach out — to be a resource. And we need to be — this is a time when union workers, Teamsters and Amazon workers need to be making connections, because over the long haul, not just in this crisis, we need to be working together to hold these corporations accountable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David Levin, I wanted to ask you this, about over the long haul, because, really, this pandemic is really creating a major shift in the way that goods are distributed in our society, as increasingly people are being forced to go online, and therefore to have packages delivered by companies like UPS and Amazon and others. I’m wondering: Do you sense that the labor movement is prepared — organized labor is prepared for what is essentially a radical shift? For instance, Macy’s just announced they’re laying off or furloughing 100,000 workers, that the brick-and-mortar stores are really at an enormous disadvantage right now. And these delivery companies now are going to have a much greater share of the market in America. I’m wondering how you feel, if the labor movement is prepared for this shift in distribution of goods in the society.

DAVID LEVIN: Well, one thing I want to say about UPS, this is company that makes $6 billion a year. They can track a package at any moment, anywhere around the globe. They track their workers’ movements everywhere they are at all times. And they can’t seem to track down, or won’t track down, personal protective equipment, masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, that workers need. That’s why people are organizing to demand that.

The Teamsters union is a logistics workers’ union. We’re a transportation union. We’re a package union. We’re a grocery and food delivery union. We’re the logical hub to be organizing and uniting and bringing workers together. We’re doing that at the grassroots level at Teamsters for a Democratic Union. You see some aggressive local union leaders pushing for that. And we need a transformation, we believe, in the Teamsters union in the top leadership, which has largely been missing in action through this crisis, if we’re going to meet the kinds of challenges that you were just laying out.

AMY GOODMAN: David Levin, we want to thank you so much for being with us, lead organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the coordinator of the UPS Teamsters United campaign.

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