PAGES FROM WORKERS LIVES
I am one of the many young people who work at UPS. As you probably all know, UPS is one of the world’s largest package delivery companies, delivering 15 million packages a day to 6.1 million customers, spanning over 200 countries. It is notorious for being gruesome, fast-paced, backbreaking work, and UPS has a history of exploitative labor practices. It seems to specifically target youth, such as myself, who are looking for some help to pay for schooling.
I am what they call a loader. My day usually starts with loathing at having to work at such a place. You walk in there and it is literally this great big machine. The minute you step into the place, the mechanical monster is roaring and all the workers are preparing for a cold or hot (depending on what season it is), sweaty day of work. You sweat no matter what season it is.
I usually stroll down to the break room a half hour before start time so I can have a couple laughs and engage in conversation with one of my many co-workers. We talk about all the usual topics and it is usually jump-started by the fact that none of us want to be there. Sports, the news, or one of the “People’s Court-type” shows are the recurring programs that set the tone for the break room. Sometimes we’ll play cards and make fun of the supervisors running around with their clipboards doing God knows what. They always remind me of that little puppy dog with its tail between its legs, contrary to us merciless cast of characters who just don’t give a shit. But of course it is a job, so we do have to take shit sooner or later.
As I said before, I am a loader. A loader is basically someone who loads the trucks with packages that are being delivered to various destinations. Most of the time we are loading two, three trucks at a time and are getting moved around constantly. They encourage you to be as fast as possible, sometimes to have superhuman speed the likes of which no person has ever seen. Often I am loading a truck that is flowing 1,500 packages an hour — that is a pretty large amount. I for the most part can handle it, but the question is, do I want to? No, of course I don’t! I only get paid $9.50 an hour. I’m overworking as far as I’m concerned.
The way I see it, if you think I’m worth $9.50 an hour, then I am going to give you what I think $9.50 an hour’s worth of work looks like. This doesn’t make management too happy, when you are working only a fraction of your body’s physical capability. But they told us when we started that the minimum work pace is 300 packages an hour and we always remember that.
When I am not feeling my usual alpha-male self — just kidding — and loading 1,500 packages becomes a hassle, the supervisors usually send a co-worker to help me, and I think to myself, “Finally someone to talk to!” Not that we can’t talk otherwise, but as soon as a supervisor sees us, it’s back to work. Sometimes when we are short-staffed, the supervisors are tempted to come help us load, which is a bad idea, especially if I see them. I don’t mind if they load as long as they realize that I make $9.50 an hour and will be more than happy to write their ass up.
Grievances are high at our dock as you can imagine, due primarily to understaffing. Unfortunately, a lot of my fellow young workers do not know the contract too well because of lack of outreach by the union. I always do my part in letting my co-workers know what’s up. We are even trying to organize a watchdog group on our dock to let management know that we are watching their supervisors.
It is a tough job to load. It is loud and dirty and I have to worry about my safety and well-being at all times. We are even tested monthly about the proper procedures on how to load boxes and also how to keep ourselves in good health.
Though I don’t plan on working there the rest of my life, it is a part-time job that will last me through college and will help me pay for it. Most of us young people can’t wait to get out of there, and a lot of them have a second job just so they can make ends meet. I myself can’t stand it there. It is a five-hour fight for freedom, with the memory of what my bed must feel like that keeps me calm through the roar of machines.
Benny James is a college student, musician and union activist.