United Parcel Service and the union representing roughly 340,000 of its drivers and warehouse workers reached a tentative contract agreement Tuesday that for the first time commits the shipping giant to install air conditioning in delivery trucks nationwide.

The agreement, which is pending ratification by union members next month, averts a strike threatened by UPS workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters that would have hobbled the U.S. economy.

The five-year deal includes a $10.25 hourly wage increase for all UPS employees, including part-timers, over the life of the contract and eliminates a pay system that subjected junior drivers to lower wages. Future part-timers’ wages will increase to a minimum of $21 an hour, and current part-timers will get an immediate bump to at least $21 an hour, below the $25 hourly many part-timers and union activists had sought. Union workers will vote on the tentative agreement over several weeks in August.

For the first time, the iconic brown delivery trucks will be air-conditioned in the future, following a wave of incidents in New York and across the country in which workers suffered heat-related illnesses and in at least one case died.

At least six UPS drivers in the New York City region came down with heat-related illness during a week-long heat wave last summer, with some requiring emergency care, THE CITY reported

A UPS driver in Lower Manhattan stocks a bottle of water during a warm summer day, July 27, 2022. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Any new trucks the company purchases beginning Jan. 1, 2024, must include AC under the agreement. Meanwhile, existing trucks, which lack AC or ventilation systems, will get two fans and air induction vents in their cargo compartments. The company agreed to begin retrofitting its current fleet to add the fans and vents immediately upon ratification of the contract, and the union will “vigilant[ly]” hold them accountable to it, said Sean O’Brien, the union’s president, in a phone interview with THE CITY on Tuesday. 

“This is something that has been fought for for the last three contracts, and we were able to secure it,” he said. “Health and safety was a major priority for us,” during the negotiations, he added.

“We demanded the best contract in the history of UPS, and we got it,” O’Brien said in a statement on Tuesday. “This contract sets a new standard in the labor movement and raises the bar for all workers.”

UPS chief executive Carol Tomé called the contract a “win-win-win” in a statement about the deal. “This agreement continues to reward UPS’ full- and part-time employees with industry-leading pay and benefits while retaining the flexibility we need to stay competitive.”

A UPS worker in New York, who asked for his name not to be published out of fear of retaliation by management, cheered Tuesday’s tentative agreement, describing it a “relief” not to go on strike.

“It’s nice to see UPS coming back to the table,” said the worker, who spoke by phone with THE CITY during his shift. “I didn’t totally learn everything from all my coworkers, but I hear that it’s a good agreement,” though he acknowledged that “it’ll be a few years before we all get ACs in all of our trucks.”

Turning Up the Heat

In New York, UPS Teamsters have been turning up the heat on their employer for a year following the spate of heat-related illnesses last summer. 

Local 804 members moved New York state lawmakers to introduce a bill earlier this year mandating air-conditioning in all parcel delivery trucks, and heat and extreme weather protections for workers toiling in construction, agriculture and other industries. The bill, which was introduced by Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) and Assembly member Latoya Joyner (D-The Bronx), did not advance in this year’s session.

UPS union drivers and warehouse workers have been prepping for a strike for nearly a year and hosted what they described as practice pickets in recent weeks, including at an event in Queens that attracted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens/The Bronx) and other local lawmakers.

The company and the union’s national UPS bargaining committee have been negotiating since April. While the two sides had reached deals regarding ACs, eliminating a two-tier pay system that locked junior drivers to lower wages and other key items this summer, they had not reached an agreement on overall raises or raising the salary floor for part-time workers. The two sides appeared at an impasse, with the threat of a likely strike, until they agreed to meet again on Tuesday.

If the UPS workers had gone on a nationwide strike once their current contract expires on July 31, it would have been the largest single-employer walkout in U.S. history — and the costliest in the country in more than a century, according to some estimates.

An analysis by Anderson Economic Group estimated costs topping $7 billion for a 10-day stoppage, including customer losses of $4 billion and lost wages of more than $1 billion, Reuters reported. The last UPS Teamsters strike, which lasted fifteen days in August 1997, reportedly cost the company $850 million.

Unionized UPS workers handle about a quarter of all parcel deliveries in the country, according to the Teamsters. The Atlanta-headquartered company is the largest private parcel delivery operation in the United States.

The UPS workers’ victory comes amid a summer of increased labor activity across the country. For the first time in more than 60 years, film and TV screenwriters and actors are on strike at the same time, effectively shutting down productions in California and New York. Contract talks between the United Auto Workers and the “big three” automakers — General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis — have been contentious, with the union representing those 150,000 workers signaling it is willing and prepared to strike.