Hundreds of thousands of delivery drivers and warehouse workers nationwide could go on strike and off the clock starting next week—just in time to disrupt crucial shipments for school districts preparing for a new school year.
The Teamsters, the union that represents 340,000 United Parcel Service drivers in all 50 states, has set a July 31 deadline to reach an agreement with UPS for increased pay and expanded safety precautions.
Talks between the parties are continuing this week. If they can’t come to an agreement by next Monday, all of those workers will walk off the job, in a strike authorized in June by 97 percent of the union’s members.
School districts are poised to feel the ripple effects in painful ways as they prepare for the start of a new school year and as classes resume for some students.
“We’re still recovering from COVID as far as the supply chain. It’s gotten a lot better in the last six months,” said Rick Gay, executive director of business services for the 78,000-student Fort Bend school district in Texas. “When something like this comes along, it doesn’t help.”
For parents and school districts alike, August is the busiest month of the year for purchasing supplies, said Todd Gazda, executive director of the Collaborative for Educational Services, a nonprofit service agency governed by representatives from 37 western Massachusetts school districts that helps districts get better deals on major purchases.
A substantial disruption to the supply chain could delay deliveries and drive up costs for everything from paper and textbooks to toilet paper and cleaning solution.
“If the pandemic taught us anything, it is that the supply chain is fragile,” Gazda said.
Deliveries could be delayed and costs could rise
Educators are no strangers to labor strikes over pay disputes—among teachers, instructional aides, and bus drivers. Dozens of districts last year saw workers strike during a general uptick in strike activity.
Typical demands from people in those positions mirror those of the UPS workers: higher wages, more robust on-the-job protections, and, they say, more respect.
The UPS strike would be a different animal, though. It would be the largest for a single company’s workers in U.S. history. It would also be the first for UPS workers since 1997, before e-commerce went mainstream.
Many distributors would end up switching to a different carrier, like Federal Express or the United States Postal Service.
Many vendors that serve schools already primarily use those carriers, which means they wouldn’t need to pivot if UPS trucks stop arriving.
But FedEx and USPS will be stretched much thinner than usual if they take on even a fraction of typical UPS business. UPS packages account for roughly a quarter of deliveries in the United States.
Among the items that UPS drivers deliver is a substantial share of the goods school districts need to stay open.
And district leaders can only control so much. Gay said he’s most concerned about vendors that don’t prepare in advance for the possibility of a strike. “That would slow everything down,” he said.
The 2,800-student Parkrose school district in Portland, Ore., receives between 30 and 40 percent of its shipments from UPS, said Sharie Lewis, the district’s director of business services and operations, and a member of the board of directors for the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO International).
Because the district tries to stockpile some items well in advance, a delay might be tolerable, Lewis said. But other items like toilet paper and paper towels are essential, and could run out early in the school year without a consistent delivery schedule.
Exactly how the strike will affect schools may not become clear until it happens
The sudden disruption of shipments promises to cause confusion and uncertainty for the already-labyrinthine task of procuring needed materials for school buildings.
Officials who makes purchases and negotiate contracts on behalf of school districts have in recent years already been dealing with COVID-related delays, labor shortages, and skyrocketing prices.
If the UPS workers strike, that means the district might have to shell out money to cover surcharges if vendors have to switch carriers or expedite deliveries before a strike, Lewis said.
Lewis wasn’t sure at first whether summer meals would be affected if the strike starts next week. So she consulted with her district’s nutrition staff. It turns out UPS doesn’t deliver food in bulk to schools, though it does ship non-perishable condiments to the Parkrose district.
That’s one crisis averted. But in a few weeks, teachers and principals will return from summer break, and they’ll be making requests for items like pencils, notebooks, and art supplies.
Lewis expects to field frustrated calls from school buildings about why certain items haven’t arrived. She plans to remind her colleagues, strike or no strike, to practice patience.
“It doesn’t fly here by itself,” she said. “It takes people.”