Above Photo: Velma Higgins (L) and Charlotte Green sort packages at a UPS facility on November 29, 2010 in Hodgkins, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images.
Sexual harassment and gender discrimination are among workers’ many grievances against UPS.
UPS is facing an upcoming contract battle that could see 300,000 Teamsters hit the picket lines.
UPS is a patriarchal corporation – on the corporate and labor side. Whether it’s sexual harassment or pregnancy discrimination, women at UPS confront particular workplace issues because of their gender. We spoke with Michelle Espinoza, a feeder driver out of Teamsters Local 135 in Indianapolis, about the gender discrimination she’s battled at the company and the work she’s doing to help other Teamster women.
- See Joe Allen’s Teamsters election reading list from 2021 for a number of sources, including some below.
- Young v. United Parcel Service.
- Joe Allen, “Sent Packing,” Jacobin, December 19, 2018.
- Stephen Franklin, “Sandy Pope: The Woman Who Would Rule the Teamsters,” In These Times, October 13, 2010.
- Leah F. Vosko and David Scott Witwer, “‘Not a Man’s Union’: Women Teamsters in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s,” Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Autumn 2001).
- Joe Allen, “An UPSurge at the Package King,” SocialistWorker.org, October 8, 2014.
- Cal Winslow, “Fighting Dictatorship at United Parcel: Interview with Anne Mackie“, Workers’ Power newspaper, November 21, 1975.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity
Teddy Ostrow: Hello my name is Teddy Ostrow. Welcome to the Upsurge, a podcast about UPS, the Teamsters, and the future of the American labor movement.
For this bonus episode, I interviewed Michelle Espinoza, a semi-truck driver (or feeder driver in UPS parlance) out of Teamsters Local 135 in Indianapolis.
You may remember the story of Local 135 from episode 3. That is the local where rank and file pushed for a leadership change with the help of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. It’s an inspiring story and you should go back and listen if you like.
But I spoke to Michelle because of her experience and organizing as a woman at UPS.
As you might imagine, UPS is a male-dominated corporation, both on the corporate side and on the union/worker side.
And like across all institutions of our society, there are structural obstacles, challenges, prejudices, issues that women uniquely face at UPS. You could say the same thing about non-white and particularly Black UPSers, as well as LGBTQ+ UPSers.
There is a long history of women organizing at UPS that we can’t fully cover here. I’ll throw some links in the show notes that you should definitely check out. That includes the group UPSurge. Yes, UPSurge, which was a largely women-led militant group in 1970s pushing for a fair contract at UPS, members of which eventually merged into the movement we all know Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
And also I will include some links about some high profile issues women, particularly pregnant women, have faced at UPS, one such legal case even reached the Supreme Court.
But this episode is focusing on Michelle’s unique but also not so unique experience as a Black woman at the company, and that includes what she’s doing to organize and educate other women in the workplace.
Michelle Espinoza, welcome to the Upsurge.
Michelle Espinoza: Hi Teddy. Thank you for having me.
Teddy Ostrow: I’d love to hear you introduce yourself. How’d you come to UPS? What you do there, you know, how long you’ve been there, your local, those kinds of things.
Michelle Espinoza: Michelle Espinoza is my name. I have been with UPS for eight years now.
I’m currently a feeder driver, which means I drive the semi trucks. Prior to that I did package car driving. Prior to that I worked in the hub, at one of our local UPS facilities. It was a huge career change for me. I came from the hotel and retail management industry. So eight, nine years in, I’m still pretty new to the gang because a lot of UPSs are 25, 30 year employees.
I kind of got baptized by fire, got my feet wet quick, and here I am.
Teddy Ostrow: So as I understand it, you, your husband and your son, all of you guys work at UPS—you’re like a UPS family?
Michelle Espinoza: We are a UPS family; it’s my husband, myself and we have two daughters that are also UPSers. Our son is not a UPSer at this time. Not yet. But we have two daughters. One is a feeder driver along with us, which means she drives a semi as well. My husband is a feeder driver as well.
And we have a daughter that works inside of one of our main hubs here in Indianapolis.
Teddy Ostrow: Wow. Really a family affair full of Teamsters. That’s so cool. I approached you initially at the TDU Convention in Chicago because I heard you speak before hundreds of people.
You responded to Sean O’Brien. You posed a question directly, mentioning some of the issues that specifically women at UPS were dealing with. Then we talked, and you kind of walked me through your journey at UPS and the obstacles you were forced to navigate because of your gender, your identity.
I want to get into your specific story, but first maybe we could start a little, generally: What are the specific gendered issues that women are having at the company?
Michelle Espinoza: Sure. These are my opinions, but I also gather information like this from other UPS women. I have a Facebook group of, I think we’ve reached about 8,500 women at this point, so it’s my experience and information that I get from them.
So, some of the things that I’ve had to deal with working in a smaller hub: initially, it was all men except for three women. Well, drivers anyway. As you’re going through a small hub like that, and it’s majority male, you can only imagine some of the male type of comments that may come past a female.
Anything that you can think about, probably it gets said to you and they like to pass it off as joking, but after a while, if you don’t develop tough enough skin, it can really get to you and tear you down.
A lot of the women deal with pregnancy issues, breastfeeding issues, how to navigate, how to cope. We have women in all facets of UPS careers, whether they’re working in the hub, whether they’re driving a package car, delivering packages to your home or driving the semi trucks.
So we hear a lot of different stories that women go through, even down to how a woman should dress working inside the hub. So we have to navigate [things] carefully. We have a few more landmines that we have to avoid that the men don’t. We just kind of try to stick together and help answer each other’s questions so that we can get through it.
Teddy Ostrow: Is it pretty rare for women to hold the feeder driver position? Can you tell me a bit about who works what job?
Michelle Espinoza: Being a woman in UPS, whatever your job is, you’re gonna be the minority.
The feeder department is the top of the line job that you could have for UPS. It used to take, in our area, 10 years or more to start in the hub and make your way up into the feeder department. My path and my daughter’s path was much quicker because the demand for semi drivers is so great.
Across the country, we’re experiencing a demand for semi drivers, but right here in Indianapolis, our workload has doubled or tripled. Like I said, I’ve just been in the feeder department for five years now, six years. Before that I worked a package car in the hub, so that would make my total eight years.
My daughter got hired in February of 2020, I believe. As she got hired, she was able to come into the feeder department six months later.
That is normally unheard of, but because of the need for drivers, that was her story. She was able to move much quicker to get into this high paying job.
Teddy Ostrow: Yeah, I’ve never heard of anything like that. That’s pretty incredible. Maybe you could bring us through your journey at UPS, and as I understand, throughout your time you’ve had to file grievances. You fought the company, you fought the previous administration of your local union.
Let’s start at the beginning of when you tried to rise through the ranks and started seeing obstacles; and what you did about that. So maybe we can start with when you were in the hub, trying to become a package car driver?
Michelle Espinoza: When I started in the hub, here in Indianapolis, I was at a very small hub. They called our hub the country club, because it was so small and full of men and they had everything situated the way that they like it. I came in as a seasonal worker.
I came in just as a Christmas helper where I would ride with a driver that delivered packages to homes and I would hop out, deliver a few at homes and hop back in. He’d drive a little bit, he’d give me some more. I’d jump out. Run the packages to the door, scan them, ring the doorbell, and then jump back in.
That was what my seasonal work as a helper looked like. At the completion of that season, I got hired on, it’s called permanent part-time, in the hub. So I started off, when the semis would pull in, I was unloading and loading those semis with the packages. Then as you progress, you move into loading the package cars or unloading them.
I did that for a little while and then I was able to qualify for what they call a premium hub job, where I moved into ‘small sort’, which is what they call it;. [sorting] packages you can hold with one hand or two hands that are smaller.
I was moving those through the building, putting them in bags and sending ’em on their way so that they could get loaded into trucks, and so forth. Then, I got word that my building needed to hire an early morning delivery person to get packages that had to be out before 9:00 AM delivered.
I thought I would be interested in that. So I signed up. That was the first fight. Because what I didn’t realize that was I was taking that early morning work from the head union steward at the building. If he came in early to do those early deliveries, he got paid time and a half—it’s a significant amount of money. With what they make, and he had been doing it probably three years at this point. So even though I had been awarded the job, it took three, four months for me to fight to get to actually do the job.
And mind you, it’s a pay increase when you move into something like that. But I had to fight him and my union hall to actually get the job and start doing it. I had to make phone calls to corporate people with UPS waving the flag saying, “Hey, I got the bid, it says I should have been able to start within 30 days. Help me.”
So finally I got that. They liked me delivering those little quick packages. So then the opportunity came to become a part-time delivery person in their hub; I would work in the hub part of the day and then deliver another part of the day.
So that’s when we get into, “Oh, well if you want to be more like a part-time or full-time package car driver for us, you’re gonna have to go to inter grad.” Inter grad is like a package car UPS driver bootcamp. No one in that building had ever been required to go to inter grad.
But when I come along and sign the list that I want to become one of your regular package car drivers, guess who has to go to UPS boot camp? So even getting the opportunity to get to the bootcamp, even though no one else had to do it, I had to fight for that too. They tried their best to put a couple other men in front of me that they thought should want that job and should go to the inter grad. Well, none of them were able to make it. One guy who was supposed to go with me, we were supposed to meet at the airport to fly to Chicago. He didn’t show up, he chickened out and backed out at the last minute. So from my hub, I was the only person going.
So I went. And they had bets, literal money bets against me that I wouldn’t pass. I did. So I came back, and instead of crediting me the time I had already spent delivering their packages for them after bootcamp, they wanted to put me through the 30 day training period with them.
So now I had to go through another training period and pass their requirements. That means you have to run so many packages in so many hours of the day called “make scratch”, and they didn’t think I would be able to do that either.
Honestly, Teddy, I didn’t think I was gonna be able to do it. I was scared to death every day for 30 days, wondering if I was gonna get into a small accident or if I’m gonna be able to make scratch. Well, every time they gave me my route every day for 30 days, Teddy, I made scratch.
Teddy Ostrow: When, when you say that they were making bets, who, who was making bets? Is this other people at your hub, union stewards or who was making bets on you?
Michelle Espinoza: Drivers at the hub, other drivers.
Teddy Ostrow: And normally the male drivers don’t have to go to this bootcamp. After that, this 30 day trial period, is, is that also normal for people to have to do?
Michelle Espinoza: Being that I had passed inter grad, I didn’t then and I had already been driving for them. I didn’t think they would make me do it again, but they did.
After all of that, I became a full-time package car driver. Once I have my sight set on something, then they’re set. After I became a package car driver, I heard that going into the feeder department might actually be possible because they were gonna be putting the annual list up for anybody that was interested.
Well, I found out the lists had gone up at a big hub and a smaller hub, but it didn’t come to my building. But per our contract, it says it was supposed to. Well, they said to me, because remember what I call this place, it’s the country club. They have everything set the way they want to have it set.
They had worked it out somewhere prior to me that the list doesn’t come to that building. Only if they don’t get the drivers that they need from the other two buildings. The contract said when it goes up at the other two buildings, it’s simultaneously supposed to go up at our building as well. That was my first grievance.
“You violated the contract because you didn’t post it at the exact same time that you posted the others”. Someone with lower seniority than me may be having the opportunity to go into feeders and I haven’t even been able to sign the list. That’s my first grievance. It didn’t take too much for that grievance to get a win.
I don’t even know if the grievance even had to be heard because our human resources department actually agreed with me and said, we just never have put it up over there, basically, because they didn’t want it, they didn’t want to lose any of their package car drivers to feeder, so the list just had never gone up there and HR agreed that’s not acceptable. Contract says it’s supposed to be up, so the list goes up. This is what I start hearing from my, now we’re talking managers. “Well, there’s a pecking order. You’ll never make it, here, you actually can use my pen and sign it, but I can guarantee you won’t get the call.”
I signed it. There were specific requirements that said you have to have your permit by the such and such date. When we call you, you need to be ready to go to the class and so forth. Well, when that date came and went, the list came down.
I was the only one that had her permit and was ready to go. They did not let me go. They said, we need to give these other four men in front of you a chance to get their permit to see if they can qualify to go into feeders. That’s where the next grievance was filed. NLRB charges were filed and EEOC charges were filed because it was very clear what the bid sheet said the requirements were. I was the only one to have it, and they started giving these men extra time to get the credentials they should have had. Two guys were able to get the credentials. One, unfortunately ended up not going into feeders because he had to go to prison.
The other guy got over into feeders. His first week, he has a horrible accident and tears down electricity in a small community. Well then guess who they’re looking at again? Me, I get my chance to go into feeders. I passed the first round to get my CDL, and I’ve never had to look back.
The union hall’s angry at me. Union stewards at the old building, at the new building, they hate me. I’m a troublemaker. I had to be willing to risk losing my job in order to get the rights that my contract said were owed to me, and that was very scary. That was very scary, to go up against UPS managers, and against your union.
But the reason why that happened to me that way is because, my heart just tells me, I was female. EEOC definitely was interested in the case and the NLRB was too. I got a phone call from one of the top leaders of my union hall; he said, ”darling,”—that was his favorite word to call me, darling—“if you pull those labor charges back, I know I can get you into that next class.” And I said, ”sir, get me into the next class and once I get into feeders, I’ll pull them.” And that’s what I did, and that’s how I got into feeders.
Teddy Ostrow: Wow. It’s incredible how you had to navigate both issues and resistance from your union as well as the company. Was it hard to kind of, you know, not just lose it at people who are clearly trying to just stop you from getting what you deserve?
Michelle Espinoza: My adrenaline. I can feel it right now, Teddy.
Just remembering it all, I can feel my voice kind of shake. It was one of the most frustrating and agitating and belittling events that I’ve ever had happen to me. I would go into work every day, I would keep my head up. I knew I was right and just trying to hold my chest up, but then when I would come home, I would pretty much collapse in tears and I would cry to my husband.
We’d pull out our union books, pull out paperwork, pull up the internet, looking at information, reading everything we could read to know what’s the next thing to do. And it was scary because you know you have to pull these levers, but you know you’re going to upset people that could affect your job.
They could find a reason to fire you, and because your union is angry with you for filing charges against them, they could find reasons to not help you get your job back. So I had to tell myself, I gotta risk it all in order to win it all. And that’s scary and a lot of people can’t do that. But because I had my husband and he was our provider, I could play that game a little bit, in order to get what I knew I deserved.
So it was very, very hard. It was excruciating at times. It got to a point where I would be on the phone with a union leader and we’re, I’m cussing, he’s cussing. I mean, we’re yelling and I’d get off the phone and I’d come home and I’d tell my husband, I’m probably not gonna have a job tomorrow, but that never happened.
I finally got the call and he said, I’ll get you in if it was still a negotiation, but it was a game that had to be played. I don’t know what you want to call it, Teddy, but I got it and that’s why I’m here, able to talk to you about it today. It’s one of my passions, helping women navigate the sea of UPS corporate and union [politics], because it’s not always cut and dry as the book says it should be when it comes to some of us.
Teddy Ostrow: It sounds like you aren’t just fighting for your own job. Can you talk a bit about what you’ve done to help other people, and what you’ve heard from other people?
Michelle Espinoza: As soon as I got into the feeder department, [soon after], I had been asked to become a union steward.
The only reason I looked to be a good union steward was because of all the fighting I had already done. I had to memorize our contract. And I wasn’t afraid to argue and fight with the Union Hall.
I wasn’t afraid to argue and fight with the company. So when I came over into feeders and they offered that to me, I said yes. One of the first things I start doing was comparing apples to apples, my husband and my insurance packages. What do I have? What does he have?
I found out that I had a supplemental policy that he did not have, and I’m talking about a million dollar coverage that as UPSers we were able to get. I’m talking cents on the dollar is what it cost us. And he didn’t have it. Well, as I start digging into that, many, most of the feeder drivers did not have this coverage because they were more senior drivers.
Well, seniority is seniority. There’s no way a junior driver should have more than a senior driver. When I started digging into that and found out what they didn’t know, it literally hurt my heart. I don’t like when people don’t know something because what you don’t know can hurt you. So I filed a group grievance.
We got it all worked out. We had to fight for about a year and a half to get everybody who wanted that insurance to get it. At the same time as a union steward, I realized we have a lot of women that don’t have a voice, we don’t have an ear, we don’t have a space. So I said, I’m gonna try to create a Facebook page for the women at my building.
Well, I did that with the feeder department and then I said, you know what? This isn’t just about feeders. This is bigger. Women are the minority at UPS. So I had this crazy idea. Let me open it up to all UPS women—that’s union and non-union women. We shared this page together and that’s where a whole new family was born.
Corporate women management supervisors, union women, we are all on this page and you see them talking, sharing, helping, sending phone numbers. Hey, I can’t talk about that here, but private message me, I can get you some answers. It took off on its own to where I had to get other women to help me administer the page.
I couldn’t keep up with just approving the women cuz we make sure you’re a UPSer or one way or another before we’ll let you on the page. And we definitely, it sounds back backwards, but we keep men off. But it’s because the women, what we talk about are UPS womens’ issues that if we were to ask, “Hey, what’s the best breath pump that we can use while we’re out here on the road? What have you guys been doing to keep the milk cold?” We can’t ask that with all those men. You can only imagine the jokes that would go if we were asked that question over there. But on our page, we talk about what we need. And that’s where I learned so much about how I’m not the only woman that’s had to be shorted or fight, or, the sad part is women are afraid to fight because many of them are the sole provider for their household, so they can’t risk losing their job to get what they deserve.
So, just trying to educate the women. I always try to tell ’em, educate yourself to make yourself equal. What you don’t know can hurt you. So I tell them, get your contracts, read your information. Get on a UPS site. Read what corporate wants to have for you. Put it all together with the union contract and then go demand it.
And we just kinda walk each other through it. Some women just will never be as tenacious as someone like me and put up that kind of fight for herself. But sometimes those that can’t, we just kind of try to give them support, encouragement, the best way we can. But that’s what the page is for and that’s how I call myself trying to help other people within UPS; just learning how to navigate and how to play the game.
Teddy Ostrow: Last time we spoke, you mentioned also starting a women’s caucus at your local. I know that those exist at different locals, and perhaps at the international level as well. Has there been any progress on that?
And alsom how some of these issues that women specifically face, have people tried to try to fold that into the current contract campaign that’s happening at UPS right now?
Michelle Espinoza: We haven’t had to focus on it as far as the contract campaign, but I am proud to say that we will be having our inaugural women’s meeting. We are ecstatic to be announcing that and sharing that with sisters and hoping we can pack the house and start some education and find out what their needs are on a local level and start giving them education to help themselves.
Teddy Ostrow: So what is on the horizon? What are the things that you want out of UPS, out of the union, specifically for women at UPS?
Michelle Espinoza: I would think for my union, because it’s not just UPS workers at my union hall; I want to know other teamster women here locally in Indiana. I want know who they are. I want to know what they do. I’m knowledgeable about UPS, but I’ve learned there are sisters that drive duck trucks. There are sisters we have that are airline stewards, they’re our sisters. We have those that are daycare providers. They’re everywhere in Indianapolis, and I don’t know who they are. Our new leadership has taken the bull by the horns. We were so segregated before, each company to its own.
It’s like they didn’t want us to talk to each other because they didn’t want one to know what the other had. It might create too much pencil work for them. So they kept us separate. For my local, I want to know who my Teamster sisters are, and I want to get to know them on a personal level.
As far as UPS is concerned, that is a bigger, bigger, bigger piece to bite off. I would like to see my Facebook group grow. I think last I asked a corporate lady, she said we had an estimated 22,000 women in the UPS system. That was her guesstimate at that time. I’d love to see that page get to 22,000. Then I’d like to see, Teamsters do a Teamster women’s convention. I’d love to see, it sounds selfish because they can’t do a men’s convention because it’d probably shut down the company, but something that was initiated by UPS for the hub and the drivers. Something for women that we could grab onto that was from UPS that would bring us together, educate us. I would love to see more career paths laid out for the women; have them be a little more hands on with the women knowing that they’re the minority group within this company.
I’m a mother of four daughters, and I was a widow early on raising my children. The thing that I always focused on with my daughters was education. I’m not talking just in the books.
I always said if they were old enough to reach it, they were old enough to learn how to use it. So I believe in teaching women and putting information in their hands to empower them to handle their own life. Now, I’m a married woman, but I know the struggle of being a widow. I know the struggle of being a single young mom. What you don’t know will have you behind and I don’t like women being in that predicament.
Teddy Ostrow: Is there anything else that you think is important to get across to people who might be listening about the issues we were just discussing or the contract campaign going on right now?
Michelle Espinoza: We may consider ourselves a minority because we’re the lower number, but what I don’t like people to do is use that as an excuse to not fight, to not educate. It’s too easy to say, oh, they’re gonna treat me that way because I’m this, or because I’m that. I’m a minority. They’re not gonna pay any attention. It’s very easy to sit back and just accept that type of plight.
That’s why I say Teddy, educate yourself so you can be equal. Education is what will make you equal. If you don’t know, you can’t speak. I don’t care if you’re a woman. I don’t care if you’re African American, your sexual background; those boxes, they make us check to say what we are. We fit ourselves into those boxes, and then we stop working and we stop fighting. I don’t want people to do that. What you want, you have a right to have and you have a right to have the seat at the table.
And I tell people, educate yourself so you can go there and demand it.
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