When UPS delivery workers last went on strike, in 1997, the nature of their job was very different. Amazon, then merely an online bookstore, was barely two years out from its very first sale. Buying jeans, or new furniture, or really anything, still required most people to get in their car and head to the local mall. By the time the International Brotherhood of Teamsters announced on Tuesday that it had reached a tentative agreement with UPS that would avoid a strike and keep hundreds of thousands of union members on the job, those workers’ role in American life had changed fundamentally.
The new contract, which still needs to be ratified by the union’s members, came not a moment too soon. UPS handles a quantity of stuff so enormous that the company estimates its workers put their hands on roughly 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and the company delivers nearly a quarter of all American packages. Internet retail and the volume of delivery services required to fill it have made America ever more dependent on the difficult, labor-intensive work of what’s known as last-mile package delivery. The country’s infrastructure and workforce are still struggling to catch up.
Even in the Amazon age, the volume of packages now delivered in the U.S. can sound completely absurd. In 2000, the United States Postal Service—the country’s biggest parcel shipper—delivered 2.4 billion packages. By 2022, that number had ballooned to 7.2 billion. UPS now handles 5.2 billion domestic packages annually, versus the 3.2 billion it handled in 2000, and Amazon’s logistics operation, which did not start delivering its own packages in earnest until 2018, has become the country’s third-largest shipper, delivering almost 5 billion (but not nearly all) of the company’s packages last year. And all of these packages are going to a customer base that has been trained by retailers to expect packages to arrive in just a few days—far faster than turnaround expectations used to be.