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UPS threatens to fire 250 protesting workers

The standoff began after workers walked off the job to protest the firing of a colleague.
UPS delivery workers move packages from one truck to another, on Dec. 26, 2013, in Newark, N.J.
UPS delivery workers move packages from one truck to another, on Dec. 26, 2013, in Newark, N.J.

It started with a disagreement over time-cards. Then it turned into a protest involving hundreds of UPS workers. Now it's become a stalemate of national significance, as New York officials and union members fight to prevent 250 layoffs at a UPS facility in Queens.

The standoff began in February, after Queens-based UPS employee Jairo Reyes was fired for alleged time-card violations. Reyes says he received permission from his supervisor to clock in earlier than scheduled each day, but UPS claims otherwise. According to the company, Reyes was warned several times against clocking in early, but he flagrantly disregarded the warnings.

On February 26, shortly after Reyes was fired, 250 of his coworkers protested by going on strike for 90 minutes. Teamsters Local 804, the union which represents Reyes and the other UPS employees in Queens, accused UPS of violating its collective bargaining agreement. The company, in turn, accused the protestors of engaging in an "unauthorized walkout," another violation of the bargaining agreement. Those 250 workers were given "notices of pending termination," said UPS spokesperson Steve Gaut via email.

That's when New York City's public advocate, its comptroller, and the Queens borough president got involved, along with a retinue of other city and state officials. At an April 3 rally on the steps of City Hall, UPS workers joined together with elected officials and other members of the labor movement to demand that UPS back down.

The story blew up, garnering attention from the national press. As of press time, over 48,000 people signed a petition, started by an official with the Working Families Party, demanding that all 250 workers get to keep their jobs. The pressure is on for UPS, but thus far they have given no public indications that they're willing to negotiate an end to the standstill.

Steve Gaut wrote to msnbc that the Teamsters violated their contract with UPS when they chose to walk off the job rather than going through the established grievance process.

"The reason that Mr. Reyes was terminated is not central to the discharge of 250 employees," wrote Gaut. "Their choice to walk out in protest irrespective of the clear ‘no strike’ language in the contract is the central point."

Local 804 president Tim Sylvester insists that the walkout was justified. The union's contract with UPS [PDF] stipulates that most employees have the right to a hearing before the are fired, unless they commit one of two violations: drinking on the job, or "proven or admitted dishonesty." UPS says Reyes was fired for dishonesty, but Sylvester says the company never proved the charge.

"In America, you don't get fired for standing up to a bully," said Sylvester. Reyes alleges that he wasn't terminated for "dishonesty," but in retaliation for a separate grievance he filed in early February.

"I've been there for 24 years," he told msnbc's Tamron Hall on Tuesday. "I love my job."