UPS Contract Fight Heats Up: Teamsters Need To Get Strike-Ready

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By Phil Snyder, Teamsters Local 406 (personal capacity)

A potentially generation-defining contract struggle is currently unfolding between the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and logistics giant, United Parcel Service (UPS). With over 350,000 Teamster employees, moving up to 6% of the US GDP and 2% of global GDP, UPS is the single largest unionized employer in the United States and a key point of leverage on the entire economy. This behemoth of a company owes its financial success to a brutal internal regime and reliance on low-paid part-time labor, in particular.

The existing agreement, imposed on membership despite a majority ‘no’ vote in 2018, is set to expire on July 31, and much like the election of the O’Brien/Zuckerman slate to union leadership in 2021, this is rightly seen by many as an opportunity to reverse course from decades of concessionary agreements under the Hoffa Jr. regime.

Teamsters at UPS are demanding an end to the two-tier driver position, referred to as 22.4, higher wages, no frontward facing cameras, an end to forced overtime, more full-time jobs for part-time workers, ending the practice of subcontracting non-union feeder drivers and personal vehicle delivery drivers (PVDs), improved pensions, more paid time off, and much more. 

For decades UPS had driven down wages in warehouses by introducing, and then continually expanding, low-paid part-time workers. For the first time, through the 22.4 job classification, this profit-seeking push toward worker precarity was extended outside of the warehouses and onto drivers. These workers receive less pay, fewer protections, and despite being considered a combination inside/driver position, are effectively used as permanent second-class drivers. This concession was top among the reasons for the majority ‘no’ vote in 2018, and its reversal now stands out as a key demand in negotiations.

The current contract expires in less than three months, and UPS is not wasting any time in its attempts to divide and demoralize union workers. Thousands of these 22.4 combo drivers, as well as part-time inside workers, are currently facing layoffs, while full-time inside workers have had their overtime opportunities slashed. Layoffs and cost-cutting measures are considered normal during the first quarter of any year at UPS, as package volume drops from its holiday season peak, but long-time UPSers know that this year is different – this is a shot across the bow from the company to the union.

How the new union leadership responds to these attacks, the firmness of their demands, and what measures are taken to prepare the membership for a possible strike in August will be the real tests of their mettle. Rank-and-file Teamsters cannot afford to be passive in this critical moment either; the union leadership must have its feet held to the fire by an active and involved rank-and-file. Otherwise, the tough-sounding rhetoric of the Teamsters’ General President, Sean O’Brien, such as his promise to strike on August 1 if no deal is reached, is likely to soften under the intense pressure from both UPS and potential intervention by the Biden administration.

The Need for Bold Demands

The strongest demand in this campaign is for the elimination of unfair 22.4 combo driver positions and – importantly – to reclassify these workers as regular full-time package car drivers with all the protections they formerly lacked and a unified pay scale. There is no room for interpretation in this language. It cannot be overstated how significant the creation of a second-class driver position was to the discontent over the current contract, and consequently, the shift in leadership away from Hoffa’s old guard in 2021. However, it is far from the only issue affecting UPS workers, and it isn’t even the first unequal pay tier to be implemented at UPS. 

UPS has facilitated its massive growth over decades primarily through exploiting and underpaying its part-time workforce. This is why the 1997 strike is considered a success; while it failed to substantially raise part-time wages, it succeeded in creating 25,000 new full-time inside jobs for part-time workers. The last time UPS had been obligated to create a full-time job inside the warehouse was in the 1970s!

However, in recent years, these long-term efforts by UPS to maintain low wages and part-time status for the majority of its workforce have started to turn against them. With the ongoing cost of living crisis as a result of inflation and conditions comparable to the “great resignation,” necessity has forced UPS to offer temporary increases for part-time pay in order to resolve staffing issues, called Market Rate Adjustments (MRAs). In some areas of the country, this has been as much as $24 an hour! It is hard to imagine a clearer signal that UPS can afford significant pay increases than the fact that they are already doing so on a voluntary basis, but with the flexibility to reduce pay at any time to the contract rate, as their “business needs” demand it. With record-breaking profits of $13.1 billion in reported operating income for 2022, out of a total $100 billion in revenue, UPS has no excuse left.

This is where a sharply oriented demand with strong language can play a huge role in both galvanizing this largest section of historically neglected Teamsters and uniting full-time with part-time UPSers where division has reigned over decades.

Unfortunately, most demands by the union stop at asking for “higher part-time pay” and an “end to MRA abuse.” This non-specific language offers more questions than answers, and does little to inspire the average part-time worker to action. UPS Teamsters need to mobilize around fighting demands such as:

  • $30/hour starting pay for part-timers with catch-up raises for all current part-timers.
  • Wages cannot be reduced after a market rate adjustment is implemented.
  • $10/hour raises for all full-time workers regardless of progression.
  • Real cost of living adjustments to match inflation going forward!

Positive Steps Forward

The UPS contract campaign took a positive step forward in February with the launch of a Contract Unity Pledge. The Unity Pledge will take this campaign effort further than previous actions by asking every UPS Teamster to indicate their level of commitment through the various “pledges:” from downloading the UPS Teamsters app to participating in actions and organizing for the campaign in their building. 

This was followed in March and April by calls for locals to demonstrate their unity by organizing parking lot rallies, participating in days of action, and developing contract action teams. Rank-and-file members are also able to attend training sessions in every region where they can hear from organizers about the bargaining process, learn strategies for mobilizing co-workers, develop methods of communication, and get help building effective action teams. 

These are all positive developments and point in the correct direction, but the August 1 deadline goes both ways. UPS has been preparing by, among other things, telling managers not to take time off in July or August so they can be prepared to deliver packages in the event of a strike. The Teamsters have a lot of catching up to do if they are to build a credible strike threat.

Building Teamsters for a Democratic Union

If UPS does not budge on workers’ demands and a strike looks likely, O’Brien will come under huge pressure by the Biden administration to settle on a deal. We saw late last year the Biden administration intervene to prevent a rail strike from happening and forced rail workers to accept a contract they had voted down with little to no fightback offered by union leaderships. Many of those rail workers were Teamsters.

Rather than scold Biden for taking away workers’ right to strike for a strong contract, O’Brien stated at a recent UPS rally in California, “I want to tell you this because our brothers and sisters in the rail division, they felt that the administration interceded, which isn’t the truth.” This washing over of Biden’s strikebreaking actions is indefensible, but it also shows the real pressures union leaders are placed under when they try to satisfy both the needs of workers and corporate-backed politicians. O’Brien has staked his future in the labor movement on winning a strong contract at UPS, but without a mobilized rank-and-file demanding a strike on August 1st if an acceptable contract isn’t reached, O’Brien is likely to give in to whatever Biden asks of him.

To prevent O’Brien from yielding to the interests of corporate politicians or conceding to a seven day work week, it will be necessary to develop a strong, independent network of union activists who are capable of holding the IBT leadership accountable. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has a long history within the Teamsters union as a rank-and-file reform movement and can be an important reference point for workers looking to get involved in the struggle. TDU played an integral role in the 1997 strike which saw real gains for workers.

TDU has already organized hundreds of workers into Zoom calls over the previous year to discuss the ongoing UPS campaign and recruit militant activists. While it is hugely positive that they are bringing workers together, these meetings are not without their weaknesses. For one, TDU was deeply involved in the O’Brien/Zuckerman slate election and has remained largely uncritical of their leadership in the time since. There is also hesitation to put forward demands which go beyond those already sanctioned by the IBT (e.g. “higher wages” rather than the much stronger “$30/hour” for part-time workers). 

These questions deserve further discussion, both within TDU and the broader labor movement, but nonetheless, TDU has the capacity to play an outsized role in this campaign and act as a democratic counterweight to the union bureaucracy.

Strike to Win!

Biden’s breaking of the rail strike was a not-so-subtle nod to all major corporations that the “most labor-friendly President in US history” is willing to intervene to hold the labor movement in check. UPS is confident that they will either agree to a corporate-friendly contract or be bailed out by the politicians in Washington. If UPS workers are to win real gains and ratify the best possible contract this year, it will be necessary to exercise a strong, well-prepared strike that is centered on strong demands. To this end, it is imperative that rank-and-file workers are engaged in every aspect of the campaign and take an active role in building the struggle in their workplaces and communities.

O’Brien has said time and again that Teamsters will strike UPS if an acceptable agreement is not reached by the August 1 deadline. Such strong rhetoric may be encouraging, but with evidence mounting that UPS is not interested in good faith negotiations, these words must be followed up with an equal degree of action if that threat is to hold any weight. 

Despite encouragement from IBT leadership, relatively few locals have proactively organized campaign rallies, informational pickets, or rank-and-file action teams in their areas. In some areas, a layer of militant rank-and-file workers have taken steps to bypass their local union and organize events themselves. These actions need to be massively scaled up if UPS Teamsters are to be ready in time for a strike.

While the regional trainings are a step in this direction, it is absolutely essential that the IBT leadership begin coordinating with local unions to organize regular strike preparation meetings and develop rank-and-file leadership in every hub – bypassing uncooperative local leaders wherever necessary to work directly with members. 

Through democratic decision-making, these meetings would then be able to spearhead regular coordinated rallies, pickets, and standouts in every workplace to maintain visibility and grow the campaign. Organizers should set targets to bring new workers into the struggle at each event, to incorporate them into the organizing process as active participants, and develop them as leaders in their own right. These activities could then be extended to the surrounding communities.

Community support plays an often overlooked, but critical role in union struggles. People are increasingly aware of the worsening conditions faced by UPS workers and, as the most visible part of the workforce, UPS drivers are often held in high esteem. The Teamsters took advantage of this in the 1997 strike by encouraging drivers to walk their routes with part-time workers, engaging with customers, and handing out leaflets about their demands. 

They rallied with communities under the shared slogan, “Part-Time America Won’t Work,” which spoke to the increasing precarity faced in every industry. The effect was clear; public support for the strike was 2 to 1 in favor of the Teamsters. It’s due to this that President Bill Clinton held back on petitions from UPS and Wall Street to invoke his powers under the Taft-Hartley Act and intervene in the strike. A strike at UPS would be the most important event of the labor movement in decades, and the largest strike in the United States since the 1997 UPS strike! Teamsters can show the entire working class what it looks like to fight and win which could have a huge impact on future contract struggles, most notably the UAW’s Big 3 (Ford, GM, and Stellantis) contract due to expire in September. A strong contract at UPS would solidify that the working class is back in the US.