The contract at UPS is set to expire July 31 meaning roughly 350,000 UPS workers could go on strike as early as August 1. Working people across the US and globally are seeing rising inflation eat away at their wages while corporations rake in billions in profits. UPS itself reported record revenues of over $100 billion last year. A strike at UPS would capture the support of tens of millions of working people who would see their same struggles in those of UPS workers.
Teamsters President Sean O’Brien has staked his reputation on delivering a strong contract. He is being hailed as the union leader bringing the fight to companies like UPS and Amazon. However, O’Brien is only as powerful as his willingness to lead a genuinely militant strike. UPS workers are the ones who move 6% of US GDP and make the company their profits. It is UPS workers who ultimately have the power to deliver a strong contract for themselves and O’Brien’s legacy will depend on whether he’s willing to harness that power.
O’Brien said recently in a speech in California that he is having frequent meetings in the White House with President Biden. The last thing Biden wants is for a UPS strike to disrupt the US economy going into an election year. Unfortunately, the last time Biden put his thumb on the scale in a labor dispute, politicians and union leaders, including O’Brien, betrayed railroad workers, denying them the opportunity to strike. Rank-and-file Teamsters will have to make clear that they won’t back down – not to UPS or to any political party.
97% Vote To Authorize Strike
On June 16th, the Teamsters announced that UPS workers voted to authorize a strike with 97% of the vote. This does not mean that there will definitely be a strike, but it is an important part of building towards one. Unfortunately, the Teamsters did not organize these votes in a way that would encourage high turnout. Vote announcements came suddenly and some Locals had limited voting hours. Despite this, the 97% vote is higher than the 90% strike authorization vote in 2018 and indicates more of a fighting mood than in previous contract struggles.
The strike threat has already given workers increased leverage at the negotiating table. While strike votes were happening, reports came that a tentative deal was made to bring AC into new delivery vans starting in 2024. This was a major demand from UPS workers who often have to work in cargo areas that reach over 120 degrees. It is common for UPS workers to suffer from heat exhaustion which can result in hospitalization or even death. Winning AC is being touted as a major victory by O’Brien.
But the details of the deal reveal some serious shortcomings. There are no guarantees on when all UPS delivery vans will have AC, only that they will be retrofitted with small fans and air induction vents. This means the majority of UPS drivers still won’t have AC by the end of the 5-year contract, with no promises they will ever receive it. This is unacceptable in a time where heat records are broken seemingly every summer. USPS as well as non-union competitors Amazon and FedEx all have AC. The fact that the Teamsters leadership has advertised this as such a massive victory while negotiations are still ongoing is a concerning sign that they may try to sell workers on a concessionary Tentative Agreement (TA) rather than organizing a powerful strike to win all their demands.
UPS Counter Proposal Leaked
In late June, the counter proposal offered by UPS around economic issues was leaked online. UPS is offering part-timers $17/hour starting pay, along with major cuts to part-timer health insurance, and no new full-time jobs! UPS thrives off the exploitation of their part-time workforce, and now they are trying to cement this in the next contract. Many UPS Teamsters were rightfully outraged by this proposal, and Teamsters leadership claimed they have walked out of negotiations until a serious proposal is made.
UPS is also proposing that they should be able to reverse cost-of-living adjustments (COLA). This means that during an economic downturn, UPS would be permitted to cut workers’ wages. This is a dangerous prospect heading into what may be a deep recession. COLA has increased importance at times like these where inflation is rising, driving the cost-of-living through the roof. UPS Teamsters need to reject any cuts to COLA while also fighting to expand it by demanding COLA +1% to ensure that wages are always outpacing inflation.
Interestingly, the leak shows that UPS is already conceding on eliminating the hated 22.4 classification, which creates a second-class of lower paid drivers. UPS recently claimed in relation to 22.4, that it is committed to finding a better model “that addresses employee needs while retaining the flexibility to meet our customers’ weekend delivery needs.” While UPS has seemingly conceded to eliminating 22.4, the leaked proposal also includes language around new six-day and seven-day operations. O’Brien announced late last year that the future of logistics is a seven-day workweek, marking this as a concession before negotiations even began. This seems to set up a trade-off by eliminating the 22.4 but forcing workers into a seven-day workweek. The proposal also cuts the top rates for new full-time drivers from $42 to $32 and for new inside workers from $36 to $24, which effectively creates a new two-tier system to replace the old one.
Less than a week later, UPS resubmitted the exact same proposal and Teamsters leadership walked out for the second time in less than a week. They declared in a statement titled “Teamsters: Nationwide UPS Strike Is Imminent,” that UPS had until the end of the week to submit their last, best, and final offer. Teamsters leadership is correct to reject an offer as insulting as this one and the increased threat of a strike is encouraging. However, O’Brien has already shown he’s willing to accept a concessionary deal and present it to rank-and-filers as a major victory around the agreement on AC.
Getting the Teamsters Strike Ready
Some steps have been taken by the union’s leadership to get membership strike ready. There have been more negotiations updates, a positive change from the information “brownouts” of previous contract campaigns. Teamsters leadership just announced a second round of rallies as well as “practice pickets” as an escalation following the initial rallies held in some Locals. This all points in the right direction but unfortunately is not enough to get 350,000 Teamsters ready to carry out a strike capable of winning a strong contract.
A test of the Teamsters strike readiness has already passed. On June 7th, smoke from Canadian wildfires resulted in cities like New York having hazardous air quality. These conditions were completely unsafe for anyone to work in. A strike over unsafe working conditions in New York and other cities with hazardous air quality, connected with demands around safety, could have put UPS on notice and given confidence to UPS workers nationally, not to mention protect the health of the workers involved. This was done in 1994 when UPS unilaterally doubled the weight limit for packages from 70 pounds to 150 pounds. UPS Teamsters organized a one-day strike that showed the company they wouldn’t back down. For the workers involved, this acted as an actual practice for the 1997 strike.
If O’Brien comes back with a concessionary contract, it will be up to rank-and-file Teamsters to vote “NO” and force a strike. Organizations like the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a rank-and-file organization that has spearheaded reforms within the union for decades, have an especially important role to play in holding O’Brien’s feet to the fire to prepare for a powerful strike that can win. Over a thousand UPS Teamsters have been attending TDU’s Zoom organizing calls. TDU’s leadership has unfortunately taken a completely uncritical approach to O’Brien. The leadership of TDU has so far raised no criticisms of O’Brien’s role in trying to force railway Teamsters into accepting a bad deal. They have even gone so far as to call UPS Teamsters critical of the AC deal “cynical.” But this can change with pressure from below. UPS Teamsters should organize within TDU and fight to ensure that it keeps itself independent from the O’Brien leadership and is prepared to say and do what’s needed to build a powerful strike and win a strong contract.
O’Brien and the rest of the Teamsters’ current leadership have staked their reputations on winning a strong contract at UPS. While they will absolutely face pressures from the Biden administration to capitulate, they are also susceptible to pressure from below. If they return with a TA that does not eliminate the 22.4 classification, substantial raises for full and part-timers, and assurances there will be no 7-day workweek, UPS Teamsters should vote “NO” on the contract and flock to the picket lines. If a strike does happen and leadership tries to call off the strike before a TA is voted on, workers need to hold firm, stay on the pickets, and discuss ways to escalate the strike and force UPS to back down. To do otherwise would be to give up their greatest leverage in securing a strong contract – the ability to disrupt UPS’s profits.