By ERNIE GOTTA
After negotiations between Teamsters and UPS stalled in an all-night bargaining session on July 4, the company walked away from the bargaining table. Sixteen days later, the Teamsters triumphantly announced, “UPS bows to Teamster pressure, negotiations set to resume next week.”
Following a massive union rally in Los Angeles on July 19 and weeks of practice picketing outside UPS distribution centers across the country, public opinion is on the side of the Teamsters. Countless memes, Tik Tok videos, and other social media posts are rallying to the side of the union. In general, the working class has taken enough abuse after suffering through the ongoing pandemic, racist police killings, economic crisis, femicide, attacks on the LGBTQIA community, war, and climate change. One particularly interesting theme is drawing out the connection between the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors’ Guild strikes and a potential strike at UPS, condensed in a pithy term “Hot Labor Summer.”
UPS Teamsters were considered “essential employees” and often worked through unsafe conditions as the company was slow to implement COVID protocols. Teamsters Local 822 Secretary-Treasurer Johnny Sawyer made it clear in a recent contract update, “It is time for UPS to pay up.”
This contract fight encompasses both economic and worker-safety demands that tie into broader social issues like climate change. For example, rising temperatures and wildfire smoke from Canadian wildfires highlighted the fact that working outdoors is becoming increasingly unsafe. This is the context in which the union won air conditioning in all new trucks purchased for UPS’s fleet, starting in 2024. Workers are fighting for a plethora of other contract issues through the course of an aggressive negotiating campaign.
Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien and his team have a lot to prove as the union atrophied following decades of weak contracts with Jimmy Hoffa Jr.’s regime in charge. Their tireless campaigning during negotiations is no doubt winning the confidence of many in the ranks of the union. However, there is a rich internal political life within the Teamsters, which we can only touch on in this article. Suffice it to say that past differences that were once sharp and prominent have been patched up for the time being, as the perennial opposition reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), has been largely integrated into the larger bureaucracy and organizing bodies within the union. It’s unclear if these new alliances will last or if new divisions will emerge following the balance sheet drawn from negotiations and more than a year in leadership.
O’Brien has been part of a wave of what many view as a more progressive and militant style of union leadership, which includes other leaders such as Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) and Shawn Fain, the new president of the UAW. This UPS contract fight is O’Brien’s first real major test.
Whether or not a strike happens, some things are clear: Workers seem ready to fight, and solidarity between workers in different sectors of the economy will be a driving factor in any resurgence of the labor movement, as a discussion around strategy and tactics is almost certain to unfold in the coming days and months. With thousands of workers already on the picket lines, shutting down Hollywood, it doesn’t take much to get a sense that the working class is ready for a new strike wave.
It is likely that we are living at a time when class consciousness has the potential to deepen on a mass level. No doubt a strike at UPS would have a profound impact, but simply the threat of a strike and mass practice picketing have raised expectations and inspired thousands of young workers to imagine what might be possible. That’s because many see this as more than just contract negotiations between the Teamsters and UPS; these negotiations are a symbol of the broader fight between the working class and capital. The working class is in serious need of a real victory that comes through their independent and collective self-organization, and not through the intervention of this or that politician.
Ranks are ready to strike
Even if there is no strike, the willingness of rank-and-file workers to take bold action is important. The simple fact that full-time workers are ready to stand up in solidarity over the pay for part-timers tells us that the company’s attempt to lowball and divide the workers has not succeeded. These union members have a lot of power and are beginning to understand that apathy melts away when there is something worth fighting for. The O’Brien leadership to a certain extent has built up these expectations and to some degree allowed for more voices of the rank and file to be heard. This is still a far cry from the landmark 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strike or even the 1997 UPS strike under the leadership of Ron Carey, yet it is certainly different than what took place during the Hoffa Jr. years.
Many members of the union are engaged in this fight in a manner unlike any other contract in recent memory. Days prior to the announcement on Sunday, July 16, more than 10,000 rank-and-file UPS Teamsters joined a Zoom call to hear about contract updates from General President Sean O’Brien. UPS knows they will face a massive strike if they don’t offer a fair contract and reach a tentative agreement with the Teamsters negotiating team by July 31. O’Brien said in his brief presentation, “When we reach a full tentative agreement, we’ll have made over 60 changes throughout the contract—all favorable to our members. This is a record number of changes.”
O’Brien went on to laud the gains made at the negotiation table. These tentative agreements can be read at UPSTeamstersUnited.org, a site started by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Gains made by the union include the elimination of the two-tier “22.4 classification.” All drivers currently classified as 22.4 will be reclassified upon contract ratification as Regular Package Car Drivers. They will have seniority and have their pay adjusted to the appropriate rate. All package drivers will work Monday to Friday or Tuesday to Saturday work schedules, to be chosen by seniority. UPS cannot force any package driver to work on their scheduled days off. Martin Luther King Day will be added as a holiday in each supplement and rider.
The union is well aware of UPS’s economic health and knows that it can afford to settle a historic contract in the workers’ favor. In a statement released by UPS Teamsters United, “UPS made $13.1 billion in profits in each of the last two years. Now, they are projecting profits of $13.5 billion in 2023 despite a slowing economy. UPS paid $8.6 billion in cash last year alone to investors through dividends and share buybacks.”
The incredible profits at UPS also bring to light the issue of competition from companies like Amazon, which employs 1.5 million workers. There’s a real sense of urgency from the Teamsters for the need to build union density in logistics. A massive effort by the Teamsters to organize Amazon facilities across the country is underway and it has doubled as another weapon in contract negotiations with UPS. Recent rolling pickets have disrupted Amazon’s supply chain across the country in support of 84 Amazon Teamsters on strike in Palmdale, Calif., Local 396. A strike at UPS would create a real crisis for the capitalist class. As deceased Teamster President Ron Carey said during the 1997 strike, “This fight with UPS shows what working people can accomplish when they all stick together. The UPS workers stood up to [the] ‘throw away’ worker approach and the nation’s working people stood behind us.”
This new level of aggressive organizing has militant workers everywhere waiting eagerly to know, will the Teamsters go on strike?
It’s hard to tell if there is going to be a strike. There is no crystal ball that can see into the future. There are also contradictions and questions in recent weeks as the July 31 contract expiration date is set to expire. Concerns are quietly being raised by some Teamsters about the lack of transparency due to Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) signed by both parties that keep what is said at the bargaining table confidential.
Richard Hooker, president of Teamsters Local 623, in an interview with Steve Zeltzer on a Pacifica radio program, commented about Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) filed between the Teamsters and UPS. NDA’s are a real problem for full transparency. Hooker explained that he has to talk to his members and needs to know if what the union is proposing meets their standards. NDA’s create rumors and divisions. He made a point to mention that he doesn’t want to hear news about negotiations from The Wall Street Journal and social media.
These are the types of cracks in the foundation of the new regime that may give union members pause and reflect on whether or not this new leadership is the real deal. President Hooker already explained that rank-and-file Teamsters are only getting a limited type of transparency. The information that has selectively been released seems positive, though it’s hard to tell exactly.
The union is rightfully demanding more in order to provide a living wage for part-time workers. This is a reasonable request—appropriate to the success of the company. Tomé, for example, received over $19 million in compensation in 2022, which was down from a staggering $27.6 million in 2021. That’s barely a pay cut or sacrifice when you consider what part-timers make. The hope for the union is that its public pressure campaign has loosened the pockets of the company enough to address the major issues that remain on the table, including wage increases for every Teamster, part-time wages, new full-time 22.3 jobs, PVDs, health, and pension improvements.
NDAs are an all too common and unfortunate feature of negotiations. These agreements give the impression of deals made behind the workers’ backs. What is so secret that it can’t be disclosed to the membership? A union leadership should feel pressured by the membership, especially if they are not making proposals that the membership themselves would make or accept. In other negotiations done in a similar way, workers have been sold bad contracts that were dressed up as victories in order to keep labor peace between the company and the union.
Contrast the use of NDAs today with the way Teamsters in Minneapolis negotiated with the bosses during the historic 1934 strike. Concerning that strike, Farrell Dobbs wrote in “Teamster Rebellion,” “No greater authority on the subject could be found than the workers on the job. Collectively they have rich practical knowledge of the industry in which they are employed; they know all the employer’s tricks and about the only secret he can keep from them is how much profit he is raking off from their labor. Meetings were held with each group of workers to formulate specific demands for their particular section of the trucking industry. They made the decisions on all items relating to wage, hours, and working conditions. The organizing committee simply added special clauses on points such as union recognition, job protection, grievance procedures, and comparable matters.”
There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from books like “Teamster Rebellion” that can help to guide us in our struggles today. An important fact is that the union’s strength exists through a democratic body of educated and militant rank-and-file members. This is critical to the strength and success at the bargaining table, as well as to building a fighting class-struggle left wing in the unions.
Strike or no strike, victory or defeat, militants in the Teamsters and in every other union have the responsibility to draw a balance sheet, make an assessment, and draw conclusions about what to do next. What is next? If there were no strike, it would be a shame to let this moment die down and disappear. A key to building the confidence of the working class for the fights ahead is to begin the arduous task of politicizing our coworkers and unions. The rank and file must aim all their firepower at the bosses and win concessions on the shop floor by defending the contract and even going beyond what’s written down on paper.
We also have a political responsibility. This means taking on organizing solidarity caravans of coworkers to another union’s picket lines or marching in labor contingents in movements for social and economic justice. We can’t stop at solidarity with other workers in the U.S. We have to extend that solidarity to workers everywhere around the world. That includes opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and raising funds for the Independent Miners Union in Kryvyi Rih or making photos and videos for workers on strike in other countries.
We can expect that the working class will find its way toward independence from both the bosses and the bosses’ political parties. This important step will be accomplished through daily discussions, taking each opportunity to build international solidarity, and relearning our militant and democratic traditions that were successful and prominent in previous generations. Real leadership and trust, without so much as being a shop steward or an elected officer, can be built through this type of effort.
Of course, a strike would be a powerful tool not only for winning the full demands of UPS workers but also for helping the Teamsters to organize Amazon. If there is a strike, Workers’ Voice calls on our readers, workers, students, and community activists to defend the picket lines and to donate if a strike fund is established. We’ll continue to cover the negotiations as they develop, and we’ll express our solidarity in whatever ways are needed. There is great potential in the U.S. and international working class to confront and eventually topple the capitalists. Let’s turn each moment of class struggle like the UPS contract negotiations into a classroom for understanding what comes next in future showdowns with the bosses.
Photo: UPS workers hold a “practice” picket line in Doraville, Ga., on July 7. (Erik S. Lesser / EFE / Shutterstock)