UPS contract shows both power and shortcomings of new reform leadership

With ever-rising temperatures, the demand for air-conditioned trucks was a safety issue for UPS drivers. PHOTO: Elvert Barnes
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As the Aug. 1, 2023, deadline for a new United Parcel Service/Teamster contract loomed, both the labor movement and Wall Street held their breath. UPS’ 340,000 workers represent the largest unionized private sector workforce in the country.

Labor watched to see if new Teamster president Sean O’Brien’s year-long “United for a Decent Contract” campaign and the threat of a strike could force an end to decades of concessions. Capitalists feared supply chain disruption, and Bloomberg News warned, “If the Teamsters pursuit of higher wages is met, it could be a harbinger for other salary increases.”

A strong start. This year’s strike wave across the country, a 96% strike authorization vote, and an aggressive stance by the new Teamster reform leadership led to important wins early in negotiations. UPS agreed to end two-tier driver classifications, which had divided the workforce and brought down wages and working conditions. The company also acceded to limits on forced overtime, adding air conditioning and ventilation in trucks, removing surveillance cameras on drivers, and more. Driver Alex Carritte said, “I’ve never seen energy like this before. Not in the rank and file, and certainly not in the leadership.”

Then on July 5, union negotiators walked out of talks when UPS balked at raising part-timer wages — despite UPS profits soaring during the pandemic and net income rising 70% over the last five years.

In a demonstration of power, workers nationwide participated in practice pickets. That would have been a good time for Teamsters to initiate labor-community solidarity committees.

At a July 16 webinar for union members, President Sean O’Brien declared “We are united … we will not leave the part-timers behind!”

Part-timers shorted again. However, when a tentative agreement was announced nine days later it included a new two-tier system for part-time workers, just as O’Brien was trumpeting a victory in eliminating two tiers for drivers. Part-timers represent 60% of the workforce and women and people of color are concentrated in those jobs.

Current part-time workers will get the $7.25 across-the-board raise for all employees over the life of the 5-year contract, but new part-time hires will come in at $21.00/hour, and only rise to $23.00! Among other concerns not addressed: guaranteed hours per day remain at only 3.5, forced overtime on days off are maintained, and there are no provisions to mitigate extreme heat and cold in warehouses.

Mixed response by Teamster reform groups. The tentative agreement brought different reactions. Grassroots groups made up mostly of part-time workers like launched Vote NO campaigns, but had little time to organize.

In contrast, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, an established reform organization allied with the O’Brien leadership, touted the TA as a huge victory. An article by Labor Notes, a leftist labor journal, was posted on the official Teamster website to promote a yes vote on the contract.

The Freedom Socialist Party sided with the insurgent UPS workers calling for a no vote and distributed a flyer at UPS distribution centers explaining that “The power is in your hands to improve the deal.” The flyer resonated with rank-and-filers, many of whom weren’t familiar with the details of the contract.

Ultimately, workers ratified the new contract by an 86% margin. Many saw it as progress after decades of concessions.

Next up: United Auto Workers. As the FS went to press, a similar scenario played out with UAW’s contract with the big three automakers, which expired Sept. 14. There, too, a new union reform leadership announced a line in the sand after years of concessions. This time a strike followed.

The labor movement is surging and public support for unions is at an all-time high. If autoworkers hold strong, tap into that support, and learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the UPS fight, they can win big. Their battle to raise wages, cut hours and force federally subsidized electric vehicles to be union-made will resonate with workers across the country.

Unions can also pump up the volume by embracing broader issues affecting our class on and off the job: reproductive justice, healthcare, and fighting all forms of discrimination.

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