the picket line

Big Labor’s Next Big Fight

Photo: Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images

In early September, the U.S. nearly witnessed one of the biggest labor actions in recent years as 60,000 rail workers prepared to walk off the job. Though negotiators narrowly averted that outcome for now, another, even larger labor action is looming into view. A collective bargaining agreement between the Teamsters and UPS will expire next July, and a showdown between the union and the company may be unavoidable.

The Teamsters represent 350,000 UPS workers. If they go on strike, workers would hamstring not only UPS, which is the world’s largest package delivery company by revenue, and UPS customers, including Amazon; it would potentially freeze the nation’s e-commerce economy. The consequences wouldn’t stop there, either. A strike is a signal to other workers: a reminder that the power to organize, or to withhold labor, is power indeed. Should the Teamsters achieve their aims, either at the bargaining table or via a strike, the results could empower workers to organize their own workplaces – or strike, as necessary – and put powerful employers like Amazon on notice.

Much of the responsibility for a successful contract campaign lies with Sean O’Brien, who was elected to lead the Teamsters last year with a mandate to slay giants. Members expect him to win a new and better contract for UPS, the union’s largest collective bargaining agreement, and organize Amazon’s massive workforce. The union’s 1.2 million members range from cannabis workers to public defenders and even funeral directors, alongside the archetypal truck drivers. O’Brien himself is a fourth-generation Teamster from Boston. “I’ve always known I wanted to be a Teamster,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to be a truck driver. Other people’s families have doctors, lawyers, whatever else. But I was so proud watching my dad go to work every day.”

O’Brien and his Teamsters United slate won by promising to shepherd the union into a more militant era. They’ll soon have to prove their mettle. When he replaced a retiring Jimmy Hoffa Jr., it signaled a break with recent strategy in the midst of a complicated moment for American labor. Weakened by decades of assault from the right, unions often adopted a defensive position, with workers paying the price. In 2018, the Teamsters’ under Hoffa reached a collective bargaining agreement with UPS that  contained “givebacks,” or concessions, including the so-called “22.4 position,” which divided the workforce into two unequal tiers. The two-tier contract separated workers “into distinct wage and benefit tiers based on their hiring date,” as Alex Press explained in the Washington Post in 2018. Pitched as a way to relieve excessive overtime, the position — on paper — shifted regular package car drivers to a Monday through Friday schedule, with 22.4 drivers on a Tuesday through Saturday schedule. Workers in both tiers are union members and can perform exactly the same tasks, but 22.4 drivers may be paid less and benefit from fewer protections against excessive overtime than workers in the other tier. The contract was so controversial that UPS workers rejected it, but Teamster leaders later overruled them, and enforced the contract via a constitutional loophole that members have since voted to close. When that contract expires at the end of July 2023, the union will fight to end the 22.4 classification and with it, the two-tier system that has divided the UPS workforce.

O’Brien knows he faces a challenge, and he remains critical of the Hoffa administration.  “I got to see over the years where corporate America has taken advantage of people, and the previous administration were status quo. They wanted to babysit the organization.” Under Hoffa, he added, “we were afraid to take on a fight for potentially losing.” O’Brien, by his own account, has adopted a more ambitious – and aggressive – position. “I think we’re pretty, pretty vigilant right now,” he said. “So that’s what we’re doing about putting not only corporate America on notice, like the Amazons of the world and obviously UPS, but we’re putting the politicians and society on notice that we’re not going away. We’re going to fight. We’re not afraid to fight.”

That fighting spirit will be a necessity if the Teamsters are to wring a better contract out of UPS, which posted an operating profit of $3.5 billion in the second quarter of 2022 alone. In August, the union launched a mobilization campaign to prepare workers for the possibility of a massive strike. Terry Diggs, a shop steward and 21-year UPS veteran based in Long Beach, California, said that while the union doesn’t want to strike, they’re getting members ready for the possibility. “We’ve actually set forth a plan for part timers and full timers. So if you’re a part timer, we’re asking, how much money can you afford to save per week out of your check?” he said. “Some people can afford to save nothing because of the wages. Some people can afford to save a lot more because of their living situation.” The money they save now will help support them in the event of a future strike. “Most of my employees that I work with out of my hub, that consists of over a thousand people, have already started this preparation. And we’re a year out,” he added.

Nick Jones, who is also a shop steward in Norfolk, Virginia, said while he voted to accept the current contract, it hasn’t worked out in practice. “I do think we’ve made improvements in the last contract as far as pay, and there was an attempt to relieve excessive overtime,” he said. “But the company did not honor the 22.4 language the way it was supposed to have been written in the contract.” With the explosion of e-commerce, excessive overtime remains a problem for everyone in both tiers. “I would like to see the classification of 22.4 taken away,” he added. “And I would like for those people to be brought into the regular package car classification so that we’re all on a level playing field. Nobody’s working beside me making less money, and we all have the same contract protections so that each and every person has an opportunity to spend time with their family and loved ones and have a work life balance.”

The Teamsters have struck UPS before. In 1997, a 15-day strike cost the company around $620 million in revenue. A new strike would do more than cost UPS money, too. It could also threaten UPS’s hold on Amazon deliveries and weaken the company’s position with respect to its biggest customer and competitor. Amazon is already on the verge of overtaking  UPS with its own delivery service and becoming the nation’s largest package carrier, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this year.

A strike may also help the Teamsters attract new workers in search of greater rights on the job. The union’s renewed fighting stance already helped it organize the nation’s first recognized union at a Chipotle location in Lansing, Michigan this year. The union also recently launched an Amazon division to organize the e-commerce giant’s workers. “We came out of the convention in 2021 with a resolution that was overwhelmingly supported by the entire delegation to create an Amazon division,” O’Brien explained. The goal, he added, was to build organizing infrastructure, and a consistent message and strategy along with it. O’Brien said that it’s structured like the union’s UPS division “because UPS is our most formidable opponent that we’re going to have in the next year.”

The union’s pending battle with UPS would have ramifications for its plan to organize Amazon, too. “There’s a scenario where UPS workers mobilize and they take strike action and that affects 6 percent of GDP, and they win a good contract and that would be a huge labor victory,” explained David Levin, a staff director at Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a grassroots organization that supported O’Brien and his Teamsters United slate during the recent election. “But I think a much bigger dream is that next August 1st, 350,000 UPS workers go on strike to take on issues that are affecting them and Amazon workers and other workers in this growing sector.” Should the union prove itself to be in fighting shape, workers everywhere will take heed, or so Levin hopes. “So you have an upsurge and a fight back, not just at UPS, but at Amazon, too. And that’s the kind of thing that is historic and a game changer,” he said.

O’Brien, for his part, is determined to get the Teamsters ready for the showdown to come. The negotiation process has become more transparent and inclusive of rank-and-file members, he explained. “People love it when you’re on the top side of a wrestling match. They don’t like it when you’re on the bottom,” he said. “And our members, because of what we’ve been doing and the inclusiveness, they feel they’re on the top side of that wrestling match. We’ve got tremendous leverage.”

The Teamsters Are Ready To Fight Giants