What we need to do to make UPS deliver

June 12, 2018

Following a resounding vote to authorize a strike, what comes next? A UPS Teamster describes what’s at stake in this round of contract negotiations.

RANK-AND-file Teamsters have shown they’re ready to take on UPS after members voted to authorize a strike by a more than 90 percent margin at the end of May.

The vote has been a long time coming. It gives voice to workers’ frustrations with a company that prioritizes its extreme profits over wages and working conditions.

The question, however, remains whether the union administration of General President James P. Hoffa and local Teamsters leaders are prepared to use this potential rank-and-file power to really take on UPS.

UPS contracts in package and freight expire at midnight of July 31. So what will happen on August 1? Here are the three most likely outcomes.

A UPS employee loads packages at a regional hub in Ontario, California
A UPS employee loads packages at a regional hub in Ontario, California

First, there could be a tentative agreement that would be voted on by the Teamsters membership. Second, a contract extension is possible — this happened during the last round of negotiations in 2013. Or third, a national strike could be called by the Teamster leadership, sending 260,000 UPS Teamsters to the picket line and shutting down a sizable portion of the logistics network in the U.S.

THE AUGUST 1997 strike at UPS — the only time UPS Teamsters went on a nationwide strike — had a major impact on other businesses and the U.S. economy.

I was working at a small company in 1997, doing shipping and receiving, and we could hardly dispatch any packages through other carriers. The U.S. Postal Service and FedEx couldn’t handle the volume. Even though this was a nonunion company, we supported the Teamsters, and refused any packages from management and scabs who tried to deliver to us.

A majority of the country supported the 1997 strike, even though it inconvenienced them. The strike’s slogan “Part-time America Won’t Work” resonated with people, since 60 percent of UPS workers are part-time, and only guaranteed three and a half hours a day.

There was also sympathy for the drivers who delivered and picked up hundreds of packages a day, and are known by the customers on their routes. There was also a recognition that for every driver, there were many more inside hub workers, most of them part-time, struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

Then-Teamsters General President Ron Carey, along with rank-and-file members of the union, made the case about the hard conditions of working at UPS. Management was overconfident that people would blame the striking workers for the hardships the strike imposed on the public.

This backfired on UPS management, which eventually had to settle. The strike won 20,000 new full-time jobs, saved the pension from being taken over by the company, and achieved substantial raises.

Yet UPS management wasted no time attacking the deal it had signed. The company refused to create the new jobs, citing a clause in the contract relating to the volume of packages. Eventually, UPS did create the jobs — but it also went after Carey with the help of the federal government. He was removed from office on charges that later proved to be unfounded.

1997 was a high point in the Teamsters struggle at UPS, but as in all labor battles, there is no final victory — and the result of the attacks that followed was demoralizing and confusing for many workers.

James P. Hoffa won the next election for general president, and instead of restoring Teamster power as he promised, we’ve witnessed 20 years of the union’s decline.

Hoffa’s weak leadership, along with those local officers who support him, has resulted in the company being able to make a mockery of our contracts. Nonunion, subcontracted tractor trailer drivers are driving loads that are supposed to be UPS Teamster work. UPS has imposed a 70-hour workweek during peak season in November and December by fiddling with drivers’ work schedules.

Package car drivers are doing far more stops than before and are monitored electronically by management while being forced to work excessive mandatory overtime.

Inside hub workers are intimidated to work faster. There is a shortage of inside workers due to the low start pay of $10 an hour. New hires quit on a regular basis after they realize that other low-paying jobs might not be as backbreaking, and have better start pay.

Still, with unemployment low and a far higher volume of packages due to e-commerce, UPS Teamsters have the potential of using the leverage we have now to make substantial gains in this contract. But we have to use our power, and the leadership of the Teamsters is standing in the way of this.

THE HOFFA administration called for a national strike authorization vote in May — something it didn’t do during the last contract fight — and 93 percent of UPS and 91 percent of UPS Freight voted to authorize a walkout if needed.

There definitely is a high level of anger and frustration among UPS workers. The strong margins in favor of a strike are welcome news.

But at the same time, we have to confront the obstacles, like Hoffa removing some of the best union officers on the bargaining team for standing tough against company concessions. Hoffa yanked Local 25 President Sean O’Brien, a former loyal supporter, as chief negotiator for including members of the reform slate Teamsters United on the bargaining team, and for taking a stand against concessions.

O’Brien was replaced with Denis Taylor, who has already offered a substantial concession in backroom talks with UPS: a new second-tier, hybrid package car position that would pay far less than the current package car rate. When we first heard about it, I and other workers thought this was a company proposal. We were dumbfounded to find that it came from our “own” side.

The Hoffa administration has removed all bargaining committee members who want to at least proclaim they want to put up a fight. In other words, at a time when workers could make major demands of the company, the Hoffa administration is showing that it doesn’t want to put up much of a fight.

UPS is hurting for workers across the country, and in some places, the company is offering bonus money to new hires if they have perfect attendance.

Part-time new hires can make more per hour than part-timers who have been working at UPS for a few years. This is causing divisions among workers in those areas where this policy is in force. UPS also pays below the minimum wage in some parts of the country.

People I work with as 22.3 full-time workers — named for the article of the 1997-2002 contract agreement that forced management to combine two part-time jobs to create a full-time position — are making more money than ever before due to overtime. We hardly ever have a light day.

Even the part-time workers at our building were getting massive amounts of overtime — until recently when the volume in our building has dropped. Overall, volume has been very high almost year-round. But UPS is on a massive building spree to construct more automated hubs and retool older hubs to make them more automated.

We never have a slow period like we used to have in the past. This constant pace can start to wear on workers. I know it has certainly done so to me.

Meanwhile, UPS is making profits hand over fist. UPS CEO David Abney’s pay has more than tripled during the current contract. As Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) pointed out, “Last year UPS paid Abney $14.6 million in total compensation, or just over $7,000 an hour. Remember that, when the company pleads poverty in contract negotiations.”

THIS IS the time to make big gains in our contract. CBS MoneyWatch pointed out some of the advantages Teamsters have right now, making the connection to 1997:

Atlanta-based UPS is a much larger company today than it was more than two decades ago, thanks largely to the growth of online shopping. Revenue at UPS has nearly tripled, from more than $22.4 billion in 1997 to roughly $66 billion. Over that period, UPS’s unionized workforce grew more than 40 percent, from 185,000 to 280,000.

Another edge for UPS workers: Other shipping companies would struggle to pick up the slack in the event of a strike. UPS transports roughly 20 million packages and documents per day. In financial terms, that amounts to roughly 6 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, according to Cowen, an investment bank.

Corporate executives are so worried about a potential nationwide strike that UPS is going to great lengths to assure them that negotiations are under control, and a walkout is unlikely.

Now is the time to organize for a strike. Yet the Hoffa administration is sending contradictory messages by taking a strike authorization vote at the same time as it weakens the bargaining team and proposes concessions to UPS. This is the opposite of what a union leadership serious about winning a better contract should do.

There is also a “brownout” on information about what is taking place during negotiations. An uninformed membership and an unprepared leadership isn’t the way to pressure this ruthless company, even when economic conditions favor our side.

We have to be prepared for Hoffa and his administration to make a backroom deal that is subpar at best. We need to pressure the Hoffa administration to strike, but we also must be ready to organize a Vote No campaign if a lousy tentative deal is reached.

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The best way to win is to strike. We can’t let Hoffa and Taylor settle short and claim victory. It will be up to the rank and file, TDU and Teamsters United to put pressure on those Teamster leaders.

Teamsters United is calling for Contract Unity Actions at UPS hubs from June 18 to June 21 to show the company that members won’t accept a weak contract.

We deserve far more than Hoffa and Taylor are proposing, and we can force the company to give us a great contract like we did in 1997 — but only if we use our power: the power to withhold our labor and strike.

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