UPS workers prepare for historic showdown with corporate giant

Photo: UPS workers hold a rally in New York City to demand a fair contract, attended by PSL members and other community supporters. Liberation photo

In just a few months, the United States may experience a labor struggle the scale of which has not been seen in over 25 years. The contract between the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and United Parcel Service will expire this year, and a strike is possible.

Much has been written about the labor upsurge of recent years. From Starbucks organizing across the country, to the wave of unionization among academic workers, to the significant public sector strikes in K-12 and higher education, it is clear that there is real potential for the revitalization of the labor movement in the United States. What we have not yet seen in recent years is organized labor taking action in a way that affects the ability of the economy to function at the national level. That may be about to change. 

A mammoth player in the economy

The contract between the Teamsters and UPS is the largest private sector collective bargaining agreement in the United States. It is a national agreement, covering some 350,000 workers across the company’s vast shipping network. Because this is a national bargaining unit, there are UPS Teamsters working in every part of the country. Unlike most other labor conflicts, this is one that will touch every geographic area in the United States.

The national agreement and the large number of workers alone do not give a clear picture of the scale of this potential conflict. We must look to the powerful role that UPS plays in the economy. Every day, the equivalent of 6% of the entire economy of the United States is being transported within the UPS system. The equivalent of over 2% of the world economy is within the system on a daily basis.

The company’s massive Chicago Area Consolidated Hub is the largest ground package facility in the world and the largest intermodal container handler in the western hemisphere, moving containers between rail cars, trucks and warehouses. This facility alone employs 8,000 workers who move 2.1 million packages daily. The center of UPS’s air package operations lies further south in Louisville, Kentucky. Here, the truly massive Worldport global air hub spans some 5.2 million square feet with 300 cargo-bearing flights arriving and departing daily. Between the 12,000 workers employed at this superhub and the advanced automation throughout the facility, some 2 million packages are processed daily. In the pre-holiday peak season, this number doubles.

Looking back: the 1997 strike 

While it is easy to imagine how powerful a national strike at a company this central to the economy could be, we don’t need to speculate. We can look to history. In 1997, the Teamsters engaged in a 15-day strike that resulted in UPS losing over $600 million. Retail and other industries dependent on UPS services were also significantly impacted by the strike. 

The strike also enjoyed enormous public support. Some of this can be explained by the highly visible role of the UPS package car driver and the friendly relationship that many working people develop with the driver who has their route. These relationships personalized the strike for many. 

The union was also very successful at projecting the primary strike issue in a way that would broadly resonate across the working class. Many of the workers in UPS warehouses are employed part-time and have to wait years to secure full-time work. The principal issue of the 1997 strike was creating more full-time jobs and accelerating this path to full-time work. The union recognized that this issue was not limited to a single employer and fought under the slogan, “Part-Time America Won’t Work.” Many workers who pieced together multiple part-time jobs or feared the part-timing of their own jobs identified with the UPS workers whose fight became a symbol of a more general struggle against corporate America’s elimination of secure full-time work.

UPS workers demand dignity and respect

There are echoes of 1997 in the demands being raised by the Teamsters in this year’s contract fight. A route to sustainable full-time work remains a core contract issue — one that is more broadly felt following a controversial provision of the 2018 agreement. This provision created a new category of package car driver, known as a 22.4 in reference to the contract article creating the classification. The current Teamsters leadership regards the creation of the 22.4 position as the launch of a two-tier system within the full-time UPS workforce. This issue is broadly felt by the membership and opposition to the 22.4 position was one of the key factors driving the “no” vote on the 2018 contract.

Overwork and other health and safety issues have also been highlighted by the union in the buildup to negotiations. Forced overtime for drivers, particularly during peak season, has been a major source of conflict and underscores the need for more full-time drivers. Protection from extreme weather has also been raised as a major issue, both in warehouses and for drivers on the road. Teamsters Local 804 president Vinnie Perrone has described the trucks and warehouses that Teamsters are working in as “infernos” that have sent workers to the emergency room.

Finally, the issue of wage increases will surely be a major subject in these negotiations. Part-time pay has long been an issue and contributes to the heavy turnover of the part-time workforce. Full-time workers have secured significantly higher hourly pay through decades of contract fights, but continuing to be the wage leader in the industry will require substantive increases, given the impact of record inflation.

Looking forward: collision course 

It is impossible to know with certainty how the negotiations between the Teamsters and UPS will unfold, but several factors on both sides indicate that an intense conflict is likely. Unrest has been brewing among the ranks of UPS workers for some time. 

In fact, the last contract in 2018 was voted down by the membership. Then-president James Hoffa, Jr. used an archaic provision in the union’s contract to overrule the vote and impose the contract. Current Teamsters President Sean O’Brien publicly broke with Hoffa Jr. early in the 2018 negotiations, setting up a years-long campaign for the presidency of the union. O’Brien, the head of Boston’s Teamsters Local 25, assembled a diverse coalition of former rivals united around a vision for a union that is more willing to confront the bosses. 

O’Brien and his Teamsters United slate won by a landslide. Much of this vote came from UPS workers hoping to avoid a repeat of the disappointing 2018 contract. O’Brien has staked his new presidency and his image as a national figure on a successful campaign at UPS. He has been publicly talking about the need to take strike action at the company since the debacle of 2018. He needs to deliver and seems to genuinely want this fight. The thousands of UPS workers who feel that they have been falling behind for years are unlikely to accept anything less than a major contract victory.

UPS is not likely to simply roll over. The company brought in record profits of $11.3 billion in 2022, but they are forecasting a slower year in 2023. This has already been reflected in some newsworthy layoffs in the first quarter of the year. The shipping and logistics industry has been transformed by Amazon. What was once a UPS client is now also a competitor. The company must find a way to maintain its market share in a more difficult environment and a large increase in labor costs over its non-union competition — Amazon, FedEx, etc. — will not be something that the company’s decision makers will be likely to accept.

Negotiations between the Teamsters and UPS are underway. President O’Brien is chairing the negotiations himself — a break from past practice under Hoffa Jr.’s leadership and another signal of the importance of these negotiations for the new leadership. The last day of the current contract is July 31. If no new agreement is reached by August 1, a strike is very likely. 

Every worker has a stake in the outcome of this crucial fight. Public support, including participation in solidarity actions coordinated with the union and support at the picket lines if a strike breaks out, will be a highly important factor in the struggle. As the expiration of the UPS contract approaches we need to spread the word far and wide about the huge importance of this impending battle between the working class and corporate America.

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