August 3, 2023
After 18 months of preparation and agitation it seemed that the union contract collision between the Teamsters Union and the UPS corporation was inevitable.
It is rare today in the U.S. labor movement for a union leadership to seriously embrace strike struggle as a real possibility, and even rarer still to prepare and begin to mobilize the members on a mass scale. Preparing to take strike action in the event the negotiations cannot achieve a settlement agreeable to the union on the scale of UPS is unheard of in the U.S. for many decades. Since the election of Sean O’Brien as Teamster president in March of 2022 all mention of the UPS negotiations by the union – or in the media – referenced possible strike struggle.
For months prior to the eventual July 25 settlement all indications were that a strike on the July 31 expiration of the previous contract was a foregone conclusion. Or so it seemed. The settlement a full week prior to expiration came as a surprise to just about everyone, UPS union members and observers alike. For background on the Teamster battle with UPS see: Will Biden Destroy the UPS Strike? – MLToday Labor Notes staffer Luis Feliz Leon also penned a detailed post-settlement article in The American Prospect: Inside the Teamsters’ Historic Contract at UPS – The American Prospect
A Strike Is Off – So What’s Next?
The unexpected tentative contract agreement reached on July 25th between the Union and UPS set in motion the contract ratification process, where the 340,000 Teamster members employed at UPS will vote the contract up or down. This ratification process began on August 3rd and runs until August 22nd. For anyone wanting to see the details of the settlement go to: UPS Tentative Agreement Toolkit (tdu.org) Teamster members will be considering the tentative agreement and its pluses and minuses for them and their fellow workers. In the event a majority of those vote to support the contract it will go into effect. Should a majority reject the agreement negotiations will resume and the strike possibility will be renewed.
There is no question that much has been gained in the current tentative contract, and the results are extraordinarily better than what would have been achieved without the serious strike preparations. There will be a large sentiment for ratification by the members who feel like their efforts to mobilize paid off, and the fact that a strike was avoided will be to the liking of many. Virtually the entire Teamsters leadership has also embraced the agreement and is well positioned to campaign for its ratification. A July 31st meeting was convened of 176 Teamster locals representing UPS members, held to discuss the deal and vote to endorse or reject the deal. It featured only one dissenting local advocating rejection of the agreement, the 10,000 member Local 89 based in Louisville, Kentucky. (UPDATE: AFTER HAVING TIME TO FURTHER CONSIDER THE DETAILED WAGE
PROPOSAL IN THE UPS TENTATIVE AGREEMENT, LOCAL 89 HAS NOW
ENTHUSIASTICALLY ENDORSED THE AGREEMENT AND IS ADVOCATING A “YES” VOTE FOR RATIFICATION.) There were 14 local unions who failed to attend this meeting and the final vote was 161 locals in favor of the new contract and one against. All indications are that the part-time workforce remains the potential problem spot for ratification, with more than half of all voters working part-time. Gains were made addressing the part-time issues but the final agreement does not achieve all demands of this large grouping.
Questions to Consider While Voting Takes Place
All observers have an opinion on the current outcome, and it will be several weeks before any conclusion is announced. For the left, this is a good time to ponder some of the bigger aspects of the situation, some of the things forgotten or obscured during the fast-moving period leading up to the settlement.
Role of O’Brien?
The worst years of Hoffa treachery and chicanery have apparently passed, as new Teamsters President Sean O’Brien proved during this UPS campaign and negotiations. But what would account for the unprecedented early conclusion of negotiations? Was O’Brien taken by surprise at the “strike fever” that spread from coast to coast among the rank-and-file? It would be safe to say that in his union career O’Brien had never seen this kind of member mobilization and resolve to make real progress – and strike if necessary. Did he enter UPS negotiations and misjudge what the final deal might include? Was he influenced somehow by outside forces, President Biden, or UPS? Did he view the costs of a strike somehow too high for what would be gained? In the passage of more time the picture will emerge, and a better appraisal of his role will be possible.
Role of Biden?
There is ample evidence that President Biden was working furiously behind the scenes to prevent a strike at UPS. Having undermined and ultimately smashed the rail strike late last year the White House was found this time calling around to assorted union presidents in an attempt to build peer pressure to discourage O’Brien from conducting a strike. O’Brien also took the unusual public step on July 16th of confirming that he had told the Biden White House multiple times by that point to stay out of the UPS negotiations. This was a stinging rebuke to Biden, well known for his absurd strutting claims that he is the most pro-union President in U.S. history. The many apologists for Biden’s strike breaking of the rail strike will no doubt apologize for his shameful UPS performance as well.
Role of Big Business?
It was no surprise that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – the general staff of big business who are opposed to all unions and every strike – issued an open public letter on July 20th to President Biden imploring him to intervene in the UPS situation as he had done in the rail negotiations and apparently also the West Coast Longshore union talks. Coalition Letter on Labor Negotiations Between UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters | U.S. Chamber of Commerce (uschamber.com) This was done of course with the consent of UPS, and the letter was launched in the not unrealistic hope that Biden would come to the rescue of UPS as he had done with the five Class 1 railroads last December.
Role of the Staff Army?
Even If a large majority of Teamster members do oppose the current deal it would be almost impossible for them to campaign effectively and overcome the army of several thousand paid local, regional, and international union staff now arrayed against them, almost all of them campaigning for a “yes” vote. Handfuls and disconnected pockets of members unhappy with the deal face steep odds in defeating the current deal. The “staff army” dilemma is one that faces the membership constantly, and here it is especially prominent. With the settlement now reached the momentum for strike has also dissipated greatly and revving-up the strike engine in the event of a rejection is likely impossible. And even if the contract is deemed acceptable on its merits the staff army issue is still problematic and will affect many other situations in the union as it historically has done.
Role of the Left Wing?
While left-wing forces in the Teamsters – best represented by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) – appear to be building in size and reach, they are still too small to exert the kind of decisive influence needed to affect a situation like that at UPS. Socialist and communist organizations have also worked to build membership in UPS as well, but these numbers are far less than what will be needed if the left is to win real influence or even control. This trend of building left blocs within the union will need to expand in the coming years, and all those playing a part today in the rebuilding of a left within the Teamsters Union are to be commended. One guide for action would be the tactics and strategies of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) founded by William Z. Foster in the 1920’s. See: American Trade Unionism – International Publishers (intpubnyc.com) , History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 09 (intpubnyc.com) and History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 10 (intpubnyc.com)
The High Cost of Concessions?
To the credit of the Teamsters they entered the UPS negotiations determined to win back a variety of items previously conceded to the company by the Hoffa regime and those even earlier. What must be recalled, however, is the sky-high cost of fixing these items once granted. Union after union went down the road of agreeing to lower wage tiers, part-time schemes, and work rule changes and the like either in desperation or by trying to avoid a real battle. But when these things are finally corrected the bill is ultimately paid by the members. For instance, the final UPS wage increase package of $7.50 hour over the five-year contract could have been substantially more were it not for the fact that huge sums were diverted to fix the previous concessions. This is truly “the high cost of misleadership,” which the Hoffa regime excelled at.
O’Brien a Leftist?
As the battle moved towards the final showdown it is important to recall that while Teamsters President O’Brien was taking bolder and bolder positions, it was a mistake to mischaracterize him or think of him as some sort of a leftist. While a major improvement over his predecessors, he represents an invigorated segment of the old guard at best. Going forward his role should be remembered in leading the current UPS battle, but it would be a mistake to begin to believe that he has somehow shifted leftwards. Time will tell, and he may move left, but to conclude that today is dangerously premature.
Just a few decades ago five-year labor contracts would have been considered unwise and to be avoided at all costs even by most in the business union leadership. But years and years of concession bargaining, the ossification of many of the union staffs and structures, and outright laziness has led us to where today these agreements are commonplace. Corporations have adopted them in many industries today, recognizing the benefits they offer for their bottom line. Union members find themselves locked-in to these extraordinarily long and inflexible deals, with all manner of problems created and perpetuated as a result. This problem of too-long labor contracts must be squarely placed on the agenda of the left, so that it may be challenged and eventually rolled-back.
Organize the Unorganized?
While the UPS mobilizations and negotiations featured many gains for the members, the simple fact remains that the only two significant private competitors – FedEx and Amazon – both remain 99.9% unorganized. The ink will not be dry on the eventual Teamster contract with UPS and the company will be maneuvering in a hundred ways to escape what it was they had just agreed to. The recent closure of the Yellow trucking company and the loss of 22,000 Teamster jobs is a warning posed for the long term situation at UPS. Yellow declined steadily as the freight trucking industry was deregulated and de-unionized, and Yellow finally succumbed in a market saturated and dominated by low-wage non-union competitors. Organizing the anti-union citadels of FedEx and Amazon is not a choice for the Teamsters, but an imperative. The ability of the union to defend the UPS gains will depend on that. This same situation repeats in industry and after industry, with most of the unions doing nothing and seemingly waiting for the ultimate day of reckoning. In case after case the unions have declined, been decimated, and too frequently liquidated owing to their unwillingness to organize the unorganized. The coming months and years will be a test of O’Brien on this key question.
Re-learning Strike Strategy?
For the left-wing union members and leaders now taking their places in the Teamsters and other unions, it is required to relearn the tactics and strategies of left-wing led strike action. For the past 40 years strike activity dwindled in the U.S. and was largely relegated to marginal and defensive status. An entire generation of labor leaders developed and took office fearing strikes, and also having virtually no experience whatsoever with how they are conducted. Today’s need is to revisit some of the classic literature grappling with the subject from an historical perspective. See: https://www.marxists.org/history/international/profintern/strike_strategy/index.htm and Strike Strategy. William Z Foster 1926 (marxists.org) , The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons, by William Z. Foster. (marxists.org) are good places to start. Also see: The The Big Strike – Mike Quin – International Publishers (intpubnyc.com) and Labor’s Untold Story – UE Store (ueunion.org) A push to restore strike action to the toolbox of every union is overdue.
Reviving the Labor Left?
No matter the eventual outcome, if the UPS contract is ratified or if it is somehow voted down, the Teamsters activists from coast-to-coast are to be recognized for their exemplary efforts and their resuscitation of the “fighting spirit” so lacking in the unions today. Some unions sputter to life here and there, but it is a rarity to see a U.S. union trying to mobilize 340,000 members for possible strike action. The sad-sack AFL-CIO leadership was invisible throughout the UPS battle, still seemingly incapable of mobilizing any campaign on any scale to support the 78,000 Actors and Writers still on strike after several months. Worse yet, to their eternal discredit, the AFL-CIO leadership was not even considered a reliable ally by the Teamsters owing to their subordination to the Biden White House.
What Is To Be Done Now?
Supporting left individuals building left groupings within the unions today is job one. Opportunities to gain employment in the key sectors has opened up again after 40 years and the time is now to move into the long slumbering unions. We are now entering an era when TUEL-like agitation is possible, and all indications are that the emergence of a renewed left within the unions will yield results and advances not only for union members but the working class generally. Left leadership that ignores this moment-in-time, or worse those who deliberately avoid it, are to be confronted. One of the primary and disastrous weaknesses that persists on the left is our absence of any substantial presence in the unions, or even in the workplaces. This can be remedied, but only with deliberate effort, and as the UPS battle proves unions can be moved and progress can be made. As William Z. Foster ably observed, “The left wing must do the work”.
-Chris Townsend is a 44-year trade union staff and organizer. He was the Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and was the International Union organizing and field director for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). He may be reached at email@example.com