How Workers Win and Lose

In 2018, workers started getting restless. Some unions took advantage of that restlessness — and won big. Others rolled over to management without a fight.

UPS workers unload trucks at the Seattle hub on August 27, 2004 in Seattle, Washington. Ron Wurzer / Getty

Many American workers were restless this year. Tens of thousands of educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Washington, and across the country walked out in violation of the law, often without much support from union officials. Teachers at more than a dozen Acero network schools in Chicago went on strike, the first time charter school educators have ever walked off the job.

Marriott workers in a half-dozen cities maintained picket lines for weeks. University of California employees in AFSCME 3299 have repeatedly shut down campuses of one of the state’s largest employers. In August, 98 percent of Los Angeles school workers in United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) voted to authorize a strike; last week, the 35,000-member union announced they would walk off the job in January. Teachers in Oakland are also preparing for a strike.

But two very large and important unions pursued a much less aggressive strategy: the Teamsters (IBT) in its contract with UPS and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in its agreement with New York City. As a result, their contracts achieved far fewer advances for workers than many other agreements settled this year.

In both cases, the employers are in strong financial shape. Both unions represent massive workforces — 250,000 workers at UPS nationally and over 150,000 workers and retirees in New York City public schools, respectively. Both unions have lots of resources and roots in their workplaces going back decades.

What led them to negotiate deals chock full of concessions? Did UFT and IBT officials really get the best deal they could, or was there a way to push for more? And most importantly for all US workers, what does comparing the approach of West Virginia teachers, University of California staff, and other striking workers with UPS and UFT suggest about the best strategies for workers to win?

Get and Give

Union officials in the Teamsters and the UFT both point to advances for workers in the new contracts. UFT leadership touted a 7.7 percent raise over forty-three months and a reduction in official observation sessions for teachers, which it said was a priority according to the survey sent to members before bargaining began. The IBT pointed to increased hourly pay for part-timers and new protections against harassment, discipline, and forced overtime.

But in reality, both unions gave away more than they got.

Using the UFT’s own fact sheet, teachers will see a raise of between 0.9 and 1.5 percent after inflation over the life of the contract. Raises are further eroded by UFT’s agreement to join other city unions in a deal that would transfer up to $1.1 billion in health care costs from the employer to workers over the next three years.

Most immediately, this would mean putting new hires into a more expensive health care program for at least their first year. The contract does not address reducing classroom sizes, a significant concern for teachers citywide, and an issue over which teachers recently struck in Chicago and are preparing to strike in Los Angeles and Oakland.

While a majority of members voted to ratify the contract, the process UFT officials used to conduct the vote was almost laughably undemocratic. Delegates to the union’s assembly had one hour to read the sixty-three-page contract summary before deciding whether to recommend a vote to the full membership. And members had less than two weeks to vote, amid open threats from the union’s president that the UFT would not return to the table if workers voted the contract down. All this occurred months before the contract expired — months during which the union could have mobilized members to push for a better deal.

Teamsters at UPS point out that the Hoffa team’s contract creates a lower-paid second tier of workers and that the new starting wage of $13 for the lowest-paid workers is below that of nonunion Amazon. Indeed, 54 percent of members voting on the contract the Teamsters leadership negotiated voted not to accept it. But union officials declared the contract ratified anyway, citing an obscure and disputed provision of the Teamsters constitution that allowed them to ratify with less than a super majority of voting members.

As Joe Allen put it in Jacobin in October,

Hoffa and Taylor have chosen to deliberately ignore the wishes of UPS Teamsters and side with the company against their own members, despite significant portions of the UPS Teamsters who want to take the fight to the company. In June, 90 percent of UPS and UPS Freight Teamsters voted to authorize a strike, and now a majority of UPSers have voted down both Teamsters contracts. Hoffa and Taylor don’t care.

Nor did the meager gains and significant concessions come because either employer was in bad financial shape.

UPS made $4.9 billion in profits in 2017 and roughly $4.3 billion in profits in the first three quarters of 2018. It is reasonable to ask if the company’s third-quarter profits rose by 20 percent over last year in large part because it was able to give away so little at the bargaining table. And New York City has run a significant budget surplus for years.

Compare and Contrast

How do these contracts compare with those that workers who went on strike settled?

In West Virginia, educators won a 5 percent immediate raise and no changes (for the moment) to their health insurance — the primary motivation for the strike. Strikers also forced the Republican-controlled legislature to back off when it threatened to fund their raises with cuts to social programs.

In Arizona, educators won promises of a raise up to 10 percent immediately, growing up to 20 percent over the next several years (though whether these promises will be met remains to be seen). They also extracted a $400 million increase in education funding from a Republican-dominated state government.

In Washington, teachers won raises between 10 and 30 percent, depending on the district. In fact, teachers in Tacoma struck in response to the school district’s offer of an immediate 3 percent raise — nearly a full percent higher than the annualized raise New York City teachers will receive. Tacoma educators settled for a 14.5 percent raise for teachers and a 19 percent raise for support staff.

In Oklahoma, teachers won raises of $6,000. Striking teachers also made more modest gains in Kentucky and Colorado. Milwaukee teachers stopped proposed cuts with a credible strike threat. In Chicago, charter school teachers just launched and won the first charter school strike in the country’s history.

And it wasn’t just educators who made big advances by striking.

Marriott workers in Unite Here struck in cities across the country and won big gains, too. Details of the contracts have not been publicly disclosed for all cities where workers went on strike. But in San Diego, for example, housekeepers won a 40 percent wage increase on average, as well as a new employer-funded pension and a freeze on health care costs. Workers in Boston won a 20 percent wage increase over four and a half years. Seeing the results their coworkers around the country won, Unite Here members in Los Angeles are poised to strike as soon as this week.

Even Teamsters themselves were able to get a stronger deal from UPS when they showed they were serious about winning. The Chicago local, which negotiates with UPS separately from the rest of the Teamsters, developed a credible threat to strike and won pension improvements, a $15 minimum starting wage for part-time workers, and more.

Conditions varied from location to location, but in general, the educators’ strikes were grassroots, rank-and-file efforts in which regular school workers organized themselves and dragged union officials along behind them. On the other hand, the strikes against Marriott were largely planned and directed by staff and union officials, albeit with militant and enthusiastic worker participation.

But with either model, workers won much bigger advances than they did with the “class snuggle” strategy that UFT and IBT pursued.

Demand and Organize

Where does this leave UPS Teamsters and members of UFT?

We can’t do a one-to-one comparison for all the workplaces mentioned here. And winning union fights is never a matter of just adopting one set of tactics and expecting them to always work in any time and place. But workers also won’t win wage increases and benefits they don’t ask for. And just as importantly, they won’t win significant gains unless they are in a position to inflict pain on the boss.

Yet neither UFT nor IBT leadership was willing to organize the contract campaigns necessary to win significant demands —so they didn’t make them. The impact of their actions can go far beyond New York public schools and UPS, because bad contracts of this size can have a negative effect on workers outside the unions who settled them. This is especially true in New York public contracts, where each bad contract reinforces a pattern of ever smaller advances and ever growing givebacks.

Having a large and dedicated membership or a strategic position from which to exert structural leverage on the economy are powerful assets — but only if unions are willing to put them to use.

Members of the UFT and UPS Teamsters should ask why their leadership left so much potential power on the table. They should also ask why institutionally weaker unions and those in less central positions in the country’s economy made advances in their contracts that put them to shame. UPS workers connect virtually every sector of the economy, and UFT workers have the collective power to shut down the biggest city in the country. But even though hotel workers and educators in smaller districts have less potential power to disrupt the economy overall, they leveraged what power they do hold to much greater effect.

And ultimately, workers will not have the kinds of unions that can commit to these kinds of fights in the long term unless they themselves become the real leaders of their unions. In several cities around the country, that’s happened.

An anti-Hoffa slate won election in a big Dallas UPS local based largely on momentum from the “vote no” campaign against the concessionary contract. Though MORE, the rank-and-file caucus in the UFT, is still a long way from taking power, its members are strategizing about how to develop more aggressive contract campaigns in the future. And earlier this year, MORE pushed city administrators to grant teachers paid parental leave, leaving UFT officials scrambling to take credit.

Whether it comes as a result of laziness, class collusion, or a strategy that’s earnest but a bit misguided, it is clear that IBT’s and UFT’s minimal-organizing, struggle-free approach delivers worse results for workers than aggressive, well-organized contract campaigns. Workers in these unions deserve better. To get it, they’ll have to demand it.