With the largest private sector labor contract in the United States set to expire at midnight on July 31, the eyes of the American labor movement are on United Parcel Services (UPS) and the nearly 350,000 Teamsters like us that work there. Talk is coming from all corners of a potential strike. International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) general president Sean O’Brien made it clear on day one of his presidency: if UPS does not meet the demands of the Teamsters, picket lines will go up on August 1. If this happens, the strike will be one of the largest in American history.
As the contract expiration looms less than two months away, other workers across the economy are also standing up to demand more. From a wave of successful union elections at Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and other retail stores, to walkouts from Amazon to Hollywood, American workers fighting for dignity and fair compensation through collective action have momentum on their side. In return, employers have intensified their union busting.
The UPS contract fight therefore comes at a pivotal moment for US labor. What happens here could shape the direction of the movement for years to come — not only because this contract covers several hundred thousand workers who move 6 percent of US GDP daily, but also because the issues at stake in this fight are representative of those faced by workers across the economy.
This contract fight is about two visions of work in the twenty-first century. One is promoted by workers: equal pay for equal work, dignity and autonomy on the job, and a stable work-life balance. The other is promoted by Wall Street: hypersurveillance, low pay, subcontracting, gig work, and “flexible” scheduling practices that hurt workers and benefit bosses.
Teamsters Fighting Decades of Decline
At UPS, the first vision of work comes from rank-and-file Teamsters. As Alex Press and other labor journalists have detailed, the roots of this contract fight go back decades.
UPS was once a hallmark of secure union jobs. Now, 60 percent of the workforce is part-time, making around the minimum wage in many regions. Drivers in many locations are forced to work six days a week and up to fourteen hours a day in forced overtime. Managers follow drivers in personal vehicles and relentlessly harass workers to scare them into working faster. In 2018, former Teamsters president James P. Hoffa forced a contract upon members, despite a majority no vote, that kept part-time wages low and established the second-tier “22.4” driver position (named for the section of the contract that establishes the position), which resulted in new drivers making less money than existing drivers despite doing the same work, and giving them fewer overtime protections.
The rank and file responded to this onslaught by organizing through the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and fought concessions the whole way, building a movement in the process. TDU activists organized a “vote no” campaign in 2013 and again in 2018 against concessionary contracts. Then in 2021, TDU led the successful charge to elect a coalition slate of reformers to the union’s top leadership, on a platform of taking on employers like UPS more aggressively to reverse these concessions.
Now, UPS Teamsters are demanding a significant pay increase for part-timers to $25 an hour, the elimination of 22.4’s two-tier wages for package-car drivers, the end to forced sixth days of work, raising pension payouts for sixty thousand workers so they’re more equal across the country, no driver-facing cameras, more holidays, and an end to subcontracting and the use of gig workers.
The expectations of rank-and-file Teamsters are high. If the two-tier wage structure of drivers is not eliminated on day one of this contract, it is a strike issue. If part-time workers do not get a significant pay increase, it is a strike issue. If all workdays beyond the five-day workweek are not totally voluntary, it is a strike issue.
Some of these demands are about regaining ground that was lost by past union administrations. For example, the two-tier driver wages were only implemented in the last contract under Hoffa Jr. But for many workers, especially those hired since the last contract, this is about fighting for more. They kept the economy running throughout the COVID-19 pandemic without a penny of hazard pay and watched UPS make record profits off their backs while working forced overtime. Of course they now want their fair share.
The widespread support of these demands through the union’s ranks and the willingness to fight for them point to a simple truth: the Teamsters rank and file will not accept a half-deal, trade-offs, or “sharing the burden” with UPS. Teamsters are demanding more.
UPS and Its Marching Orders
The other vision of work comes from Wall Street, which is the real force that the Teamsters are fighting against at UPS. Seventy-two percent of UPS stocks are owned by Wall Street firms; the two largest shareholders are Vanguard Capital and BlackRock. These firms and others own and control most of the rest of our economy, meaning not just UPS but its main competitors, including FedEx and the railroads.
What does Wall Street want out of the UPS contract? Steady and massive profits.
From their perspective, UPS is one of the great success stories of the pandemic. From 2012 to 2019, UPS yearly profits ranged from $7.1 billion to $8.2 billion. In 2020, when the rest of the economy was suffering from the pandemic, UPS made over $8.7 billion in profits. In the years since, it reported the largest profits in its history: $13.1 billion in 2021 and $13.9 billion in 2022.
UPS will try to further increase these profits in the 2023 contract by asking for “flexibility” to schedule employees to work any of the seven days in a week, the installation of driver-facing cameras to further harass workers, and the continued use of gig workers to deliver packages.
The biggest impediment to Wall Street dictating terms for the entire logistics industry is the Teamsters’ UPS contract. Simply look to the competitors to see what corporations would do without an unionized counterforce at UPS: Amazon drivers paid nearly minimum wage and having their hours cut next week if they do not meet inhumane production standards this week; FedEx moving to eliminate all direct hires and switching to a 100 percent subcontractor model; workers forced to eke out a living in their cars, delivering packages, people, and food until enough money is made to pay off the car expenses and cover that month’s rent — if they’re lucky.
But Wall Street does not just want profits. They want power — hoarded for themselves and as far away from us as possible. They are constantly working to create the best possible economic conditions for profit-making, and there is no better condition for that than demobilizing and dividing the working class.
For that reason, far more important than any particular concession, Wall Street wants a deal at UPS without a strike, and they will be willing to give up a few of those concessions to get it.
A two-week strike could cost UPS approximately $3.2 billion. But more important, a strike at UPS would be the largest demonstration of working-class power seen in the post-COVID-19 economy. Every worker across the economy would learn that they have the power to win better conditions through the collective action of simply withholding their labor. That result is what Wall Street fears the most.
Unfortunately for UPS, the Teamsters will not be shaken. A strike authorization vote for UPS Teamsters is set to begin this week; IBT general president Sean O’Brien has urged all members to vote yes. TDU will work to ensure that the national negotiating committee receives the largest “yes” vote possible.
The UPS contract fight matters for the entire working class. If we want workers at Amazon, FedEx, and throughout the country to know that organizing a union leads to better pay and working conditions, greater control over their working lives, and opens the door to a better world, then there is no better opportunity to show what we mean than a strike victory against UPS and Wall Street this summer. A national, high-visibility strike led by a newly reformed union could point the way forward for many workers across the economy and reinvigorate the labor movement as a whole, by demonstrating that our collective power does not come from leaders at the bargaining table, but from the essential labor that rank-and-file workers perform to keep society running, and our power to withhold it.
Who Will Win?
The contract fight at UPS started nearly a year ago. Last August, Teamsters had contract kickoff rallies around the country. In the fall, UPS workers around the country filled out contract surveys, affirming the popularity of ambitious demands. Over the winter, thousands of Teamsters stood at gates and in break rooms handing out contract unity pledge cards, to educate each other and build support for the major contract demands they are willing to strike over.
In the spring, they held contract action team trainings around the country to map their workplaces, select picket captains, and develop organizing plans to engage their coworkers. And in the last month, rank-and-file TDU activists began petitioning at dozens of UPS “barns” to demand the company accept a higher national pension plan and raise part-time pay to $25 an hour. They remain firm in their high expectations. They want to win the best contract in Teamster history, and they’ll be willing to hit the streets in a walkoff on August 1 to do it if they have to.
While UPS will do everything it can to negotiate a settlement before August 1, ultimately, the decision to strike will come down to the 340,000 UPS Teamsters who have fought concessions for decades and now have the wind at their backs. At the 2021 IBT Convention, TDU activists led the successful charge to end the hated rule that allowed Hoffa Jr to force the last contract on UPSers in 2018. Now a simple majority vote will rule on a contract vote.
Will a majority of UPS Teamsters even accept a tentative agreement without striking, given the immense power they know they have, the ground they need to recover, the public support they enjoy, and how much they have to gain? Thanks to decades-long reform efforts, that will be their decision to make.