On August 1, if UPS workers haven’t yet reached an agreement with the company on our next contract, 340,000 of my coworkers and I will go on strike. If that happens, President Joe Biden needs to allow us to exercise our right to strike and refrain from intervening.
When the COVID-19 National Health Emergency was declared in March 2020, UPS Teamsters continued to show up for work every single day. Workers and their family members got sick; some even died. Parcel volume ballooned. Package cars were filled to the brim, and it became normal for drivers to work brutal hours — up to fourteen hours a day and sixty hours a week typically, and then seventy hours during peak holiday season, the legal maximum number of hours per week enforced by the Department of Transportation. The pandemic was a dangerous, frightening, and exhausting experience for UPS Teamsters on the trucks and in the warehouse, but we kept America running throughout the crisis.
Our hard work during the pandemic earned UPS historic profits. In 2022, the company saw an operating profit of $13.1 billion, up from $6.5 billion in 2019. Teamsters were the ones moving the packages, yet we were never rewarded for the company’s success. Instead, UPS is expected to give its shareholders over $8 billion in dividends and stock buybacks in 2023 alone, and CEO Carol Tomé took home an average of $23.3 million per year in 2021 and 2022. Meanwhile, we just saw our working conditions worsen.
UPS Teamsters have always been an essential part of the economy, moving 5 to 6 percent of US GDP annually. And UPS management has always relied on exploitative and authoritarian measures like harassment, surveillance, understaffing, and excessive overtime to squeeze as much profit out of its employees as possible. The pandemic-era boom in e-commerce only exacerbated these dynamics. So while this contract fight is largely about getting fairly compensated for our work, it is also about winning greater protections against other issues that undermine the strength of our union, our personal safety in extreme weather, and our dignity and respect on the job.
This goes especially for our part-timers. While full-time drivers are recognized by many as the face of UPS, they make up a minority of the workforce. Part-time warehouse workers comprise roughly 60 percent of our union’s bargaining unit and are just as essential to the supply chain as our drivers. Their compensation and treatment on the job, however, does not reflect this. Many part-timers earn as little as $15.50 an hour and need to work two or three jobs to survive. Raising part-time wages is a major sticking point in negotiations and may be the cause of a strike if UPS fails to deliver.
UPS and corporate America are attempting to cover up the reality of part-time poverty, fearmongering about a recession and a national health emergency in the event of a walkout, and trying to block a UPS Teamsters strike. The company has run a propaganda campaign attempting to make its part-time jobs appear like the perfect opportunity for growth and flexibility.
At the same time, Wall Street stooges and corporate executives are begging Biden to intervene. In an opinion piece in Newsweek, CNBC founder and private equity exec Tom Rogers urged White House intervention in the case of a UPS strike, claiming “[Biden’s] reelection depends on it. Every incumbent is judged on the health of the economy.” Rogers continues, “At this precarious moment, the Teamsters have decided to push for pay increases. The demands are simply too aggressive, and Biden needs to step in and make that clear.”
In addition to UPS and corporate media’s propaganda campaign, on July 20, the US Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to President Biden urging intervention if a deal is not reached by August 1. In the letter, the Chamber hinted that the strike could cause a national health emergency and referenced the White House’s intervention made during the rail dispute, urging Biden to “lend similar help.”
Strikebreaker in Chief?
The path to intervention in rail looks much different than it would for UPS Teamsters. Railworkers are covered by the Railway Labor Act, which was designed with the purpose of avoiding “any interruption of interstate commerce.” It gives the president and Congress far more discretion to implement a contract than they have in the case of UPS workers, who are covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Section 7 of the NLRA enshrines the right to strike or “engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” In 1947, amendments to the NLRA were made with the passage of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, which “allowed the president to appoint a board of inquiry to investigate labor disputes in instances in which a strike might endanger the public’s health or safety.” The president could then seek an injunction to block a strike based on the findings of the investigation.
But the requirements for this course of action are far stricter than those of the Railway Labor Act, and carry greater political risks. The last time Taft-Hartley was invoked to implement a contract on workers was in 2002, when President George W. Bush successfully sought an injunction against a company lockout of longshoremen; the longshore workers’ union claimed that the lockout was a ploy by the company to get Bush to intervene in their contract dispute. Before that, Richard Nixon was the last president to successfully invoke Taft-Hartley, against striking longshoremen in 1971. During the 1997 UPS strike, UPS and business organizations urged Clinton to invoke Taft-Hartley in order to end the work stoppage, much like they are urging Biden to do today, but Clinton took note of high public support for the Teamsters and refrained from intervening. (In comparison, since the passage of the Railway Labor Act in 1926, Congress has intervened to block a rail strike nineteen times, most recently in December 2022.)
General president of the Teamsters Sean O’Brien has already asked Biden not to intervene, employing an analogy from his youth in Boston: “If two people had a disagreement and you had nothing to do with it, you just kept walking.” At a recent rally in New York with my local, Teamsters Local 804 — also attended by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and newly elected reform leader of the United Auto Workers Shawn Fain — O’Brien emphasized that we are not going to ask for permission to strike.
O’Brien is not the only one pressuring Biden to stay out of it. On July 19, a day before the Chamber of Commerce sent its letter to Biden, Bernie Sanders organized over two hundred members of Congress to cosign a letter sent to O’Brien and UPS CEO Carol Tomé. The letter states, “We commit to respect our constituents’ statutory and constitutional rights to withhold their labor and initiate and participate in a strike.” Sanders noted the importance of respecting workers’ freedom to strike in the context of an “increase in attacks on employees’ collective bargaining rights.”
In addition, organizations like Democratic Socialists of America and Jobs With Justice have mounted a national solidarity campaign in coalition with the Teamsters. On July 21, activists delivered eighty thousand petition signatures to the UPS corporate office in Manhattan demanding an end to poverty wages for part-time workers. Canvasses to receive signatures on similar petitions are occurring in cities across the entire country.
With historic strikes by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists underway (SAG-AFTRA), pro-union sentiment across the country is mounting. US approval for unions is at its highest point since 1965, and Biden, perhaps sensing the national mood, continues to posture as the “most pro-union president in history.” With a likely rematch between Biden and Trump in 2024, this moment is a litmus test for his claims, as well as a critical moment for the future of democracy in the United States.
Striking for Democracy
Biden’s presidential record on labor is mixed at best: he appointed a relatively pro-union National Labor Relations Board, yet broke the rail strike and has refused to stand up to flagrant union busting at Starbucks and Amazon. Still, a second Trump presidency poses a greater threat to organized labor and employees’ collective bargaining rights. Trump’s record on labor, in fact, suits UPS CEO Carol Tomé’s political preferences far more. As reported by the Intercept, “In 2022, Tomé’s total compensation package was valued at $19 million. That same year, she donated $36,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supports the campaigns of GOP Senate candidates across the country.” It was Senate Republicans who introduced national “right-to-work” legislation in 2021, and Trump’s labor board that “repeatedly reversed long-standing board precedent, weakening workers’ rights and giving more power to employers.”
Despite Biden’s comparatively better record on labor than Trump, crushing a UPS strike runs the risk of jeopardizing his 2024 bid by shepherding more disaffected working-class Democrats into the Republican Party, or discouraging them from voting altogether. A victory by the increasingly reactionary GOP in 2024 would be a blow to organized labor and many other aspects of our democracy that the far right seeks to roll back.
Whether or not Teamsters exercise our right to strike depends on whether UPS will concede to our demands to lift part-timers out of poverty. But whether or not our right to strike is honored is up to Biden and the courts. If the strike happens, it will be a necessary expression of democracy in a political and economic climate that is veering toward authoritarianism and even ever-greater, more unjust wealth inequality. As has happened in the past, an expression of democracy by striking Teamsters could inspire a wider explosion of organizing and action among workers beyond UPS, at companies like Amazon and elsewhere.
That in turn could translate material improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands or even millions of working-class families. But it would also provide the invaluable experience of exercising collective power as a class for an entire generation. When UPS and corporate America urge Biden to take away our right to strike, they are urging Biden to prevent a broader democratic movement of working-class Americans standing up to authoritarianism and corporate greed. If we want to maintain and expand our democracy and reverse decades of grotesque, increasing wealth inequality in this country, honoring workers’ right to strike is an absolute necessity.