Teamsters Are Close to the Largest Strike in Decades

Today Teamsters are erecting practice picket lines as the July 31 expiration of their contract with UPS rapidly approaches. After negotiations broke down yesterday, the second-largest strike at a single employer in US history is a real possibility.

A UPS driver makes a delivery on June 30, 2023, in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Outside United Parcel Service (UPS) buildings across the New York area this morning, members of Teamsters Local 804, which represents some eight thousand UPS workers, practiced picketing. Holding signs that read “UPS Teamsters Just Practicing for a Just Contract,” the workers acclimated themselves to what will become their routine should they fail to reach a tentative agreement with the shipping giant by their current contract’s expiration on July 31.

Workers, community allies, and elected officials such as state senators Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport — both members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — joined the Teamsters.

“They made over $100 billion last year while you get peanuts,” Senator Brisport told the crowd. “They sit in air-conditioned offices while you swelter in your working conditions.”

It is only in the current negotiations that UPS has finally agreed to install air conditioning, exhaust heat shields, fans, and improved ventilation inside delivery vehicles. The issue was a long-standing priority among the company’s workforce, several of whom have died on the job during recent heat waves. The union has backed legislative solutions to the problem — in New York, Local 804 has been a proponent of a bill that would require companies to protect workers from extreme temperatures — while also pushing for a provision to that effect in the contract. The tentative agreement on the noneconomic issue is one win. So too is an agreement to make Martin Luther King Jr Day a paid holiday.

But with negotiations over the largest private sector contract in the United States now focused on economic proposals, major points of disagreement remain.

“Concede to our demands and give us what we deserve, and we’ll go out there and ratify this agreement,” said International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) president Sean O’Brien at a press conference after negotiations broke down shortly after 4 a.m. on Wednesday, July 5. “Or they can take the other road, where they don’t concede to our demands and stay loyal to Wall Street and forget about Main Street.”

Negotiations dissolved as the two sides were discussing the matter of part-time work. Part-timers, who work inside UPS’s buildings sorting packages and loading delivery trucks, comprise more than half of the company’s workforce. Many of these “inside workers” are paid as little as $15.50 an hour. Entering negotiations, they hoped to raise the starting rate to $25 an hour and create additional full-time jobs in the company’s warehouses, providing a means for part-timers to gain greater security.

“Part-time poverty doesn’t work for us in the Teamsters anymore, so we are fighting hard to take care of the part-timers, and UPS said, ‘We don’t have anymore to give,’ and that was it,” O’Brien told CNN. It was an echo of the Teamsters’ message during the last nationwide UPS strike in 1997: “Part-Time America Won’t Work.” That slogan conveyed the significance of the strikers’ fight for other workers, at a time when many of those who had once enjoyed stable full-time jobs were enduring a shift to part-time work.

The slogan helped secure public support. UPS workers hope that should they be forced to strike over the issue, it will again resonate with a public more familiar than ever with the new normal of being forced to juggle multiple part-time jobs to stay afloat, even when workers want a full-time job.

Another priority going into negotiations was the matter of “22.4s,” named after the 2018 contract provision that created a tier of lower-paid full-time workers. These positions were the flash point of conflict within the union in 2018 and spelled the end of then IBT president James P. Hoffa’s Teamsters career. The two sides have reached a tentative agreement on the issue, with UPS agreeing to convert 22.4s to full-time package-car driver positions, eliminating the tier.

However, with negotiations now at an impasse, there are currently no future bargaining dates scheduled. Less than a month remains until the contract expires, and O’Brien has said that he will not accept any contract extension.

“The Teamsters have stopped negotiating despite historic proposals that build on our industry-leading pay,” said UPS in a statement on Wednesday after negotiations broke down. “Refusing to negotiate, especially when the finish line is in sight, creates significant unease among employees and customers and threatens to disrupt the US economy.”

Asked to respond, O’Brien told CNN, “That statement is compelling but highly inaccurate. UPS chose to walk away, and if there is a strike, it’s going to be UPS striking themselves.”

Around 6 percent of US GDP moves through UPS. The 1997 strike cost the company an estimated $40 million per day, and one estimate suggests that a two-week strike in 2023 would cost it $3.2 billion. UPS will lose customers, who will turn to its competitors — the United States Postal Service, FedEx, and Amazon — to try to fulfill their orders. As was the case in 1997, it will only claw back some, rather than all, of that business after the work stoppage.

As the July 31 contract expiration approaches, the Teamsters are planning more practice pickets, as well as rallies to grow public support. Members are intensifying efforts to prepare themselves and their roughly 340,000 coworkers for what would be the second-largest strike at a single employer in US history.