- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
At the start of 2023, Antonio Rosario was preparing for what was poised to be one of the largest strikes in US history. The Teamster of twenty-nine years had been a relatively new employee at the United Parcel Service (UPS) in 1997, the last time the union struck the company. That year, he saw then International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) president Ron Carey announce the walkout in New York, from where Carey, too, hailed.
The experience transformed Rosario, and he went on to become a shop steward and then a full-time organizer for Local 804, which currently represents roughly eight thousand workers in New York City, Westchester, and Long Island. As the July 31 expiration date for the UPS contract neared, Rosario was on overdrive, ensuring that come August 1, Local 804 members would be ready to strike. If you went to a UPS Teamster rally or picket in New York this year, you almost certainly encountered him.
They didn’t have to. Less than a week before the newly elected IBT president Sean O’Brien vowed to take the roughly 340,000 workers out on strike, UPS caved, agreeing to the strongest contract the workers have won in decades. But for the organizer and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) member, the work didn’t stop. There was contract enforcement, legislative efforts, and the union’s push to organize Amazon workers to attend to. And then there was the broader movement, having a bigger year than it had had in a long time, all of which demanded his solidarity.
I recently caught up with Rosario to talk about the US labor movement’s remarkable year and how it looks from his vantage point. We spoke about the Teamsters’ strike preparation, the United Auto Workers’ strike and the ties between that union’s reform caucus (Unite All Workers for Democracy, or UAWD) and his own, and what he expects the movement to focus on in the next few years. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
There have been a lot of headline-grabbing strikes in the United States this year but at UPS, you won big with the threat of a strike alone. When you reflect on this year, not just for your union but for the entire US labor movement, how do you characterize it? And what has it been like for you?
For us at UPS, this all started two years ago when we fought really hard to elect new leadership. We knew that once we’d won the leadership up top, we needed to build from the bottom up, and that’s what we did.
A lot of it was thanks to Teamsters for Democratic Union (TDU), who played a huge role in helping new leadership get elected and who had some great ideas over our yearlong contract campaign. Myself, as a twenty-nine-year Teamster watching this unfold, watching more than 300,000 Teamsters mobilizing all across the country, whether it be for Martin Luther King Day rallies, whether it be for air-conditioning in the vehicles, and the practice pickets, seeing that threat of a strike where you have hundreds of locals across the country, with a huge social media presence, taking pictures with picket signs, alongside all these great organizations like the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America], ALIGN, Make the Road, and all these other unions and our customers, I’ve never seen that kind of solidarity in my twenty-nine years.
My God, it was a sight to see. And it wasn’t just us. You have Amazon workers stepping up. You have Starbucks workers, Trader Joe’s workers, Waffle House workers in North Carolina. The labor movement is like a sleeping giant that finally woke up, just like the Teamsters woke up. Having the time I’ve had, going through my ups and downs, being a union worker and seeing the difference between bad unionism and good unionism and having good leadership and building that movement from the bottom up, I can’t even explain how filled with pride I am. I can’t find the words to describe what I felt in those moments that I was on those practice pickets alongside my brothers and sisters and all these organizations.
Nostalgic feelings came back from 1997, when 185,000 UPS workers hit the streets. We didn’t have to strike this time, but those feelings were there. I felt it when we were all standing out there chanting in unison that we’re ready to shut it down, that we’re here to fight for more for ourselves and our families. I was pent up with emotions having my kids with me, having them lead chants. Looking at my oldest son’s face blew my mind: I literally teared up watching him chant, it was looking at a little me. I was twenty-three when we went on strike in 1997 and my son is twelve.
Corporations need to take a look at what’s happening. I know that they don’t care, but they have to know that the working-class people are not taking shit anymore. We’re just not. We’re standing up and we’re fighting for what we deserve. When I listened to Shawn Fain at the TDU convention and he said that without TDU there would be no Shawn Fain, without TDU there would be no UAWD, without TDU there would be no stand-up strike? I was completely blown away by his words.
It meant so much to all the members of TDU and the rank-and-filers who have put so much into it over the years. Since 1976, TDU has been fighting corruption in the unions and the labor movement, and to see that this ragtag grassroots organization that was barely breaking even at some of these conventions become such a powerhouse in the labor movement feels so good.
I joined TDU in 2016, when it was just starting to build momentum toward what it is now. I’ve been a part of so many of these movements, and it’s like I’m a grain of sand on this beach, watching all these actions take place. It’s just been thrilling. I’m going to be fifty in March, and I’ve never seen this kind of unity and work being done.
With the threat of a strike, we were able to lift industry standards, especially in logistics, for all workers. Then watching the UAW, where these Big Three slimeball automakers wouldn’t bend the knee and so they had the strategic strike campaign where they started small and kept getting bigger and bigger as time went by? It was like watching a general takeover and then saying, “Hey, do you guys want me to keep going? It’s only going to get bigger until you guys settle up.” And sure enough, little by little, they all started falling like dominoes.
Standing alongside those guys, and hanging out with Region 9 director Dan Vicente, listening to him speak and listening to Shawn Fain say the words I mentioned earlier, was a testament to the work that’s being done — to the work that the workers are doing and to the work that organizations like DSA are doing. Corporate America, you’re on notice: we’re not fucking around. We like to say fuck around and find out; well, they’re finding out.
And then there’s standing on strike lines with Starbucks workers. And with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, you had theatrical Teamsters in the big trucks supporting them, even as it put them out of work and they were suffering too.
So, it has been an insane year for labor. Solidarity is the most powerful word in the labor movement, and you’re seeing it this year. We’re seeing just how much power we as workers have to force these corporations to share their wealth, and we’re using it. It’s a long game, but this year, those corporations have felt what’s possible if they continue to play games and not share the billions of dollars in profits they’ve been making thanks to the working class.
The past year of labor-movement activity is not unprecedented, not by a long shot, and as you said, it’s a long road. But with reference to everything you just laid out, it does feel as if things are starting to add up to more than the sum of their parts and that the previously separate parts of the labor movement are starting to work together. What’s your explanation of why this is happening now?
History has a way of repeating itself. In 1934, when we think about those big strikes like the Minneapolis general strike, it took people who were tired of being exploited being willing to fight. The workers’ backs were against the wall. We were fighting to get those companies to share their wealth with us, and we did a great job of that. In the 1950s, most people were doing well and that lasted into the ’60s but some time in the ’70s and ’80s, you start to see a decline again. People took their eye off the ball a little bit as corporations got smarter with ads and televisions and always new products to buy.
That lasted a while, but in the past two or three years, people have their eye on the ball again. They saw that corporations were making a shit ton of money in profits, and CEOs were making so many more times the income of their average employee. They weren’t sharing that wealth with the working class. Meanwhile, people are having trouble paying rent. Even in the hood, home prices are insane, groceries are insane. People are on the streets struggling and working their knuckles to the bone and saying to themselves, “What do I have to show for it? Nothing. I’m killing myself nine to five, Monday to Friday.” And now it’s Tuesday to Saturday, and people are working Sundays too.
We went away from having leisure time. People are working insane amounts of overtime. What happened to the Haymarket Square fight? We fought for eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation, and eight hours of sleep. Where did that go? I think there came a point where people were just like, “Fuck this. This is insane. We have to stand up for ourselves.”
People knew that they were struggling too much and that there had to be a better way. They started having these conversations, whether it be at Teamster union halls, in organizations like the DSA, or other organizations where, say, environmental studies were being done. We’re destroying the environment and that’s wrong. Workers are being exploited and that’s wrong. Workers aren’t being paid enough and can’t afford to rent in major cities and that’s wrong.
It was getting to the point where people once again had their backs up against the wall and they decided, “We need to fight back, we need to have serious conversations.” I was around for some of those conversations, so I know that they took place.
But it takes some real strong people. In my early twenties, I was on strike at UPS, but I wasn’t privy to these conversations. I was always fighting for UPS workers as a shop steward, fighting on the shop floor, but then you start having these conversations with other people who see that this is beyond UPS. I’m going to these TDU conventions and they’re showing us what it’s like in other industries: in rail, in grocery, in other warehouses besides UPS.
You start to see that there’s a problem in this world. I like to say that some leaders aren’t born, they’re made, and when I became part of those conversations, I was made into a leader and became committed to pushing this worker agenda alongside others.
It was the struggle of workers learning that they’re not getting what they deserve. In the ’30s, we saw it, we fought for it, we lost our way along the way, and then we came back to it. This is wrong, we have to fight for it, we’re going to need a couple of people to step up as leaders, we’re going to need to build this from the ground up, we need to start organizing workers, and we need to start fighting back. And all of that is what’s happening.
I tend to think that once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back. Once workers see that you can win, once they see that you can organize a union, they don’t forget that. So what do you think the next couple of years look like?
Where do we go from here? UAW just won a big strike. Do they sit on their asses now? Fuck no. UPS: we just won a huge contract campaign, we got so much for the workers, we’re bringing up industry standards. Do we sit on our asses now? Fuck no.
Amazon workers, are they going to sit on their asses? No, they still have a lot of work to do. They’re just starting their fight, and we’re going to help them do that. Moving forward, the big companies that all of us have our eyes on are Amazon for the Teamsters, and for the UAW, Tesla’s on that list and Elon Musk is going down. We’re going to do whatever we can to help each other win those fights.
Now that we all have these great contracts, we need to sit down with our workers and teach them how to police and enforce them. We know that the minute the ink dries on these contracts, the company is violating them. We had contract-action team trainings, and now we’re going to have contract-enforcement trainings. The same goes for UAW. They have the UAWD, they come to the TDU conventions, they know what our workshops are like, and it’s about educating workers on how to fight contract violations.
And while we’re working with our workers and educating them, we’re also making them organizers. All Teamsters should be organizers. All UAW workers need to be organizers. Everybody needs to learn to organize because organizing is the lifeblood of our unions and in order to do that, we need to train our workers how to have one-on-one conversations, old-school grassroots style.
As for both Amazon and Tesla, those workers need our help, and those corporations are going to be a big problem moving forward. Their growth has been ridiculous, their profits are ridiculous, and they’re destroying the industry standards that we in the Teamsters and UAW have built. I often say that a rising tide lifts all boats, and we need to continue to raise that tide as high as we can to make sure all those boats rise up together. We’re going to continue to do that.
The fight isn’t over because we won a few good contracts. There’ll be another UPS contract in five years, and our workers need to be ready to take that on. There’ll be another Big Three contract for the UAW, and they’re going to have to be ready to take that on. These contracts keep coming, so we have to continue to organize around them.
We had a big shift in the labor movement, and we have to build off that momentum, capitalize off it, and continue to build it into other companies like Amazon and Tesla.
Speaking of Amazon, how is the organizing there going for the Teamsters?
It’s going great. We’ve built a huge infrastructure and we’re now in a lot of the major cities, working alongside many different organizations and getting a ton of community support. Labor-friendly politicians have been helping us too, putting legislation in place like the Warehouse Worker Protection Act.
The revamping of the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] is helping too, especially some of their new rulings like the Cemex case. And of course, I need to give a shout out to the eighty-four Palmdale, California Teamsters who in the last four months have been on an unfair labor practice (ULP) strike — they have hit over six states and over twenty facilities across the country by extending their picket lines. That has been a big benefit to us as we talk to and educate workers at Amazon and gain lots of contacts.