As peak holiday shipping season approaches, Teamsters employed by the United Parcel Service (UPS) — from warehouse workers to package car drivers — are still waiting to sign a new contract with management. In the largest fight UPS has seen from the union since a 15-day strike in 1997 that cost the company an estimated $650 million, a wave of rank-and-file activism has spread across the United States as workers resist what they view as a concessionary contract.
After a year of negotiations, UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) leadership reached a preliminary contract this May. Though IBT’s 250,000 U.S. members approved the overall contract by a narrow margin — 52 percent — 17 riders and supplements, which reflect regional and local agreements, were rejected. In order for the master contract to pass, Teamsters in each region around the country must vote “yes” on their specific supplement — and many locals fear that the current incarnation of the contract won’t adequately protect their workers.
Healthcare has been at the forefront of members’ concerns, as the proposed contract would shift from UPS paying for Blue Cross and Blue Shield to a union-run plan known as Teamcare. “Vote No” activists predict individual Teamster members will receive an estimated $18,000 from UPS to fund the health care package, some members are worried they will have to pay higher deductibles and a premium out-of-pocket for emergency room visits.
In addition to an arguably weakened healthcare plan, workers across the country also feel that the contract erodes pension benefits, cuts raises and creates too few new full-time job opportunities.
“We believe the contract is highly concessionary, [given that] UPS is recording record profits,” says Jay Dennis, communications director for Local 89 out of Louisville, Kentucky, referring to the roughly $5 billion in profits UPS made in the last fiscal year. “Part-time members are being subjected to part-time poverty, there is a serious lack of full-time opportunities and we believe benefits should remain the same for members as they had been [in the previous contract].” Local 89 overwhelmingly voted “no” on its central supplement.
Dennis estimates there are about 8,800 Local 89 members — around 6,000 of whom are part-time — in the Louisville UPS air hub alone, which processes an average of 1.6 million packages a day. The air hub has its own supplement, which is still in the process of being renegotiated after it was voted down. Dennis says that the company is taking their time and doesn’t have a good estimate of when either supplement will be ready to be voted on again.
While they wait for new riders to be solidified, rank-and-file UPS workers around the country have united behind a grassroots effort nicknamed the “Vote No” campaign. Many locals, including Dennis’s Local 89, have taken the lead in drumming up resistance to what they see as leaders’ willingness to offer concessions to management. The campaign is also supported by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)—an organized group within the Teamsters that attracts about 35 percent of Teamsters voting in national officer elections and routinely calls on leadership to better reflect the needs of rank-and-file members.
Despite these pockets of local opposition to the contract, however, national and international union leadership ardently supports it. IBT National Assistant Communications Director, Leigh Strope, calls the “Vote No” campaign a minority faction within the union.
“This is the best private sector contract in the country,” she argues. “This is at a time when wages for American workers are stagnating and declining.” In response to members’ concerns about health care, she says that workers will, in fact, pay no premiums. “I think the critics of the contract should talk to their neighbors,” she says, “Because who gets free health care these days?”
Activists claim, though, that union leaders have misled them about the changes in benefits that will be offered through the new contract. “Vote No” activists estimate 1 million dollars has been spent to convince membership to vote yes on the contract—a fact that Strope will not confirm or deny. She does, however, agree that a lot of effort has gone into giving information to members about the new contract.
But some local workers have taken information distribution into their own hands. “This is going to make or break some families,” says Bobby Curry, Local 623-Philadelphia member. “So we educated our co-workers, made our own vote no signs and printed fliers — because the Teamsters were not giving us the right information.”
Dennis also feels that Teamsters leadership hasn’t been willing to stick up for its members against the company. “I can see that they [the national leadership] are so far out of … touch, they’ve failed to stay bonded to the general membership. It seems like the international [leadership] wants to take the easiest route possible — there is no fight left. If they don’t want to [fight], they need to step out of the way and let someone who wants to fill their place,” says Dennis.
At the end of the day, though, both local and national leaders still view the negotiations as a fight for what’s best for the quarter million Teamsters who will be covered by the new contract.
“Members need to be active and engaged for a strong union to exist,” Strope says. “A union is its membership and we want our members engaged and active.”
And Dennis — a Teamster for nearly two decades — says that the last few months have demonstrated that Teamsters members are committed to that high level of engagement.
“The membership is who delivered the no votes — they are the movement. I’m very proud of our sisters and brothers,” Dennis says. “The fight is still on — we will continue to vote no — if [the new contract] isn’t up to par, the membership will send it back to negotiations.”
“There has been a fire lit,” he continues. “It’s a beautiful thing.”