Read the full transcript below.
UPS Teamsters nationwide are voting on the tentative agreement for the largest private-sector labor contract in the United States. The vote will end on August 22. A majority decision will determine if the contract is ratified.
In this episode, we explore the highlights of the tentative agreement (TA) and what its gains, such as the abolition of the driver two-tier system and substantial wage increases, mean for workers’ lives. We also dig into how the TA is proof that years of Teamsters organizing, including the past year’s contract campaign, have reaped significant concessions from UPS — something workers and other unions are already taking note of.
Lastly, we discuss why raised expectations, the COVID pandemic, and unsustainable costs of living have left some Teamsters disappointed with the current tentative agreement — and why this may actually be encouraging.
You’ll hear from two guests: Sean Orr is a UPS package car driver and elected shop steward from Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago. He is also co-Chair of the International Steering Committee of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Al Bradbury is the editor of Labor Notes, which is a media and organizing project that has been empowering rank-and-file workers to put the “movement” back in the labor movement since 1979.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Sean Orr: The demands that were raised up two years ago, during the international election when we’re out at the gates talking to members, those demands really did coalesce into what this TA is. I think that all of that is the product of my coworkers, not being willing to settle for less, not willing to accept things being forced on us that we don’t wanna live under.
I think that we’re kind of in a new moment in the Teamsters. I think it’s more reflective of a new moment in the working class and the labor movement more broadly, where workers are done with givebacks, with concessions and with living with things that we’re not willing to live with anymore.
Al Bradbury: I talk to a lot of union members who have nothing like a contract campaign in their, you know, the, the phrase “contract campaign” is not even a phrase.
It’s like there’s bargaining and you don’t know what’s on the table until they, the leaders come to you and say, “Here’s the TA, we’re gonna vote on it.” People don’t even know what’s being proposed.
We should all set our sights higher. We’re not gonna settle for the non-contract-campaign, contract campaign anymore. We’re gonna do it like UPS Teamsters just did it, and better.
Teddy Ostrow: Hello my name is Teddy Ostrow. Welcome to The Upsurge, a podcast about UPS, the Teamsters, and the future of the American labor movement.
This podcast unpacks the unprecedented labor fight this year at UPS. On July 25, UPS and the Teamsters union came to a tentative agreement on their labor contract that covers over 340,000 workers. And if those workers don’t approve of the agreement, then they still may launch one of the largest strikes against a single company in US history.
The Upsurge is produced in partnership with In These Times and The Real News Network. Both are nonprofit media organizations that cover the labor movement closely. Check them out at inthesetimes.com and therealnews.com where you can also find an archive of all our past episodes.
Before we start the show I just wanted to make another correction. In our last episode we declared that a strike by UPS Teamsters in 2023 would be the second-largest strike against a single company in US history, but we had spoken too soon before yet another larger strike was uncovered. That is the AT&T strike of 675,000 workers across three unions in 1983. Thanks again to friend of the show Barry Eidlin for pointing this out.
I’ll throw a link about it in the description.
Onto the show.
This week we’re talking about the tentative agreement that was reached between UPS and the Teamsters union on July 25; what its contents mean for the workers; how the Teamsters extracted serious concessions from the company; why some Teamsters feel that there is still more left on the bargaining table; and what’s next for the union.
But first a quick recap on what’s going around the country. As I explained in our July 25 livestream with In These Times and The Real News Network, a tentative agreement was reached on that very day after nearly three weeks of hiatus in negotiations. The union’s next step was for two representatives from each UPS Teamsters local to review the agreement and choose whether to recommend it to their members.
That happened on July 31st and almost every single local endorsed the agreement. One holdout local initially did not endorse the TA because of a specific issue, but that was resolved in a side agreement with the company. So, for the locals that voted endorsement was unanimous, which is a seachange from previous TAs, especially 2018’s, on which the union was divided.
The next step is UPS Teamsters across 176 locals will vote yes or no on the national tentative agreement, as well as their regional, supplemental contracts. That’s taking place between August 3 through the 22nd. The contracts will be ratified or rejected by majority vote. Union halls and UPS hubs are abuzz around the country with debates and discussions about the TA, and locals are holding meetings to go over the contract language with the membership.
It’s hard to say which way the vote will go in a union as large as the UPS Teamsters. Many of the UPSers I’ve spoken to are ecstatic about TA. Others not so much. If the TA is voted down then the national negotiating committee will return to the bargaining table with UPS, and a strike could still be in the cards.
To unpack this moment, I invited Sean Orr and Al Bradbury onto the show. Sean Orr is a UPS package car driver and elected shop steward out of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago. He is also co-chair of the International Steering Committee of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
Al Bradbury is the editor of Labor Notes, which is a media and organizing project that has been empowering rank and file workers to put the “movement” back in the labor movement since 1979. Al has been on the Teamsters beat for a while now, and has written a number of informative articles recently about the UPS contract campaign.
Just a heads up: This is not a thorough breakdown of the tentative agreement. When we talk about why some members are disappointed, we used this space to unpack the higher-level context of why that is, and what it means for the labor movement, rather than to tally criticisms of specific contract language.
I will throw some resources in the show notes, including the tentative agreement itself, for listeners who are interested in digging into the nitty gritty.
Teddy Ostrow: Al Bradbury and Sean Orr, welcome to The Upsurge. Let’s start with the tentative agreement. We can’t cover everything here right now, but perhaps we can do an overview of what’s in it. I’ll throw it to you first, Al, you wrote an article in Labor Notes that tried to break down all the highlights. Can you do that for us right now?
Al Bradbury: Sure. Big picture, this tentative agreement is a sea change from any previous UPS Teamsters contract in recent memory. I think we should say that first. Your union is coming out of an era of concessions, and this contract, this agreement, makes big gains. So the rest of the labor movement should take note of that and set our sights higher.
Specifically, there’s a lot in there, and as you said, we can’t cover everything, but I wanna talk about maybe four or five things: eliminating the two tier among delivery drivers, what the wages are in there, combining part-time into full-time jobs, ending the forced sixth punch, and what it does on extreme heat.
So eliminating the two-tier among delivery drivers: creating that tier was the biggest concession in the last contract in 2018, and the biggest unifying issue in the vote-no movement that propelled reformers into power in the 2020 election in the Teamsters Union. So the second tier was known as 22-4 jobs, just because that’s the provision in the last contract that created it.
These drivers were making $6 or $7 less per hour than regular package car drivers, the first tier, for doing the exact same job. Under this agreement, that second tier will be completely eliminated immediately, and all those 22-4s will be immediately converted into regular package car drivers.
Now on wages, part-time wages were the biggest sticking point in the final weeks, and where a lot of attention was in the public eye, I think as well. The majority of the UPS workforce works inside the warehouses, are not wearing the brown suits that many customers are familiar with, they’re the people sorting the packages, unloading them off the big trailers, loading them onto the delivery trucks. This happens at a grueling pace. Someone told me they’re supposed to unload a thousand packages, and I was like, “Wow. A thousand packages a day?” And they were like, “No, a thousand packages an hour.” So that’s what this job is like.
Those inside jobs are overwhelmingly part-time. The turnover is very high. and even though the job is so hard, their wages are much, much lower than the drivers. That dates back to the ‘80s. The current starting rate, the minimum hourly wage for part-timers is $15.50. Under this tentative agreement, that starting rate for new hires will go up immediately to $21 an hour, and by the end of the contract, $23.
So overall, an increase of $7.50 an hour from the current level. Now, existing workers, part-time and full-time are all getting a raise of at least $7.50 over the life of the contract as well, and it’s front loaded, starting with an immediate raise of either $2.75 or coming up to $21, whichever is higher.
So, the lowest paid workers will get more than $7.50 over the contract, and there’s an additional longevity raise for those with 5, 10, or 15 years in as well. Another big deal is combining 15,000 part-time jobs into 7,500 new full-time jobs, something that many part-timers want. These jobs currently are, you know, in shifts of three and a half hours at a time, and a lot of people would rather have a full-time job.
Meanwhile, a lot of drivers have the opposite problem: forced overtime, and especially being forced to come in on Saturday, when that’s your day off. So this tentative agreement says they can’t make you work that sixth day anymore.
Just to touch on one more point, dealing with extreme heat is an issue that’s gotten a lot of attention, I think, in many of our jobs, as we see the climate crisis continuing to intensify. For drivers, this deal adds air conditioning in one third of the delivery fleet over the next five years, starting with the hottest parts of the country. So the rest of the fleet, if the trucks that don’t get the air conditioning during this contract are supposed to get additional fans, heat shields, vents, things like that. In the warehouses, the deal adds things that you think would be automatic, but apparently have to be said, like adequate drinking water, installing more fans, water fountains, ice machines.
There’s more, but I think those are some of the biggest points.
Teddy Ostrow: That was a really, really good overview. Sean, before we move onto the next question, is there anything else you wanted to pop in to mention?
Sean Orr: I think that, I think Al really hit the nail on the head with a lot of the gains in this TA. The only thing that I would add is something that for package car drivers is a pretty big, significant move. So, as Al said, we do not have a limit, other than the DOT and contractual limit to overtime. Drivers, when you start your day, you don’t know when you’ll be over until that truck is empty, you drop it off, go back home.
For a lot of us that really limits our ability to spend time with family, with friends, to go out and have a normal social life. But we get to make these things called eight hour requests where we can put in a request to the company for an eight hour day. They have to dispatch us eight hours worth of work so we can punch out in eight hours or less.
Those are granted by seniority under current contract language. If you win an eight hour bid, and the company violates it, the only thing that happens is that a steward can file a grievance for two hours penalty pay. They’re okay with this, so if you come in, you’ve got an eight hour request, it’s granted, quote unquote, but you get to your truck and you still have 200 stops in there, the supervisor, more likely than not will just tell you, file a grievance, go out, do your route. Two hours of penalty pay is nice, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I put in an eight hour request because I wanna go spend time with my family tonight.
I’ve got a dinner date with my girlfriend. I’ve got something that I wanna go do. Now we have language in this TA where the eight hour request can be enforced on the spot. We have a change in this language that says that, if you win an eight hour request, that driver has the right to not work more than eight hours if they over-dispatch your truck.
You have the right to take work off of your truck and leave it on the dock and drive out of the building. It says right at the end that no man, no employee can be threatened, harassed, or disciplined in the enforcement of this. Things like that, more than dollars and cents, mean a lot to coworkers, like mine: the ability to have some control over our day. I for one am really happy to see that along with the list of other, big gains that Al mentioned already.
Teddy Ostrow: Right. Thanks for mentioning that. I know some people were telling me that this may have to be worked out in arbitration, as many other issues would be too, but I just wanted to mention that.
Sean, you are a package car driver and a shop steward, and we just mentioned all these things that you guys just won in this TA, still of course, subject to ratification, but you can speak to your experience, you can speak to that of your coworkers.
Can you help us understand, in real terms, what these changes mean? What does abolishing the two tier mean for you guys? You were a 22-4 until relatively recently. What do the raises mean for part-timers? What will eventual AC and other heat protections mean for you guys?
Sean Orr: I think that this is a pretty significant contract for my coworkers. Starting off with the 22-4’s. I was a 22-4 driver until relatively recently. I am an elected steward in a building that has a lot of 22-4’s, Local 705 in Chicago has the largest share of 22-4’s in the country. This has been like an issue that we’ve been organizing against for a long time. My coworkers knew from the moment that they started working there that they were making less than the people who had been there before the previous contract was implemented on us.
They knew that they didn’t have protections from forced overtime like a lot of my coworkers did. Those are significant things for people. It became a huge point of agitation and organization for us for the past five years. I’ve seen a lot of young workers, people who have joined UPS as 22-4’s who have really become some of the finest organizers I’ve ever seen because of the impact that this tier had on their life.
Beyond the pay difference, I think that one of the biggest wins of getting rid of 22-4’s is that it allows my coworkers, who were previously in that classification to have a little bit more control over their lives taken back to them that was previously given to the company, because 22-4’s, for the company, the wages, that’s, that’s kind of a secondary issue for them. They care more about control over our labor and control over our lives when we’re on the clock. And with 22-4’s, they had a lot of control. Because per the definition of that job classification, you could perform driver work or inside work. So that meant that on a week by week basis, you could be having a start time at 9:00 AM, you’re out delivering packages in a package car for the entire week, working as late as you have to. And then that Thursday or Friday, your supervisor can come up to you and say, “Hey, uh, volume’s looking a little lighter next week, we’re gonna cut a couple routes. You are not gonna be a package car driver next week. Instead, you need to report at 1:00 AM to the building starting Tuesday. And on a week by week basis, we’ll let you know whether or not you’ll be returning to work as a package car driver.”
The company loves the ability to have that flexibility. They love to be able to tell us what to do and when to do it. For my coworkers who week by week had to determine whether or not they could take their kids to school in the morning, who would be picking them up, whether or not they’d be able to get adequate sleep, that kind of control over their day-to-day lives was really extreme.
I had a lot of coworkers lose their jobs because of the stress and the mental duress that that constant shifting put on them. I had coworkers who applied to be a package car driver. That was the job that they signed up to do, and they spent eight months working a third shift inside the warehouse.
That kind of strain that it puts on people is significant. The company didn’t care because they had a flexible workforce. The fact that that flexibility was taken away from them is a huge concession to the company that we pulled from them. This is a group of drivers who now are gonna be drivers, period.
They’re gonna come in at the same start time as the other drivers. They’re gonna get paid the same, they’re gonna have the same overtime protections, and the company can’t do a damn thing about it. That’s significant. That’s absolutely significant. That’s a little bit more control over our lives day-to-day.
In terms of the part-time pay I think that at my building, Jeff Street, I’ve heard nothing but good things about this TA from part-timers that I work with. We have an MRA, a market rate adjustment in Chicago. It varies building by building, my building’s $18 an hour. So all of my part-time coworkers are going to see at least a $3 raise.
But the longevity raises mean a lot to a lot of people. A lot of longer time part-timers at UPS haven’t seen a significant raise in their entire career, and I’ve got some coworkers who are gonna be getting a $4.25 raise. Some even more than that. That’s the biggest raise they’ve ever seen in their life.
Teddy Ostrow: That’s just on that first, that first contract ratification
Sean Orr: On ratification, on as of four days ago. They got that significant raise and they’ll get a nice retroactive check for it. That’s huge for them, to show them exactly on our wage calculator, exactly how much they will make in this TA and see the look on their face, realizing that they weren’t forgotten about in this contract like they have been so many times before. That’s huge. There’s a lot of joy in that. I think that overall people are feeling pretty good about this TA. People see this as a step forward. You know, no TA is perfect. No contract is perfect, but this is about moving the ball down the field and we moved it down the field quite a bit.
Teddy Ostrow: Listeners of this show probably understand this by now, but I think it’s important to underline how you guys got these gains in the TA? Of course it was through organizing, and it was through building a credible strike threat. But I think sometimes people hear the word organizing, and don’t really understand what that actually means.
What did Teamsters actually do over the past year, and especially ramping up in the past two months or so, how did you guys build the pressure on UPS such that they conceded on a number of fronts in this TA? Maybe we can start with you, Al. You wrote an excellent Labor Notes article with Luis Feliz Leon on this very topic.
Al Bradbury: Sure, let me talk about what happened in this particular contract and then I can also get into some historical perspective about how it’s different from the past. There was some interesting activity I could tell you about in California, for instance, and also in Ohio, some stories I thought were particularly telling — it’s night and day from the past.
The first thing that’s different is that the contract, there was a contract campaign that members were part of and it started a year out. There was talk a whole year out and before, leadership was talking and membership were talking openly about the fact that there might be a need to strike, that people should prepare to strike, that the union wanted to prepare to strike. And what would that mean?
So preparing for some of the activities that are involved in doing that are getting people involved in smaller actions, holding rallies, parking lot rallies, at the work site, leafleting, just like talking to people.
Thousands of one-on-one conversations, you know, between one Teamster and another about what are the issues on the table? What are the things you care about? How far do you think we should go and what should we push for? Building a list, you know, starting to get a sense of like, mapping out your workplace.
Who are the people who can get the word out? Who influences who, if we have a rally and we get the people out from this area, but nobody came from this area. Where’s the gap in our communication network?
I know Sean has a story. There are probably many stories, Sean, about shop floor actions that you all took. For instance, defending a coworker who had been unfairly disciplined, that’s partly a chance to practice the kinds of skills and confidence that you need for a strike, with lower stakes. Once you’ve done that, everybody comes out with a little more of a sense of like, “Oh, we did that. What’s the next step we could do a little more of? That felt good. We got what we wanted out of it.”
So, in California, the story I wanted to mention: this group of workers, I think this was led by some of the 22-4 drivers, started what they called a Strikeforce.
This was many months ago, and they started having breakfast meetings before a shift at a cafe nearby to talk about, you know, what are the updates from bargaining? What are the issues we’re interested in? What will it mean to strike? How should we be prepared? What’s that gonna feel like?
They started to talk through people’s fears that they had too about, you know, you lose money in a strike, could you get fired? How does that all work? There was also a meeting happening of part-timers in that workforce along similar lines, but they couldn’t have it together because their schedules were staggered.
A big piece, I imagine, of organizing in many of these workplaces: how do you build solidarity between those groups that don’t necessarily have a lot of interaction on a daily basis. And when they do, there may even be friction. You know, “Why did you misload my truck this way?” So, how do you build solidarity, to be able to stand up for one another’s issues?
One of the things they did is they organized a barbecue in a local park and people brought their own chairs and tables from home. It was a chance for part-timers and full-timers and drivers and inside workers to hang out together, build some of that social solidarity in Ohio, to build that connection across groups. One of the drivers and one of the part-timers started a petition together saying, “Here’s what our top issue is. Here’s what your top issue is. We’re gonna back each other up.”
In that region, the drivers were particularly concerned about the pension, and for the part-timers, the raise was one of their biggest issues. So they went around and got thousands of people to sign on saying, “We’re gonna support both of these things. The one that matters most to me, and the one that I know matters most to these other workers. We’re all gonna be willing to strike for all this stuff.”
And I think it should be said that a lot of this activity was organized by rank-and-filers. Sometimes with the support of the local, sometimes without much support from the union local and, some of that stuff has happened in pockets over decades. There’s been this reform movement in the Teamsters Union, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, that has been a hub of people who wanna set their sights higher and organize stronger fights.
In past UPS contracts, you have people trying to do that locally. But the difference is when you have a national leadership that that’s encouraging it. It’s setting out, “Here’s what the national program is, here are some tools, we’re asking everyone to do this. We’re all in the same timeline. You’re part of something bigger.” You’re not having to just sort of, you know, slog it out on your own.
That said, no matter how good your national leadership is, they can’t actually carry it out. It has to be the members who carry it out, because you don’t have enough organizers to send somebody to be talking to thousands of Teamsters and getting people ready.
So it was a huge difference, having a national leadership that was for that, that wanted people to be involved and wanted people to even know what was being bargained and talked about and shared. But it was members really who had to take the initiative and carry it out into so many places.
You talk to people like they’re the ones who figured out what day to do the picket and the rally, and made a leaflet and, you know, got a committee together and did it, often with support from Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which was having these webinars where people would get on and share ideas, “Here’s what we’re doing where we are. What are you doing, where you are?”
Those webinars, over the months, grew from hundreds to thousands of people. As more and more people got excited and involved, the historical perspective I wanted to give is that there’s a backstory to this that stretches long before the past year, this reform movement that people have been building in the union.
If you look 10 years ago, there was a vote-no movement on the contract in 2013. They didn’t succeed in voting it down. But there was a lot of networking that happened around that, and that fueled a run for office by reformers in 2016 who came very close to toppling Hoffa.
They didn’t quite do it, but they showed it could be done. and it was not too long after that that Sean O’Brien broke with Hoffa and allied himself with the reformer side. Then there was another vote-no movement on the 2018 contract with its new tier, and members did manage to vote that one down, and then Hoffa imposed it anyway, exploiting a constitutional loophole. People were furious about that. And some of that anger both over the concession and over how it had been forced upon Teamsters fueled the campaign for office in 2020 when O’Brien and Zuckerman in the reform slate did win leadership.
Then also in 2021, folks managed to get a bunch of constitutional amendments made so that they could never force a contract on members again. That way, rank and file members would have to be on every Teamster bargaining team, including the UPSs bargaining team, so that people get strike pay from day one, not day eight, which increases people’s confidence that you can go on strike. All of that work that had been building over years and over decades really helped build members’ confidence that they could strike and win.
Teddy Ostrow: I think one thing to mention as well is the work that was done by rank-and-file as well as leadership to build broader community and labor support.
We’re seeing a lot of solidarity, to say the least, especially internally in the Los Angeles moment. Right now, we’re seeing it with the actors and the writers, but also with the Independent Pilots Association, when 3,300 pilots said “We won’t cross the picket line if you guys go out on strike.” And down to community organizations and socialist organizations like DSA, that was a big part of it, I think, this year and in 1997, getting that public support more broadly was also critical.
Sean, can you tell us about what it looked like on the ground in Chicago? I know Jeff Street is already a decently militant local. You guys were probably already quite organized when it started, but maybe you could tell us about the arc of getting your coworkers ready to show for a show of force.
Sean Orr: Yeah, I will try my best to do that because the story starts way before I started at UPS in 2016. Jeff Street has been a really militant hub for a long time. In 1997, local 705 stayed out several days longer than the national did, in the UPS strike,
This contract that was imposed on us really did kind of set the terms for this current TA. I think that, per the arc of the past five years, if you follow it from where it started to where it ended, you really do see a single truth come out of that, which is that the rank-and-file set the terms of this TA from the beginning and they maintained that throughout.
What do I mean by that? When the 2018 contract was announced and people got a chance to see it, the rank and file organized a historic no-vote against the recommendation of the IBT. It was voted down. It got forced on us the next day. And for us, that was the moment when we all knew in three years, Hoffa is done, his crew are done, we’re gonna get people in there that are actually gonna respond to our needs.
Fast forward to 2020, the international election in our union is heating up. O’Brien and Zuckerman had announced that the year previously that they were running together, our own Juan Campos out of Chicago joined the slate.
Matt Taibi, local 251 joined the slate. A lot of good reformers started getting on board, and were building this movement. The Teamsters United slate is out, we’re hitting the gates. And what are we talking about? We’re talking about the 2018 contract. We’re talking about 22-4’s. We’re talking about part-timers living in poverty. We’re talking about the lack of air conditioning. And not only is it, you know, myself and other militant activists in the union who are out there agitating around that with our coworkers. We’re also making sure that our prospective leadership is hearing that.
They know what the issues are going into this. You know, the IBT is a trade union of over 1.3 million members, and yet inside of that you had the 340,000 UPSers. And out of that, a relatively small job classification, 22-4’s. The phrase 22-4 became well known to Teamsters across all industries, because it became a defining issue of the international election. It became a defining question of, how do we view the legacy of Hoffa and what stance will our leadership take in the next go around? That doesn’t happen naturally. That happened because rank-and-file workers insisted that it was put at the top of the issues that we were facing in this international election.
Our union deciding that a two tier is acceptable and forcing it through even when the members voted it down, I think that continued to build this momentum, continued to show that the rank-and-file had the initiative and we weren’t slowing down. the demands that were raised up two years ago, during the international election when we’re out at the gates talking to members, those demands really did coalesce into what this TA is. I think that all of that is the product of my coworkers not being willing to settle for less, not willing to accept things being forced on us that we don’t wanna live under. I, for one, find a lot of inspiration in that.
I think that we’re kind of in a new moment in the Teamsters. I think it’s more reflective of a new moment in the working class and the labor movement more broadly, where workers are done with givebacks, with concessions and with living with things that we’re not willing to live with anymore.
But I think that the level of creativity that rank-and-file activists took really helped us to win this TA as well. Like Al was saying, we all knew what needed to be done. We needed to have a union presence on the job. We needed to be getting people out, doing the kinds of activities that get them ready to walk a picket line.
We have to build a credible strike threat from where we are to where we need to go. And that looked like the parking lot meetings. That looked like a walk-in at Jeff Street when our sister got fired over the holiday season a couple years ago. That looked like Strikeforce out in San Diego.
That looked like all these different examples, these great examples of workers taking some creativity with what was needed to get themselves ready to fight. And you take all of that and you add it all together and really created this incredible movement, one that’s not gonna go away anytime soon and I think is just getting started.
Teddy Ostrow: I think this what you guys have been saying, we saw that workers fought and they won in this past year. Whether or not it’s enough of a win, through the voting process, we’ll have to see what members actually think, but I think that’s a lesson for the labor movement.
That’s a lesson for workers everywhere and we’re seeing the fruit of that as well. Your colleague at Labor Notes, Luis Feliz Leon, wrote an article about how this TA is already having an impact in raising the expectations of some Amazon workers and Amazon organizers.
Despite those very real gains, I think listeners of the show are probably aware and maybe feeling some of this themselves, that there is some member disappointment with the current TA. Some members are gonna be upset. We’re talking about decades and decades of concessions.
So, the expectation of one contract fixing everything from the past 25 years is probably not on the table, but I do think it’s important to address that disappointment here. I want listeners to understand the context of why some folks may be disappointed and why some folks may even be voting no.
There were serious gains made compared to previous UPS Teamsters contracts, arguably even more substantial than in 1997. But clearly there is some sentiment out there, that there was more left on the table. While a lot of folks are probably relieved that there wasn’t a strike on August 1st, a minority probably wonder what could have been achieved with one.
How do you understand members’ reception to the TA, both positive and negative for those within the union and even outside the union? What does this TA mean for workers and the labor movement? And finally, for those who are disappointed, where do you see that coming from?
Al Bradbury: I think a couple things in. In terms of members, those who are disappointed, One piece of that is that members’ expectations have gone way up, and that is a good sign. That is a healthy thing.
It reflects that Teamsters are taking ownership of their union. They’re no longer satisfied with just avoiding concessions. They’re developing a sense that they have more power than it seemed like a couple years ago, that more gains are possible and starting to set their sights higher.
I think you see the agenda that was set a year or two ago, people looking at it and saying, “Well, what else might we put on that agenda? What else might we look at about how things are now and say could be different?” And that’s healthy for going into the next contract and the next as well.
There’s also, as Sean said, a larger social, political, economic context that we’re in, the moment that we’re in, there’s a pandemic effect for sure. We’ve seen a mood of greater boldness around the country, among union and non-union workers over the last few years, and people saw during the early days of Covid, how willing their employers were to put their workers’ lives on the line for profit, how little they cared about keeping us safe in so many industries.
I know UPS workers were on the front lines of that. We saw how the billionaires found ways to use that crisis to increase their wealth even more. UPS made record profits last year and has been really raking in the money during the pandemic. So I think some of that, the “Which side are you on?” factor is very clear in the world right now. We, the working class, are rightfully angry.
There’s also inflation. Workers are demanding more because we need more just to hold steady, because to fill up the gas tank costs more, to fill up your fridge costs more than it did.
Workers also see that we have increased leverage because there’s a labor shortage. The boss needs you more. If they fire you, they’re gonna have a harder time replacing you and you’re gonna have an easier time finding another job. So that gives us more power than we had. The other side of that labor shortage is that in our jobs, we’re all being pushed harder to work more, to work faster, to get more done with fewer people because everybody is understaffed. So we’re angrier for a whole bunch of reasons. We’re more confident, we’re more powerful, and we see that we’re more powerful. That makes us more confident, and all those factors contribute to the strikes. We’ve seen: John Deere, Frito Lay, now, the Hollywood writers and actors, as well as the burst of organizing at Amazon, at Starbucks, at a number of other big name and small name employers.
All that contributes to people’s willingness to build to a strike, people’s willingness to take more of a risk, and people setting their sights higher.
I think for those of us outside the union who are disappointed not to see a strike, it’s worth saying, what a shot in the arm it would’ve been to the whole labor movement to have a strike. A strike at UPS would’ve been a teach-in to the whole nation on worker power. Everybody’s got a UPS around them. Everybody would’ve seen it. It would’ve been in every newspaper, on every news channel. You would’ve had workers out picketing, not just for an hour or two as they were in the practice pickets this summer, but all day, every day, 340,000 of them. We all would’ve known somebody who was there. It would’ve been everywhere. The bosses in Wall Street would’ve been panicking. And when you won, it would’ve been very clear and visible to everybody that it was worker power that did it.
I think we know it was worker power that did it. People who were following the business press saw what power you had, but it just would’ve been on much clearer display to everybody if it were in the news everywhere, the way that it would’ve been if there were a strike. And Amazon workers, Walmart workers and FedEx workers would immediately have taken note.
There would’ve been many more strikes and, many new organizing drives directly inspired by this one. So in that sense, a strike is a great opportunity, and people watching from the outside might be disappointed not to see one. But, it’s also a lot to ask of people who are taking the strike to do it for those reasons, for the sake of the whole working class.
It would’ve been a tremendous example in particular for the auto workers who just kicked off bargaining with the Big Three. That’s another union that’s newly elected reformers. There’s a grassroots movement trying to mobilize people and they’re working to rebuild an active membership and to put an end to two-tier there.
So the contract that you won is a great thing for them. Having a strike that won, it would also have been a great thing for them.
And there is a way that not having a strike, irrespective of what the contract is, not having a strike itself is a lost opportunity for UPS Teamsters, because going on strike changes you. You get a sense of your own power and the collective power that you and your coworkers have together, what solidarity does. It is one thing to say it, and it’s another thing to feel it. The day that you walk back in, I’ve talked with workers about the day they walk back in after a big strike, the relation of power between you and that supervisor who’s on your case is like, changed permanently. That genie can’t be put back in the bottle.
All that said, there are downsides to strikes. There are real risks, real losses. People lose wages. the company loses customers. Will it get them back?
The big question is, would you actually be able to win more by going on strike? Was there more that was getable at this moment that UPS would’ve handed over? If workers had struck, those are the things that bargainers assess in deciding, is it time to come to an agreement or not?
Do we recommend a TA, do we sign one? And that’s what members will be assessing in deciding whether to vote it up over the next few weeks. Could we have gotten more?
Sean Orr: I agree with everything that Al said there. Talking about Jeff Street specifically, I’ve spent the past week and a half talking to as many coworkers as I can, walking different shifts, on the phone constantly for hours with drivers while they’re out on route, just getting the sense of, how do people feel about the TA?
All of the part-timers I’ve talked to in my building are very happy with it. I do have some drivers that probably are gonna be voting no on this TA. For them, it really boiled down to three things:
One is a very specific issue: there is still a four year pay progression to hit top scale as a package car driver. We had been fighting for reducing that down to two years, how it had been previously in the previous contract. We weren’t able to get that at the table.
Another one is a more general thing that I think’s worth reflecting on, which is hazard pay. I want to unpack that.
The third thing is, I had quite a few drivers who, like myself, really wanted to strike the bastards, and really wanted to go out and do that. Just a few weeks ago in my building, we did a practice picket where we had about 300 people out there.
We took out the whole long block outside of our building, and my coworkers loved that. I don’t think there’s any more group of workers in this country right now who would love to go on strike than UPS workers. I think just that sense of “We’re right there, we’re right on the edge, we could just do it.” I think that that’s what some people are grappling with.
The hazard, the hazard pay question, I kinda wanna unpack that a little bit. Because it, it means things to different people, and I think it speaks to a deeper truth. UPS workers, we didn’t get a single penny of hazard pay for the entire duration of the pandemic, while our company raked in unheard of, record high profits, that pissed off a lot of my coworkers. My coworkers, we had family get sick and die during the pandemic, coworkers who were forced to go work. Those first couple months of absolute uncertainty and terror out on the streets, making deliveries while our cities were shut down, we went through a lot and we learned a lot about where our labor is worth: what our labor is worth to the company because they made record high profits, and what our labor is worth to our community, to the people that we work with, the people that we live with in our neighborhoods.
The UPS package car driver, for a lot of people, was the face of the pandemic. We were the people that got them through it. We kept delivering goods to them. We kept their medicine coming to them. We delivered food. We delivered things that they wanted to help pass the time while they were trapped inside.
We really realized that we provide a serious service, and that we do a job that we love. But the company, UPS, they only care about profits and profits only for themselves. I think that a lot of my coworkers have a bone to pick from that time. I think that’s something that’s gonna sit with people for a long time.
They’re mad. They’re mad at this company. When I started at UPS in 2016 up in Wisconsin, it was pretty common for coworkers to brag about how great of a company UPS is. “We get paid all this money, we don’t even need a GED. And we can come in here and we can drive a truck and we can make six figures. We have health insurance that’s paid for, and we have a pension. This company is great. I love this company.”
That kind of sentiment is totally gone inside the company. Now, inside the workplace, it is replaced by a lot of anger and a realization of an antagonism.
There’s us workers, there’s us Teamsters, and then there’s the company. The company is going to keep exploiting us and they’re gonna keep forcing us to work under the worst conditions and they’re gonna reap all of the extra benefits of that and they’re gonna leave us with nothing.
That’s a real thing that a lot of my coworkers are dealing with, and I think a lot of other workers around the country who were quote unquote essential are going to be unpacking. I see that as a good thing. I think that we are starting to see a level of militancy and a fighting spirit in the working class that I haven’t seen in my lifetime.
We’re seeing something that, I think, hearkens back to the twenties and the thirties and the forties when workers knew where they stood and they knew what they could do and they were ready and willing to fight for it.
In doing so, they radically changed what this country looked like. The wealthy, the elites in this country have done a lot to undo all of that over the subsequent decades. But I think that we are seeing a shift. We’re seeing a pivot. I think that sort of sentiment of never wanting to settle for less and being willing to fight as far as we can, to just know that we never did, I think that that sentiment is deeply felt among my coworkers, deeply felt among the broad working class, and I think that that is a very, very, very good sign for our labor movement, for our unions and for the future of this country.
Teddy Ostrow: Thank you both for unpacking the context of some of the feelings that portions of the UPS workforce are feeling right now.
Some of my listeners wanted me to dig into the nitty gritty of the contract and talk about this provision or that provision. But I thought it was really important to sort of unpack, and ake a look at what’s going on. I want give you a moment to touch on anything important that we did not touch on, either for Teamsters or for the broader public, but also, what are the next steps for the UPS Teamsters in the case that, this TA or an eventual TA will be reached? What are the next steps?
Sean Orr: Next steps here locally are going to be taking this contract, militantly, enforcing it on the job. My coworkers are fired up. We have a level of union activity in the building that my coworkers have never seen before, not even during the ‘97 strike. We’re going to carry that as far as we can.
We are going to make sure that this contract and the benefits that it has for us aren’t forced to the letter, because the company is going to pretend it’s business as usual day-one of ratification. We intend to assure them that it is not, we gained something. We’re going to hold onto that and we’re gonna enforce that, and we’re gonna expand upon that.
I also think that we’re gonna start seeing, in this TA process, the beginnings of a new contract campaign. What are those things that we would love to see in this next contract that we didn’t win this round?
You can never win everything in one contract. You go in there, you fight for everything you can, and you end up with what you end up with. There’s always a little bit more to go. I think that there’s gonna be a lot of issues over the next five years, raised around part-time equity with full-timers and around more control over our jobs and over our lives.
I think that the issues that are getting raised right now around part-time pay, around more paid time off, all of these things are going to define the next contract and they’re gonna define the next five years for my coworkers. That’s really good, because we’re gonna keep the ball moving.
The concession stand is closed. I plan on seeing it closed for the rest of my life. I wanna make sure that we take everything that we can from this company up until the day that they hand the keys over to us. Now, beyond that, I think that we are going to see UPS, Teamsters, the activists, the people who got really fired up in this, they’re gonna start relating to other workers differently.
There’s a lot of solidarity out there, in this fight.
I had coworkers tell me the day after our practice picket, “Wow, the city of Chicago’s behind us,” because they saw a dozen unions out there. They saw elected officials, they saw a ton of things. That really meant a lot to people. but I think too, that we did a lot to foster some organic relationships over the past couple of years that we intend to carry forward. For example, I and a few others, we were doing our contract campaign at our weekly shop floor meetings, doing rallies, doing practice pickets. We were very intentionally reaching out to and working with rank-and-file auto workers, because their contract fight is up in a month.
They’re going through a very similar situation to us. We know some folks who are very active in UAWD and they ask, “Can we come and see how you guys do things?” And so in Chicago, in Detroit, in Kansas City, you had rank-and-file auto workers come and join teamsters at UPS Gates and just watch and listen and observe how we were building our contract flight.
Now they’re taking those ideas and they’re applying it around to all of their factories, where the Big Three fight is going on. They’re looking at doing weekly shop floor meetings, inspired by what we’ve been doing in the Teamsters. They’re talking about practice pickets. They’re talking about all these things that they watched us do, and they know they can do it.
So I think that’s what’s in store for my coworkers in Chicago and my coworkers in Detroit and Kansas City. In about five or six weeks, we’ll be walking a picket line, but it won’t be ours. We’ll be going out and walking it with our brothers and sisters in the UAW because we built a relationship there. We built solidarity between our two groups of workers. Fostering that sort of worker-to-worker relationship that we can build consciously in a struggle like this is going to yield benefits that none of us here can really imagine. And I just wanna see it get expanded upon.
Al Bradbury: I love everything Sean just said. I think that enforcement is certainly the next fight in every UPS shop. I hope other locals are planning to take it up in the way that Sean said. We all know that UPSs management routinely violates even the contract you have now, and that filing grievances is not enough because there are some of these practices that they’re happy to just pay out the penalty and keep violating the contract in the same way.
So taking Teamsters who have built these skills and relationships and confidence over the past year by organizing parking lot rallies and pickets and putting those skills to use organizing action, making sure you actually can bring back the track, not just filing grievances, it’s gonna take people getting together and saying, “We’re gonna just put this in action. We’re gonna back each other up, we’re gonna make it the law in our workplace.”
I think that’s true of many of the things that have been won. I know in some Locals, people are already planning to set up committees around particular issues in the new contract to make sure to educate everyone about what the new language says, get everyone that info, monitor the enforcement, prepare to make sure that what was won is enacted and to start talking already about what you know, “What do we win next? What are the next steps on this? Where does this language turn out to fall short? What do we have to get in the next one?”
We just published an article in the Steward’s Corner column in Labor Notes this past month about making participatory bargaining a sort of continual practice, not just when you’re bargaining, but always. It was things like this, having 10 minute meetings on a particular issue, both to educate about: What are our rights? How do we enforce them? How do we find out what’s going on, build connections among people who are interested in, you know, doing more on this issue?
I think all union members should be demanding that their leaders take a cue from the leaders of the Teamsters and the auto workers and bargain hard, go after the companies, and publicly mobilize the members. All of us members should be taking a cue from UPS Teamsters and realizing that we don’t also have to wait for our leaders to lead.
We can do it. I’m so glad to hear that you all are directly in touch with auto workers and sharing your skills and lessons and all of us should be talking to a lot of union members who have nothing like a contract campaign, where it’s like, there’s bargaining and you don’t know what’s on the table until they, the leaders come to you and say, “Here’s the TA, we’re gonna vote on it.”
People don’t even know what’s being proposed. So having this example of how you do it in a more transparent way, in a more participatory way, and, hundreds, thousands of people who have been doing it, from whom we can all learn like this, we should all set our sights higher. We’re not gonna settle for the non-contract campaign, contract campaign anymore. We’re gonna do it like UPS Teamsters just did it and better. That’s where the power is.
If I may, one other next step for UPS Teamsters and everyone, is to come to the Labor Notes Conference next spring and share these lessons, because the point of Labor Notes is to be a space where rank-and-filers learn from one another and share these lessons. I can feel confident saying we’re gonna have lots of UPS Teamsters there. I hope listeners will come, and lead a workshop, attend a workshop. There’ll be auto workers there after how their fight goes down this fall, and that’s how we keep building our collective confidence and our collective knowledge of how to fight these fights harder, and how to win.
Hosted by Teddy Ostrow
Edited by Teddy Ostrow and Ruby Walsh
Music by Casey Gallagher
Cover art by Devlin Claro Resetar
Support the show at Patreon.com/upsurgepod.
Also hear Teddy talk about corporate media coverage of the UPS/Teamsters tentative agreement on FAIR’s podcast, CounterSpin.
I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.
Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.
Ruby Walsh is an audio producer from Brooklyn. She is a co-producer of The Upsurge podcast and a development producer for Giant Grin LLC. Formerly, she was the associate producer of Moyers on Democracy and wrote for BillMoyers.com.