Over 90% of UPS Teamsters Just Voted to Strike

Joe Allen

A strike at UPS could see up to 280,000 UPS-Teamster members walk out. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Twen­ty-one years after the his­toric 1997 Unit­ed Par­cel Work­ers strike, are UPS-Team­sters ready to once again walk off the job? After Tues­day night’s strike autho­riza­tion vote, work­ers are one step clos­er to that possibility.

On Tues­day, thou­sands of Team­sters across the coun­try lis­tened-in on a nation­al con­fer­ence call as the union’s chief nego­tia­tor, Denis Tay­lor, report­ed that UPS and UPS Freight mem­bers vot­ed by over 90% to autho­rize a strike if UPS does not agree to an accept­able con­tract by July 31 when the cur­rent con­tract expires.

UPS is the largest pri­vate-sec­tor union­ized employ­er in the Unit­ed States and a strike at the com­pa­ny could see up to 280,000 UPS-Team­ster mem­bers walk out, with poten­tial­ly major dis­rup­tive impacts on the U.S. econ­o­my. And it would be the largest strike the coun­try has seen in decades. 

Why Yes”

The Team­sters are nego­ti­at­ing two nation­al con­tracts with UPS. One con­tract cov­ers the par­cel divi­sion that is most famil­iar to Amer­i­cans with their choco­late brown trucks on com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial streets. The sec­ond is the less­er-known UPS Freight, pre­vi­ous­ly Over­nite Trans­porta­tion and Motor Car­go, that UPS bought in 2005 and sub­se­quent­ly rebranded.

The issues at the nego­ti­at­ing table include the pover­ty lev­el pay for part-time work­ers, health­care and pen­sions, sub­con­tract­ing union espe­cial­ly feed­er work [or over-the-road work between hubs] to non-union con­trac­tors, and UPS’s demands for dri­vers to work a 70-hour week. 

In late April, Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union (TDU), the long­stand­ing rank-and-file reform orga­ni­za­tion, report­ed:

UPS has a con­tract pro­pos­al on the table that gives the com­pa­ny the right to force pack­age dri­vers to work up to 70 hours a week any­time they deem it nec­es­sary to avoid ser­vice disruptions.”

Under the cur­rent con­tract, UPS dri­vers can refuse work after com­plet­ing their 60th hour of work in any work week.

Through­out nego­ti­a­tions, UPS has remained focused on win­ning con­ces­sions from the Team­sters and Gen­er­al Pres­i­dent James P. Hof­fa, the son of the noto­ri­ous Jim­my Hof­fa. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, chaos and con­fu­sion have char­ac­ter­ized the union side of the nego­ti­at­ing table.

Last Sep­tem­ber, Hof­fa fired then-chief nego­tia­tor Sean O’Brien, pres­i­dent of Team­sters Local 25 and a long­time Hof­fa ally, after he reached out to Fred Zuck­er­man, a Team­ster leader who ran on the reform slate Team­sters Unit­ed (TU) in the 2016 elec­tion and came with­in a few thou­sands votes of defeat­ing Hoffa. 

Hof­fa replaced O’Brien with Denis Tay­lor, a Bal­ti­more Team­ster leader and an unrec­og­niz­able fig­ure for most UPS-Teamsters.

Fur­ther adding con­fu­sion to this sit­u­a­tion was a pro­pos­al from the Team­ster bar­gain­ing team to cre­ate a new, infe­ri­or cat­e­go­ry of hybrid-dri­vers’ who would be paid less — through a two-tier wage scale — and work week­ends with­out over­time pay. If accept­ed, this pro­pos­al would begin the process of break­ing up the high­ly paid but phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing 60,000 full-time pack­age car deliv­ery jobs.

TU called the pro­pos­al the worst give­back in UPS his­to­ry.” Oppo­si­tion on the nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee led Tay­lor to remove three of its mem­bers — Avral Thomp­son, John Bolton and Matt Taibi. Thomp­son and Taibi had both been vocal­ly opposed to the hydrid-dri­ver” proposal. 

Chaos in the leadership

The results of the strike vote soon went viral on social media. UPS was quick to respond on Twit­ter claim­ing The vot­ing results were expect­ed as this is com­mon in nego­ti­a­tions. The cur­rent con­tract remains in force, so it’s busi­ness as usu­al while nego­ti­a­tions continue.”

Yet, nego­ti­a­tions are any­thing but usu­al this time around. This year, the Team­sters, led by Hof­fa, reluc­tant­ly called a strike autho­riza­tion vote. 

Dur­ing pre­vi­ous con­tract nego­ti­a­tions in 2013, Hof­fa and the then-chief union nego­tia­tor Ken Hall didn’t call such a vote — send­ing a strong sig­nal to UPS that union lead­er­ship would push for mem­ber­ship rat­i­fi­ca­tion — even though the pro­posed con­tract was filled with concessions.

Hof­fa and Hall were sur­prised by the wide­spread oppo­si­tion to the nation­al con­tract and the local and region­al rid­ers and sup­ple­ments, or mini-con­tracts. In the end, a frus­trat­ed Hof­fa used his con­sti­tu­tion­al author­i­ty to impose the nation­al con­tract along with the rid­ers and sup­ple­ments despite mem­ber­ship opposition.

In the 2016 elec­tion by rank-and-file mem­bers, Hof­fa near­ly lost reelec­tion to TU leader Zuckerman. 

It was a bomb­shell elec­tion that shook up the Team­sters estab­lish­ment and left the old guard scram­bling. It is wide­ly believed, though not cer­tain, that Hof­fa will not run for reelec­tion in 2021.

Ken Paff, the nation­al orga­niz­er of TDU, the long­stand­ing rank-and-file reform orga­ni­za­tion, told me: 

The Hof­fa admin­is­tra­tion was pressed into tak­ing a strike vote. TDU and Team­sters Unit­ed have ham­mered them on their weak bar­gain­ing; they even pro­posed two-tier wages for dri­vers. TDU and Team­sters Unit­ed cam­paigned to get a big Yes’ turnout, to put the strike threat on the table.

Will they strike?

What is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a nation­al strike against UPS? The Team­ster offi­cial­dom is frac­tured right now, and com­pe­ti­tion for the high­ly prized top two posi­tions in the Team­sters — Gen­er­al Pres­i­dent and Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er — could poten­tial­ly cre­ate an atmos­phere for bold­er action from the rank-and-file.

Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuck­er­man have announced a joint tick­et for the 2021 elec­tion. It is expect­ed that Ken Hall, the for­mer par­cel direc­tor, will run, along with Rome Aloise, who has pre­vi­ous­ly been charged with cor­rup­tion. All can­di­dates for the 2021 elec­tion will have to take a stand on the con­tract cur­rent­ly under nego­ti­a­tion if they expect to be tak­en seriously.

Zuck­er­man tells me of the strike authorization: 

The over­whelm­ing strike votes show that Team­ster mem­bers are in no mood for con­ces­sions. They are pissed off at their work­ing con­di­tions — and they are pissed off at the weak deals that the IBT has cut with the com­pa­ny so far behind closed doors. 

The strike autho­riza­tion gives Hof­fa’s nego­tia­tors the lever­age they asked for; they bet­ter grow a back­bone or we head­ed for a con­tract rejec­tion. That’s not about pol­i­tics. That is about 260,000 Team­sters who are not going to allow their employ­er to walk all over them for anoth­er five years.

The future of the Team­sters is on the line right now. Stum­bling towards a nation­al strike is not the best strat­e­gy to beat a rich, pow­er­ful and ruth­less glob­al cor­po­ra­tion like UPS. 

UPS, how­ev­er, is high­ly vul­ner­a­ble to strike action. Its spokes and hubs dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tem make it vul­ner­a­ble if even a few Team­sters local unions strike. In the event of a nation­al strike, all eyes will be on Louisville, Ky., the loca­tion of World­port,’ the cen­ter of UPS glob­al air oper­a­tions that fly to over 200 coun­tries each day.

The 1997 UPS strike led by Ron Carey, the Team­sters reform leader, near­ly changed the direc­tion of the entire U.S. labor move­ment. As spring turns to sum­mer, Team­sters are on the verge of tak­ing the baton from teach­ers in states such as West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa and Ari­zona and engag­ing in mil­i­tant labor action.

It’s up to the rank-and-file now.

Joe Allen is the author of The Pack­age King: A Rank and File His­to­ry of Unit­ed Par­cel Ser­vice, Viet­nam: The Last War the U.S. Lost and Peo­ple Was­n’t Made to Burn: A True Sto­ry of Race, Mur­der, and Jus­tice in Chica­go (Hay­mar­ket, 2011). He has writ­ten for Jacobin, Social­ist Work­er and elsewhere.
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