April 24, 2024

Since April, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), which represents roughly 340,000 United Parcel Service (UPS) workers, has been in contract negotiations with UPS. On the union’s side, these negotiations were headed by Sean O’Brien, an ally turned critic of the previous Hoffa union leadership. In fact, it was the previous contract negotiated by Hoffa that caused their break. Almost two years ago, O’Brien, with the support of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), was elected president of the IBT. An election that saw only a 12.9% voter turnout. A striking but telling statistic. During his campaign for president of the IBT, O’Brien styled himself as a militant trade unionist, willing to strike to see a better contract. This is the attitude he supposedly went into negotiations with but the recently released Tentative Agreement (TA) puts that into question. 

With the previous contract set to expire on August 1st, IBT and UPS reached a last-minute TA on July 25. With this, a strike was averted and the agreement was put forth to the 340,000 rank-and-file union members to vote it either up or down. Should the majority vote in favor of the TA it will become the official contract between the workers and UPS for the next five years. Should they vote it down, workers would be legally able to exercise their right to strike since the previous contract has already expired. While voting will take place online, members will be mailed a unique QR code and URL which they will need to vote. This is an unnecessarily complicated method of voting that is ripe for manipulation. Oftentimes, the address on file with the union for rank-and-file members is not up-to-date. Furthermore, the use of a QR code and link removes anonymity and allows for the possibility of tracking who, how, and what workers are voting for. Finally, this kind of method asks that workers turn what should be a collective action into a simple click on their computer. This ratification process began on August 3rd and will run until August 22nd. 

Since first announcing it, O’Brien and his leadership have been hailing the TA as a historic win for workers. They have been campaigning non-stop in favor of the agreement. Part of this campaign took the form of a meeting of 176 teamsters locals who voted 160-1 to endorse the contract. It should be noted that this was merely a vote of endorsement. Rank and file union members are still the only ones who will determine if this agreement passes or not. Despite their insistence to the contrary, this agreement cannot be considered as anything other than a concessionary contract. It fails to secure many of the main demands that emerged leading up to the new contract and facilitates their further exploitation by the bosses. A heavy accusation but what else can one call it when the union allows provisions which give the bosses the power to switch to 7-day work weeks? The extension of the working week is one of the many ways the capitalist class increases the level of exploitation of the workers and to allow such a provision is nothing short of treachery. 

Part-timers, who make up the majority of unionized UPS workers, are particularly left behind in this agreement. According to the TA, they would start at $21 an hour at the start of the contract. They would then receive $0.50 per year over the life of the contract resulting in a final wage of $23 an hour in 2027. This would mean that in 2027, part-timers hired this year, who would by then have had 5 years of working experience, would make the same wage as new part-timers hired that year in 2027. This is a slap in the face to part-timers, many of whom have been demanding, at minimum, a starting wage of $25. Even the TDU had previously distributed flyers calling for a $25 minimum. They’ve since fallen in line with O’Brien and are now calling for a wage “north of $20”. In 1982, the starting wage at UPS was $8 an hour which if adjusted for inflation, would be $25 an hour. Workers’ wages have not even kept pace with inflation. Why? Because of decades of yellow trade unionism and concessionary contracts. For decades, keeping starting wages artificially low was the strategy of the IBT. Dennis Taylor, who helped negotiate the previous 2018-2023 contract, confirmed this on a call when he said 

“You might ask, what did we get in exchange for keeping the rates so low over the many contracts? The answer is simple … UPS was able to save millions of dollars each year, and the Teamsters negotiators were able to extract millions of dollars more in wages and benefits during each successive contract… This model has been in place for the last 36 years.”

 This is how the leadership attempted to justify their betrayal. The fact that the workers went on to reject by a majority the very contract that Tylor was defending shows what these “millions saved” really amounted to for the workers. The most striking part about this episode is how eerily similar it is to today. Back then, the starting wage was set to $10.50 and many workers were demanding that it be raised to $15. Yet the contract, in line with their strategy, set the starting wage to $13. Save for the numbers, what is different from then to now? Clearly, the current O’Brien leadership is continuing this yellow unionist strategy of keeping wages artificially low. 

One of the more important demands of workers has been around A/C. The working class and popular strata are currently dealing with the ever-worsening capitalist-induced climate crisis. UPS workers, both drivers and hub workers, are at the frontlines of this crisis. As temperatures have continued to rise to record-breaking highs, so have the temperatures in UPS vehicles and hubs. Workers have not only suffered from heat-related injuries but some have even died. For years they have demanded from the company that air conditioning be installed in the trucks and hubs. Despite IBT’s claim that they are fighting for this demand, the TA shows otherwise. According to the TA, UPS would only have to install A/C in new vehicles purchased after January 1st, 2024. For current vehicles, UPS would only be required to install two in-cabin fans. This is completely unacceptable! Fans are insufficient for cooling people off in the extreme heat, and can actually make things worse, according to a Department of Health report from the State of New York. Furthermore, the agreement gives UPS the power to decide where new A/C fitted vehicles are allocated so long as they “make reasonable efforts” to prioritize “zone 1”. It is still ambiguous how and which areas are classified as Zone 1 but even if we assume it refers to the areas with the highest heat index, such weak language that leaves UPS in control of how and when A/C fitted vehicles are allocated is unacceptable. There must be strong language and binding provisions, backed up by the threat of an immediate strike, that forces UPS to prioritize the most impacted areas. Without strong language that forces the capitalist to take actions that are in the interests of the workers, they will, without a doubt, act in their class interests and take actions that actively hurt the working class. The language aside, this is simply not enough to adequately address the dangerous conditions that workers face. To accept anything less than the full installation of A/C in all UPS vehicles and hubs would be to condemn workers to another five years of exposure to extreme heat, five years which, by every indication, will each be hotter than the last. 

In a time where workers have the leverage to demand significant concessions from UPS, the Teamsters would have them accept a contract that wins next to nothing. In 1997, UPS workers went on strike for 15 days. Even with scabs and management filling in, UPS was only able to move about 10% of its normal daily volume during the strike. In the end, the strike cost the company $780 million. UPS, already a giant in the courier industry, quickly found that due to its sheer size, no other company could step in to absorb its volume. Today, UPS handles almost 5% of the country’s GDP daily- about $3.8 billion worth of goods. Should workers strike, the costs to UPS would dwarf those incurred during the 1997 strike. Workers have a significant amount of leverage which could win them much more than the paltry “gains” touted by the IBT. UPS workers should reject this contract and exercise their right to strike for a better one. They must not allow the leadership to push them into another negotiating period and must negotiate from a strike. The CWPUSA calls on all of its members and supporters to do the following:

  1. If eligible to vote on the tentative agreement, vote no 
  2. Study the tentative agreement, understand its failings, and agitate amongst rank-and-file UPS workers to vote no 
  3. Organize and support any and all worker demonstrations against the tentative agreement in your local area
  4. Support any strikes against the tentative agreement in your local area

Central Committee of the Communist Workers’ Platform USA