The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is the largest labor union in the United States with an eye-popping 1.4 million members in key points of the logistical infrastructure of the US – trucking, warehouses, freight, air travel, and much more. UPS is the largest package delivery company in the world, with half a million employees worldwide. In the US, 340,000 UPS workers are members of the Teamsters union, well over half of the company’s global workforce and the great majority of its US employees. This year, the five-year contract (a collective bargaining agreement legally binding between the union and the employer which establishes the terms and conditions of employment for union members including wages, benefits, working hours, and job security) expired and thus the next five year agreement came up for negotiation.
II. The Negotiations
In April 2023, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters entered contract negotiations with UPS. The Teamsters put forward a series of demands:
- MLK Day as a paid holiday.
- End of two-tier wage system.
- $3 per hour annual increases over the life of the contract.
- End of forced overtime.
- Installation of AC units in vehicles.
- Catch-up raises for part time workers.
As negotiations dragged on, rallies were held and campaigns launched to build solidarity amongst the Teamsters UPS workers. Then, on June 16, 97% of the UPS Teamsters members voted to authorize a strike in the event that no contract agreement was reached by July 31. This strike would have been one of the largest in US history, throwing a massive wrench into the razor-tight US logistics system. Many large companies have opted for just-in-time delivery methods, by which they keep their inventories low and freight costs minimal – however, this system that aims to maximize profits in the short term cannot withstand shocks to the system, any disruption would be a major and immediate blow to these corporations’ profits. It is for this reason that the hundreds of thousands of UPS workers, who handle this crucial logistics network, by striking would threaten not only UPS but thousands of other businesses by going on strike. In fact, by one estimate the strike would cost the US economy a staggering $5 billion dollars within ten days.
The workers were prepared to exercise their most powerful weapon – their labor power, their ability to perform work to create and deliver ALL the goods and services in an economy – which produces the entirety of value in society generally and the profits of each company specifically. The cost to UPS directly for this interruption of their immensely profitable operations would therefore be inconceivable for the executives and shareholders of UPS.
With the looming threat of the strike, negotiations continued. On July 25, 2023 the two sides signed a tentative agreement, to be ratified by Teamsters members via electronic vote between August 3 and 22. Below are the key points of the agreement:
- Wage Increases: Full- and part-time UPS Teamsters will get $2.75 more per hour in 2023. Over the length of the contract, wage increases will total $7.50 per hour.
- End of Two-Tier Wage System: The two-tier wage system, which had created a pay disparity between new hires and more senior employees, will be eliminated.
- Catch-Up Raises for Part-Timers: Part-time employees will receive one-time longevity increases to their wages based on their original hire date, ranging from $0.50 for five years of service to $1.50 for more than 15 years of service.
- Martin Luther King Day as a Paid Holiday: Martin Luther King Day will become a paid holiday for UPS Teamsters for the first time.
- New Language to Prevent Forced Overtime on Days Off: New language will be added to the contract to prevent UPS from forcing employees to work overtime on their days off.
- Installation of AC in New Vehicles: UPS will install air conditioning in all new package cars and delivery vans.
This tentative agreement amounts to a wholesale betrayal of the UPS workers and their commitment to a militant exercise of their working class power. Moreover, the specific conditions are piecemeal – to call these wins historic as the Teamsters leadership has is an insult to the union members, a rhetorical ploy meant to play up the meek nature of the agreement. For instance, the air conditioning secured by this deal not only does not begin on new vehicles until 2024, but also does not include retrofitting for every single vehicle already on the road – this will leave tens of thousands of workers to continue to be exposed to the lethal heat that now sweeps the US annually. Even further, the AC to be installed are mere fans, per the deal: “Single fans will be installed in all package cars within 30 days of ratification and a second fan will be installed no later than June 1, 2024.” One can imagine how effective a single fan will be against 100 degree heat inside of 24,000 pound delivery vans. Not to mention the agreement only requires 28,000 units be outfitted with the fans, less than a quarter of the total UPS delivery van fleet.
On the issue of part time wages, the contract does not secure a $25 per hour base pay, but only $21 per hour with $2.75 increases over the five year life of the contract. In the face of ever-rampant inflation, this base pay will prove insufficient. Further, the Market Rate Adjustments secured in the deal are not protected – meaning UPS can implement these raises and just as easily and arbitrarily remove them, leaving what could be a massive win for the workers at the whim of UPS. The TA also failed to remove personal vehicle drivers (PVDs). This leaves the door wide open for UPS to implement 7-day work weeks (yet another condition the agreement failed to secure) to compete with Amazon and further move towards a flexible, gig-ified workforce that would not be unionized and therefore compete with UPS workers, driving wages lower.
III. The Rank and File
Words from a UPS Worker
A worker at UPS Worldport provided us insight on the reaction to the contract stating:
“At first it was a mixed bag for some people. There was some initial confusion, mainly regarding pay, that made some people upset, especially with leadership, namely the TDU folks, backing down on $25 per hour. I think the decision had something to do with some trainings that happened a few months ago where rank and filers were asked to give feedback on their priorities, which I think explains not only the decision to settle for $21 per hour base pay nationwide, but also why there hasn’t been more of an uproar from the rank and filers. Since then the union has been trying to clean some things up.People had initially caught wind of the Local 89 voting no on the contract due to the earlier confusion around how the raises would affect the already existing MRA’s [market rate adjustments]. They’ve had volunteers hand billing with FAQ’s and hosting informational meetings at the union hall so I can’t imagine any of the existing opposition to the contract would be a majority since it was concluded the raises would actually be added on top of the MRA, plus the seniority raises.
In my opinion it’s a decent contract, but I don’t think we should ignore that the union completely flinched. Had things gone to a strike, that would’ve been grounds for more concessions, and while the raises nationwide are fine, it’s important to note that folks weren’t just fighting for this contract while struggling to keep the lights on – inflation has made even that so expensive – but making up for the contract pushed on them by the Hoffa administration last time around. The union did keep its word by not leveraging the 30% rule but there’s always going to be a “what if.” That’s part of negotiating with the big bosses who hold all the cards. Of course, the house is always going to come out on top and the negotiators didn’t fight them.
Not to mention that this agreement has already set the ground that the next contract will be based on. By then UPS will be contracting more jobs out and creating more services around the gig economy. If we workers don’t adapt in the next five years, we’re going to have to reckon with an army of potential scabs poking holes.”
The Power of Strikes
While the items won by the Teamsters’ negotiations present a minor material impact on the lives of workers, it is necessary to go beyond that. The fact that the strike was averted despite near unanimous approval by the rank and file indicates that the Teamsters leadership did not (or simply refused to) recognize the tremendous power of the UPS workers. The tentative agreement staved off a truly historic confrontation. The overwhelming 97% yes vote for the strike clearly shows the workers were willing to engage in this confrontation and wield their power against the UPS owners.
Marx’s Labor Theory of Value, a pillar of the revolutionary ideology of Marxism-Leninism, posits that workers are the true progenitors of all value within the capitalist system. This concept gains immediacy and sharpness in the context of this averted strike. The sheer scale of the strike and its potential to cripple UPS operations and affect thousands of other businesses would have lent titanic weight in gaining more concessions, greater pay and greater benefits from UPS. The workers, wielding their collective power, could have demonstrated their ability to upend the power dynamic of workers and capitalists by withholding their labor and thus cutting off the flow of profits to UPS, their shareholders, and many other businesses impacted by the interrupted logistics.
It is a common tactic of conciliatory trade unions (often called yellow or business unions in the past) to make a big show of gaining minor gains or overplaying each gain in their negotiations to justify their continued leadership while also not threatening the capitalists “too much” – which is, in reality, giving the capitalists everything they want and winning only face-saving concessions. These incremental gains allow the business union leaders to withhold major confrontations until the next contract negotiations or the next one after or even after that in perpetuity. In this way management is kept happy and workers are given the absolute bare minimum of improvements (that are immediately eroded away by inflation and the rising costs of housing, food, utilities, etc.).
Keeping in line with these tactics, the Teamsters’ decision to avert the strike exposes the class nature of these business trade unions, they stripped the workers of their most powerful weapon and claimed this way all for the “historic” victory. The Teamsters’ leadership, in averting the strike, sided with capital against the working class – a betrayal worthy of outrage and an organized effort to militate within the trade union. This episode serves as a reminder of the latent power that workers hold when militantly organized and concentrated in trade unions and – most especially – the need for class struggle trade unions guided by revolutionary ideology to be struggled for and organized.
Class Struggle Trade Unions
“The gains the workers make are in direct proportion to the degree of direct action taken and of revolutionary pressure exerted by the masses. By direct action it means all forms of direct pressure on the employers and the state – boycotts, strikes, street demonstrations…, and other [actions] which unite the working class in [their struggle].”
– The ComIntern and the Red International of Trade Unions, July 192
Workers’ exercise their power with their numbers! Without workers, the CEOs and executives couldn’t make the billions in profits they rake in every year (and, in this case, every few weeks). This strength in numbers can only be effectively utilized with organization and coordination. Unions, and most of all trade unions that organize workers in entire industries, provide workers the organizing tool to fight back against the capitalists for their economic demands with legal protections and frameworks. This affords the working class the opportunity to achieve organizational scale and translate their numerical strength into fighting strength. Had the UPS workers not been organized in the Teamsters union, the possibility of 340,000 workers going on strike simultaneously would not have existed.
The trade unions cannot stay neutral in the battle between labor and capital. The trade unions that remain committed to fighting for the working class as the working class in the struggle for better pay, better conditions, and all the necessities of a dignified life will wage a more effective struggle against the class enemy, the exploiters. It is the task of the communist party, then, to organize within these trade unions, to elevate the class conscious members of the union to positions of leadership within the trade unions to orient these truly mammoth engines of organization against the capitalist class. Had the Teamsters been willing to move forward with social struggle, the strike, denying the tactic of social dialogue, the possibilities for concessions would have been far, far greater than the tentative agreement has – for now – in effect precluded.