Will There be a National Strike at UPS?

Image by Maarten van den Heuve.

Talk of a national strike at United Parcel Service (UPS) is a welcome change from the two decades of retreat under the Teamsters’ former General President James P. Hoffa. There has only been one national strike in UPS’s history, in 1997, under the leadership of the union’s first democratically elected leader, Ron Carey.

A national strike is long overdue. Rank-and-file UPS Teamsters have paid a catastrophic price for a compliant leadership–Teamsters leader James Hoffa’s ratification in October in 2018 of a contract that members voted down.

Strike talk has been in the air for nearly two years, so few will be ill-prepared if a strike appears imminent. The Teamsters will be holding strike authorization votes across the country next year. We should expect members to vote overwhelmingly in favor. All of the parties interested in preventing a national strike are in the initial stages of mobilizing their forces, including UPS, the Biden administration, and major retail giants reliant on UPS’s delivery network.

The close political relationship between the Teamsters—along with the major trade union federation, the AFL-CIO—and the Biden administration is likely to weaken, if not outright undermine, any move toward a national strike at UPS, despite the bluster coming from union officials. Fred Zuckerman, General Secretary-Treasurer of the Teamsters, recently said, “We want to go to UPS and kick the shit out of them.” Yet, Teamsters officials welcomed the intervention of the Biden administration in the rail negotiations that produced a weak and unpopular tentative agreement.

Part-Time America won’t work

The 1997 UPS strike was enormously popular. Its slogan “Part-Time America Won’t Work” captured the frustration of workers with declining living standards. The hands down victory of the union produced, at least for a moment, a sense that maybe the labor movement had finally reached a turning point. Historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote at the time that the strike ended “the PATCO syndrome. A 16-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization.”

UPS’s customers were angered and frustrated at company executives for not warning of the possibility of a strike and had to scramble to find alternative distributors. FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service were overwhelmed by millions of packages that their logistics systems couldn’t handle. More than 80 percent of UPS’s packages sat in its warehouses or trailers across the country. UPS lost nearly $780 million during the course of the strike and suffered a huge black eye as the dirty laundry of working conditions were aired in public.

However, in the weeks and months that followed the strike, the combination of a witch-hunt atmosphere created by the Republican-controlled Congress and criminal investigations by President Bill Clinton’s Department of Justice successfully ousted Ron Carey from the leadership of the Teamsters, and eventually expelled him from the union. This government-sponsored counter-reform coup was the key factor in bringing Hoffa to power for two decades.

UPS, of course, had its dirty fingers in all of this. Its chief negotiator Dave Murray told Carey, “You’re dead, Carey, and you will pay for this, you s.o.b.” The Teamster “old guard” (reactionary, mob-connected officials) also did everything possible to undermine Carey. UPS took full advantage of the chaos produced by the federal government’s intervention and declared it would not honor the centerpiece victory of the strike: the creation of full-time jobs from existing part-time positions.

While UPS would later lose in arbitration and was ordered to honor the full-time jobs provisions of the contract, many Teamsters felt that the strike victory was stolen. UPS won on the political battlefield what it couldn’t win on the picket line. The wider potential of the UPS strike, such as organizing FedEx—a virtual twin of UPS and the natural next step in organizing the burgeoning non-union logistics industry in the 1990s—was thwarted.

That Carey was later found not guilty of the same charges that were used to expel him from the Teamsters had no impact on his standing in the union. While it is a positive development that the 1997 strike has been fully embraced by the new Teamster leadership, this part of the memory of the militant strike has been largely forgotten (or avoided) by reformers, old and new, in the union.

Big Brown today

UPS was a giant in the logistics industry in the 1990s. It is even much larger today. Its distinctive chocolate brown trucks can be seen on the streets of world capitals daily. Based in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, it employs more than 534,000 people around the globe and flies to 220 countries and territories daily. UPS’s air operations are based out of the “Worldport” air hub in Louisville, Kentucky. It delivers more than 25 million packages a day.

The recent purchase by UPS of Italy’s Bomi Group and the launch of a joint venture with InterGlobe Enterprises, one of India’s largest travel and aviation conglomerates, should remind us that any upcoming contract battle will be a global struggle. Yet the heart of UPS’s operations remain in the United States, where 350,000 drivers and warehouse workers are members of the Teamsters. On a daily basis, UPS transports roughly 6 percent of Gross Domestic Product for the U.S. economy alone, as well as 3 percent of the global economy.

UPS is a politically powerful corporation with a huge influence over trade, transportation, and labor policies in Washington, D.C. and many state capitals. It donates heavily to the Republican Party but also gives money to leading Democrats, such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock. The two top House committees that receive its political donations are, not surprisingly, Ways and Means (which oversees central aspects of tax law) and Transportation. Eighty-four percent of its donations go to incumbents.The company spent more than eight million dollars on lobbying alone in 2021.

The Trump years were good ones for UPS’s corporate leaders. While the company was cool toward former President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, it moved quickly to reconcile with him after his election. UPS contributed heavily to Trump’s 2016 inauguration fund. UPS Executive Chairman David Abney was treated to a state dinner at the Trump White House, while CEO Carol Tomé later hosted Trump at UPS’s facility at Atlanta’s International Airport. UPS was central to Trump administration initiatives in the early months of the pandemic, including Project Airbridge and Operation Warp Speed.

However, relations became strained with Trump following the 2020 presidential election. Tomé denounced the attack on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021. “We are appalled by the lawlessness and violence that unfolded at the U.S. Capitol and strongly condemn the actions of those individuals who participated in the illegal activities that destroyed property and cost lives,” she wrote. Tomé, however, failed to mention Trump by name.

Along with other major corporations, UPS threatened to suspend campaign contributions to U.S. House and Senate Republicans, who voted against the certification of the election of Joe Biden as president, known as the Sedition caucus. Within a few months UPS and other major corporations and corporate lobbying groups changed their minds. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) reported:

Corporate and industry group political action committees have donated more than $44 million directly to the campaigns and leadership PACs of the 147 members of the Sedition Caucus. Companies and trade associations that pledged to suspend donations have given more than $12 million to the campaign and leadership PACs of the Sedition Caucus.

Koch Industries ($626,500), American Crystal Sugar ($530,000), Home Depot ($525,000), Boeing ($488,000), and UPS ($479,500) have contributed the most money to members of the Sedition Caucus through their corporate PACs.

Tomé’s reconciliation with representatives who legitimized Trump’s attempted presidential coup—and who may control Congress after the November midterm elections— shouldn’t surprise us. Trump lavished huge gifts on UPS and Corporate America that have made them richer.

Meanwhile, Tomé has pursued a “Better not Bigger” restructuring program that appears to have successfully moved it out of the more traditional freight business to focus on its core business of package delivery, given the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the ongoing shift to online shopping. She has also continued a policy of liberalizing dress and hair styles. For years, UPS banned beards and tattoos for its drivers. These and African-American hair styles are accepted now.

Despite the restructuring and liberalization, UPS remains what it has always been—a brutal, totalitarian workplace. This past summer’s heat crisis—leading to the death and illness of UPS package drivers—garnered widespread media attention and left the company with a serious public relations problem. Heat-related illness is also a crucial issue for UPS’s vast army of part-time inside warehouse workers, which hasn’t received the same media coverage.

The Teamsters

When Ron Carey called a strike on August 3, 1997, 185,000 UPS workers across the United States hit the picket lines. Potentially 350,000 workers could be on the picket lines if the Teamsters strike next summer. Fortune magazine reported recently, “Since mid-2018, UPS has hired over 72,000 Teamsters, making them a core segment of the company’s operations.” UPS is the largest Teamster employer and the largest private-sector employer in the United States. Since the 1980s, UPS has been a “union within a union” in the Teamsters.

The explosive growth and wealth of UPS has largely kept the Teamsters alive as a viable, functioning union. If UPS didn’t exist, the Teamsters would be a ramshackle collection of old freight companies and local employers with little national clout. The catastrophic decline of the Teamsters in the freight industry, once their stronghold, since the deregulation of the trucking industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s has been softened by the growth of UPS. Many Teamster locals wouldn’t exist without UPS.

Yet, UPS Teamsters have been underrepresented in the leadership of Teamsters. Only one general president, Ron Carey, was a UPS driver. Neither of the top two officers of the Teamsters, Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman, come out of UPS, even though their home locals are dependent on UPS membership. The Teamsters have maintained their position at UPS not by creative organizing or militant strikes but through agreements made decades ago with UPS that the Teamsters would grow with the company.

The deal worked well for UPS and produced a compliant Teamster leadership that benefited from dues, ad initiation fees, and health and welfare contributions from an expanding workforce without having to lift a finger. The bargaining position of the Teamsters, apart from the Carey years in the 1990s, was one of following the lead of the company and making concession after concession to “protect” it from non-union competitors such as FedEx, which has been particularly devastating to part-timers and package car drivers.

This has left the Teamsters, however, much weakened and very exposed. In 2019, the last year of economic boom before the pandemic, the Teamsters lost 65,000 members. It’s possible that the Teamsters have lost as many as 300,000 members or more across the country during the last decade. At the time of last year’s Teamster election, Hoffa claimed the Teamsters had 1.4 million members. The current General President Sean O’Brien estimates membership is closer to 1.2 million.

Teamster activist Andy Sernatinger wrote in Tempest that the union lost nearly one quarter of a million members between the 2016 and 2021 Teamster elections. He further argued,

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the Teamsters, as it did all labor unions, with the temporary closure of non-essential industry and the slowdown of the economy generally. Most of this loss, however, appears to be after the re-opening of the economy. The total number of workers represented went up between 2020 and 2021, but what appears to have happened is that a staggering number of workers have moved from union membership to paying agency fees only. On average, the proportion of agency fee payers to members in the IBT [International Brotherhood of Teamsters] has been three percent—in 2021, it jumped to 20 percent.

The Teamsters initiated a membership recruitment led by John Palmer, the deputy director of organizing, who was specifically assigned to internal organizing targeting right-to-work states. Whatever disagreements there are about the nature and size of the membership, which highlights even more how dependent the Teamsters are on UPS, it is clearly experiencing an institutional crisis that could have a conservatizing impact on its bargaining position with UPS next year.

Missed opportunities

Hoffa declared Amazon an existential threat to the Teamsters—and touted a much-hyped Amazon organizing project. From the grocery industry through the package delivery business, Amazon presents a challenge to old bastions of Teamster strength. But it is not at all clear if the Teamsters can provide a viable option for Amazon workers, given its long list of failed organizing campaigns and decades of unnecessary concessions at UPS.

This past summer, O’Brien and Zuckerman were handed a prime opportunity to take on UPS but failed to do so. The long heat waves that baked major parts of the United States once again highlighted how climate change is becoming more deadly each passing year. Widespread media coverage provided enormous public sympathy for delivery drivers by exposing the fact that UPS delivery trucks don’t have air conditioning.

Teamster General President Sean O’Brien declared, “UPS is on notice. The Teamsters will confront the company aggressively on this issue as the heat rages now, and as we head into the bargaining for the 2023 contract.” Yet, the union did nothing to turn these words into action. Compare this response to the nationwide moment of silence after UPS package driver Frank Ordoñez was murdered in a hail of gunfire by various law enforcement agencies in December 2019 in Miami following a botched robbery. Why wasn’t a nationwide moment of silence organized by the Teamsters for Esteban Chavez, the UPS driver who died from heat stroke?

While Teamsters did launch a national contract campaign at UPS during the first week of August to coincide with the anniversary of the 1997 strike, which was welcomed by Teamsters across the country, we should be clear that the rallies were quite tame and low stakes. I don’t know of any locals where the union organized anything that looked like a picket line. The union has a long way to go for the rhetoric of the leadership to catch up with the reality of what it takes to carry out a national strike.

Yet, Sean O’Brien appears to be more focused Teamster members unhappy with the recent tentative agreement reached in the rail industry. In a rambling speech before the Teamster affiliated Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), O’Brien bluntly told the delegates that, “Teamsters love to complain,” attacked the influence of “outsiders” in the union, and to keep disagreements among themselves.

Is a strike inevitable?

One of the most important things to understand about the success of the 1997 UPS strike was that Big Brown didn’t expect a strike and didn’t prepare for one. Neither did the federal government. Many rank-and-file UPS Teamsters were surprised that the picket lines held on the first of the strike—and for another fourteen days. It was the first national strike in the company’s 90-year history.

clash is again coming between the company and the union, but the form it will take is still to be seen. The Teamsters want an end to the two-tier, lower paid package car drivers, the use of part timers driving personal vehicles, and greater protections against overtime. UPS wants more “flexibility.” These positions can’t be reconciled without a strike in which one side wins and other loses.

If there is one thing we’ve learned from the strike wave in the U.S. (and the changes in leadership of the Teamsters) during the last two years, it is that the rank-and-file is fed up with the status quo and wants fundamental change. Whether or not there is a national strike at UPS in 2023 will ultimately be up to rank-and-file Teamsters who will have to push it toward victory against their many enemies.

This piece first appeared in The Tempest.

JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.