Strike Ready?

There is palpable excitement in the U.S. Left for a potential national strike by the Teamsters against United Parcel Service (UPS) this coming summer. The Teamsters national contract with UPS expires on July 31. Last month, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) announced their Strike Ready 2023 campaign to support the Teamsters. Maria Svart, DSA’s National Director, in her May Dispatch newsletter, informed the membership:

The Strike Ready campaign will require all of us to be ready to support the UPS Teamsters, including at-large members, smaller chapters, chapters with less active labor work, YDSA chapters, and chapters that have not yet passed the resolution. This campaign is also meant to help chapters build their labor work and solidarity capacity. UPS is the first of many fights to come, and chapters and members should get “strike ready” for all of the labor fights ahead.

So far, according to Svart, “We now have over 90 solidarity captains identified from 40+ chapters!” It is likely that more DSA chapters will endorse and members come forward to support UPS strikers during the next two months.

This is a welcome change from previous contract negotiations at UPS. For the first time since 1997, a broad Left is looking to rank and file Teamsters to strike a big blow against one of the titans of corporate America and elevate the class struggle. While the Teamsters’ militant posture is a dramatic change, though still largely untested, it is a welcome shift from the years of low expectations, predictable concessions, and retreat under the union’s former leader James P. Hoffa.

On June 5, after a frustrating delay, the Teamsters finally announced that local unions representing UPS workers would begin conducting strike authorization votes. In sharp contrast, five years ago, the reviled Hoffa and his chief UPS negotiator Denis Taylor had already organized a national strike vote. Later, Hoffa and Taylor sold out UPS Teamsters, who later voted down the contract. This time around, hopefully, will be a major step forward in preparing rank and file Teamsters for what could be the best strike in the union’s history.

Despite the delay in the strike vote and the lack of transparency in negotiation, the ingredients for a national strike exist because at the core of the current contract negotiations is what UPS and the Teamsters will look like in the future. The issues are quite inflexible, especially on the questions of full-time driving jobs. O’Brien and Zuckerman have called for the rollback of concessions made by Hoffa in 2018 and significant wage increases for part-timers. And, while UPS can afford the wage increases, it has made it clear it wants the Uberization of driving jobs to continue.

Both sides have a lot to lose, and declaring victory but not winning your goals will have consequences. We know from the past two years that strikes have been driven by the rank and file, who’ve repeatedly, in many cases, voted down bad contracts, similar to UPS in 2018. Events at UPS during the past decade have prefigured many aspects of what’s been happening inside the U.S. working class during the past two years, from voting down contracts to tossing out old leaders.

O’Brien and the Left

Sean O’Brien is by no means a product of the U.S. Left, but neither was Ron Carey, the leader of the 1997 strike. A longtime member and officer of the scandal ridden Teamsters Local 25 based in Boston, O’Brien was closely associated with the Hoffa machine during most of his political career. His thuggish behavior was so notorious that even Hoffa had to suspend him temporarily from office. O’Brien’s falling out with Hoffa and the endorsement by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) gave him national credibility that he didn’t deserve.

O’Brien, however, has reached out to the broad Left in the U.S. labor movement, where he has been embraced uncritically. He appeared at the Labor Notes conference and toured the country last year with Bernie Sanders and Sara Nelson, leader of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO. O’Brien’s confrontation with the U.S. Senate’s dumbest member, Oklahoma Senator Markwayne Mullin, has further burnished his image. DSA Labor announced in an email, despite few details, that the Teamsters,

ask[ed] us to be a part of its Community Coalition to support the UPS Teamsters in their contract fight. This is an incredible achievement and could only be [made] possible by the amazing solidarity captains and chapter work you all have done. The community coalition is led by the IBT and includes 6 organizations, including DSA. Chapters will hear more shortly about what opportunities come out of this.

Strike Ready builds upon DSA’s jobs pipeline campaign that includes UPS. Launched unevenly during the past two years, it has succeeded in members getting jobs across the country where DSA has a presence in larger cities. Some of its members have become very visible activists in their local unions very quickly. DSA has the largest presence of any left group in Teamsters and TDU in the United States.

Socialist Alternative recently launched Workers Strike Back (WSB). Socialist Alternative, which is considerably smaller than DSA, is best known for its most prominent member, Seattle Councilmember Khsama Sawant, who recently announced that she will not run for reelection. According to the group’s website,

Workers Strike Back was launched by socialist Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative, and others who want to build a national movement to fight back.

This growing resistance is also taking place, however, while the U.S. Left has been going through a multi-year crisis. DSA has lost a considerable number of members over the last few years—with declining participation—and has permanently damaged its credibility on a broad range of issues from Palestine to abolition. This includes the role of several high-profile members in Congress pre-empting a strike during the rail contract dispute last fall.

Socialist Alternative’s Workers Strike Back faces the daunting task of organizing in the shadow of the much more established Labor Notes network, which will play a big role in mobilizing strike support. In addition, Socialist Alternative has suffered a series of splits during the past decade that have greatly weakened it. The stunning election of Kshama Sawant in 2013 appeared to herald it as a new vibrant grouping in the U.S. Left. However, it has few members who work at UPS or in the Teamsters, which limits its potential activities in the event of a strike.

Meanwhile, many of the U.S. Left look to (TDU), the longstanding reform group in the union with roots that go back to the rank-and-file rebellion of the 1970s. For decades, TDU has engaged in heroic campaigning for democracy and fought concessions in the union, but its electoral alliance with O’Brien and Zuckerman potentially prevented it from playing any independent role in the UPS contract battle. During last year’s battle in the rail industry, it raised no criticisms of O’Brien’s role in getting Rail Teamsters to accept a bad deal.

Tempest is a small group and we have a small number of very active trade union members. During our short history (we are only three years old), we have done many great online forums on issues and debates related to the labor movement, as well as many other topics. Our online forum with former candidates for General President of Teamsters, Tom Leedham and Tim Sylvester, and Philadelphia Teamster leader Richard Hooker following the first Teamsters election debate was unique.

We have, in Tempest and in other media outlets, taken a more critical stance on the new leadership of the Teamsters and the direction of the reform movement, but also see ourselves as part of the revolutionary socialist tradition in the Teamsters. For the founding convention of Tempest, I submitted a perspectives document on the Teamsters and UPS. In it I put forward:

I see Tempest as being part of the best of the Trotskyist/International Socialist tradition in our approach to the Teamsters. Despite the crisis situation that the union finds itself in, it is not going away. It will be a key place for the class struggle and socialist politics well into the future, but we need to develop our own ideas about what this means as we approach the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first century.

Too much of the sensibilities arising out of the collapse of the rank and file movements from the mid-to-late 1970s, along with the implosion of the revolutionary Left, particularly the U.S. International Socialists, inform the deep background to several of the reform currents in today’s unions. We need to think for ourselves.

Today, there is a generation of radicals, whether they be in organizations or not, who want to be active in building working class organizations and sense that something outside of DSA needs to be built. The revival of different strands of Stalinism, from the old reformist Communist Party, USA through the paleo-Stalinist Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), reflect, I believe, that people are looking for an alternative to DSA, particularly parties that put the struggle against racism and national oppression at the center of their political activity.

Biggest strike in U.S. history

While socialists are likely to play little more than a supportive role during a national strike at UPS, such an event could potentially change the terrain of working-class socialist politics in the United States. This was the potential of the 1997 UPS strike that was thwarted by the federal government’s intervention following the strike. It was a huge setback and defeat that few still acknowledge. For the small forces of the revolutionary Left in the United States, we are in no position at the present time to influence beyond a handful of individuals the direction of any potential strike at UPS.

The implosion of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in 2019 was a huge setback for building the revolutionary Left in the United States. I was a member for nearly four decades and I can say proudly that we did valuable work leading up to the 1997 UPS strike that many people can learn from today. As I wrote in Tempest back in the fall of 2020:

Socialist Worker newspaper produced a special Ready to Strike supplement that was wildly popular and distributed across the country during the week of the UPS strike vote in July 1997. When the strike came we marched on the picket lines and organized solidarity rallies in many locales. You can listen to the Support UPS Workers Solidarity Rally that the ISO organized with Teamsters 705 Recording Secretary Bennie Jackson, veteran union radical Jack Spiegel, UPS pilot Jodi Budenaers, and Staley “Road Warrior” Dan Lane in Chicago.

We should operate under the assumption that a strike at UPS is possible. This is not a case of replacing concrete analysis with daydreams, it is the political challenge of our time. Look across the ocean at France, which saw near-insurrectionary demonstrations against the Macron government’s effort to raise the retirement age, or the strike wave across the UK. If the Teamsters strike on July 31, it may very well be the biggest strike against a single corporation in U.S. history.

We live in a period of instability punctuated by rebellion, wars, economic crisis, long periods of miserable stability, and a resurgent authoritarian right. Three years ago we experienced a national uprising against racism following the murder of George Floyd; few could have predicted it. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of “essential workers,” one of the key ingredients that drove the strike wave across industrial worksites during the past two years from many long dormant unions.

But we should be clear-headed about the prospects of a strike at UPS. There are forces pushing for a strike and forces pushing against a strike. Last year’s very public discussion of the national contracts of rail workers, which included two Teamster-affiliated unions, taught us hard lessons on the role of the Democratic Party, trade union leaders (including Sean O’Brien), and the power of the federal government to undermine a righteous battle. If the Teamsters and UPS manage to reach a tentative agreement, the terrain will shift to debate about the merits of the proposed contract.

The political stakes are very high. The mainstream and far right took full advantage of the Biden administration’s heavy-handed intervention in the rail contract battle and the environmental disaster that followed in East Palestine, Ohio. Trump and other far-right groups have plenty of support among UPS Teamsters. A replay of the rail fiasco will be a disaster on many levels for us. TDU, DSA, and others have little to nothing to say about combating the far right in the workplace and the unions.

The process of rebuilding a revolutionary presence in the labor movement will be a long one, but like-minded organizations should discuss those issues that bring us together and those that separate us. Common political work around UPS is a good place to start.

This piece first appeared in The Tempest.

JOE ALLEN is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service.