The Teamsters/UPS Negotiations: Back to Strike Ready or Lowering Expectations?

On Thursday, June, 22nd, the Teamsters National Negotiating Committee led by Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman, rejected the UPS’s counterproposal to the union’s economic demands, calling them “disrespectful.” The Teamsters broke off negotiations and said they wouldn’t return to the bargaining table until UPS got serious about negotiations.

O’Brien, the Teamsters General President, posted on its Facebook page:

The Teamsters will not bargain or accept any contract that’s cost-neutral. We are not going to sell ourselves short in these negotiations, and we will not buy back terms and conditions to protect our members. We have 39 days to go. This company is wasting time putting forth offensive proposals. If UPS wants to negotiate a contract for 1997 working conditions, they’re going to get 1997 consequences.

The “1997 consequences” that O’Brien threatened UPS with is the 1997 Teamsters strike against UPS, the first national strike at the company known for many decades as “Big Brown.” The strike was a hands down victory for the Teamsters led by the union’s democratically elected, reform leader Ron Carey.

Last Wednesday, June 21st, Sean O’Brien appeared to be giving a different signal. He reported on a nationwide Zoom call that “we have made big progress” with fifty-five tentative agreements. The direction of negotiations appeared to be heading towards an early settlement. Then things blew up and, once again, raised the specter of a national strike. Dave Courtenay-Quirk, an Atlanta UPS union steward, told me,

Many of us now think there’s no way to avoid a strike. Since management harassment (both petty and serious) is so extreme, many of us are looking forward to it.

Strangely, the Teamsters didn’t take the opportunity to openly post their initial economic proposals or UPS’s counter proposals for the entire union membership to see, after they walked out of negotiations. However, the next day Teamsterlink , a social media site not affiliated with the Teamsters, posted UPS’s proposals that were leaked anonymously to them by someone called RnFTeamsterVoice.

If the goal of the leaker was simply to make UPS look bad, it certainly did that, but it also put pressure on the Teamsters to release their full economic proposals, not just the general bargaining goals. People were demanding to see the actual contract language the union was putting forward; something the union has refused to do, so far. Right now, as it stands, the only people to see the Teamsters actual proposals are UPS negotiators, not UPS Teamsters rank and filers.

UPS’s counter proposals were so offensive, they quickly circulated around the internet. Starting from Teamsterlink, they spread quickly to long established Facebook pages like Vote in the Know on the UPS Contract to the Twitter feed of  the newer The Upsurge. UPS Teamsters and many others interested in the contract fight, logged in and were shocked at what they read, especially UPS’s proposal that new part timers start at $17.00 an hour. For a full breakdown of UPS proposals, see The Upsurge.

Teamster Mobilize, a network of UPS part timer activists has called for a $25 an hour new start pay for part timers. One UPS part timer, working in the Chicago area, told me after reading them:

Right now, I’m being paid $20 an hour. That’s been my rate since I started, nearly a year ago. Most people I know have similar pay scales; some make a bit more, a few a bit less. What if the whole point of leaking that counter proposal was to make getting $20 an hour look like a big win? UPS is already paying that, and has been for a while.

Was the purpose of the leak ultimately about lowering expectations? We will see over the next week, if negotiations re-start, and what comes out of them.

There’s little doubt that negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters have entered a critical phase. It is the biggest private sector contract being negotiated this year, covering around 340,000 workers. Many people have staked the future of Teamster organizing at Amazon on the success of winning a big contract victory at UPS, a mediocre contract could dampen future organizing.

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