Teamsters/ UPS Negotiations: Specter of a Strike?

The latest round of negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters collapsed in the early morning hours of July 5th. Many people were surprised, including myself. A tentative agreement (TA) was expected, that was the direction that negotiations appeared to be headed towards. I have no inside information but I wouldn’t be surprised if they restart negotiations in the next few days.

If there has been something of a pattern to the negotiations, it is the Teamsters set a deadline, UPS doesn’t meet union’s demands, negotiations break off, and a new deadline is set by the union. The Teamsters have not made public why the recent talks collapsed. Economic issues dominate negotiations right now, focused especially  on part timer start pay and raises. The union has not released its demands on these key issues.

The collapse of negotiations sparked a new burst of fear-mongering by the media of the potential impact of a UPS strike. So far, the Biden administration, which took an active role in last year’s Rail negotiations and the imposition of miserable settlement on the unions, including two Teamster-affiliated unions, has said nothing publicly. But, we can be sure they are watching.

The specter of national strike at United Parcel Service (UPS) has been discussed for several years now. Are we closer to a strike with less than a month to go before the national UPS contract expires on July 31st? Possibly. Up until the collapse of the recent talks, Teamster General President Sean O’Brien was adamant that he wanted a deal that could be voted on by UPS Teamsters and implemented on August 1st. While that goal always seemed fanciful, it certainly looks more difficult to achieve.

Last, Best, and Final Offer?

The long July 4th holiday weekend was certainly an odd phase in the Teamsters long running contract campaign against UPS. The Teamster set a June 30th deadline for UPS’s “last best, and final” offer. When the company failed to make progress on key wage demands, the union broke off negotiations. On Saturday, July 1st, Teamster General President Sean O’Brien held a press conference in Washington, D.C. It appeared that he expected a major turnout from the Washington press corps.

O’Brien spoke on the steps of the union’s international headquarters with about a hundred members of the Teamsters national negotiating committee. While he said that progress had been made it wasn’t enough. “We are not done,” O’Brien said. “UPS knows we must reach full agreement on other economic issues, including higher wages, within the next few days. As we continue to reinforce, the Teamsters demand that a historic new contract is in place by August 1.”

He also responded to UPS’s propaganda. O’Brien said,

“UPS puts out a lot of propaganda that our drivers make $93,000 a year and $50,000 in benefits, and it’s only because they bargain with us.”

He went on:

“But they don’t tell you the other story. A majority of their workers are part timers, single mothers, single parents, working from 4 in the morning in awful conditions and wages.”

O’Brien failed to mention that the Teamsters also bargain for the part timers and have signed off on these poverty wages for decades. Nearly two-thirds of the UPS Teamsters are part time workers with a three-and-a half daily guarantee. O’Brien set another new deadline of July 5th for UPS to, once again, present their last, best, and final offer.

The repeated proclaiming of new deadlines has confused many people, including the media who reported that a strike was imminent. The actual contract expiration date is July 31st at midnight. One of the few in the media, who understands contract negotiations, Wall Street analyst Donald Broughton said on CNBC’s Closing Bell, that “UPS isn’t going to give its best deal ‘until the eleventh hour’.”

A few hours later, a video was put out on YouTube by the Teamsters with O’Brien largely repeating himself. Why was it necessary to put out another video? Was it to make up for a perceived flop of a press conference? A few hours after that, the Teamsters released on social media a statement claiming “extraordinary victories.” It said:

“During a hard-fought day at the bargaining table, the Teamsters reached tentative agreement with UPS on three major economic issues — tearing down the 22.4 two-tier wage system, establishing Martin Luther King Day as a full holiday for the first time, and ending forced overtime on drivers’ days off.”

Why wasn’t any of this mentioned earlier in the day? It appears that O’Brien’s staff, who are obsessed with social media, are trying to manage the news to their favor.

This is not to dismiss some of the obvious gains made in negotiations, so far as irrelevant but to put them into a greater context. Winning an extra paid holiday is a good win. In private sector bargaining winning an extra paid holiday is very difficult, the bosses usually want you to trade it for an existing one.

However, UPS is hypersensitive about its public image in the Black community. Based in Atlanta and dependent on a large number of Black workers to keep it running, UPS will likely play up the new paid holiday, as they play up honoring Juneteenth.

When it comes to overtime, notoriously requiring package car drivers to report for six or seven day of work (“the sixth punch”), that’s a good win but what does the actual contract language say? The question of forced overtime is a huge one.

O’Brien doesn’t deal with it concerning the five regularly scheduled days of work, which is the heart of the overtime issues. At the same time, O’Brien claimed a victory in “abolishing” two-tier by eliminating the controversial 22.4 or lower paid package car jobs. This is a good thing but not the triumph that many see it as. On July 3, USA Today reported:

In May, Deutsche Bank forecasted the tentative agreement on flexible drivers becoming reclassified and estimated the change would cost UPS roughly $140 million, less than 0.2% of the company’s current cost structure.

“This is an incredibly small amount for what appears to be the main ask by the Teamsters,” read the strike risk analysis written by Amit Mehrotra and Chris Robertson.

Again, I am not saying  these are irrelevant but they are over-hyped. On the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) webinar on June 28th , TDU activist Carlos Silva reported that under the proposed new language on air conditioning, “one-third of package cars will have a/c by the end of the contract.” Or 2028. Is that it?

Meanwhile, Practice picketing by Teamster local unions across the country. Sentiment is divided. Some believe a strike is inevitable, some do not, many are just waiting for the union to say either way. The specter of a strike has returned, but we have three weeks to go, a long time in contract negotiations, before the current contract expires.

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