Teamsters Were Ready to Strike, UPS Couldn’t Have That

Photograph Source: Justin Henry – CC BY 2.0

It’s not over till it’s over, but right now the odds are that 340,000 Teamsters will not walk out on their UPS boss. The original strike deadline, August 1, evidently scared, well, everyone at the top into some uncharacteristically sober thinking. So on July 25, UPS reached a tentative contract. According to AP on that date, the agreement was announced “the first day that UPS and the Teamsters returned to the table after contentious negotiations broke down earlier this month.” At issue was life-saving air-conditioning in UPS delivery trucks, some of which the union appears to have won. But pay for part-timers, a huge segment of UPS union employees, is still a bone of contention.

Naturally, union leadership is ecstatic. “We’ve changed the game,” the Teamsters announced. The “deal results in higher wages, more jobs, equal pay, A/C, MLK Day, part-time rewards,” according to the union, which proclaimed that its “National Negotiating Committee unanimously endorsed the five-year tentative agreement.” The union clearly regards itself as having won the lion’s share of its demands, and that may be so, because clearly the company executed a 180 degree turn in its approach.

But Joe Allen in CounterPunch July 28 had a different take, focusing on Teamster general president Sean O’Brien. “For all his pugilistic statements, Mr. O’Brien remains an establishment figure who appears to prefer reaching a deal to going on strike, and he has subtly acted to make one less likely.” Allen quotes the Wall Street Journal rather damningly that this is a victory for management and that “only one-third of UPS’s package cars and delivery vans could potentially be installed with air-conditioning over the next five years.” That’s not a whole heckuva lot. Nota bene: a win for management is considered installing as little life-and-death air-conditioning in trucks as possible, because well, the expense.

So maybe the Teamsters should reject this contract and strike? Some plan to – vote no, that is. They are aware that they might not number enough to walk out. As part-time worker Luigi Morris told Left Voice, regarding air-conditioning, “Remember that UPS driver Esteban Chavez Jr. died last year after collapsing in his truck from heat stroke.” Morris also noted tribulations endured by part-timers: they “are living out of their cars, working two or more jobs and hardly seeing their families.” Meanwhile the inequities are sickening. UPS ceo Carol Tome made $27 million last year. So yes, some union members will vote against the contract.

But then, well, there are other views. According to labornotes July 27 regarding the Teamsters, “It’s clear their strike threat paid off in a big way.” Yes, however, we’ll see what Teamsters think when they vote online August 3-22 on ratification and if the majority shares labornotes’ optimism. Currently it looks like most union members do. Labornotes enthusiastically cites the proposed contract’s elimination of the lower-paid second tier of drivers, whose classification will immediately improve, major raises, creating new full-time jobs, less surveillance, i.e. no driver-facing cameras, some air-conditioning, installation of fans in trucks without them, drinking water and ice machines in warehouses, a private place other than a bathroom for pumping breastmilk, increases in financial penalties for employer abuses, eliminating forced overtime on a sixth punch, a prohibition on subcontracting if a qualified union feeder driver is available – and more.

But Allen quotes the WSJ that “UPS was also willing to pay to achieve its goal of greater flexibility in work schedules…” Of course, one would expect such spin from WSJ, because after all it’s a newspaper interested in putting a shine on the employer’s moves when confronted with militant unionism. But still, Allen also reports that UPS will keep “historically low pay for newly hired workers at poverty levels…” He calls this the Art of the Steal, “not ending the two-tier wage structure that much of the media has been reporting uncritically,” and that a truly spectacular win would end two-tier wage structures and provide ac for all delivery vehicles now. That’s difficult to argue with, just as it’s hard to ignore that a strike would likely really have improved this deal.

Strikes work. And management takes the threat of strikes very seriously. That’s why management and the current labor hypocrite in the white house will do anything to head off a walk-out. But unlike the predicament of railroad workers last year, UPS couldn’t count on an anti-union congress and strike-breaking president to ride to its rescue. So it made concessions – all the while diluting its offers on the most important union demands. This is unfortunate. Not just for UPS workers, but for the labor movement as a whole. It signals wishy washy union leaders and, overall, that labor is still in retreat.

However, the Teamsters’ evident readiness to strike is what wrested the improvements from a skinflint boss, which are enshrined in the tentative contract. That can be said categorically. Truthout made this case July 26: “Any significant gains won by Teamsters against a reluctant employer will have come about because rank-and-file workers showed the company that they were prepared to strike.” That threat galvanized management. Funny how bosses behave when their true interests are at stake.

According to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, “UPS walked away from the bargaining table July 5 after telling our union ‘We have nothing more to offer.’” There followed “practice pickets” across the country, to give management a taste of what was coming. UPS got the message and went, according to TDU, “from ‘nothing to offer’ to the most lucrative contract in Teamster history.” According to Truthout, “Strikes, or the real threat of strikes, work.” The union hierarchy may be timid, but the rank and file were not. They were ready to walk out.

Management may indeed have taken advantage of weak union leadership. That’s been going on for decades, across industries. But in this situation, with the prospect of rank-and-file militancy, of a huge workforce ready to strike, company executives woke up, and that was what, in the end, compelled the concessions that labor got. Sure workers deserve more. Maybe they’ll get it next time. If they do, it will be because their solidarity paid off, not thanks to the caution of their leaders. And the same goes for what workers have won now, in this tentative contract – they snagged it with tenacity, grit and readiness to take a risk, relying on each other, regardless of where the union hierarchy stood. Never forget what these workers are fighting for: the right not to die of heat prostration and a wage that can put a roof over a person’s head. They’ll get some of that with this contract. The part that stinks is, they won’t get it all.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.