Inside the Teamsters’ Historic Contract at UPS
Some 340,000 UPS Teamsters will see significant gains to pay and working conditions if they ratify a five-year tentative agreement announced by the negotiating committee on Tuesday. Rank-and-file workers were poised to proceed with what would have been the largest strike at a single private-sector employer in decades, and the resolve from workers over the past several weeks was key to getting UPS to agree to a tentative deal that meets their demands.
Negotiations, which broke down on July 5, resumed July 25, after UPS said that it would be “prepared to increase our industry-leading pay and benefits.” International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Sean O’Brien said in a statement that UPS “put $30 billion of new money on the table as a direct result of these negotiations,” and called the tentative agreement “the best contract in the history of UPS.”
The contract meets many of the key demands members organized around. All full- and part-time employees will receive an immediate increase of $2.75 per hour, and $7.50 per hour over the life of the contract. Union scale for part-timers can be as low as $15.50 per hour, but UPS bumps the hourly wage to upwards of $20 an hour in some areas through what are called “market rate adjustments” to get workers in the door. One of the bargaining priorities was locking in the higher rate, so UPS can’t arbitrarily lower it.
The contract sets an immediate floor for new part-timers of $21 an hour with rapid bumps to $23, and existing workers earning more under a market rate adjustment would still qualify for annual wage increases. Part-time Teamsters wanted $25 an hour, and most will get there through general wage increases amounting to $7.50 over the life of the contract and newly negotiated longevity bonuses, though not all at once, according to the press release. They also notched a big win through the creation of 7,500 full-time jobs. The negotiating committee said part-timers would get a 48 percent wage increase on average over the five years of the contract.
Management harassment was another sore point. Workers complained about manager “ride-alongs.” Now, managers will be required to provide 24-hour notice for these ride-alongs and must provide documentation to the driver and steward. They also got rid of forced overtime, or the six-day punch, and gained a boost to pensions and more days off, among other wins. The general sentiment among UPS Teamsters after the news broke was that they wanted to see the language of the tentative agreement, but they were proud of the role they played in mounting a historic contract campaign that put so much leverage on the company to acquiesce to key demands.
This combines with previously announced concessions by UPS to end the two-tier pay system, stop forced six-day workweeks for drivers, make Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday, eliminate driver-facing surveillance cameras, limit subcontracting, and add air-conditioning to the fleet of delivery trucks.
The tentative agreement now goes to what is known as a “two-person” meeting on July 31, because two leaders from each of the 176 UPS locals are invited to review and vote on whether to endorse it. Then the TA goes to the membership for a vote from August 3 through August 22. Workers will continue on the job through the voting period.
IN A WAY, THE TEAMSTERS WON THESE GAINS through showing their determination to strike. Nationwide, workers walked practice picket lines outside UPS facilities, in a massive display of coordination across union locals. Behind the scenes, the IBT put significant preparation into the fight, bringing together a media-savvy message and rank-and-file organization.
The IBT provided union locals and members with the tools to organize an aggressive contract mobilization, ranging from campaign rallies to contract-unity pledge cards, national days of action to make Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday, and practice picketing. These tactics were encouraged by the rank-and-file Teamsters for a Democratic Union movement and promoted by the union’s new leadership, elected in 2021 with TDU’s backing. That alliance is new for the Teamsters, where top leaders have been hostile to TDU and friendly with UPS brass for the past 25 years.
O’Brien was in New York City earlier this month, whipping up rank-and-file enthusiasm after months of sitting in closed-door negotiation rooms in Washington. “There’s an appetite to fight,” O’Brien told me, standing under an umbrella as a light spray of rain fell. “There’s an appetite to get rewarded. It’s very motivating, and gives us the ability to legitimately go back, when we go back, and say, ‘Look, we are 340,000 deep. Choose your poison: Either reward our members, or we’re gonna put you out on the street.”
The key difference between this campaign and the 1997 UPS strike is the unity O’Brien has been able to build across different factions and locals in an international union that is, for better or worse, very decentralized.
In 1997, “local officers undermined the campaign,” TDU staff director David Levin, who at the time worked in the union’s communications department, wrote in 2017. But “IBT field staff worked directly with stewards and TDU activists to make it happen anyway,” he added.
O’Brien didn’t face similar opposition today from hostile local officers. “We’ve taken different factions and coalitions, come together, under one vision, one voice,” he said when asked about the role TDU has played in the contract campaign. “I think it’s been effective, and it should be a template for the power of collaboration to effectuate change.”
Pockets of locals sat on their hands, openly hostile to both TDU and Teamsters who affiliate with the rank-and-file movement. “We tried to get them to do weekly practice pickets to no avail,” said a rank-and-file UPS worker at Teamsters Local 41 in Kansas City, Missouri. He asked for anonymity because he feared the local’s leadership might retaliate against him. When workers asked one of the union local’s business agents about strike preparations, he said, the agent retorted, “I mean, you hold a sign and walk back and forth, how hard could it be?”
In these instances, TDU has provided education, coordinating with rank-and-file Teamsters. After members held a UPS Teamsters United workshop and organized their own practice pickets, Local 41’s leadership organized a practice picket at one of UPS’s three major hubs in the area, the Local 41 member said.
“I swear, if they spent half the energy fighting the company as they do our rank-and-file committee, we might have a decent local!” he exclaimed.
This grassroots energy has outpaced internal resistance. Thousands of rank-and-file Teamsters have come together across the country to take the union in a more militant direction. “The rank-and-file movement has grown exponentially, both within TDU and outside of TDU,” said Greg Kerwood, a 19-year Teamster package car driver, TDU member, and shop steward at a UPS facility in Somerville, Massachusetts.
PERHAPS THE BIGGEST VICTORY PRIOR to the tentative master agreement involved air-conditioning. Severe weather events, particularly during a summer of extreme heat throughout the nation, are a growing workplace hazard. At least 143 UPS workers were hospitalized for severe heat or dehydration-related injuries between 2015 and 2022, according to the company’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration records, as originally reported by The Washington Post.
Darryl Pace, a member of TDU and a package car driver out of Teamsters Local 413 in Columbus, Ohio, had to take himself out of service for three days last year. While rooting through packages in the back of his overstuffed truck, he started feeling dizzy and nauseated. “No matter how much you hydrate, it’s irrelevant when it comes to the stress of heat,” he says. “You’re still moving around. You’re perspiring a lot. The more things you lift, the more walking you’re doing, the more you run the risk of heatstroke.”
“The brown trucks are like a microwave because of the dark color,” said Emil Biganov, a member of TDU and a package car driver for nine years out of Teamsters Local 804, which represents workers in New York. Sales rushes like Amazon Prime Day are particularly grueling, Biganov said: “The trucks are overflowing, and it’s hard to find the packages.”
Last August, UPS Teamsters rallied to demand that the company put fans and air-conditioning in trucks, instead of ratcheting up the already intense audio and video monitoring by surveillance cameras. No worker I’ve talked to thought they’d win that fight, because of the expense of adding features to the trucks. But in one of the major concessions workers extracted, UPS agreed to install air-conditioning in its 94,000-vehicle fleet by 2024, and also to equip trucks with new heat shields and fans.
Another major win was the agreement to end two-tier pay, in which more experienced workers earn significantly more than new hires doing the same work. “They deserve the same pay as the regular drivers. We do the same job, handle the same amount of packages, and put in the same long hours,” said Shellyann Elliston, a package car driver out of Teamsters Local 804.
On the bustling Brooklyn practice picket line, Elliston was handing out flyers charging $30 for plates full of West Indian staples like curry chicken with rice and peas and oxtail with a side of Rasta pasta, as part of an annual barbecue organized by Teamsters Local 804 and the local’s Women’s Committee.
Twenty-two years ago, Elliston hired in at UPS as a part-timer, moving up to package car driver through the company’s seniority system. She spoke with pride about seeing her union fighting for “what part-timers deserve.”
“Part-timers can’t live off $16 an hour,” said Elliston. “You can’t go to McDonald’s with that … And they bust their asses packing trucks and trailers. If you go inside that trailer,” she said, pointing to the UPS facility in front of us, “it’s 100 degrees in the summertime, and one person packs 1,000 packages in four trucks.”
“We want better wages and more hours,” said Teamsters Local 804 member Ian Malabre, a part-time preloader on the Brooklyn practice picket line.
Malabre, who has worked at UPS for ten years, said supervisors “straightly tell me they’ll never make their kids work in there,” he said. “That means you basically see stuff that is wrong and that you are not willing to fix.” The experience showed him that a union fight is the only way things will change.
THE CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS UNFOLDED on the terrain created by turbocharged wealth inequality and the aftershocks of the massive death toll of the pandemic. “A lot of guys lost family members, and they felt guilty because they didn’t know if they brought the virus from work or not,” said Biganov of Teamsters Local 804.
UPS thrived during the pandemic, as lockdowns led to a spike in online shopping and home delivery. Workers delivered an average of 24.3 million UPS packages per day in 2022. They move an estimated 6 percent of U.S. gross domestic product every year. The company hauled in $13.1 billion in operating profits in 2022, up from $7.8 billion in 2019.
Workers saw the gains of their productivity siphoned to the top for exorbitant corporate profits, while “essential workers” in the service, nursing, and logistics sectors, maintaining and sustaining life, faced dangers to their lives and health. “UPS made us work through the pandemic, when we were scared and didn’t know if we were going to die,” said package car driver Jonathan Brito during a practice picket at a Brooklyn hub in July. “UPS made a lot of money. Everything is going up except our salaries.”
A strong labor market, coupled with unemployment at a low 3.6 percent, has emboldened workers across sectors, as they’ve emerged from the pandemic with much higher expectations about what employment should provide.
Wall Street analysts sounded alarms that the market disruptions that would be created by UPS’s refusal to meet workers’ demands could send the economy into a tailspin. A recent study by the Anderson Economic Group estimated that a ten-day strike would have cost the economy more than $7 billion, the most expensive walkout in over a century. Competitors couldn’t absorb more than a fraction of UPS’s 20 million daily packages. This increased the pressure on UPS, but that could only be accomplished if workers were clear about their intentions to strike unless they got a good contract.
Biganov said that the rank-and-file movement helped orient new members hired early in the pandemic on how to organize on the shop floor and recognize “what standards we can push together if we unite.” Together, they brought workers together, educated them on the issues, and built up their fighting capacity.
The beneficiaries of workers’ labor bought in, a testament to the success of the messaging campaign. Pace says that on his route in Ohio, customers tell him that they stand with UPS drivers, seeing how they put in late hours and struggle to move around in trucks filled to the brim with boxes of stuff. “What I hear the most is them saying we go out with too much work for one person,” he said.
In some ways, the UPS fight was a practice run for the Teamsters’ stated goal of unionizing an even bigger employer: Amazon. The tentative agreement showed that a credible strike threat, done right, can grow worker expectations about what work can be and what workers should earn, while raising consciousness that the greatest challenge to inequality and injustice is an organized working class that knows what it wants and is willing to go the distance to win it. The only chance workers have against billionaire CEOs is if they stick together and show up for one another.
[Luis Feliz Leon is an organizer, journalist, and independent scholar in social-movement history making good trouble in New York City.]
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