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In Failing To Strike at UPS, the Teamsters Missed a Big Opportunity

The five-year period of ‘peace’ in reality strengthens the ability of the capitalists to wage class war, while severely limiting the leverage of workers because of the no-strike clause in effect for the contract’s duration.

UPS delivers about 20 million packages a day in the U.S., making it the second-largest ground courier behind the U.S. Postal Service.,LM Otero / Associated Press

There is a debilitating tendency on the Left to instantly judge bargaining settlements as either sellouts or breakthroughs. But neither the cynicism nor the cheerleading gets us very far in grasping the actual significance of these agreements.

Sober assessments pivot on the relative weights given to context, material gains, building the union, and contributing to broader working-class consciousness and organization. But even here there are differences that extend beyond “the facts.” More often than not, disagreements reflect underlying divergences in political perspectives and goals. Making these transparent is crucial to moving forward.

Measured in conventional union terms, the Teamsters-UPS contract seems a clear Teamster victory. Backed by the threat to strike, the union pretty much achieved the goals it set out at the start of bargaining: no new concessions, some limits on overtime work, throwing out a two-tier structure accepted in the last agreement, and impressive wage increases of $7.50 an hour over five years across the board, with $2.75 of that coming in the first year.

UPS also agreed to alleviate excessive heat conditions in trucks by phasing in air-conditioning as trucks are replaced, to eliminate the use of driver-facing cameras for surveillance, and to create 7,500 more full-time job opportunities for part-time workers (and fulfill 22,500 full-time job openings overall). That the union achieved all this and more without having to make the sacrifices involved in a strike can, from an individual workers’ perspective, be taken as an added plus.

The Teamsters quickly declared the agreement “historic,” and the broad left quite generally concurred. Notably, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the longtime militant opposition in the union, hailed the agreement. Ditto Labor Notes, prominent since the late 1970s in the rank-and-file struggles for internal democracy and militancy, and influential in the development of TDU. Jacobin’s coverage has also been generally supportive of the agreement, though a thoughtful article by Barry Eidlin raised important qualifications. (In the Nation, Jane McAlevey labeled the agreement a “victory” but moved on to raise larger questions posed by the settlement.)

“Historic” union victories rarely occur without testing the bosses on a matter of principle through a protracted withdrawal of labor. The agreement clearly includes significant gains, especially in monetary terms, and it is no surprise that members voted to ratify the contract, with an 86 percent yes vote. But the Left’s conspicuous and generally unreserved enthusiasm for the agreement — very few exceptions aside — merits serious questioning.

Looking Closer at the Agreement

Against the excited headlines about “ending two-tiers,” the reprehensible secondary status for part-time workers — generally the “inside” workers in the warehouses and a majority of the union members at UPS — remains firmly in place, and the promise of more full-time jobs is little more than a paper commitment. Also, warehouse workers saw little or no attention paid to their working conditions. How then do supporters of democracy and militancy so readily accept a settlement, resolved without a strike, that limits workers’ active resistance for five years?

The Normalization of Part-Timer Status

At the beginning of the 1960s, Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters accepted the creation of a new category of workers: part-timers. Until 1982, part-time warehouse workers received the same wages as full-time drivers, but in the early 1980s the wages of the part-timers were slashed and the gap between them and full-timers steadily increased. This expansion of the proportion of part-timers with their dramatically lower wages became a core part of the competitive strategy of UPS.

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In 1997, the then-reform-led Teamsters went on strike in large part to challenge this creation of a second class of workers among their members. According to polls, the strike — popularly seen as a reaction to the national growth in precarious labor — was supported by the public at a ratio of two to one.

Today part-timers are a majority — 60 percent — of the Teamsters membership at UPS. Five years from now, the hourly rate for most part-timers will still be only slightly more than half the top rate for full-time drivers ($26.25 for a part-timer with less than ten years vs $49 top rate for the drivers). Based on research commissioned by TDU, even if inflation was kept at 2 percent per year over the life of the agreement, many part-timers will still be earning less in purchasing power in 2028 than they did in 1982, a span of forty-six years. Moreover, the agreement includes an entirely new tier among part-timers themselves, with new hires starting at $21 an hour and reaching $23 by the end of the contract.

The Teamsters did end a tier introduced in the previous agreement. The Teamsters and UPS had worked out the creation of a new “hybrid” category that the union subsequently defended as a transition to full-time work; the now-infamous “22.4s” combined part-time warehouse work with some driving and provided an intermediate wage that fell between the part-time warehouse workers and full-time drivers. The full-time drivers saw this as the introduction of a lower-paid category that threatened to take more of their own work, and closing down this second-tier of part-time drivers was angrily demanded — and won — in the agreement.

But this came at the expense of a concerted focus on addressing the far larger part-time/full-time differential in wages. That the Teamsters set aside the move to close this gap at a moment when the union had such great leverage reveals the extent to which their inferior status has, sadly, been normalized. Defending this by pointing to the significant monetary gains the part-timers received misses a clear lesson of the labor movement of the past few decades: the decisive long-term solidarity costs of tolerating the creation of permanent secondary workers within and across workplaces.

More Full-Time Jobs?

The fight for increasing the number of job openings by reducing work hours for full-time workers — so prominent in the early building of the labor movement — has long been abandoned by organized labor. Without the reduced work-time demand, negotiating more full-time jobs is notoriously difficult. The classic example here is the promise, contract after contract since the end of the 1970s, of “job security” for United Auto Workers (UAW) members at the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler/Stellantis) in exchange for concessions. At the end of the day, the concessions accumulated, while UAW membership at the Big Three fell by a stunning 80 percent, from some 750,000 in 1978 to under 150,000 today.

Among other things, the number of full-time jobs is not entirely under the control of individual corporations but affected by broader factors like the state of the economy and competitive pressures. At UPS, the Teamsters won a corporate pledge in 1997 to create ten thousand new full-time jobs (two thousand a year over five years). This was given a high profile in the media, but only a fraction of these jobs materialized for part-timers (a fact less commented on by the same media). And when James P. Hoffa’s administration wrested back control of the Teamsters from reform leadership, it had little interest in trying to hold the company to its commitments.

In any case, promises of adding full-time jobs are easy to fudge. For one, in its 1997 “pledge,” the company “made clear that all proposed increases in full-time employment under the new agreement would be subject to growth in business.” More important, attrition alone would create more openings than the promised “new jobs.” But if the part-timers moving up were simply replaced with new part-timers, the ratio of part-time to full-time wouldn’t change (as it hasn’t over the past quarter century). Only negotiating a declining ratio of part-timers to full-timers can properly address more full-time jobs.

Some workers do want part-time work but opt for full-time only to access the higher hourly wages. If the pay differentials were significantly narrowed, this minority of workers might find part-time more acceptable, while the corporate incentive for hiring part-timers would be reduced.

Working Conditions

Talk to workers in any section of the labor movement, and the unifying theme is, and has been for some time, that of the intensifying pressures of work itself: speedup, stress, deterioration in health and safety, exhaustion, disrespect. Yet this is rarely on the bargaining agenda of unions or a cause for strike action. If anything, working conditions and basic dignity on the job have been traded off — under pressure of trying to maintain income — for wages and benefits (a trade-off that is central to characterizing “business unionism”).

The Teamsters did, to their credit, address the heat conditions in UPS trucks, even if this will have to wait for a turnover in trucks. But the question of workloads for drivers did not come up, and the production rates and health and safety of the predominantly part-time warehouse workers seems to have had no priority at all. This too reinforces a “two-tier” outlook.

Five Years of Peace”

Corporations understandably dream of long-term agreements: by avoiding union strikes for a longer period, it promotes corporations’ treasured “stability.” In the 1980s and ’90s, corporations aggressively demanded, and got, longer contract durations. Ron Carey, the reform president of the Teamsters during the 1997 UPS strike, acknowledged that “the union made what he considered a major concession in that agreement — it accepted a five-year contract.”

The new contract continues the pattern of five years. During that period the company will be constantly restructuring work and increasing pressure on workers. The five-year period of “peace” in reality strengthens the ability of the capitalists to wage class war, while severely limiting the leverage of workers because of the no-strike clause in effect for the contract’s duration. A worker hired after this agreement is ratified and working at UPS for thirty years can expect to go through bargaining six times in his work life, with perhaps one or two of those culminating in a strike — hardly the kind of involvement that can build a fighting union.