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How the Teamsters Went Up Against UPS and Won a Historic New Contract

Issue 281

It took thousands of workers mobilizing to bring about the return of militant union democracy powers.

Amba Guerguerian Aug 9, 2023

“Early on in the morning of July 14, more than 300 UPS workers and their supporters had gathered outside the company’s sprawling fulfillment center in Canarsie, Brooklyn for a rally and practice picket. At around 8 o’clock, a line of brown-uniformed employees walked directly from the line into work, dropping their signs reading “Just Practicing” right outside the facility’s entrance.  

Sean O’Brien, president of the Teamsters, which represents 340,000 UPS workers nationwide, was on hand to drive home the point that the union was fully ready to launch the largest private-sector strike in decades when its contract with UPS expired Aug. 1. He had entered the building earlier that morning, dapping up workers and asking them, “We ready?” Meanwhile, managers in suits nervously filmed the strike preparation activities from the shade of the building’s entrance. 

“Maybe they feel pressure,” said one worker as he observed a company official watching them.

“If they’re doing that, it’s because of something. Usually they don’t care [when we practice picket],” said his friend. 

“They’re scared,” concluded the worker.  

“They’re worried,” affirmed his friend.

And with good reason. UPS Teamster practice pickets were held outside scores of UPS facilities across the country throughout during July. It was a flex that made visible the union’s ability to mobilize its own members as well as a broader network of support. It also demonstrated how far the union had come since the members had voted out a management-friendly leadership in 2021. And more broadly it reflected the growing boldness of a resurgent labor movement that has seen a surge in strikes and union organizing from Hollywood actors and screenwriters to Amazon warehouse workers and Starbucks baristas and other “essential workers.” 

“All the work over the pandemic, and they don’t give no fucking shits!” roared Teamster organizer Antonio Rosario at the July 7 practice picket. Contract talks between UPS and the union had collapsed two days early over proposed pay increases.“They made $13 billion in profit … and they’re gonna tell us they don’t have much to give? I DON’T THINK SO. These motherfuckers are going to pay!” 

Relentless mid-summer humidity meant even the shade was sweat-inducing. But that didn’t affect workers’ morale. “I’ve been here on this podium many times, and today is the most energetic feeling that I’ve ever felt,” said Local 804 organizer Antoine Andrews to a cheering crowd. 

The events’ attendees represented the labor movement’s old guard and an emerging new one. Mixed in with burly men in brown uniforms were red clothing sported by young socialists and communists, and multicolored Amazon Labor Union T-shirts. 

Missing from the equation, though, was a group of workers that are often young and low-income — and whose demands were central in this contract battle: the part-time preloaders. They work inside UPS warehouses, taking packages from conveyor belts and loading them into delivery trucks from 4:30 to 8:30 a.m. so that drivers’ loads are ready to go when they clock in. The part-timers couldn’t attend practice pickets because they conflicted with their work schedules. 

But part-timer and alternate shop steward Samantha Bueno had cut out of her shift early in order to make it to one of these demonstrations. “UPS feels like they have the power,” said Bueno. “But we have a union. So with the union behind their workers, we are more safe, and they won’t be able to retaliate against the workers if we go on strike August 1.”

•   •   •

Faced with a fully-mobilized union, UPS was the first to blink when it requested resumption of bargaining with the Teamsters on July 19, two weeks after negotiating committees had walked away from contract talks. Within hours of meeting on July 25, the two sides concluded a tentative contract agreement that left the union declaring it had won a historic victory. Among the gains were significant increases in starting wages for part-timer preloaders, longevity raises, the end of a two-tier wage system for drivers, the end to forced six-day work weeks, a commitment to install air conditioning in all new UPS vans starting in January and the removal of driver-facing surveillance cameras in the vans. The union projected the value of the settlement at $30 billion. 

The origins of the Teamsters’ 2023 contract victory can be traced back over almost half a century

“I know for sure that if we could take $30 billion from a corporation, we kicked their ass,” said Antonio Rosario, a UPS driver of 29 years and a Teamster organizer with Local 804 in New York City. “That’s how we beat capital.”

The UPS Teamsters began voting on the contract on Aug. 3, and the vote will conclude Aug. 22. 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The origins of the Teamsters’ 2023 contract victory can be traced back over almost half a century — a history that includes exhilarating victories, crushing defeats, and years of patient organizing to reset the union on a democratic path that fully leverages the power of its rank-and-file membership to be able to force concessions from one of America’s largest and most profitable corporations. 

UPS was founded by parcel delivery boy Jim Casey in 1907 in Seattle. As early as 1916 Casey approached the Teamsters about representing his workforce in lieu of other more radical unions at that time that might have gained a foothold in the company. In the mid-1930s during the depths of the Great Depression, Minneapolis coal miners and truck drivers — under the militant leadership of the organizers of a general strike — struck on their bosses, successfully unionizing with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. 

Under legendary Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa Sr., who led the union from 1957 to 1971, the Teamsters achieved unprecedented gains for members that at that time predominantly worked in the trucking industry. However, Hoffa also made unsavory alliances with the mafia while purging the Minneapolis radicals and other leftists from the union. By the 1970s the Teamsters were riddled with mob corruption. Hoffa spent four years in federal prison during his presidency. After his release, he was disappeared in 1975 in what is widely believed to have been a mafia hit. 

In the 1950s, labor “gave up the idea of actually having a say about how production is organized,” UPS labor historian Joe Allen told The Indypendent. Then, “what changed in the 1970s … is that the capitalist class went on the offensive against the labor movement. And UPS in many ways was the most vicious in them,” he added. 

In this milieu, rank-and-file caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union founded in Cleveland in 1976 following a wave of wildcat strikes that shook the freight industry. The new caucus was an alliance of socialists who had taken Teamster jobs and militant truck drivers who had been organizing against contract concessions. 

TDU emphasized building union power from the bottom up. Its members did so by identifying and supporting worker-organizers, and by bringing them into struggles around workplace issues that most affected them. 

In 1991, militant reformer Ron Carey won an upset victory two years after the Department of Justice required the union to give members the right to vote for their top officers. Carey — who supported the TDU but was not part of it — was the head of Local 804 in New York City, which to this day is one of the most militant Teamster locals. Carey was known for bolstering rank-and-file strategies and leading wildcat strikes in New York. In 1997, a year before he was ousted from power, 160,000 Teamsters went on a 15-day strike under his leadership, winning substantial pay increases and the conversion of 10,000 part-time positions to full-time. Brandishing the slogan “Part-time America Won’t Work,” the 1997 Teamster strike stood out as a beacon of hope for a moribund union movement in an era when large strikes were rare and usually ended in defeat. 

The Teamsters’ old guard returned to power in 1998 when Jimmy Hoffa Jr. became president. He was the son of Hoffa Sr. — and never worked a blue-collar job a day in his life. The union’s leadership soon reverted to negotiating management-friendly contracts behind closed doors. Facing a challenge from union dissidents, Hoffa  narrowly won re-election in 2016. In 2018, he triggered a full-scale revolt within the Teamsters when he invoked an arcane union rule to impose a contract on the UPS workers that they had voted down. 

WORKER GRIEVANCES

The compounding losses resulting from Hoffa Jr.’s concessionary contracts left workers reeling. 

Over the years, “the job has become more demanding, more robotic and less intellectual,” particularly for the part-timers, says Rosario. 

TDU members identify and support worker-organizers, bringing them into struggles around workplace issues that most affected them. 

Although they perform the most physically-grueling job at the company, the current starting pay for part-timers — which make up 60% of the UPS workforce — is $15.50, just above minimum wage in many states. According to TDU, if part-timers’ wages had risen with inflation since UPS instituted a two-tier wage scale in 1982, their starting pay would be over $25 an hour. (Thus, there were contingents of part-timers that during recent contract mobilizations demanded $25 hourly and will vote No against the current deal, which bumps their starting wage up to $21.)

Samantha Bueno was hired as a preloader three-and-a-half years ago at $15.50 per hour and now makes $16.65. She explained that in her extra time, she cares for her elderly family members, like many of the other part-timers she knows. Her mother only recently got a job, so, “I was taking care of the whole household with my little $15-$16 check that I get weekly.” 

The 2018 contract created an additional two-tier job, the 22.4 position. “Twenty-two-fours,” as they are referred to, were intended to perform a mixed job with both preloader and driver duties; but according to workers, they solely drive. 22.4s make up 20-25% of the driver work force and receive lower pay and worse priveleges than “regular” drivers. For example, while regular drivers can request no overtime on certain days, 22.4s cannot, resulting in the lower-tier workers being assigned the brunt of overtime work. This created tension among workers and was a motivating reason for UPS Teamsters to supported this strike mobilization. 

“That created a wage war and caused divisions and at some point, 22.4s felt like they were forgotten,” said Andrews.

With no air conditioning in UPS vehicles and record-breaking summer temperatures, the back of delivery trucks have reached up to 140 degrees, causing heat exhaustion among drivers. Last year, 23-year-old Jose Rodriguez was found dead in the company’s parking lot in Waco, Texas, just days after starting the job. According to his mother, he had texted his supervisor earlier saying he wasn’t feeling well. Rodriguez’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit. In June, another young driver, 24-year-old Esteban Chavez, died while delivering packages in Los Angeles. 

“Writing this for my husband who just had his second bout of heat/exertion related rabho. Thoughts, advice?,” wrote @olmahubbard on r/UPSers Reddit forum on July 29.

There has also been a rise in surveillance and management hovering, with sensors and cameras facing drivers in the trucks. As a result, bosses have been carrying out surprise ride-alongs and visits along drivers’ routes. And workers have been getting reprimanded much more frequently than before, says Teamsters 804 organizer Shelly Elliston: “If the wheel goes one inch wrong, they call you in the office.” That felt disrespectful to a longtime driver like Elliston, who has worked at UPS for 22 years. “There’s a lot more harassment now than before,” she told The Indy.

Union reformers galvanized anger around these issues when they took on Hoffa Jr. in the 2021 Teamsters elections. 

MOBILIZING A STRONG STRIKE THREAT

Teamsters Local 804 organizer Antoine Andrews helps carry the chant at a practice picket.
Photos: Laura Jane Brett for The Indypendent
Teamsters Local 804 organizer Antonio Rosario with his two sons in front of the UPS Center on Foster Avenue in Brooklyn.
Angelique Dawkins (left) has worked for the company for 28 years. “Since 1997, UPS has been getting away with murder,” she says.
Antonio Rosario secures the Greedy Pig mascot to the top of a Jeep at a practice picket.

The blowback from the 2018 contract fiasco arrived three years later when Hoffa Jr. retired and his hand-picked successors lost by a nearly 2-1 margin to a reform slate led by Sean O’Brien. A longtime Boston Teamsters leader and a former Hoffa ally, O’Brien had previously clashed with TDU. Vowing there would be no more concessions to UPS, he ran on the Teamsters United slate in coalition with 2016 reform challenger Fred Zuckerman and with TDU, embracing the caucus’ rank-and-file strategy to revitalize the 1.2-million member union.

“We worked very hard to elect Sean O’Brien, Fred Zuckerman and the whole Teamsters United slate. They won 75% of the vote at UPS, which tells you everything you need to know about how much members want change,” said TDU member Nick Perry as he introduced a webinar called  “Winning the UPS Contract We Deserve” that was held two days before new leadership took office on in March 2022.

One of the first things newly-elected officers did was eliminate the constitutional Teamsters rule that Hoffa Jr. used to force the 2018 contract. They also formed organizing committees to unionize Amazon workers, and to prepare UPS members for contract negotiations and the potential of a strike, with a commitment to making bargaining more transparent to members than it had been. The timing could not have been better. 

The previous years had seen the first rumblings of a labor upsurge. In 2018 red state teacher unions in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona launched strikes over poor pay and working conditions that received broad public support, showing the power of collective action and solidarity even in seemingly inhospitable environments. During the pandemic, millions of workers quit their jobs in the “Great Resignation” while others responded to the callousness of their bosses by organizing unions including at workplaces like Amazon, Starbucks and Trader Joe’s — long thought to be impossible to unionize. 

At UPS, workers received no hazard pay during the pandemic, even as the company’s operating profits soared from $6.5 billion in 2019 to $13.1 billion in 2022, and investors were rewarded with billions of dollars in stock buybacks.

“We were getting all this information about how long the virus would sit on a package. We were like, ‘Well, what happens if someone just touched it an hour ago, and they had COVID and I’m handling the package now?” Antoine Andrews told The Indy. “We were out there. We were in the storm. Many of us lost loved ones. My mother passed away,” Andrews said. 

The contract campaign officially launched last August amid a flurry of activity set in motion by organizing committees. At union events, workers were given drafts of potential demands and invited to rank them. They were also invited to sign pledges that they would fight for a fair contract. New shop floor organizers were recruited and trained. Organizers also started encouraging UPS workers to put aside some extra money each month to ensure they’d be prepared if a strike came to pass. Successful single-issue campaigns were launched around demands such as the installation of air conditioning inside UPS vans and making Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday. In July, practice pickets were held outside UPS workplaces across the country to put the company on notice while building support for a strike. 

The rank-and-file approach has also opened up a cacophony of workers’ voices in online UPS groups on Reddit, Facebook and other social media. 

Local 804 worker-organizer and TDU member Elliot Lewis shared one of the organizing goals he set for himself with The Indy: “I’m trying to help develop other members of my center and see if they’ll step up so that we could have, ideally, one contract-action-team member per 20 members or so.” 

“I think that sort of structure-based intensive organizing is what we’ve been building up nationally through the contract campaign, and what TDU has been building for a long time,” Lewis added. 

While they were provided with toolkits, rank-and-file organizers had to take initiative and apply those templates to organize their shops for contract mobilization. During this process, some locals were reinvigorated: UPS Teamster and DSA member Matt Leichenger met a San Diego worker through a Teamster Youtube network and, “Since then, three guys in San Diego have become involved in our DSA-UPS industry network and are interested in becoming committed socialists in addition to being committed trade unionists and advocates for democratic unionism,” Leichenger says. 

•   •   •

Another centerpiece of this movement’s success was highlighting the plight of part-timers, as contract givebacks under Hoffa Jr. fell hardest on those workers. The givebacks resulted not only in tension among workers on the shop floor, but problems within the union, where the part-timers felt they’d been abandoned in previous contracts. 

At around 4 a.m. on July 5, contract negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters fell apart. Hours later, the union tweeted, “Most shamelessly, the corporation’s final move was to put forth an unofficial offer that, had the #Teamsters accepted it, would have forced scores of part-time workers at UPS to be left behind.”

“It’s a deja vu maneuver for UPS, who should know since 1997 that part-time poverty isn’t working for America,” said O’Brien. “The Teamsters will never sell out our members, especially our extraordinary part-timers, so UPS can bask in a richer stock price.”

“Sometimes they infuse certain unscrupulous little tricks, like speeding up the conveyor belt,” says longtime part-timer Lennox James, who sells plants and Caribbean food in his spare time and took the job at UPS to be able to provide benefits to his family. 

A centerpiece of this movement’s success was highlighting the plight of part-timers, as contract givebacks fell hardest on them.

To promote unity among workers, Rosario started putting together building-wide parties and events in 2017, something he had never done before. 

In 1994, Rosario’s father died, and he had to drop out of college to help his mom stay financially afloat. The pay was $5 above minimum wage at the time, and he was able to help her save their house. “When I was a part-timer in the 1990s, the top guys would load three or four trucks, but now they have them loading five or six,” he told The Indy. 

“We are the forgotten Teamsters,” says James, who was hired as a part-timer in 2008 at $9.50 hourly, the same wage Rosario started at. James wants to corral more young part-timers to participate in union organizing. “It needs to be cool to be involved and active!”

•   •   •

In addition to building solidarity within their ranks, the Teamsters welcomed the support of outside allies. Here in New York, that included community organizations like Make the Road New York and the Alliance for a Greater New York, and socialist organizations like the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). 

In 2022, DSA members voted nationally to launch a Union Power campaign to support the growing labor movement. Over this past winter, the Strike Ready campaign was launched to strengthen UPS mobilization. In a case of history repeating itself, socialists have taken jobs at UPS to strengthen long-term rank-and-file organizing. With a possible strike approaching, other DSA members undertook neighborhood-level canvassing to build public support for the UPS workers in the contract fight and encourage people to attend UPS rallies and practice pickets. 

“It’s been super exciting,” says DSA member Rebeccah Hoffmann. “I think everybody is learning a lot. I didn’t come from somewhere where socialism was talked about, and I definitely didn’t come from a place where labor was really talked about, especially in this way.”

Young socialists have also been getting other union jobs — as teachers, nurses, auto workers, city employees — in order to promote militant, democratic unionism within established unions. 

When asked what he thinks of socialists getting involved in the UPS struggle, Lennox said, “I’m okay with it. I think that we gotta be realistic. Capitalism has gone on steroids, so there must be some sort of checks and balances.” (I posed this question to a handful of other workers, and they echoed the same sentiment.) 

•   •   •

After contract talks between UPS and the Teamsters stalled on July 5 over a disagreement about pay increases for part-timers, the union pummeled the company in the media while practice pickets grew in size and numbers across the country. 

Being the largest private unionized employer in the country, UPS “holds a place that at one time was akin to General Motors or US Steel,” Joe Allen told The Indy amid contract negotiations. “The advantage is really to the union right now. You have this historically low unemployment, particularly in the big cities. You have the fact that the company itself cannot move 20 million packages a day, that the pilots, who are represented by a separate union, have pledged that they won’t fly in the event of a strike.” 

At a practice picket in Canarsie, Brooklyn, UPS Teamsters chanted “Who got the power?/ What kind of power?” while loudspeakers blasted  “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Under Pressure” as other workers drove by, honking in solidarity.

“This is just a little snippet of what can happen if UPS doesn’t come to their senses and do the right thing by our members,” Teamsters President Sean O’Brien told The Indy at the Canarsie picket.

With the prospects of a strike rising, union militants and their external supporters looked forward to Aug. 1 with growing anticipation. It was going to be the Super Bowl of struggles between capital and labor, and for once the workers appeared to hold the upper hand. The Teamsters had brought UPS to its knees in its 15 day-strike in 1997. 

At a practice picket, veteran worker Angelique Dawkins said excitedly to a coworker, “This is gonna be more fun! This is gonna be better organized [than ‘97].” 

This time, the union was better organized, had cultivated far more external allies, and would be taking action at a time when public support for unions is at its highest point since the mid-1960s. The company also knew a prolonged strike could send customers fleeing to rivals such as FedEx and Amazon, and that they might not come back. 

Rising enthusiasm for a strike among some workers was matched by growing alarm in corporate America. With the growth of e-commerce, UPS’ central role in the economy had increased by leaps and bounds since 1997. Its workers handle a quarter of all ground shipments in the United States and an estimated five to six percent of the U.S. gross domestic product annually. A strike would have paralyzed UPS while creating cascading disruptions throughout the economy. On July 20, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged the Biden Administration to intervene in case of a strike and force workers to return to their jobs under a provision in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that allows the president to do so “in instances in which a strike might endanger the public’s health or safety.” 

Taft-Hartley was last invoked by a president to thwart work stoppages in 2002 and 1971 — in both cases against the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents West Coast dock workers. 

President Biden expressed support for the Teamsters’ right to strike in his public statements. However, his decision in December to use the 1926 Railway Labor Act to break a potential railroad workers’ strike and impose a management-friendly settlement on 12 railroad workers’ unions loomed in the background. 

MIXED REACTIONS

“Damn I was hoping for a strike,” wrote UPS worker James O’Conner on the Teamsters Facebook page after the tentative agreement was announced July 25.

“What we are getting as long timers is good, not perfect, but absolutely fair, and honestly I’m really happy new people are going to be coming into a better wage than I did,” wrote DunkinUnderTheBridge on the r/UPSers subreddit in response to a regular driver who was bemoaning the fact that part-timers would receive higher raises than he would. 

•   •   •

The tentative contract agreement that workers are reviewing and voting on now accomplishes, with minor caveats, all of the Teamsters United slate major demands. But for some, a sense of a missed opportunity lingers. A strike, after all, might have yielded even bigger gains for UPS workers. And a nationwide showdown with UPS offered a rare opportunity in the annals of American labor. 

“UPS workers know what they won as a result of their strike threat and some Amazon workers are already demanding that Amazon match UPS’ wages,” said TDU’s David Levin. “Had there been a strike it would have been a national teach-in about the reality of worker power and union power.”

‘We are going to laser focus on Amazon once we get this contract done.’ 

Speaking at a July 31 Strike Power Town Hall organized by NYC-DSA, Elliot Lewis reflected the mixed emotions many of the 150 attendees felt about the contract campaign’s outcome. 

Is it disappointing after organizing for a strike for years to not strike when I think we could have won more? Yeah, it’s disappointing,” Lewis said. “But is it also rewarding to see that we’ve overturned decades of concessions? Yes.”

“I know a lot of our friends — especially friends on the left — were very interested in us striking,” said Antonio Rosario. “I wanted to strike, I mean, from the moment they gave us that counterproposal, I’m like, ‘We’re gonna strike you, and we’re gonna strike you hard!’” 

But the outcome ended up being good enough for Rosario: “This will probably be the first time that I ever vote Yes on a contract, because we won so much,” he said at the same town hall. “We have to realize that the reason we’re here is because it took hundreds of thousands of workers mobilizing,” but, “we as workers should we ever really be satisfied with what we get? No! This is just the beginning. This is where we start.”

“If the Teamsters manage to actually come up with a good settlement without going on strike, it will be because of all the work they have been doing to get themselves ready for a strike and to heighten public awareness about this strike,” labor historian Toni Gilpin told The Indy. “You want unions that are strong enough to compel management to to give up the goods without actually having to go through the hardship of the strike.” 

AMAZON ON THE HORIZON

If the UPS contract campaign didn’t end with the dramatic confrontation some hoped for, it still has left a powerful impression on workers who were following it. 

“I’m getting calls from other people in trade unions — electrical workers, plumbers, pipefitters — I got texts all in my phone, ‘Congratulations, you guys got a big contract,’” Rosario said. 

The same optimism permeated the DSA town hall as actors, nurses, pizzeria workers and Starbucks baristas spoke about their strikes, their organizing campaigns and their belief that the labor movement was only gaining strength as more and more workers refused to accept the indignities of America’s second gilded age. Most of the participants were in their twenties and thirties.

As for the Teamsters, they pursued their aggressive contract campaign against UPS with Amazon as their ultimate target. The union has a vested interest in performing this colossal task: Just as the Teamsters raised the industry standards for everyone in logistics, Amazon’s egregious working conditions have lowered them. 

Julian Mitchell-Israel, an Amazon Labor Union member, chatted with The Indy at one of the UPS practice pickets along with other workers from LDJ5 — a warehouse on Staten Island that is still trying to unionize after losing an election in 2022. Mitchell-Israel explained that one reason they were at the demonstration was to support higher industry standards in the logistics sector overall. 

“But the second thing is that I want my people to see what real union power looks like. And understand that all that late-night sweat — the conversations that are uncomfortable and difficult — pay off in the end, because when you have enough of them, you get power like this,” said Mitchell-Israel. “We got LDJ5 workers out here with the Teamsters trying to fight for better conditions there. And those same Teamsters are going to come and help us when it’s our turn,” he concluded. 

“I’m getting [calls from workers at ] Amazon like crazy; people just saying, ‘You guys did great,’ you know, ‘We’re looking forward to talking with you guys and working with you guys,” said Rosario, who vows that “we are going to laser focus on Amazon once we get this contract done.” 

An anonymous source very familiar with the matter told The Indy that the Teamsters are needed to organize Amazon workers. In fact, some early skirmishes in that battle are already being fought. 

In April, the Teamsters successfully organized and won a contract for a group of 84 Amazon-contracted drivers in Southern California, who joined Teamsters Local 396. Amazon promptly cut ties with its sub-contractor and the drivers lost their jobs. The Teamsters have filed Unfair Labor Practice grievances with the NLRB claiming that Amazon illegally fired the drivers for unionizing  because it does in fact act as their boss  — the drivers wear Amazon uniforms, they answer to company management, which has the right to fire them. The Amazon drivers and dispatchers began their unfair labor practice strike in Palmdale, California on June 24. Fighting to get their jobs back, they have picketed 10 Amazon warehouses around the country in the past month — in California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan and Georgia — with “Teamsters locals and other unions and organizations showing support everywhere they go,” says Rosario.

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