Solidarity with UPS Workers: Prepare to Strike for a Strong Contract!

by Evren Pallares Ó’Laoghaire & Nicholas Wurst
Worcester, MA
Teamsters Local 170 (personal capacity) / SMART-TD Local 1473 (personal capacity)

The Independent Socialist Group stands in solidarity with the 350,000 workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) in the opening stages of a contract battle with United Parcel Services (UPS). UPS is one of the biggest logistics companies in the world, handling about 50% of the packages moving throughout the US. 

This fight for a new contract comes at a time of record profits for the company, never seen before in its history. UPS has the funds to takeover Bomi Group, an Italy-based healthcare logistics company for an estimated $500 million to $1 billion. UPS, already a profitable company before the pandemic, raked in billions since then. UPS’s operating profit from 2012-2022 increased by 96% from $7.1 billion to $13.9 billion. UPS expects this to increase to $15 billion in 2026

What’s At Stake for UPS Teamsters

The 2018 contract, which the previous leadership of the Teamsters forced through after it was voted down by 54% of rank-and-file UPS Teamsters, is set to expire on July 31st. Negotiations on the national agreement are expected to begin in earnest in April. Many of the current workplace issues that UPS workers want to see change are rooted in the concessionary contracts negotiated by the previous bureaucratic leadership of the IBT. 

This includes the 2018 contract, which created the vicious two-tier system of full-time drivers. Almost all new full-time delivery drivers are hired as “22.4”s, named after the contract article they fall under, where they are paid a lower wage progression compared to other drivers and can be (and often are) forced to work a 6th day of the week. The contract also allowed UPS to hire subcontractors as “Personal Vehicle Drivers”, or PVDs, who use their own vehicle to deliver packages, circumventing the seniority of warehouse workers who have been with the company for years and, in the past, would have been the first people in line to be hired for open driver positions. 

The package handlers who make the massive warehouse hubs function, sorting packages, loading and unloading trailers and trucks, are paid even less and already have an extensive two-tier system of full-time and part-time workers. All UPS Teamsters face horrendous amounts of surveillance and management harassment for “low performance” and exercising their union rights. In right-to-work states, where workers do not automatically join the union upon being hired, UPS workers face intimidation and retaliation for signing up to the union. Inflation and the cost of living crisis outpace mediocre wage increases. 

In February, the IBT launched multiple initiatives to energize rank-and-file members to fight for a strong contract in 2023. These include getting Teamsters to sign pledge cards to visibly support the union in securing a “contract we deserve,” organizing online zoom meetings to educate and arm rank-and-file Teamsters with knowledge to enforce the contract, and pushing for everyone to attend their monthly local general membership meetings to discuss the contract battle. 

These activities are being led by the new leadership of the Teamsters, General President Sean O’Brien and Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman, who won the 2021 union election in a clear rejection of the previous administration. The new leadership is an alliance of some disaffected members of the old leadership and the coalition of the prominent reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), who ran as the “Teamsters United” Slate. 

Key Issues for the New Contract

UPS Teamsters want to see a wide variety of changes in the new contract. In the warehouses, Teamsters want to force UPS to respect workers’ seniority and eliminate or dramatically decrease subcontracting through the PVDs. The low pay rate of $14-$15 an hour for part-time package handlers fails to retain workers, as many would rather go to Amazon where they trade healthcare benefits for higher pay rates. 

While in some hubs UPS increased part time pay rates to $18-$25, these are not permanent increases and fluctuate constantly. UPS management has been known to randomly cut them or scrap them entirely, causing part-timers to leave due to their pay being cut. It’s clear that there need to be many more full-time jobs created and make it much easier for part-time workers to move to full-time. 

For the drivers, UPS Teamsters are raising popular demands to eliminate the second tier of “22.4” combo drivers (mixed driving and hub work), bringing all drivers under the pre-2018 single-tier system, which would close the gap of the two-tier wage progression and workplace protections. Teamster drivers want to keep trucks free of surveillance cameras that make it easier for management to micromanage, harass, stress, and fire long-time UPS Teamsters to bring in lower paid workers. 

Delivery drivers desperately need AC units installed in the vehicles as numerous Teamsters have tragically died of heatstroke under pressure to meet management’s standards of productivity. July 2022 saw the tragic passing of brother Esteban Chavez Jr. at only 24 years old due to heatstroke. His death highlighted the urgent need to combat the intense heat delivery drivers face in the summer which will only get worse as climate change intensifies. The national contract and the regional supplements need to secure pay increases and improvements to benefits across the board. 

In response to the Teamster contract campaign, UPS has gone on the offensive. The company is laying off many of the delivery drivers working under the controversial “22.4” clause, forcing them back into working in the warehouses with fewer hours or being told to not come to work at all in violation of the current contract. In some hub centers UPS is telling low seniority package handlers to not come into work on given days as there is not enough volume for them to work. This tactic violates the existing contract which states every part-timer is entitled to 3.5 hours of work per day. 

In early 2023, UPS began calling for its customers to seek alternative shipping companies like FedEx or Amazon for the 3rd and 4th economic quarters in case there is a strike, causing deliberate “low volume”. Some UPS Teamsters have attributed the low volume inept government economic policies, not seeing that UPS has manufactured this issue to attack workers’ hours, pay, and jobs in an attempt to weaken the IBT’s standing in the leadup to the contract fight. 

Key Battle for the Labor Movement & The Reason to Strike

UPS Teamsters are the largest unionized private sector workforce in the US, and are moving into this contract battle at a key time. The US capitalist class is facing an economic crisis as the US working class bears the ongoing recession, increasing cost of living, high inflation, and low wages. There has been growing support for unions and increased interest in unionization as a way for workers to fight back, represented best by the new unions emerging at Starbucks and Amazon, as well as union efforts at other companies like Tesla. The capitalists need to cut off this wave before it escapes their control and sparks a greater, more unified labor movement. 

Their fear was displayed when Biden and the Democrats quickly passed legislation squashing the potential freight railroad strike last winter by forcing through a contract that members of the largest freight railroad unions already voted down. The capitalists have flatly refused to negotiate with new unions at Starbucks and Amazon in order to kill the union drives’ momentum. Over a year into the Starbucks drive and Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) has not won a contract at any of the 292 stores that have unionized. Following the initial electric election victory, Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has faced defeat and withdrawn from organizing campaigns at several Amazon locations. Like SBWU, ALU has yet to secure a first contract at the unionized Staten Island location. 

The Teamsters leadership will be under huge pressure from the federal government, the capitalists, and even conservative elements of the labor movement, to not strike and to make concessions to UPS. It’s possible that there will even be legal attacks on a potential strike. The rank-and-file of the UPS Teamsters, as well as the broader labor movement and the socialist movement, including ISG, must keep the pressure up to win a good contract by any means necessary. General President Sean O’Brien needs to be kept true to his word, and not concede like Hoffa Jr did in 2018. A victory or defeat at UPS will set the tone for the labor movement in the US in the coming period, giving confidence to either workers or the companies to go on the offensive and potentially break the stalemate.

Some Teamsters genuinely ask, “why should we strike? Why risk jobs and livelihoods with such a serious action?” Strikes are compared to “the nuclear button” for unions and workers by some. In reality, strikes are the most basic tool we have to use to hit the bosses in the bottomline, when it’s clear they won’t listen to anything aside from money. Everything positive that unions can do for their members is backed up, ultimately, by the implicit threat of the workers withholding their labor. When management senses that a union isn’t willing to go that far, it lets them go on the offensive against concessions won in the past.

The need to strike is illustrated by the recent contracts between UPS and the Teamsters – concession after concession from the union that directly harms the living standards of both new and old Teamsters, with no change in sight. UPS is adamantly demanding even more flexibility of hours and positions. Recent leaks from the regional supplement negotiations hint that UPS is not backing down. If UPS Teamsters truly want an end to the two-tier wage progression for full-time drivers, higher pay for part-time workers, more full-time jobs, an end to mass surveillance, and AC units installed in the delivery trucks, we have to be prepared to strike. Every previous contract since the 90’s, when the last strike occurred, has been a victory for UPS. It’s time for a UPS Teamsters win.

How Other Workers Can Help

The Teamsters shouldn’t have to stand alone against one of the most powerful companies in the world. Solidarity will be key to defeating the company and their allies in the US government. For example, UPS sends many packages long distances across the US in containers and trailers on intermodal freight trains. If it comes to a strike, freight railroad workers should refuse to load, unload, or handle these containers, trailers, or trains that are transporting them, especially since two of the main railroad unions are affiliated to the Teamsters. No union workplace should have anything delivered or shipped through UPS, and nobody should have any personal packages delivered or shipped through UPS. These are concrete ways that every worker can help win a strike, and could create huge pressure on UPS to agree to a good contract quickly. 

The Independent Socialist Group will be doing all we can to support UPS workers in the fight for a good contract. We call on other organizations, especially other unions, to do the same. Our members working at UPS and other ISG members in the IBT are involved in various organizing initiatives to help prepare the union for a possible strike. We are campaigning among fellow Teamsters to push for a strike to win our demands to make up for decades of concessions to the corporation. Our Teamster members also played an active role in pushing for contract demands like adding Juneteenth as a paid holiday in the Northeastern regional supplement negotiations. Our members campaigned to get fellow UPS Teamsters to sign contract unity pledge cards and to bring new UPS Teamsters to their local unions general membership meetings to discuss the contract and how to win against UPS. Every UPS teamster who wants a good contract should look for ways to get involved like this in their local union. 

We in the Independent Socialist Group propose that solidarity committees of Teamsters locals, other unions, and community organizations should be launched to coordinate support. Public meetings, rallies, standouts, and informational pickets need be organized to get the word out to the broader working class about the details of the fight at UPS. Collections for the strike fund need to be organized. Information needs to be spread through leafleting and social media. Other unions and community organizations need to begin planning mobilizations of members and supporters to join picket lines if a strike is called. Strong picket lines can block scab workers, and actions need to be taken to campaign in the community against scab hiring. Building broad community support and participation is fundamental to winning a strike. Organizing supporters and sympathizers, especially those directly impacted by the working conditions of UPS Teamsters, like their families, friends, and neighborhoods, can act as a powerful auxiliary and can play a pivotal role in winning a strike.

To battle possible government intervention in the UPS contract fight, unions and other organizations need to launch independent campaigns with workers running for office, and begin to organize an independent workers’ party which can campaign against anti-union laws. These campaigns can culminate in workers representatives fighting at any level of government, independent of the corporate parties, for the interests of workers and labor. The recent administrations of both parties have demonstrated that labor cannot trust the word of Republicans or Democrats who claim to be for labor but turn around and stab us in the back. 

The working class is the most powerful force capable of transforming society for the better. Without our labor, nothing can run. That is why, in order to win the best contract for Teamsters and all unions, the working class must act independently of the corporate parties, the federal government, and the bosses, and exert our power to win key demands. Instead of turning to the Democrats or the NLRB, we must realize our own potential strength as workers and make the UPS contract fight a win for our members and a way forward to a much stronger labor movement.

Image Credit: USDA via Flickr // Public Domain