San Francisco The Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has been the most persistent, long-lasting, and arguably the most successful rank-and-file union reform movement over the last more than forty years. Their effort was begun, as Ken Paff, the former director, and permanent union activist, reminded me of Wade’s World in the fight for a fair contract in the late 1970s. I was lucky to catch up with him to talk not only about the long arc of the TDU’s history but also get his insights into the current contract bargaining between the Teamsters and the United Parcel Service and its ubiquitous brown UPS trucks.
The 350,000 UPS workers represented by the Teamsters is the largest single private sector workers contract in the United States, so when a deal is made, this is still one of the few collective agreements that has a ripple impact for workers and across the US economy. Recently, the press has reported that the parties have come to tentative agreements on what we call non-economic issues in the contract. Economic issues are the hard and fast wage scales and benefit payments that are negotiated, but it would be a mistake to believe that the non-economic issues don’t impact the bottom line and cost money as well.
Paff’s take on the current leadership and bargaining might seem surprisingly positive for a union reform outfit, but there’s a reason for it. The most recent direct election by Teamster members ended in a clean sweep of the executive board and the top officers, including the long-sitting Hoffa heir. Sean O’Brien, who ran a Boston local, became the new president and is leading the UPS negotiations. TDU members backed he winning slate and had some influence on the proposals, so it was encouraging to hear that he and his team are still giving passing grades at this point in the negotiations as the contract comes down to the wire.
Even as they have “practice pickets,” some pretty big wins have been reported. One that we will see in the South over the next couple of years is drivers having air conditioning in those brown box trucks, which is huge. More critically is a reported win on overtime on what the drivers call the 9-5 problem, which means a regular day shift of nine-and-a-half hours. For UPS, it’s cheaper for them to have drivers make even more overtime after that because even at time-and-a-half for overtime since they don’t pay benefits on the extra hours, it actually is cheaper for them. Drivers on the upper tier of the existing contract can opt out of 9-5, and Ken says there is an emerging agreement that hours over 9.5 would be paid at quadruple time, which would absolutely change the way UPS works and force more hires in all likelihood to get the job done and replace those drivers who don’t want to do mandatory overtime. O’Brien has promised he’ll get something on all of the issues and seems to be delivering.
Where the rubber will hit the road is likely on eliminating the two-tiers that Hoffa had allowed in the last contract, and that’s an issue that could absolutely trigger a strike. Make no mistake, drivers work hard and even now they are paid for it with many making $100,000 a year, but a two-tiered contract is always an existential threat.
My impression, although Ken didn’t say so, is that a strike, especially a long one, will be avoided, particularily given how much progress has already been made. With some of the other big contracts in airlines and elsewhere reporting 30% increases over term to meet inflation, UPS and the Teamsters are probably betting they can get in the range that they need. Given the competition in the package delivery business, it’s also hard for me to believe that the company wants a strike.
O’Brien has claimed that the Teamsters will have an edge in trying to organize Amazon if they get a great UPS contract in the warehouses. Maybe, but that’s not really how organizing works. Nonetheless, all of us have to root for them, and all of us have to be ready to support them if they do have to strike. Once it is all said and done, we need there to be pathbreakers and pacesetters for unionized private sector workers, especially given that only 6% of that workforce is now unionized. Right now, we all need to stand in solidarity with the Teamsters.