In a Blow to Labor, Teamsters Ratify UPS Contract Despite “No” Vote

While nonunion Amazon workers were celebrating the company’s pledge to hike their minimum wage pay to $15 an hour last week, unionized UPS workers were busy voting against a collectively bargained five-year contract with a starting pay of only $13 an hour.

By Friday, 54 percent of the 92,604 UPS workers had voted against the contract. Many were not only unsatisfied with a lower starting pay than nonunion Amazon, but also with the proposal’s creation of a new underclass of lesser-paid drivers who work weekends.

Despite this, their union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), ratified the largest private-sector contract in the US – covering 243,000 UPS workers – over members’ wishes that they return to the bargaining table and hammer out a better deal.

A spokesperson for the Teamsters, the nation’s largest industrial union, said the union’s own constitution triggered the proposal’s ratification because less than half of eligible union members actually cast ballots. When turnout is under that threshold, at least two-thirds of members must vote against an agreement to reject a final offer. This is known as the “two-thirds rule.”

“Only 44.3 percent of members voted and 54.2 percent opposed the agreement – triggering the constitutional provision,” the union said. “Thus, the National Master Agreement has been ratified.”

A number of other, smaller contracts were also rejected, including an agreement representing 11,000 UPS Freight workers, who have prioritized the elimination of subcontracting. Negotiations are set to resume with those workers after 62.1 percent voted against the agreement. Teamsters face turmoil in other divisions too, including aircraft mechanics, who also recently rejected national agreements.

Even UPS itself was caught off-guard by the rapid ratification of the agreement. The company issued a revised statement over the weekend only hours after stating its disappointment with members’ decision to force negotiators back to the table.

The recently ratified contract enshrines “hybrid drivers” as a new job category. These drivers both start and cap out at lower hourly pay rates, but can be forced to work overtime unlike full-time drivers, who are protected. Longtime UPS drivers worry the company will, over time, shift the bulk of its work onto the backs of lower-paid, second tier part-timers who can be more easily exploited.

UPS argues these cheaper, part-time drivers will allow them to compete with nonunion online retail companies that pay lower wages and offer fewer benefits, like Amazon. Still, UPS workers point out that even Amazon’s independent contractors, who deliver from their own vehicles, will now be making a higher starting wage, at least initially. (The new UPS agreement does raise the starting pay rate over time, reaching $15 by 2021.)

“The fact that they’re moving to ratify the contract over a ‘no’ vote is a huge betrayal to the members, and I think it’s very damaging to the labor movement as a whole,” said David Levin, an organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reform caucus within the larger union, which has more than 10,000 members nationally. “There’s a lot of attacks against the labor movement, from right-to-work, etc., and it’s a terrible time to be sending workers the message that union leaders can just ignore and override the voices of the members.”

He worries ratification could weaken the IBT’s long-term viability in right-to-work states, where contracts between employers and unions are prohibited from making union dues a condition of employment. But if union leaders railroad the agreement over the will of the members, they may begin to wonder why they should pay dues in the first place.

Moreover, organizers with Teamsters United and TDU have long criticized President James P. Hoffa and his administration. According to TDU, this weekend’s contract debacle is the first time a national agreement has been ratified despite a majority “no” vote since 1987, when the union revised its two-thirds rule after member backlash.

Meanwhile, the union’s recent statement that the national negotiating committee “fully intends to demand that UPS return to the negotiating table to address a number of member concerns in the National Master Agreement” has baffled members.

“Their message is totally mixed. ‘It’s ratified, but we’re continuing to bargain.’ Well, if they’re continuing to bargain, then it’s not settled,” Levin said. TDU is pushing the Hoffa administration to remove Denis Taylor as lead negotiator and return to the table.

Moreover, several locals are pushing petitions calling for President Hoffa to convene a meeting of the general executive board and use a provision in the union’s constitution to overrule Taylor’s decision to ratify the UPS agreement. Specifically, they are calling for the executive board to use Article 12, Section 6, of the constitution to amend the two-thirds rule and allow negotiators to return to the bargaining table.

Sean O’Brien, who is president of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston, heads the IBT’s governing council in New England and is vice president of the union’s international body, told Truthout that he and others who sit on the executive board have written similar letters to President Hoffa. They have demanded the immediate convening of a board meeting to determine next steps, including the potential use of Article 12, Section 6 powers to amend the constitution.

O’Brien was let go as package director and lead contract negotiator last year, he says, after attempting to “unify the package division and the UPS locals so that we could secure a strong contract.” He called the idea that the union’s hands were tied by its own rules “outrageous.”

In 2013, he said, members voted down several regional supplements to a previous UPS national agreement, but the two-thirds rule wasn’t immediately imposed. “They did what they should be doing right now, … going back to the table and telling UPS the contract is not ratified and that our members have spoken, and we demand that you fix what’s broken,” he said.

The former agreement barely passed a member vote in 2013, and disputes over its regional supplements delayed progress on the proposal for nearly a year. Ultimately, though, President Hoffa imposed the supplements unilaterally. Last week, 10 of 28 local and regional supplements were likewise rejected, but the union still considers five of them ratified.

Union organizers’ opposition to Hoffa has been shaped in part by his abandoning of what they viewed as an effective model of membership mobilization and outreach that produced a successful strike against UPS in 1997 under former president Ron Carey’s leadership. “There hasn’t been a national strike in any industry [the IBT] represents since Jim Hoffa has taken over,” O’Brien said.

This longstanding sentiment, combined with fresh outrage over the national agreement’s ratification, is driving UPS workers who campaigned against the contract to run for office in their locals and nationally. The leader of Local 89, Fred Zuckerman, and a slate of no-voters are hoping to oust President Hoffa and his administration in the 2021 elections.

In the Dallas area, 29-year full-time UPS driver Brian Perrier is running for president of Local 767, where 57.5 percent of members voted against the contract. Perrier was active in campaigning against the agreement, and told Truthout he’s running because he and many other members are “fed up with the givebacks during the negotiations.”

In the run-up to last week’s vote, he went to every building in his local to campaign against the contract, including those in far-flung Texas cities like Palestine.

“We don’t feel like we’re being represented as true Teamsters. We feel like not only the IBT but at the local level too, is just too soft on management. We’re not getting good contract enforcement, and they’re way behind on grievances,” Perrier said. “They just blow all of their members off.”

While IBT heavily pushed for a “yes” vote on the contract, sending out more than a million pieces of mail in a national effort, at least two employees in Dallas “received disciplinary letters warning them that the ‘no solicitation at work’ policy barred verbal conversations about the contract,” according to Labor Notes.

Meanwhile, other rank-and-file Teamsters organizing against the contract around the country found themselves without parking spots or thrown out of parking lots for leafleting in Los Angeles and New York.

In the last four years, UPS has generated more than $16.2 billion in net profit and is forecasting another $6 billion this year. Republican lawmakers’ recent tax cut is expected to add to those windfalls, boosting the company’s bottom line by another $1 billion annually. Further, the company’s second-quarter income this fiscal year was reported as being up by 7.3 percent.

“There’s no rhyme or reason why we shouldn’t be obviously attempting to utilize leverage that we have,” O’Brien said. “We have a strong economy right now. E-commerce is basically driving the economy in some respects, and this is our largest employer making record profits.”