UPS teamsters will decide the direction of their union beginning this week as ballots arrive in some 260,000 households to vote on a tentative five-year contract.
Workers have the choice to agree on concessions bargained by the James P. Hoffa administration in a tentative agreement or say “no” and demand the negotiating committee head back to the table.
In late May, the union held a strike authorization vote, something they didn’t do during negotiations for the last contract — and members responded by overwhelmingly approving the use of a strike. When the current contract expired on August 1, however, it was extended.
As has been the case too often in the past few decades, the union is opting for labor-management cooperation, rather than organizing members for strength and fighting back.
While there are a lot of reasons to vote “no,” such as the inclusion of excessive overtime in the form of 70-hour workweeks during peak season, and no additional protections against harassment by management, the biggest issues are the union’s abandonment of the fight for $15 an hour and their push for two-tier wages for drivers.
The fight for $15 started in 2012 on the heels of the Occupy Wall Street movement by fast-food workers tired of not making ends meet on minimum wage.
During negotiations over the last UPS Teamsters contract in 2013, rank-and-file members and labor activists called on Teamsters to advance the fight for $15. Instead, starting wages for part-timers stayed at $11 an hour for the life of the contract, and workers who started at the beginning of that contract have only topped out at $13.50.
Now, in 2018, the negotiating committee saw fit to agree to a starting wage of only $13, increasing each year, so that finally in 2021, starting pay for part-timers will be $15.
At this point, $13 is less than minimum wage is some cities. That $15 was barely a living wage in 2012, it’s not a living wage in most cities today, and it certainly won’t be a living wage in 2021.
The Teamsters have had two chances now to join broader forces in demanding living wages for the most vulnerable workers and have fallen far short each time.
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At the same time that the tentative agreement fails to raise wages at the bottom to an adequate level, it creates a two-tier wage system for drivers that erodes pay standards at the top.
It’s bad enough that the last UPS contract established a grueling four-year wage progression for drivers, which meant temporary two-tier wages, but eventually all drivers would reach top pay.
The new contract, if passed, would create what are being called “combo-drivers” (because they would be inside part-time workers who could also be drivers when extra driving work is available) or “22.4 drivers” (after the article of the contract that they fall under).
But here’s the kicker: The company would be allowed to use 22.4 drivers for 25 percent of its driving workforce, and they would top out at $6 less per hour than regular full-time drivers for doing the same work. Nothing would stop the company from using these workers as full-time drivers despite the word “combo” in their job title.
The union is touting this as a victory, and indeed this was a proposal made by the union to address concerns by drivers about working excessive overtime and weekends (the contract would allow 22.4 drivers to work Saturdays andSundays).
Union negotiators and the company seem to be banking on the hope that current drivers only care about themselves — never mind that this simply shifts the burden of overtime and weekend work to different people and then pays them less for their efforts.
As a sizeable “vote no” push by the rank and file — spearheaded by a coalition of forces opposing the Hoffa administration called Teamsters United — has shown, many UPSers know how harmful this is to their co-workers, themselves, and their union.
It’s easy to see how two tiers erode solidarity by creating resentment between higher-seniority workers who are responsible for the contract, and newer workers doing the same job for less and feeling sold out.
At the same time, higher seniority workers end up with a target on their back for disciplinary action, since management would love to replace them with someone lower paid. The question is: Why are those instincts not shared by people at the top of the union who negotiated this contract?
Two-tier contracts aren’t new to unions. For decades now, workers in all sectors have been agreeing to them, from grocery to airlines to, most famously, autoworkers.
So if this contract passes, UPS workers will join a worsening trend that has been lowering standards one contract at a time. Instead, we need to say: “This stops here. Bring back the demand of equal pay for equal work as a union principle.”
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The puzzling part is that many two-tier contracts at other companies were negotiated under duress, when a corporation had financial difficulty or threatened to move abroad. Many unions fought back at first, only to reverse themselves once the employer threatened layoffs or plant closures. These agreements have been seen as a desperate act to save jobs.
UPS, however, raked in $5 billion last year, and it obviously can’t move operations. It is still by far the largest package handling company in the country.
Still, union officials who are pushing a “yes” vote cite UPS’s stiff competition, especially from likes of Amazon, as reason to worry. They remind drivers of how little workers make at Amazon or even FedEx.
It used to be that union wages set the standard, and even nonunion labor would have to be paid close to union wages. But now, many Teamsters leaders have abandoned that idea and are arguing to lower union standards to more closely match the nonunion conditions and pay.
The trucking industry used to be dominated by the Teamsters and their National Master Freight contract, but after deregulation in the 1970s, Teamsters saw one union company after another fail, while nonunion competition took their place.
Union officials have taken the position that they must take pre-emptive action to save the largest private-sector union employer, and thus save the union. This is why, even though 93 percent of UPSers voted to authorize a strike, many in leadership positions are arguing that the union can’t afford to strike because the company would lose too much business.
In fact, those pushing for a “yes” vote have been telling people that if the contract is rejected, there will be a strike, using it as a threat against the membership.
First, it’s not true. Step one will be to simply renegotiate the tentative agreement. Second, the fact that UPS would lose business, and therefore profits, should be a threat against the company, not the union members.
The strike is a weapon that unions should use to show their strength and power, not something they should fear “as a last resort.” A strike is supposed to be bad for the company. That’s what makes them come crawling back, pleading with the workers to make profits for them again.
That’s what happened in 1997 when the company thought they could outlast a strike, only to realize public sympathy was with the workers and dollars were slipping away while packages stacked up.
Yes, there is more competition now for UPS, but that means the stakes are higher — for the company! Management can worry about staying in business. Unions should worry about maintaining quality living standards.
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Many of the 93 percent who voted to strike would be willing to walk simply to demand UPS treat them with more dignity, and any increased benefit in the contract would be a bonus. Teamsters should be following the bravery of the ongoing teachers’ strike wave, not pursuing strategies that will weaken unions even further.
A growing vote “no” movement led by Teamsters United has been giving voice to the UPSers who aren’t willing to give in to fear, and who want to stand up for themselves and the next generation of workers.
Members have been standing at the gates of their workplaces, handing out flyers, placing signs in their car windows and holding parking-lot rallies across the county to help organize a “no” vote.
Some have the backing of their local’s leadership, while some do it on their own and risk alienating their local leadership. Some locals were against the contract before negotiations finished because they already knew what was agreed on was a bad deal.
Some locals thought what they heard about the hybrid drivers and wage increases was good enough, until all the details were revealed and opposition mounted. So potential “yes” locals turned to firm “no” locals.
The outcome of the vote can’t be predicted. That’s why members are still organizing to turn out the vote. Both sides have been pushing their talking points hard through text messages, conference calls and YouTube videos, and debates on Facebook pages are heated.
The opposition to this contract is higher than it’s been since 1997. UPSers need to vote “no” and draw a line in the sand against two-tier wages and for a living wage. Big Brown only makes its billions of profits when Teamsters move packages.
The outcome of this contract is being closely watched by both labor activists and employers across the country. Will Teamsters continue a downward slide of union standards or will they vote “no”?