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What happened to the big UPS Strike?

Can a union achieve a “historic victory” a gamechanger in contract negotiations without an actual strike? The Teamsters claim they have achieved such a victory. On Tuesday, July 25th, contract negotiation resumed between the Teamsters and United Parcel Service (UPS) after a two-week hiatus. It was a short meeting before both sides posted statements to their websites and social media outlets.

Many rank-and-file UPS Teamsters were caught off guard by the sudden announcement. Yet, two days before the Tentative Settlement (TA) was announced, Noam Scheiber of the New York Times, appeared to understand something that the broad U.S. and labor left had largely ignored about Teamster General President Sean O’Brien:

For all his pugilistic statements, Mr. O’Brien remains an establishment figure who appears to prefer reaching a deal to going on strike, and he has subtly acted to make one less likely.

Nevertheless, after more than two years of widespread talk of the potential biggest strike in U.S. history, it all ended with a whimper not a bang. Fred Zuckerman, General-Secretary Treasurer of the Teamsters, declared:

The agreement puts more money in our members’ pockets and establishes a full range of new protections for them on the job. We stayed focused on our members and fought like hell to get everything that full-time and part-time UPS Teamsters deserve.

Apparently, management also thought it won a victory. Carol Tomé, UPS chief executive officer (CEO), said:

Together we reached a win-win-win agreement on the issues that are important to Teamsters leadership, our employees and to UPS and our customers. This agreement continues to reward UPS’s full- and part-time employees with industry-leading pay and benefits while retaining the flexibility we need to stay competitive, serve our customers and keep our business strong.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorial (The Art of the Deal) assessed the Tentative Agreement (TA) as a victory for UPS:

UPS was also willing to pay to achieve its goal of greater flexibility in work schedules and new technology. The company isn’t boasting about it, but we’re told the agreement will allow more warehouse and delivery shifts on Saturdays and Sundays, which are currently understaffed.

Possibly the biggest victory for UPS was keeping the historically low pay for newly hired workers at poverty wage levels, despite the pledge of O’Brien to end “part time poverty.” The TA calls for part-timers who are hired or reach seniority after August 1, 2023 to start at $21 an hour. Within forty-eight months, they reach $23 an hour. The start pay is then raised for new hires to $23 an hour on August 1, 2027.

This is roughly what the pay range was that UPS was paying new hires during the worst days of the pandemic. This is the Art of the Steal, not ending the two-tier wage structure that much of the media has been reporting uncritically. Even the much celebrated victory bringing air conditioning to long-suffering package delivery drivers is not the victory that it appears to be.

While UPS agreed to purchase delivery vehicles with air conditioning starting on January 1, 2024, at the same time, the TA says:

The Employer will replace at least 28,000 package cars and vans during the life of this Agreement [expires on July 31, 2028]. The Union will be notified if the Employer cannot meet this schedule because of volume downturns.

So, only one-third of UPS’s package cars and delivery vans could potentially be installed with air conditioning over the next five years. And, the Teamsters have given UPS an out by agreeing if volume declines, the schedule can be delayed. Some living package car drivers may never see air conditioning. Given the ongoing catastrophe of climate change-driven long heat waves, this is a recipe for disaster.

What would a historic victory have looked like? Well, among other demands, it would be ending two-tier wage structures between part-timers and full-timers and installing air conditioning for all delivery vehicles now. The current TA, despite threats from O’Brien and Zuckerman to “pulverize” UPS, has the feel of being underwhelming. But underwhelming gains in an era of growing threats to the livelihood and health of UPS Teamsters are actually major concessions.

Given the historic moment of low unemployment, record profits, and public sympathy for UPS workers, it feels like a moment has been missed for real historic victories.

A long way from 1997

We are a long way from the summer of 1997, when the Teamsters, led by Ron Carey, the Teamsters’ first rank and file elected General President, called a nationwide strike that transfixed the country. It was a lightning bolt that lit up the sky, with over 185,000 workers on strike in every corner of the United States. The slogan of “Part-Time America Won’t Work” captured the imagination of the public, who supported the strikers two to one over UPS.

The hands-down victory of the Teamsters, most prominently the creation of 10,000 new full time jobs, was the biggest victory in a generation. But the strike had a more widespread impact that there was a feeling that the labor movement had finally turned the corner. Historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote that the strike ended “the PATCO syndrome, a sixteen-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization.”

UPS hated Ron Carey, a former UPS driver, and swore revenge. According to Carey, as recounted in Deepa Kumar’s Outside the Box, UPS chief negotiator David Murray made this very clear to him:

One of the negotiators for UPS said, in the presence of then-Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, “Okay Carey, we agree on the union’s outstanding issues,” and he proceeded to leave the conference room. As he was leaving, he leaned over the conference table and said to me, “You’re dead, Carey, and you will pay for this, you s.o.b.” I looked at Ms. Herman, and asked, “Did you hear that?” She responded, “I heard nothing.”

Eventually, Carey was witch-hunted out of the leadership of Teamsters, but later found not guilty in federal court. But the damage was done. Besides a handful of Republican knuckleheads, like Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin, is there any clamor for O’Brien to go? In fact, O’Brien has dutifully protected the Biden administration in both last year’s Rail and UPS negotiations.

It is ironic in this “Summer of Strikes” that Hollywood actors who play Teamsters on film and TV are walking the picket line, while the real Teamsters remain on the job.

This article was originally published at Counterpunch.

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Joe Allen View All

Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.