Five critical lessons from UPS’s union workers

The UPS Teamsters’ negotiations with the world’s largest delivery company offer the American labor movement lessons in organizing.

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Narrowly avoiding, for now, what might have been the largest strike in United States history of workers employed by a single corporation, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters came to a tentative agreement with the United Parcel Service (UPS) in late July 2023 over contract negotiations. While the union did not win everything it wanted, it secured a majority of its demands in what it called “the most historic tentative agreement for workers in the history of UPS.” Union members will vote on whether to accept the deal between August 3 and 22.

There are numerous lessons to be learned from what has transpired between the Teamsters and UPS during this year’s #HotLaborSummer.

First, and most important: unions work, and not just for the workers being represented, but for all workers. Despite the UPS Teamsters’ checkered history under Jimmy Hoffa’s leadership, UPS’s delivery drivers today have significantly higher wages than their counterparts at competitors like FedEx and Amazon. This is consistent with what unions in general do for wages. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “non-union workers earn just 85 percent of what unionized workers earn.” Additionally, “When more workers have unions, wages rise for union and non-union workers.” There is an upward pressure on wages for all when groups of unionized workers win wage benefits for themselves.

Second, one of the most powerful responses to corporate monopolies is large unions. UPS is the world’s largest package delivery service and is the most dominant delivery company in the U.S., handling one out of four deliveries in a nation increasingly dependent on mail-order service. The majority of its workers are represented by a single union. This means that if the UPS Teamsters go on strike, it can utterly cripple the company. Indeed, media coverage has focused on this fact, as well as the damage to the entire U.S. economy in the event of a strike.

That kind of power is rare in our splintered labor movement. Take the entertainment industry. Film, television, and theater production intersects with many unions, among them DGAIATSE Local 80ICG Local 600Actors’ Equity, and the two currently on strike: WGA and SAG-AFTRA. In late 2021, film and television crew workers agreed to a flawed contract and decided not to strike. Earlier this year, unionized Hollywood directors reached an agreement with the major production studios and signed a contract at the same time, writers whose scripts they bring to life, were striking. Then, actors also went on strike.

Now, a significant number of Hollywood workers remain on strike while others are working. The major studios are hoping to simply wait out the striking workers until their resolve withers. Meanwhile, workers creating unscripted television—known colloquially as reality TV—are not unionized and are “torn” about continuing to work while their colleagues are on strike.

While the workers are fractured, their bosses are united. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) is a single entity representing all the major studios such as Netflix, Apple, Amazon, and Disney. This single powerful entity boasts on its website that it “negotiates 58 industry-wide collective bargaining agreements.” If the majority of Hollywood’s workers were organized into a single union, they would have the kind of power that UPS Teamsters wields.

A third lesson from the UPS agreement is that labor militancy works. In September 2022, I pointed out that the UPS Teamsters launched a major public campaign for a fair contract a full year before their existing contract was set to expire, highlighting the dangerous summer conditions under which many UPS drivers were forced to work. The Teamsters’ new president, Sean O’Brien, did not mince words when he threatened that, “we’re not going to be afraid to pull that trigger [on a strike] if necessary.”

Then, this summer the union enacted “practice pickets,” saying, “The most powerful tool we have as Teamsters to win a historic contract at UPS is a credible strike threat.” This clever approach had an equally clever tagline: “Just practicing for a just contract.” The display of power was an intimidation tactic and a turning of the tables against corporate America, which has relied on armies of union-busting lawyers to quash labor movements.

A fourth lesson is that solidarity is critical. Although UPS accepted a majority of what the Teamsters demanded by early July 2023, the company held out on increasing wages for those part-time workers who had been hired a few years ago at lower starting salaries. Instead of giving in, UPS Teamsters walked away and began their practice strikes, likely betting that the company would cave. The company soon issued a statement saying, “We are prepared to increase our industry-leading pay and benefits, but need to work quickly to finalize a fair deal that provides certainty for our customers, our employees[,] and businesses across the country.” Instead of throwing their part-timers under the bus, the union held out for a better deal and won a starting pay of $21-an-hour, up from $16.20-an-hour.

A fifth lesson is that although unions help to boost wages and working conditions, they are not yet strong enough to undo the damage of unfettered capitalism. Wages continue to lag behind inflation. As worker productivity has risen, wages have fallen. The UPS Teamsters had initially demanded a starting salary of $25-an-hour for its part-time workers, who are nearly half of all the company’s workers. Although $21-an-hour is progress, some workers are unhappy. One UPS warehouse worker told the Washington Post, “Working this job, it feels like the good parts of life—like going out to dinner and taking a vacation—aren’t meant for us.”

He added, “I’m prepared to vote no,” and who could blame him? Throughout the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, UPS delivery drivers risked their lives to bring us essential products. They braved heat waves, long hours, and heavy loads.

Today, they are continuing to offer a public service: showing the rest of the U.S. workforce how workers can find power in numbers, be militant, stand up for one another, stare down corporate greed, and demand our full suite of labor rights.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a radio and television show that airs on Pacifica stations KPFK and KPFA and will begin airing on Free Speech TV. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Rising Up With Sonali,” based in Los Angeles. She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA.

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