Tensions at package delivery megacorporation UPS have been steadily mounting. Workers fighting for better terms are not only taking on their bosses, but also the roadblocks put in place by their union’s leadership. On October 5, the rank and file of the Teamsters union voted down the contract offered by their National Negotiating Committee by a margin of 54 to 46. The next day, to general consternation, the Hoffa bureaucracy—which has led the Teamsters for the last 19 years—unilaterally decided that the National Master Agreement had been ratified, undemocratically overturning the wishes of the rank and file. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a longstanding opposition caucus, have been especially vocal raising awareness of the contract’s shortcomings and in encouraging a “no” vote.
According to the new contract, newly hired part-timers will receive $13 an hour, up from the current $10.50. But it is not clear when these increases will begin and this is a far cry from the $15 minimum demanded by the rank and file, which itself is insufficient as a living wage—especially when you consider that UPS profited nearly $5 billion in 2017 alone. Furthermore, existing part-timers also get a raw deal and are denied catch-up raises. The two-tier contract will create an underclass of “hybrid” drivers who will be paid less to perform the same work. By allowing management the freedom to shift overtime work from full-timers to “hybrid” drivers at will, the contract pits workers against one another. Finally, loopholes for subcontracting allows UPS to continue hiring non-union workers to weaken the union in the long run. UPS workers are correct to call the deal a sellout. Its numerous flaws not only negatively impact their living standards but also their clout on the shop floor. Above all, it is a blow to solidarity and workers’ unity, the foundations of trade unionism.
These are the hard facts. They speak louder than any technicalities. Yet the Hoffa administration has built its entire approach around technicalities. Fishing out an obscure rule from the International Constitution, chief negotiator Denis Taylor insisted that, due to low turnout, only a two-thirds vote can reject the contract offer. Under these conditions, only the secondary Freight Agreement is considered rejected, whereas the main contract is ratified—along with half of the local supplements rejected by the membership.
The leadership’s approach does not contain an ounce of class struggle. Quite the opposite, it is soaked through with ruling class ideology, as can be seen in this statement, which compares the ratification vote to the 2016 US Presidential election: “Winning the popular vote does not necessarily win the election when the Constitution requires you to win the Electoral College vote. As Teamsters, we too must abide by the rules in our Constitution.” Any trade unionist who thinks a highly undemocratic passage in the ruling class’s Constitution is a good model for trade union democracy is either cynical, dishonest, or both!
The union bureaucracy implies that low turnout is a sign the rank and file does not care enough about the contract. By extension, this must mean that the so-called experts on the negotiating committee know better than the workers themselves. However, this argument is thoroughly misplaced. The bureaucracy’s bad faith can be seen in Taylor’s announcement that he would disregard the vote even before the ballots were counted. When the negotiating committee hid the whole process inside a sealed room—and then proceeded to expel TDU representatives from the committee for the dubious “crime” of explaining to union members the terms under discussion—who can blame the ranks for tuning out? If workers are disengaged from their union, the way to motivate them is by offering a class-struggle strategy that can actually bring results. But an active and engaged membership is the one thing the current Teamster leadership wants even less than a class-struggle confrontation with the bosses!
Hoffa and Taylor clearly think they are sober pragmatists. In reality, the confusion created by their attacks on the rank and file helps no one but the employers. According to Taylor, the main contract is as good as a done deal and the membership will just have to accept that “the leverage is not there.” This resulted in a farcical situation in which the union tops insisted that the deal had been ratified, even while the bosses prepared for further rounds of negotiations. TDU put it very well when they commented, “It is a sad day when the company respects a contract vote by the members more than our union negotiator.” The bosses can easily see this division and demoralization and will press home their advantage. Those who vacillate in the middle of the road are in danger of being run over!
This is not to say we should draw pessimistic conclusions about the state of affairs at UPS. The Teamsters of UPS have tremendous potential power. The successful strike in 1997 is a testament to that, demonstrating the crucial need for a leadership unafraid of confronting the boss head-on, and which fully involves the rank and file in every step of the struggle.
There are abundant signs that discontent and a fighting spirit are building up within the union. This can be seen not only from anecdotal evidence, such as a spate of angry comments on the union’s Facebook pages but also in the response of seven International Union VPs and Local 705 in Chicago. But this energy has to be harnessed in a clear direction or it will dissipate.
TDU has an important role to play in forming a new leadership worthy of the word, and its conscious intervention in the life of the union has an impact. It organized admirably in the run-up to the ratification vote, and has continued to expose the sabotage of the Hoffa regime. Its call to replace Hoffa and Taylor should be energetically supported by all rank-and-file workers who are sick and tired of the status quo. TDU’s strategy of challenging pro-Hoffa officials in every local elevates this slogan from the level of verbal criticism to a fight with real stakes.
However, TDU’s approach also has shortcomings. In restricting their criticism to internal union politics, and in their eagerness to assure people that a “no vote does not mean a UPS strike,” they run the risk of playing right into the hands of the Hoffa regime. To adequately prepare the rank and file for the organizational challenges required to truly enforce the rank and file’s desired contract, we cannot avoid talking about a strike. Sometimes, the bosses back off even before a strike happens. But to achieve that outcome, we need to prepare seriously to make good on the collective flexing of our power.
The 1997 strike demonstrated that the only threat bosses take seriously are threats to their bottom line. In just 15 days, the 1997 strikers “erased about $800 million of sales.” Bloomberg continues: “The stakes are even higher now, given the critical role that parcel-delivery companies play in booming e-commerce.” The peak holiday season, which is just ahead, offers a strategic moment that can inflict maximum pressure on profits. But timing is of the essence and such moments can quickly slip away.
This is something Local 705 is clearly aware of, as they are planning “a strike vote in early November, for a possible walkout the week after Thanksgiving.” They are acting on the assumption that, since their contract is not covered by the national master agreement, they can act on their own. But isolated, localized strike action is risky and could lead to a demoralizing defeat. Fortunately, TDU is in a position to ensure that Chicago’s initiative does not remain compartmentalized and instead spreads across the Teamsters nationally. Without falling into abstract “strike mongering,” we believe TDU should call for a UPS-wide discussion to begin laying the political and logistical groundwork needed to organize an effective strike, with the aim of raising the rank and file’s engagement with the union and confidence in their own strength.
However, even the prospect of a company-wide strike is not enough to get a big majority of the rank and file to buy into the possibility of a successful strike. Furthermore, the broader working class must also be won to support the strike, especially if it means a possible delay in receiving holiday gifts. To achieve this, we believe TDU must provide a vision that looks beyond UPS as a single employer, and connects with workers in the broader parcel-delivery sector—and beyond.
Part of the pressure UPS is bringing to bear on its workers results from the fact that competitors such as FedEx and Amazon’s new “Flex” delivery driver program are nonunion. Unionization rates in the freight sector have dropped sharply in the last period. This is a long-term threat, which means that short-term gains can easily be clawed back by the bosses. TDU has heavily emphasized how the current juncture is advantageous to the workers, with Amazon being forced to raise wages and demand for freight drivers rising, given the boom in e-commerce. This is correct as far as the current contract goes, but in the long run, workers cannot base their approach on momentary fluctuations of the market.
A bold strategy that fights to link up with unorganized workers in FedEx and Amazon is needed. The four US Postal Service unions must be included in this fight as part of a wider struggle. Inspiration can be drawn from the momentum of Amazon workers’ minimum wage rise, which was due to international working-class action—not Jeff Bezos’ kindness. While the wage increase is much needed, these workers still lack a union. The Teamsters are in a position to press the advantage with a unionization drive—provided they have a leadership willing to take up this fight. Appetite comes with eating and Amazon workers would be open to a union that fought not only for wage increases, but pensions, generous vacation, sick pay, and parental leave, comprehensive health care, and more. With no illusions that this will be easy or happen overnight, it is the duty of a class-struggle union leadership to point out the big picture and galvanize workers in organizing drives that undercut the competition between workers.