Teamsters Union Prepares for Historic Strike Against UPS

Interview with Alex N. Press, staff writer at Jacobin magazine, conducted by Scott Harris

Members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union have been training in how to organize picket lines as negotiations with shipping giant UPS stalled ahead of a July 31 contract talks deadline. If 340,000 Teamster drivers, warehouse workers and other employees walk off the job, the nation will witness the second-largest strike at a single employer in U.S. history. Union members working for UPS voted last month to authorize a strike if a deal isn’t reached by the end of July.

While the company has already agreed to a union demand to install air conditioning and improved ventilation in UPS delivery trucks amid rising global temperatures, a major obstacle to signing a new five-year contract is the demand to increase the wages of part-time warehouse workers from $15.50 to $25 an hour, and create additional full-time jobs in the company’s warehouses.

Teamsters president Sean O’Brien insists that UPS needs to start sharing more of its profits to improve the working conditions of its employees. The company’s 2022 operating profits hit more than $13 billion, for an operating margin of 13 percent. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Alex Press, a staff writer at Jacobin Magazine, who discusses the Teamsters union’s preparation for a strike against UPS and how this confrontation relates to the re-energized U.S. labor movement that’s emerged since the COVID pandemic and rising inflation.

ALEX PRESS: The 340,000 Teamster members who work at UPS across the country have a number of issues. So, the workforce there is divided into the really recognizable UPS drivers, right? The guy that delivers your package out the door and then people who work inside the UPS buildings, the warehouses. Those people are package handlers, right? So they sort the packages, they load them onto the trucks and they actually comprise the majority of workers at UPS.

And the issues right now where there is a big distance between UPS and the union tend to center around those inside workers. Those workers are part time. They make much less money per hour compared to the drivers. They’ve tended to be kind of left out as far as the priorities at the workplace. As far as going forward, people are going to hear about UPS drivers, how they make around $90,000 a year on average. Those are not the workers where the company has dug in here. It is the ones inside with part-time schedules and much worse pay who really may be what is forced to lead to a strike.

SCOTT HARRIS: There are estimates that this strike, if it proceeds, could cost $3.2 billion to the U.S. economy. Not to mention loss of customers and revenue to UPS. Maybe you could spell out a little bit more about hopefully these negotiations succeed in avoiding a strike. But what are the consequences if the workers do strike?

ALEX PRESS: The packages that move through UPS trucks account for around 6 percent of U.S. GDP. Right? This is an incredibly important workforce for the U.S. economy. Goods are being able to be delivered from, you know, the biggest cities in the country down to very rural areas. You know, all across the country, you can get a UPS driver there. And so this is integral to sort of the functioning of all other sorts of industries as well.

Now, these UPS workers struck once before, so we know exactly how impactful a strike would be. In 1997, they struck also once again over issues of part-time work not being enough. The slogan during that 1997 strike was, “Part-time America Won’t Work.” And so during that strike, they blasted around a couple of weeks. It cost the company around $40 million per day.

Now, obviously, with inflation and with the rate increase in the company’s operations, now the estimates, as you mentioned, are that a two-week strike this year could cost over $3 billion to the economy. Of course, one UPS no longer has workers delivering its packages. You get the U.S. Postal Service and Amazon and FedEx coming in and taking those customers that need their packages delivered.

And so UPS also loses those customers. Shawn O’Brien, the president of the Teamsters, was asked about negotiations breaking down and the company sort of blaming the union itself for this breakdown that could cost the country and the economy quite significantly. And he made a point to say that if there is a strike, it’s going to be UPS striking themselves.

SCOTT HARRIS: Well, just one more quick question, if I could. How do you see this current situation UPS in the possibility of a strike fitting into the larger picture of an energized and more militant U.S. labor movement that we’ve seen evolve in recent years, especially after COVID?

ALEX PRESS: Sure. I mean, COVID has really when you speak to workers who are either organizing new unions or going on strike, sort of going on the offensive, demanding what they feel is the bare minimum they need to survive, they will often tell you COVID changed things. Right? It sort of clarified the lines. They saw that their employers were willing to risk their health, the health of their family to keep a business functioning, even as those employers often were not working on the shop floor as they were either working remotely or otherwise protected and minimized from risk.

And so we are seeing the result of that. We’re seeing that in new organizing of unions at places like Starbucks or Chipotle or REI. And we’re also seeing workers sort of much more self-confident saying, “I know that I’m the reason this company stayed afloat. I know I’m why UPS is making larger profits than ever before, and I deserve a cut of that. I am sacrificing, I am risking my health.”

They are reflective of this moment where workers say, “We know best, we know what this industry needs to do and we know what we need to survive and what we’re worth. Enough. We’re not going to take it anymore.”

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Alex Press (18:57) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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