News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
June 07, 2023
By Jonathan Martin
On August 4, 1997, 185,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) led by president Ron Carey began a fifteen-day strike that would cost the United Parcel Service (UPS) over $600 million. They won 10,000 full-time positions with higher salaries and benefits, and preserved Teamster’ pensions from UPS takeover.
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO at the time, said of the strike, “You could make a million house calls, run a thousand television commercials, stage a hundred strawberry rallies, and still not come close to doing what the UPS strike did for organizing.”
On August 1, 2023, UPS Teamsters, now numbering 340,000, are ready to strike again if the company refuses to meet their demands. In an economy increasingly reliant on drivers to deliver online orders, and a logistics sector awash in COVID profits, the leverage of such a large strike is unmistakable. This would be nearly twice as large as the powerful 1997 strike; in fact, it would be the largest strike in the United States since the 1959 strike of around 500,000 steel workers.
Burned by concessions, Teamsters elect new leaders
Yet just five years ago, militant action by the Teamsters was off the table. In 2018, when a weak UPS contract was brought to the membership by James P. Hoffa’s bargaining team, they rejected it. Invoking an obscure provision in the IBT charter, Hoffa Jr. forced the contract through, angering many Teamsters.
Especially contentious was the creation of a “two-tier” system for drivers. New full-time positions that split time between driving and warehouse work would earn less pay overall, and have no protections from overtime abuse. Teamsters say that in practice these workers largely act as delivery drivers, earning less pay for the same work as others. (This video offers an in-depth explanation.)
For many Teamsters, the overriding of their vote rejecting the contract was the final straw. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) had been organizing for decades to reform the union and elect a more militant and democratic leadership, and in November 2021 they saw success. Teamsters United, a coalition made up of Hoffa critics and TDU members, successfully elected fourth-generation Teamster Sean O’Brien as president, and TDU leader Fred Zuckerman as its secretary-treasurer.
O’Brien has promised militancy and a win for the Teamsters, no matter what it takes.
Teamsters pose an array of demands
This year, the “two-tier” system implemented in 2018 is a key bargaining issue. Removing the so-called “22.4” category for drivers would see thousands of full-time workers get an immediate bump in pay, bringing them in line with the other full-time drivers doing the same job.
The Teamsters also seek to raise the pay of part-timers, who often earn little more than minimum wage. In 1997, part-time work was a key issue that resonated with the public, and became a rallying cry for the striking workers. In an economy driven by gig and part-time work, this demand could once again be key to winning the support of the public and could galvanize demands by workers in other sectors.
Another key issue is forced overtime, where workers are required to work a sixth day of the week (called the “six-day punch”). The Teamsters also want to address the driving conditions of workers. Many UPS trucks lack air conditioning units, hospitalizing workers during heat waves.
These are some of the top national demands. However, the national contract only entered bargaining 3 weeks ago, as regional “supplements” to that contract are still being negotiated. (Currently, Oakland’s Local 70 and Zuckerman’s former Louisville local, the massive Local 89, are in the two regions that have not yet settled supplements.)
UPS has already begun to cry poor, making negative predictions about revenue in an attempt to undermine the Teamsters position. In reality, however, profits at UPS continue to grow.
According to data from TDU, UPS ships around 20 million packages each day, and made $13.8 billion in profit in 2022. It dwarfs its competitors, controlling nearly two-fifths (37%) of all revenue from package delivery services in the US. The company plans to reward its investors with $8.3 billion in dividends and buybacks 2023.
A crucial link in the supply chain, UPS moves 6% of the United States’ GDP each year. A strike could cost UPS $185 million a day.
Solidarity Delivers the Goods
In the past year, East Bay DSA and the broader community have stood in solidarity with thousands of workers on strike. This includes public education workers in Oakland, and last year’s strike of 48,000 academic workers at the University of California.
UPS Teamsters supported both those strikes, turning out to the picket line at Global Family Elementary in solidarity with OEA. Many honored loading dock pickets at UC, helping build the power of UAW’s strike.
The Teamsters’ contract fight is already mobilizing UPS workers in every state in the country, but if they are forced to strike, it could galvanize workers across the U.S. in the way that the West Virginia teachers’ strike did for education workers nationally in 2018. The current struggle represents a huge opportunity for national organizing both in the broader labor movement, and for community supporters here in the East Bay.
We can stand in solidarity by contributing to organizing funds, educating other workers about the working conditions and demands of UPS Teamsters, and preparing for a possible strike on August 1. These networks not only strengthen the power of contract fights and strikes across union lines, but represent important linkages as unions like the Teamsters seek to unionize Amazon.
DSA members and their communities are getting strike ready with UPS, and helping strengthen the wave of labor militancy sweeping across the country. Many have already pledged to support a strike. From Trader Joes and Starbucks, to the Teachers’ Unions, to UPS, our solidarity is critical in the working class’s fight against the bosses and billionaire class.
Add your name to DSA’s pledge to support a strike.
Jonathan Martin is a member of East Bay DSA.