.Big Brown’s Battle

UPS Teamsters reflect union revivals

On Aug.1, unless a contract is agreed upon, Teamsters Union members employed by UPS will strike across the country. This includes more than 2,000 Teamsters at the North Richmond and Oakland facilities, and a total of 10,000 employed throughout the greater Bay Area.

Deliveries will grind to a halt. Warehouse hubs will fall silent. Why?

The issues were detailed in an event held in Richmond on May 13, attended by Teamster members, as well as representatives from multiple other unions, including SEIU, UAW, National Union of Healthcare Workers, Communications Workers of America, Amalgamated Transit Workers, Inland Boatmen’s Union and several teachers’ unions. The event was sponsored by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a group affiliated with the Teamsters United coalition.

Emil McDonald, a UPS package driver employed in the Richmond facility for five years, spelled it out. Union members felt sold out by their then-union leaders, who negotiated behind closed doors to ratify the 2018-2023 master contract, which union members had rejected. 

This contract authorized a “two-tier” system that pays new hires substantially less than older employees, and allows the hiring of many part-time workers, both in the warehouses and as drivers. Many warehouse workers, McDonald said, are making minimum wage, or have wages raised, only to be cut again. Eliminating the two-tier system is a major demand in new contract talks.

“UPS made a mint off us during the pandemic, but this isn’t reflected in workers’ wages,” he said. Sources show that UPS recorded a record revenue of $100 billion in 2022. Of that, $11.3 billion was profit. This contrasts with its 2019 profits of $6.5 billion. “We want to raise the poverty wages of people working inside the buildings,” McDonald said.

Other issues cited by McDonald, fellow local UPS driver Kevin Hamner and Teamster shop steward Carlos Silva, based in Los Angeles, were increasing the number of full-time workers, and countering the harassment warehouse workers face on the floor. “Management pushes people to work faster, without regard to safety,” said Silva. 

Negotiations are currently ongoing, but with new union leadership in place, members expect it to hold firm. “We have logistical power,” said TDU organizer Ken Paff. “What we do cannot be off-shored.”

The enthusiasm shown at this meeting is seeing a resurgence both locally and across the country. Union membership has long been in decline: An article in the May issue of Labor Notes states, “The rate of unionization has been cut in half in the past 40 years…Organizing efforts in the public sector are largely stalled…In the private sector, the number of National Labor Board-supervised union authorization elections now hovers at historically low levels.”

Yet there are signs that the tide is changing. The same issue of Labor Notes cites 

reform efforts within the UAW, which also has new leadership, has Big 3 automaker contracts expiring in September, and is also challenging a two-tier hiring and pay scale. Amazon and Starbucks workers continue their drives to unionize their workplaces. Even workers at Disney World, much in the news for other reasons, ratified a new contract for the six unions representing 45,000 theme park workers that raises their wages and guarantees eight weeks of parental leave.

And locally, the Oakland Education Association, which represents K-12 teachers, school nurses, counselors, social workers, early childhood and adult educators, librarians and substitutes, recently settled a strike, which, if the settlement is ratified, will raise their pay by 10%. This strike also brought to the fore “common good” demands on Black community schools, shared governance of community schools, school closures, and student housing and transportation. 

Perhaps even more importantly, public opinion about labor unions is showing significant change. “Americans’ approval of labor unions has been trending upward in recent years and is now at its highest point in more than half a century,” reported a Gallup analysis of its annual Work and Education poll in Aug. 2021. The poll showed that 68% of Americans support labor unions, the highest since 1965, and a 20% increase since 2009.

A report published by the Economic Policy Institute on May 1 stated: “pro-union sentiments helped to power an extension of union representation to 200,000 additional workers in 2022.” The EPI report also noted, however, that it can take a year—or more—for newly unionized workers to attain a first contract.

A recent Brookings Institute blog, titled “Will ‘Made In America’ Really Lead to Good Jobs?” noted the role of the current national administration: “Broadly speaking, the Biden-Harris administration has aligned with the major elements of that definition [of good jobs], most recently by creating a Good Jobs Initiative at the Department of Labor, which worked jointly with the Department of Commerce to issue what we believe to be the federal government’s first-ever official statement of  Good Jobs Principles. Moreover, in public statements, the administration has highlighted the importance of creating jobs ‘with the free and fair choice to join a union.’”

Yet older unions and their organizers recognize that they must convince younger workers that union representation is in their best interest.

UPS driver McDonald, a Millennial, said that younger workers are beginning to see they do not have the security and benefits enjoyed by older, unionized workers. Social media, he said, is playing a role in educating them, with sites and posts dedicated to labor issues. “When it’s not just an outside thing, when you feel that it’s part of your life, it brings people together,” he said.

Major changes in union leadership are also fueling more interest, as younger, more progressive, more diverse faces take over from those tainted by corruption scandals of the past, and cozy links to corporate management.

And global shifts in the types of jobs needed can benefit the labor movement, wrote Keith Brower Brown in a Labor Notes article. “The massive build-out is a chance to organize for climate transitions on our terms,” he stated. Although corporations are trying to thwart union organizing by setting up in “right to work” states, “As the song goes,” Brown wrote, “‘Without our brains and muscle, not a single wheel can turn.’ That goes for electric wheels, too.”

Also attending and speaking at the rally, Los Angeles Teamster Local 396 member Jared Hamil said, “The Teamsters are taking on historic challenges…we are inspiring the rest of the labor movement.”

Summing up, UPS driver Hamner said, “[During the pandemic], we made sure the country was still running. It takes people to stand up against corporations that take, take, take.” 

TDC’s Paff concluded by saying, “We are building a stronger, more inclusive labor movement.” As a famous labor slogan puts it, “United we bargain, divided we beg.”

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