The UPS Contract Campaign

Against the Current No. 225, July/August 2023

Jack Martin

The exuberance of UPS Teamsters shows they are committed to winning a decent contract. The UPS contract covers 350,000 workers, 60% of whom are part-time workers. They just voted by 97% to authorize a strike if they have not won a new contract when the current contract expires on July 31, 2023. Photo: Matt Leichenger

IT’s 7 A.M. on a sunny Thursday morning in California, and I’m headed to my United Parcel Service hub with two folding tables, rally signs, and hundreds of flyers packed into the back of my car. In about 15 minutes, I will meet up with a few other UPS drivers, unpack the tables, set up our “United for a Strong Contract” banner and begin to greet our co-workers on their way to and from the parking lot.

It’s a routine that’s become increasingly familiar over the past year — not just to me but to hundreds of UPS Teamster rank-and-file activists across the country.

Last August, on the 25th anniversary of the 1997 UPS Strike, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) General President Sean O’Brien announced the launch of a year-long contract campaign leading up to negotiations covering 350,000 UPS workers like myself.

Elected on a wave of outrage following the 2018 UPS agreement, O’Brien promised a number of key differences this time around including a hard August 1 strike date, rank-and-filers at the bargaining table, and greater transparency throughout negotiations.

But perhaps the most visible difference between 2023 and negotiations under O’Brien’s predecessor, James Hoffa Jr., has been the contract campaign itself. Over the past year, Teamster locals have held hundreds of tabling events, parking lot meetings and rallies across the country seeking to build member engagement around contract issues.

Many of these events were organized entirely by rank and filers, inspired by organizing webinars and direct support from Teamsters for a Democratic Union. The 2021 election of O’Brien as General President was a major win for TDU — after decades of organizing, seeking to build a more democratic, transparent and militant Teamsters union — and the UPS contract was the biggest issue in that election.

At the 2022 TDU convention the following year, an even bigger challenge took center stage: the task of building a nationwide contract campaign that brings thousands more Teamsters into action and reaches every UPS worker.

What We’re Fighting For

UPS is a physically demanding, high-stress workplace — the company tells you this at orientation, and UPS workers are generally proud of our ability to withstand the rigors of the job.

But we also expect to be fairly compensated for our work and treated with respect. In recent years, there has been a growing anger among workers over UPS not holding up their end of the bargain.

There was no working from home for UPS Teamsters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our status as “essential workers” brought us both praise as heroes and more crushing workloads than we’d ever seen before.

During the height of COVID, drivers at my hub and in most parts of the country regularly worked 60 hours a week and were often forced in for a “sixth punch” (working a sixth day) in order to handle the excess volume brought on by the massive spike in e-commerce.

Excessive mandatory overtime has always been a problem at UPS, but during the pandemic it reached unprecedented levels. Feeling the worst of the increased strain were often the lowest seniority drivers, namely “22.4s” as they’re called at UPS.

The 22.4 job is a new, lower tier of package car driver created under the 2018 contract and central to the outrage members felt over that agreement. The 22.4 work classification was started under the guise of providing flexibility to the workforce and alleviating package car drivers from unwanted overtime.

In theory, 22.4s would do warehouse work when volume was lower, and drive when they were needed to supplant the regular package car drivers during periods of high demand. They would earn the same rate of pay no matter what kind of work they were doing — higher than that of a package handler but lower than that of a regular driver.

In reality, most 22.4s ended up driving every day for longer hours, lower pay and with less contract protections than other drivers. The abuse of this lower tier of driver is exactly what many UPS Teamsters warned against when a majority voted against the 2018 contract, only for the Hoffa-led IBT to use an obscure loophole in the IBT constitution to overrule the no vote.

Under new union leadership, excessive forced overtime and eliminating the 22.4 classification are central bargaining issues for 2023. O’Brien has pledged to strike over the 22.4 issue if the company doesn’t meet this demand. But while 22.4s make up a relatively small portion of the UPS workforce, the biggest part of our workforce has perhaps the most to complain about.

Part-time package handlers make up more than half of UPSers and often get paid a lower hourly wage than many workers doing similar work at non-union warehouses. The current contractual minimum pay for a package handler is just $15.50 per hour. That’s lower than the minimum wage in my city, and usually far less than is required to hire new part-timers.

As such, UPS uses “market rate adjustments” that can run as high as $27/hr to entice new part-timers when it needs to hire, only to cut wages whenever it wants to get rid of them. This leads to a high turnover rate that sees package handlers quitting within months of being hired.

For the company, this arrangement makes much easier managing the size of its labor force during the peaks and valleys of demand. But it can wreak havoc on the lives of part-timers, making it impossible to know how much money you’ll be making from one month to the next and leading to more dangerous working conditions as inexperienced trainees are brought in month after month to replace those who have quit.

Fight the Flexibility Plague

The high-turnover workforce is a staple of the modern economy alongside gig work, which UPS has also been experimenting with in recent years. Using loopholes in the contract designed to allow for the hiring of seasonal drivers during the busy holiday season, UPS has begun to dispatch routes to temporary employees delivering out of their own cars.

Personal Vehicle Drivers are becoming increasingly common between the months of November and January. In some cases, these temporary workers make a higher hourly wage than permanent drivers, but they’re cheaper for the company because they can be excused as soon as volume makes them expendable.

UPS claims that added flexibility is necessary to compete with carriers like Amazon and FedEx. But with the company making record profits quarter after quarter and shelling out billions per year in stock buybacks and dividends, workers aren’t buying it. Instead, we are demanding a $25 per hour starting part-time wage with annual raises for every year on the job, and an end to Personal Vehicle Delivery gig jobs.

For the IBT and its rank-and-file activists, winning on these issues is about more than the immediate improvements it will bring to the lives of our brothers and sisters at UPS. It is about protecting and extending the dream of a quality union job in the modern economy.

These jobs have become more and more scarce over my lifetime, and UPS is one of the last places you can find one without a college or post-graduate degree. We are fighting to defend the union difference at UPS, and organizing Amazon workers in the hopes of spreading it elsewhere.

We know that winning a generational UPS contract in 2023 is an essential step towards doing that. It’s much easier to convince an Amazon warehouse worker to vote to become a Teamster when you can point to a similar job down the road at UPS that promises several dollars more per hour.

The Campaign

The immediate goals of a good contract campaign are to raise expectations among union members and to present a credible strike threat that will put pressure on the company to give in to our demands.

The lasting benefit of a good contract campaign — beyond whatever may be won at the bargaining table or on the picket line — is members becoming accustomed to taking an active role in union fights and gaining experience in the skills needed to organize in the workplace.

In February, the IBT launched the nationwide Contract Unity Pledge, which asked members to sign a pledge to do what it takes to win our bargaining demands. Signing a pledge card on your way into work may not seem like a big commitment, but it’s a deceptively powerful activity.

Not only does it give newer organizers an easy task guaranteed to build confidence, but it presents an excuse to talk to everybody at your hub about the contract issues. It brings members who may not show up early to attend a rally into the campaign and shows them what we’re fighting for.

In order to support deeper contract organizing, the IBT scheduled dozens of Contract Action Trainings in cities all over the country this year, teaching members how to talk to our coworkers about the contract issues, how we can win if we strike, and building skills like making a flier or doing turnout for a parking lot rally.

Members can use these skills to organize coordinated actions around issues like making MLK Day and Juneteenth paid UPS holidays, excessive overtime, winning higher part-time pay, and better safety protections against heat illness.

Throughout the campaign, TDU has provided direct support to rank-and-filers seeking to join the campaign. Regular webinars directed at a general audience announce the latest campaign issue and provide testimonials from UPS activists who are organizing at their hubs. Attendees who express interest in getting more involved are contacted by Teamster volunteers who provide mentoring and send out campaign materials free of charge.

Building for a Strike — And What Comes After

“Is there gonna be a strike?” Lately this is the most common question I get, both from Teamsters and friends and family members who have noticed how little spare time I seem to have these days.

I always tell them, “I don’t know. I don’t think Sean O’Brien knows either. The best way to avoid a strike is to show UPS just how ready we are to do it.”

Our expectations are high, and giving us everything we’re asking for will cost UPS a lot of money. But so would testing our resolve.

What I do know is that whether or not a strike is in the offing this summer, the UPS contract campaign has the potential to bring new, durable, rank-and-file organization to the Teamsters that we can build on for years to come.

At some UPS hubs, large rallies protesting unjust discipline or repeated trampling of the contract have been a common part of the union culture for years. But in most Teamster locals, defending members and enforcing the contract are strictly the job of union officials.

Ordinarily there is no simple, out-of-the-box program for jumpstarting rank-and-file organizing at your UPS hub. The 2023 UPS contract campaign is a unique opportunity to do just that. First-time organizers are armed with universal issues impacting every UPS worker and a plan to win at a time when interest in the union is at its peak.

New relationships are built both within and between locals as the most motivated members work together and seek out advice from workers at other buildings doing the same organizing at the same time. These connections — which are rarely formed outside of TDU’s annual in-person convention — can support future day-to-day organizing after the contract is settled.

Whatever happens on August 1, I’ve never felt better about the future of the Teamsters union.

July-August 2023, ATC 225

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