Email Exchange on the Teamsters-UPS agreement #4

Peter Solenberger

August 11, 2023

A response to a contribution by Barry Eidlin replaced in this dossier, at his request, by his The UPS Contract in Context.

The Teamsters strike threat and settlement at UPS was the biggest labor confrontation of the year, so discussing it seems important. I appreciate your extended and careful treatment of it. Your theory about why a strike occurred in 1997 but not in 2023 fits the facts, as I understand them:

As I see it, there are two key differences between 1997 and 2023. One is on the side of management. In 1997, UPS had gotten used to decades of compliant union officials basically giving them what they wanted. Carey was clearly different, but a lot of the local leadership was against him, and he hadn’t demonstrated an ability to unite large portions of the membership and get them out on strike. As such, UPS management didn’t take Carey’s strike threat seriously (it is worth noting here that Carey was far more reticent than O’Brien to mention the strike threat explicitly, in part because he still had to work with a divided officialdom that wasn’t at all enthusiastic about the idea of a massive strike). So at one level, management hubris forced Carey to turn the strike threat into reality.

The second difference is at the level of union leadership strategy. In 1997, Carey, backed by TDU, was building for a strike, and by the time they got to the contract expiration date, the big issues were still on the table: 1) more full-time jobs created out of combining full-time jobs; and 2) preventing UPS from taking over UPS Teamsters’ pensions (something that Hoffa ultimately gave away in the Central States a few years later). So there were big strikeable issues left to resolve, which provided the rationale for a massive nationwide strike.

I’m a big fan of the 1997 UPS strike, but not so much of Ron Carey. He rose to the occasion of the UPS strike, but in other respects he was a good but not great leader by the not-very-high standards of the union bureaucracy in the US.

In my view, TDU should have presented a more critical view of Carey from the beginning, rather than turn against him when his Democratic Party friends were caught laundering money for his reelection campaign. TDU should be more critical of O’Brien now. How much truth to tell members is a problem for any caucus that backs an officer who is not one of them, since the officer is likely to be touchy about criticism.

We agree about drivers: the annual wage increase for RPCDs is relatively modest; the biggest win in the contract is eliminating their two-tier wage (the 22.4 classification). We still have different perceptions of the increases for lower-wage, part-time workers. You write:

While these raises do not solve the problem of part-time poverty entirely, they do make a serious dent, and they constitute the most serious effort we have ever seen from IBT leadership to bring up the bottom of the UPS wage distribution.

I may have an overly rosy memory of the 1997 strike, but I’m not convinced that this TA is a more serious effort to bring up the bottom of the UPS wage distribution. However, I’m more concerned about the lost opportunity for another inflection point in the class struggle.

As you know, in September 2021 Amazon announced an average starting wage for warehouse workers of $18 per hour. In September 2022 it upped this to $19 per hour. With the labor market still very tight, I’d expect it to up this to at least $20 per hour next month. If Amazon management is shrewd, they’ll up it to $21 per hour and say to their workers, “See, you wouldn’t gain from a union. You’d pay dues for nothing.”

The TA may be the best contract ever at UPS, but it lacks the “wow” factor of the 1997 Teamsters strike or the 2012 CTU strike.