Email Exchange on the Teamsters-UPS agreement #6

Ron Lare

August 13, 2023

I have appreciated the discussion that has happened mainly between Barry and Peter S. And I certainly agree with Donna about multi-tier agreements.

There is a natural tendency to judge a contract struggle by the terms of the agreement finally arrived at, with or without a strike.

My thoughts turn more on two factors: anti-union Democratic Party intervention and what was lost to the working class by the absence of a strike, whether or not it could have won any more.

Of the first factor, Kim writes: “I strongly suspect that the Biden Administration played a role in the timing and way this worked out. We know that the Administration was involved in negotiations for some time. This was not done through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Labor Department, or Secretary of Labor as is usually the case. Rather, as the Washington Post reported Celeste Drake of the White House Nationtal Economic Council acted as Biden’s personal agent who, along with other White House aides “encouraged both sides to reach a negotiation.” With the 2024 presidential election already underway and Biden’s popularity low, the Administration clearly worried that the economic impact of a UPS strike would scare the suburban voters the Democrats’ depend on for a margin of victory. One the other hand, a petition from big names including over 100 members of Congress asked Biden not to intervene in the event of a strike. This feelgood effort from the Democratic Party’s “left”, however, missed the real point. Biden didn’t wait for a strike, he intervened to prevent a strike. Of course, we don’t know if this was what made O’Brien abandon the strike deadline a couple of weeks ago, but the timing of all this is highly suggestive. Whatever the case, this is important for our understanding of the real politics of labor and the Democratic Party, as well as, the Administration’s involvement in the upcoming auto talks.”

This is one of my biggest concerns about the Auto negotiations. An Auto strike or strikes could be an even bigger threat to “Biden-omics” claims than the rail workers or UPS workers were — because the Auto expiration is nearer to 2024 elections, because of the complexity of negotiations with three companies instead of one, and because of even more tiers than at UPS. From Biden’s guy designated to “calm” the talks to Democrats speaking at Auto worker events—the wider the beast’s mouth, the slower may be the realization that teeth are closing around us.

Of my second factor, Kim writes of a widespread “demonstration effect” of a strike, inspiring more militancy. He is surely correct about what was lost in the UPS case:

Because it would be so visible and would have such a major impact on the entire logistics system, a victorious strike against UPS of significant duration would have sparked greater militancy across the movement. This would not only have encouraged auto workers and others with upcoming contract expirations but could have inspired Amazon workers to increase their efforts to organize with or without the Teamsters. Even if others view the new agreement as a victory of sorts, however, without a strike it is not likely to have the same impact or what labor relations’ experts call a demonstration effect, especially for auto workers where eliminating the wage tiers is central. The biggest loss of inspiration, however, may well be among Amazon workers.

Having worked about half my thirty years at Ford on the assembly line, my gut focus is a bit different, more in-plant than nation-wide. Traven made a reference to this factor in a Solidarity-DSA working group labor discussion: He said effective stewards are frequently fired and he cast doubt on whether this UPS contract can be enforced. The impact of a strike on the shop floor is to back off—to frighten—supervisors out of the usual harassment of workers, firing of reps and activists, routine dismissal of grievances, etc. This effect on companies can last months and the tradition of workers standing up in a strike can build over decades. This affects the struggle on the shop floor. This effect once existed in Auto. We need to rebuild it. It cannot be adequately done on paper but only in the streets. As Traven in effect said, there is language, but then there is enforcing it.

In line with this thinking, I recently made this comment in a DSA Big 3 chat. What was most prominent to me about the UPS contract campaign was the practice picketing. Practice or informational pickets across driveways are a graphic threat to close those driveways that lead to the shop floor. This scares the company. The most prominent thing to me about the UAW contract campaign so far is not the scant gestures toward practice picketing but the magnitude of the union’s demands. I am very impressed that this close to expiration, Shawn Fain is still talking about 32 for 40 and pensions for all. Now I think the companies would take long strikes to preserve their elimination of pensions (that would be complete as my generation dies off). But big demands don’t scare companies. Action does. That’s why the Teamster practice picketing across workplace driveways impressed me. There is some talk about this in Auto.