Supply-chain workers are fed up. Many of them told me that they’re forced to work overtime even when they’re exhausted, that they can’t truly relax because they must be ready to work at a moment’s notice, that they’re forced to miss doctor’s appointments, and that they’re afraid of losing their jobs.
Unions representing rail, port, and parcel delivery workers across the country are either negotiating contracts or will be soon. In the past, workers have buckled in the face of management threats, making major concessions. But workers and labor experts told me that this time is different. The supply chain is more fragile, and the world increasingly relies on deliveries. This has given workers leverage, and they’re not afraid to use it.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents more than 22,000 dockworkers on the West Coast, has been negotiating a new contract with port terminals and carriers since May. The 29 ports that line Washington, Oregon, and California make up nearly 9 percent of the country’s GDP. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles account for 31 percent of all container sea cargo brought into the United States. And for four weeks at the end of the summer, workers at the Port of Los Angeles refused to work at the automated part of a terminal run by shipping giant A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S.
Rail-yard workers, who help transport everything from crude oil to lumber—about 28 percent of US freight—could strike later this year. All 12 rail unions representing nearly 120,000 workers have to agree on the contract to prevent a work stoppage, and three unions have already rejected one tentative agreement reached in September. Two of the country’s largest rail unions—the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation union that represents conductors, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen that represents engineers—will finish voting on November 21.
Meanwhile, 350,000 unionized workers at UPS, the ubiquitous courier that carries about 6 percent of the country’s GDP, are gearing up for a possible walkout next year. The Teamsters are fighting a feisty public campaign against UPS management ahead of contract negotiations. And Sean O’Brien, the Teamsters’ new general president, has emphasized their ability to strike. “We are sending a message to UPS that the days of concessions and walking all over our members are over,” O’Brien said in a statement earlier this year. “Our message to UPS is that it’s time our contract reflects the essential work of our members.”
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During UPS’s last contract agreement in 2018, the Teamsters caved. Management carved out a lower tier of full-time drivers called 22.4s—a category that the new union leadership wants to eradicate—who were paid less than regular drivers and could be forced to work more than eight hours a day. Elliot Lewis, 25, was a 22.4 up until a year ago. Sixty-hour weeks were common, he said, which made it hard for him to stay focused, especially during winters when it got dark early. “Getting home… it’s like 11 o’clock, and I make frozen food, and then I wake up at 7 [am],” said Lewis, who joined UPS three years ago and is an alternate shop steward with Teamsters Local 804 in New York City. “It definitely has a psychological toll.”
Management intimidation was also “pretty universal,” he added, recalling how his bosses would jump into his truck and follow him around, shouting at him, “Why are you taking too long?” He told me overtime protections, “getting more protections against harassment, streamlining the grievance procedure around it would be great.”
There are many more demands on the Teamsters’ list, from heat protection—a driver died and many more fell ill this year from heat exhaustion—to higher wages and more opportunities for part-timers to become full-timers. Lennox James, 50, a part-time package handler in Brooklyn and an alternate shop steward with Teamsters Local 804, is one of those workers eager for a full-time position. He makes $22.66 an hour. “I should be close to $25, $30.… UPS can afford more money,” he said, pointing to the company’s profits, which jumped from $1.34 billion in 2020 to $12.8 billion in 2021.
Rail workers also say they’re prepared to walk off their jobs, despite threats from Senate Republicans, who wanted to force unions and carriers to accept a new contract before the September tentative deal had been settled. Hugh Sawyer, 65, a Norfolk Southern engineer based in Atlanta, Ga., and a Railroad Workers United treasurer, said the rail companies won’t easily find another 100,000 workers to replace people like him. “Who is going to take these jobs?” asked Sawyer, a 34-year rail veteran.
A tentative agreement between union negotiators and management reached in September, rail workers told me, is unfair. A 24 percent pay raise by 2024 may seem generous, but not when inflation hit 8.2 percent in September and the contract is backdated to 2020 when prices were much lower ($1 in September 2022 is worth $0.87 in January 2020). Having up to three unpaid days off for medical appointments that must be scheduled 30 days in advance amounts to little if a worker suddenly falls ill. But the biggest issue is cutting employees known as board workers, who take over a job if someone calls in sick.
Michael Paul Lindsey, 36, a rail engineer who has worked for Union Pacific for the past 17 years out of Pocatello, Idaho, said this would lead to further job losses, and not just because of board-worker layoffs, but also because regular workers would quit from burnout. He gave the example of a worker who is scheduled for a 9 am shift the next day. If people ahead of the worker call in sick, a board worker steps in. Without the extra board worker, the person will be pushed up the schedule and, Lindsey said, “now you’re going to work at one in the morning when you’re not rested.”
Over the past six years, major rail carriers like BNSF and Union Pacific have laid off over 45,000 rail employees—or nearly 30 percent of their workforce—causing “serious deteriorations in rail service,” Surface Transportation Board chair Martin Oberman admitted earlier this year.
Lindsey said that after these cuts, their jobs became “a complete shit show.” Colleagues either quit or were fired, he said. “I can’t tell you how many times over the last couple of years. I’ve been expecting to work one time, but I’m going to work 12 hours earlier than I thought.”
One big issue looming over port contract negotiations is automation, which workers say will kill jobs without improving productivity. An ILWU-sponsored July report from the research organization Economic Roundtable found that 572 full-time port jobs and $42 million in wages were lost each year in 2020 and 2021 due to automation at two terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Even if automated terminals do become more productive than manual ones, Joel Schor, a 48-year-old longshoreman who works at the Port of Oakland, told me the labor movement will need to fight to ensure that the new jobs this creates, which often require a tech background, are either unionized or already unionized dockworkers are trained to switch roles. There is precedent: The 2008 contract required that all maintenance and repair jobs dealing with automated equipment were union. Schor, who said he hopes to work at the port until he retires, does not want to lose his job to robots. Even though the Port of Oakland is not automated yet, he believes “it could eventually happen.”
Schor said, “The whole point of the union [is so that] they can’t just tell you to just do whatever they want you to do. Automation is a step towards that.”
Unlike during previous negotiations, the political climate is relatively advantageous toward the workers. “We have a shortage of workers. You have Covid. You have war in Ukraine…every kind of supply disruption you can think of,” said Arthur Wheaton, the director of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Plus, Wheaton added, a tight labor market has made workers less fearful of losing their jobs.
The latest Gallup poll also showed support for organized labor is at its highest since 1965, with more than 70 percent of Americans approving of unions. Resentment toward corporations and their growing profits have created sympathy for workers. For example, FedEx’s first quarter 2022 profits increased by 49 percent, compared to the same period in 2020. Rail giant Union Pacific’s profits climbed 21 percent. Both companies rewarded shareholders with billions in share buybacks. Meanwhile, during that same period, median wages grew only 1.6 percent.
Labor historian Joseph A. McCartin, a professor at Georgetown University, likened the current wave of union support to the period right before the Flint, Mich., sit-down strikes of 1936–37 at General Motors’ plants. It was considered the first major unionization victory in the US. “Before the Flint strike happened, you had… growing public sympathy for unions, a structure of supply chains that gave workers at critical points great leverage,” McCartin said. “It was still during the Depression, but it was at a moment when—and this is similar to the current moment—when the economy was doing better.”
Even a recession would not reduce the leverage of supply-chain workers, given how essential they are, explained Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who studies labor history. “Regardless of the state of the economy, I need to get stuff from the ports, and I need to get stuff on the trains, and on the trucks,” Loomis said.
Of course, if West Coast workers strike, businesses will try to shift their import routes, most obviously by moving shipments to the East and Gulf Coasts, which many did when there were shipping bottlenecks. But that would significantly increase transportation costs if the goods were destined for the West, said Jason Miller, an associate professor of supply chain management at Michigan State University. Neither would Eastern ports be able to handle an influx of imports originally bound for the West. Ships are already waiting to unload for between three days and over 10 days at the East Coast and Gulf Coast ports, CNBC data showed.
Furthermore, Miller added, seven US freight rail carriers account for nearly 90 percent of all rail employees, while the top four courier firms, which include UPS, controlled 85 percent of the market in 2017. “It’s really UPS, FedEx, and the Post Office are the big three,” Miller said. Their services cannot easily be replaced.
The University of California may soon experience the power of courier workers. The Teamsters have permitted the 53,000 UPS employees in the state to honor the picket lines at all 10 UC campuses where university workers are striking for better wages.
The interconnectedness of the supply chain also means that if any one group strikes, the entire economy could falter, said Tim Kraft, an associate professor of operations and supply chain management at North Carolina State University. “If you take out rail, guess what, ports all of a sudden start to back up, the trucks are sitting there empty, and nothing’s going to work. So all it takes is one of the links to go out, and we’re in trouble.”
The federal government knows this, and often steps in during labor negotiations, he added—and not usually in the workers’ favor. For example, during the 11-day lockout of longshore workers on the West Coast in 2002, which cost the economy an estimated $10 billion, then President George W. Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to force dockworkers back to work.
As supply-chain workers recognize their leverage, it becomes increasingly likely that they will provide the next set of key victories for the labor movement. “You do have to man up at some point and say, ‘We’re not going to take anymore. I’m going to lose a week or two weeks of wages, but in the end, I will have better working conditions,’” said Sawyer of Railway Workers United. “The economy goes to hell on day one of a railroad strike.”