Six days before their national contract with the United Parcel Services was set to expire—the moment US labor law officially removes complex pro-employer barriers banning workers from waging a strike—the Teamsters announced that they had reached a Tentative Agreement (TA) in their national negotiations with UPS. Teamster members will have from August 3 to August 22 to read, celebrate, debate—and ultimately vote to ratify or reject the proposed TA. While at press time full details aren’t yet available, we’ve known for almost a month that important issues at the top of the workers’ demands had already been achieved before the talks broke down on July 5. Teamsters President Sean O’Brien had announced some of these key provisions with justified fanfare as each significant breakthrough was won in late June.
For now, I want to celebrate the real wins we know about and focus our collective attention on some vexing questions about how workers can—and must—win when key windows of opportunity and leverage open up in this increasingly nightmarish political, ecological, and economic terrain for working people. How can we move from clawing back losses—and there have been plenty—into actually changing the terms of the game in workers’ favor?
First, the great stuff: The biggest win in the Teamsters’ UPS TA is an end to the two-tiered structure of the old contract, which protected long-serving workers’ gains in exchange for leaving new hires working on worse terms. This framework, agreed to by the Jimmy Hoffa Jr.–controlled national union, has driven employer-inspired strategic wedges and fostered resentment between the long-timers and the ballooning base of newer, younger workers. Ending a two-tiered contract in the country’s single largest private-sector union agreement is an outstanding achievement.
Another very significant win was ending another Hoffa gift to the bosses: the “forced sixth punch,” where management could impose paid Saturday or Sunday overtime on workers with the threat of a write-up for refusing. Overtime pay is a great thing, but it’s no substitute for a loss of control over the weekend that the labor movement won for us all, and UPS was blowing through that precedent like the current Supreme Court does with settled questions of fundamental rights.
The Teamsters also won Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a paid holiday (though they didn’t get their parallel demand for a Juneteenth holiday), as well as securing a guarantee of air conditioning in every vehicle cab purchased after January 2024, with fans and vents to be phased into the current fleet. These are all serious gains, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that—apart from the holiday and the AC—they represent a restoration of previous standards the workers had enjoyed before the Hoffa, Jr. administration traded them away. Still, in the current climate winning back that which was taken away is no small feat.
But workers also need more. As a movement, we need to remain sharply aware of moments when we have sufficient leverage to set new standards and pay it forward, rather than limiting ourselves to restoring previous gains. The 340,000 UPS Teamsters are in the extremely rare position of wielding significant economy-wide power. In the 1990s, the Teamsters leadership under Ron Carey (the last time a reform candidate had overcome the Hoffa legacy and the mob up until O’Brien’s recent election) were struggling to turn the union around after decades of dominance by organized crime. Despite these efforts, the first contract that the Carey team negotiated at UPS was still concessionary, and nowhere near what workers needed. The leadership at that point made the calculation—which is not always wrong—that members had not built the level of unity necessary to win in Carey’s first contract fight as head of the union, and instead spent years preparing the much more successful strike in 1997.
"swipe left below to view more authors"Swipe →
The O’Brien leadership, this year, might see itself in a similar situation: They may well believe that winning back key standards that were lost in the Hoffa years is the best that can be done for now and, in the meantime, they will get workers ready for the next contract campaign in five years. We may find that this was the right call, but workers always benefit from a clear-eyed discussion of what they can win when, and where these wins place them for their next battle.
Like much of labor organizing work, this is an educated gamble: UPS workers right now are in a strategically advantageous position, coming out of the height of the pandemic with UPS reporting record-shattering profits, while shareholders and the CEO gorge on the money made by an exhausted rank and file whose sweat and suffering earned the bosses that money—and with the country as a whole facing a tight labor market, and massive pro-worker and anti–greedy CEO sentiment flaring up with each strike workers are waging in sector after sector.
We don’t know what the situation will look like five years from now, not only with respect to workers’ structural power within the company, but also the company’s own position with respect to competitors like FedEx and Amazon—let alone the broader politics of the country. Five years is a long time for a contract—think back to 2018—and that kind of lock-in is a big risk. We also should never forget that the length of contracts is subject to negotiation as well, and the length of any settlement workers agree to should be based on their power analysis of the near-term future. Five more years of the current Supreme Court is close to a guarantee the right-wing, worker-hating justices will find a cleaner case than the messy Glacier NW v. Teamsters of this past session—and in their next ruling, you can bet they will dismantle the legal right to strike as we know it, upping the ante of what the Teamsters UPS workers will have to contend with in 2028. Given the recent intense effects of a warming climate, AC in truck cabs might seem quaint if the floods and fires plaguing the country and planet this summer continue unabated.
There’s all sort of strategic provisions—which require real power to win—that the Teamsters might have, or could have, put into the final TA. These kinds of contract articles that put the union on a better footing for future strike-backed negotiations include winning language that makes the UPS Teamsters “Glacier-proof”: insisting on language that would force the employer to agree to not employ any outside courts in future settlements or dispute resolution—like those so many bosses force on workers. Another could be a “wage reopener” with the right to strike set at years two and four of the contract, thus creating an avenue to renegotiate rather than be bound by a long contract when so much is in flux. Reopeners on wages or other key topics where both parties agree to suspend the “no strike, no lockout” provisions for a 90-day period (or some specific time to mobilize for a strike) can be a way to ensure that a long contract doesn’t become a means to hold back progress—or worse, a cover for wide-scale work process reorganization.
I have argued repeatedly that strategically targeted, mass-participation, supermajority strikes are the way for workers to win, and the Teamsters were moving in that direction in earnest after the July 5 talks broke down. Practice pickets went up across the country, with uniformed workers swaggering—as they should—about the life they deserve, proving that they were preparing to walk real production-shuttering picket lines, and these powerful images flooded social media as well as many local news channels. These actions by members were obviously key to the increased money UPS suddenly found to put on the table earlier this week to meet O’Brien’s demands to lift up wages for part-timers.
The biggest contracts I’ve helped negotiate covered only 30,000 workers, but in any strike-backed negotiations, strategy depends on our power analysis of the workforce’s strategic labor market leverage at the time of settlement. If the Teamsters’ TA is ratified by the workers—the decision-makers who matter most here—we’ll continue to wonder about what could have been done with power left on the table. What more could have been won if the negotiations had moved more slowly, and the Teamsters had allowed their potential power to be demonstrated as real power on the picket lines?
There are many more factors to consider than we can discuss here, but I want to raise a few to help us think of the consequences of one (massive) fight for the labor movement as a whole. Digging into these questions of what can actually be won—hard to see clearly on the front lines, even harder from the sidelines—is nevertheless something that will make us smarter and more powerful as a movement.
One key question is: Will the new wages be enough for O’Brien to follow through on his promise to organize Amazon? Prioritizing a huge raise to the base rate for new hires, part-timers and full-timers can help future organizing and recruiting from bottom feeders like Amazon and FedEx. Workers in those two shops don’t have benefits anywhere near those given at UPS, where full-timers can retire on a pension, take care of their families’ health care needs, and more.
But right now drivers at both Amazon and FedEx actually get similar or better starting hourly pay than Teamsters’ UPS rates, while the robust Teamster benefits package doesn’t draw in many of the youngest workers, who don’t necessarily think in the same way about babies (thus family health care) or retiring as veteran workers do, often placing a premium on pension issues. They want cash in their pockets now.
It’s not clear yet if the Teamsters’ decision to raise the base wage for part-timers will be a big enough lure for Amazon workers to overcome the brutal union busting Amazon unleashes when it smells “union.” If the wage details are enough, that could be a big asset to point to for new organizing efforts, which we all desperately need given the recent failures by others attempting to make inroads in what has long been Teamsters jurisdiction. The lackluster Teamster officeholders who had control of the union as the Amazon threat grew ignored this dynamic to their peril until O’Brien’s election—and the win by an independent effort at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse—forced the question. Does this proposed new contract include language that says anywhere or anytime Amazon raises their base wage, the UPS workers automatically get a raise to stay ahead of them?
In my own experience as a lead negotiator on plenty of hard contracts—which were magnitudes less important to national standard-setting by the working class than the Teamsters contract—these end-game decisions are hard as hell. One thing I have learned, though, is that calls like these can best be made by a huge and representative committee elected directly by their peers, whose collective intelligence about their workplace is greater than the best-informed executive board or team of lawyers could ever be. The Teamsters committee, though definitely an improvement on the past with 25 members from the rank and file, saw 100 mostly men in crisp suits representing 340,000 workers across the country, in demographics that don’t match a decreasingly white workforce A larger committee would have expanded the range of the perspectives weighing in on these crucial decisions, resulting in a TA likely to meet the needs of the rank and file who will make the ultimate decision.
Part of the pressure to settle undoubtedly came from the way UPS’s competition used O’Brien’s many months of strike talk as corporate strategy to take customers away from UPS. For workers at UPS, there’s nothing good about that, and a prolonged strike could have resulted in some UPS workers’ being laid off. These tricky dynamics—which require unions to be able to think class-wide—underscore the many difficult decisions that emerge when in the real heat of trying to reach a final contract settlement.
Aside from setting new material standards that go beyond reversing the horrible giveaways allowed by the Hoffa machine, a truly national workforce like the Teamsters also presents a one-of-a-kind opportunity for turning a contract fight into a broader campaign of political education across industries and regions. This UPS fight could have grown into a longer contract campaign, involving tens of thousands of workers, swing state by swing state, which could have helped workers amplify the potential crisis for the employer class that will be needed with the coming UAW Big Three negotiations (UPS Teamsters have considerably more leverage than the UAW workers; had they struck at the same time, they could have shared some of their UPS power with the autoworkers). A strike, and the one-on-one conversations it would spark about economic and political power in workers’ communities, could also have helped shift the huge number of Teamsters likely to vote Republican to the Democratic column, mobilizing a large, organized politicized body of workers capable of not just winning a better contract but of pushing the Democrats into actually doing things worth voting for.
To be clear, the Democrats keep making it hard to inspire working-class enthusiasm thanks to their pathetic negotiating strategy over the debt ceiling (where their opening bid was “let’s keep the status quo” and McCarthy’s was “let immigrants die, end all economic support to anyone who actually needs it, let the student loan repayments machine rip”—and we can see who won and lost), to their negotiations on Build Back Better (where the party’s “strategy” seemed to rely on Biden praying for the votes of Manchin and Sinema), to the injunction against the railroad workers. Nevertheless, union members talking with union members about the real sources of their problems could help Teamsters in battleground states vote for national Democrats who (among other significant policy wins) did in fact bail out the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund by putting $35.8 billion into it from the March 2021 ARP appropriations, while also rebuilding regional constituencies that would expect so much more from the party—and have learned how to negotiate for real. Good organizing conversations around just that massive pension bailout can move a hell of a lot of people—not social media, not press releases: organizing conversations by the tens of thousands.
Supermajority, well-organized strikes with a clear and credible plan to win remain the best form of political education—unparalleled in their ability to demonstrate that the boss doesn’t give a crap about the workers or their communities, and proof that only by rebuilding robust and active solidarity can we end not just a two-tiered contract but our entire two-tiered political and economic system. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikers are demonstrating exactly this type of solidarity and coordination (despite the unsurprising but disgraceful move by the Directors Guild of America to settle while their coworkers remain on the picket lines). Teamster leaders refusing to cross the WGA and SAG-AFTRA pickets itself has been a boost, but there’s no substitute to the crisis created by 340,000 of their own walking off the job.
Imagine, just for a minute, the Teamsters slowing their contract talks down, waiting for the Big Three negotiations to catch up enough to have a two-union strike among manufacturing and supply-chain workers simultaneously, with a tightly coordinated political and community education campaign, targeting battleground states in particular. This class-wide approach, seizing the political and economic moment with workers in strategic industries reinforcing each other’s power, can create the kind of crisis for the employer class as a whole that shifts the terrain we fight on. It also would not only show millions what they have in common but also raise their expectations about what their lives can be like.
In an era of growing acceptance of racist demagogues—if not outright creeping fascism—strategy for working-class institutions has to give equal weight to strategic political education as it does to winning material gains. The two go together. The material wins in this UPS contract will be life-changing for many workers—a tremendous achievement, and nothing to diminish. We will need more, though, from all our organizations—especially those with unusually high strategic workplace leverage—if we’re going to win the country, and planet, workers deserve.