Contract Talks by Teamsters and the UAW Have the Potential to Change Our Politics

Contract Talks by Teamsters and the UAW Have the Potential to Change Our Politics

Contract Talks by Teamsters and the UAW Have the Potential to Change Our Politics

Upcoming negotiations by these two unions could swing the 2024 election—and help rebuild democracy.


When Brandon Johnson, a union organizer, joined Karen Bass, a community organizer, as the second progressive elected as mayor of a big city in the past two years, it signaled that the Fox News fixation on crime and disorder in urban America didn’t translate to majority support for local law-and-order candidates. A decade of organizing—including high-profile contract negotiations and strikes—by revitalized teachers’ unions in Chicago and Los Angeles has educated the electorate about the true causes of each city’s challenges: privatization and tax breaks to corporations, real estate developers, and the rich, which have been steadily draining resources from public education, affordable housing, and key social services.

How “crime and disorder”—a Trojan horse for racist messaging and divisive fearmongering—will play in the presidential election is yet to be seen. But nationwide negotiations by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW) have the potential to provide swing-state voters with their own political education in the lead-up to the 2024 election. These contract talks could also refocus voters on the central issues plaguing the country: the two-tiered structure of political and economic power and the two-tiered economy that it produces. When the Federal Reserve worries that the main driver of inflation is workers’ wage growth rather than executive compensation and stock buybacks—or bails out Silicon Valley Bank while leaving workers to fend for themselves in the face of auto repossession, home foreclosure, and medical and student debt bankruptcy—that dual reality is impossible to ignore.

But when these issues and their root causes aren’t explained in clear and simple terms, they become fodder for the polarization gripping the nation. And while party operatives may welcome polarization in crafting battleground election strategies, union organizers understand that to win hard-fought elections, we have to reunify the working class around a shared analysis and understanding. Which means that workers in these two recently reformed national unions have a chance to educate American voters about who is to blame for the pain in their lives in the same way that the teachers’ unions did: by making contract negotiations a classroom that exposes the corporate elite’s destructive agenda and shows how to build a better, fairer, and more just country—starting in the workplace.

Indeed, Teamsters and UAW members are particularly suited for the task. Though the US working class is now multiracial and almost 50 percent female, the public image of a union member remains, for many, a man who drives a truck or works on an auto assembly line—in other words, the face of the workers at UPS and the Big Three automakers. Steve Bannon, Charles Koch, and right-wing strategists use this traditional image to inflame the white-grievance ideology that drives their political agenda. No one can combat these divide-and-­conquer tropes better than the unionized workers who themselves are putting forward demands for higher wages, improved retirement plans, more full-time jobs, shorter workdays, fairer scheduling, safer working conditions, and a just climate transition.

With major UPS hubs located in battleground states including Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Wisconsin, and auto plants clustered in Michigan and Ohio, these negotiations—which include the potential for big strikes like those waged by the teachers’ unions—could reset the working-class vote in 2024. These employers enjoyed record profits before and during the pandemic while shafting their workers. UPS frontline labor produced the largest annual profits in the company’s history, shoveling $12.8 billion in 2021 and $13.1 billion in 2022 into already bulging corporate pockets. Shamefully, though the UPS bosses exhausted staff during the pandemic by mandating longer work hours, they never offered a dime of hazard pay. Auto executives, too, demanded that employees earn less and less—especially in the transition to much-­needed electric car development (where starting pay is only $18 an hour despite massive taxpayer subsidies)—all while headlines in the trade press announce: “Auto Sales Are Falling, but Profits Are Surging—Welcome to the New Normal.”

Both Teamsters president Sean O’Brien and UAW president Shawn Fain have signaled they plan to go on the offensive in negotiations to reverse the decades of losses by their members while the executives were raking it in. And both have committed to eliminating two-tier contract language—which sows internal division by ensuring that newer workers get lower wages and fewer benefits while the diminishing number of longtime members enjoy a better standard. If workers in these two unions show that they are willing to strike to undo their two-tiered contracts and win big, and if they use their contract campaigns as a kind of chalkboard lesson plan for rebuilding working-class unity, they will serve as an example of how to reunify and expand a united, multiracial working-class vote.

Like political polarization, two-tiered contracts are a strategy aimed at dividing the working class. The bosses deliberately pit family members and neighbors against each other. Ending two-tiered contracts at some of the nation’s largest unionized logistics and manufacturing employers will contribute to ending the spread of poverty jobs created by the new titans of industry: Amazon, Uber, Tesla, and even Starbucks. Unions once played a central role in the political education of the working class. The Teamsters, who announced a 97 percent yes-to-strike vote by members on June 16, and the UAW have a chance to build on the brilliance of the teachers’ unions in Chicago and Los Angeles and educate everyday Americans on how to fight back and win what we need at work—and in our democracy.

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