By DAVID BERNT
A groundswell of resistance has developed among rank-and-file workers to a proposed concessionary contract at shipping giant United Parcel Service. Details of the five-year tentative agreement, which covers 240,000 workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, were revealed in early May at a meeting of local union officers. The UPS contract is the largest collective bargaining agreement in the United States.
When negotiations began, IBT General Secretary Ken Hall declared that the talks were going to be about gains for the members and concessions were off the table. Hall declared he would hold the line on pensions and health care and negotiate significant wage increases for low-paid part-timers, new full-time jobs, protection from management harassment, and reduce mandatory overtime for drivers, among other contract improvements.
Unlike most union bargaining these days, the IBT stated it would go on the offensive—looking for improvements instead of simply attempting to stop the bleeding of concessions. Many rank-and-file Teamsters applauded the move, considering UPS’s $4.5 billion in after-tax profits and its dominance in the parcel market.
Despite being a massive bargaining unit at a highly profitable employer, UPS Teamsters have a laundry list of grievances. The majority of union workers at Big Brown are part-time warehouse workers, who are paid poverty-level wages. The company seeks to make these jobs so unattractive in order to encourage turnover, so workers don’t stay around to enjoy increased pay and benefits. Those who do stay are harassed so management can replace them with cheaper new hires.
Full-time opportunities take years to get, and if a part-timer doesn’t or can’t go driving it could take decades to get a full-time warehouse job. Full-time drivers, on the other hand, are paid well—yet they endure insane production standards, forced overtime, and management pressures.
For UPS drivers, 11 and 12-hour days are the norm, as the company prefers to make them work long hours instead of hiring more drivers and thus incurring the health-care and pension benefit costs. Drivers are constantly harassed about their production; they are time-studied and given a daily report about their performance. Injuries are common. Drivers are forced away from their families and personal lives, and deal with constant harassment from management.
However, the focus of bargaining shifted quickly after UPS proposed that members covered by UPS’s company health-care plan pay $90 a week in premiums, up from the current $0 premium. Hall declared to members that this was unacceptable and that UPS Teamsters “won’t pay $90, $9, or 9 cents.” The IBT organized rallies across the country in UPS parking lots and union halls to defend heath-care benefits. The calls for contract improvements took a backseat to “defend our health care.”
When the contract language was revealed, UPS Teamsters were disappointed to find few gains. Wage increases in the new contract are less than under the current contract. There are no additional raises for part-timers, and starting pay will be a measly $10 per hour for the life of the contract. Only 2350 new full-time warehouse jobs will be created, as compared to the 20,000 created in two previous contracts; in many buildings part-timers need 15-20 or more years of seniority to bid a full time warehouse job.
Wage progression to top scale for full-time jobs is increased from three years to four. The anti-harassment language is weak, and many UPS drivers fear it won’t be enforced. Harassment is a critical issue especially for drivers, as UPS has installed GPS and sensors that monitor everything drivers do throughout their work day. Management uses the slightest infractions as a pretext to discipline and terminate drivers. Drivers were also looking for improved language to stop forced overtime; the contract again came up short.
However, what has really enraged UPS Teamsters is a new health-care plan that will cover 140,000 members. Members in the Central, Western, and Southern states would be moved from the current UPS-run health-care plan to a union-run plan with inferior benefits. Under the new plan members would pay higher deductibles, get a worse dental plan, pay more for prescriptions, and have higher co-pays. While the new benefits would still be better than what most working people have, most working people don’t work for the largest and most profitable transportation company in the world.
UPS rank-and-file workers are asking why their union is taking concessions at a company that is making record profits. UPS reported they made over a billion dollars in profit in the first quarter of this year on the very same day news broke of the tentative agreement. Many part-timers have stuck with the company despite the low wages and lack of hours exactly because of UPS’s good health care. Every co-pay and deductible could be a serious hardship for many part-timers.
Additionally, health-care premiums for both current and future retirees will be raised from $50 a month to $300 by the end of the contract.
It is important to note that the driving force for UPS’s demand for health-care concessions is Obamacare. The Cadillac tax, which penalizes employers who offer health-care plans deemed too generous, is giving companies the green light to slash benefits.
As details emerge from the Obama-care regulations, it has been revealed that union-run health plans will be disadvantaged in terms of access to state-run exchanges, and low-wage workers in these plans will be ineligible for subsidies like workers in company plans or those who buy insurance. This has led to fears that UPS workers’ benefits will further erode in the future when costs and penalties increase.
UPS rank and filers have not taken these attacks lying down. A “vote no” campaign has spread like wildfire throughout the country. Self-made “vote no” t-shirts and signs have been distributed among members. Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a nationwide reform caucus, is distributing leaflets with information on the contract at hubs across the country. A “Vote No” Facebook page has attracted thousands of members. Louisville Local 89’s executive board has recommended a “no” vote on the national contract.
Rank-and-file activists are optimistic that the pushback to this concessionary contract may produce results. A “no” vote on the national contract is not out of the question. In addition to the national contract, members vote on regional supplements; if any supplement is voted down the national contract cannot be implemented. In the areas where the “vote no” campaign is strongest, a “no” vote on supplements is highly likely.
Local 705 in Chicago, which has a separate contract representing 9500 workers, is still in negotiations. Local 705 has a militant tradition and usually holds out longer than the IBT and gets more. In the last UPS contract 705 bargained down to the date of expiration and extracted major concessions.
Regardless of the outcome, the “no” vote campaign that has developed is evidence of the potential for rank-and-file mobilization to affect bargaining. When former president Ron Carey lead the Teamsters, the power of the ranks was unleashed to fight the bosses, culminating in the historic 1997 UPS strike that shut down the company and won major gains for the workers. Instead of being pushed to the sidelines and forced to run “vote no” campaigns, the ranks were invited to participate in contract campaigns, and when the union went on strike, to lead mass picket lines.
A return to this type of leadership in the Teamsters, and every union, is the only way to stop the bleeding that is slowly killing the trade-union movement.
Photo: Teamsters strike UPS in 1997. Unlike today, the ranks were invited to participate in the contract campaign. By Labor Notes.