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UPS Teamsters begin casting ballots in strike authorization vote

By Dave Schneider

Overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote expected as contract negotiations continue

Florida Teamsters leafleting at UPS.

Jacksonville, FL – Two crucial strike authorization votes are underway at UPS and UPS Freight. On May 16, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) began mailing ballot information to all members at UPS and UPS Freight, who will vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to give union negotiators the authority to call a strike.

Teamsters at both companies can cast their ballots either online or over the phone using a secure access code received in the mail, with all votes due by June 3. The IBT will announce the results on June 5.

Denis Taylor, the union’s lead negotiator for the UPS contract and the director of the Teamsters Package Division, called the strike authorization vote earlier this month amid ongoing contract negotiations with both companies. Teamster local unions approved the vote by an overwhelming margin on a conference call with Taylor, paving the way for the union-wide vote taking place now.

The Teamsters-UPS contract is the largest private-sector collective bargaining agreement in the U.S., covering more than 230,000 workers. An additional 12,000 workers are covered under the Teamsters contract with UPS Freight, a trucking division of UPS covering small freight shipping.

Negotiations drift toward more concessions, fewer gains for Teamsters

The strike authorization vote comes as contract negotiations between the Teamsters, UPS and UPS Freight enter their fourth month, with both agreements set to expire on July 31 of this year. A ‘yes’ vote on strike authorization from members does not necessarily mean the union will call a strike, even if the contract expires before reaching a tentative agreement. However, it provides the Teamsters’ negotiators with more leverage at the bargaining table to extract concessions from the employer.

Taylor’s negotiating team entered bargaining with a set of major contract proposals submitted by UPS Teamsters across the country. The union’s proposals would address a range of critical issues facing UPSers – ending forced overtime for package car drivers, raising part-timers’ wages, imposing monetary penalties for management harassment and protecting jobs from automation, among others.

Since that time, though, news from the negotiating table has many UPS Teamsters worried. Taylor’s team has released little information beyond vague updates through the union’s UPS Rising phone app. Leaks from negotiators revealed Taylor backing off from most of the union’s major proposals and entertaining some of the company’s ideas, including the creation of a second-tier of package car drivers. These so-called ‘hybrid drivers,’ reportedly proposed by Taylor himself, would do the same job as full-time package car drivers at a lower rate.

Fighting corporate greed with a credible strike threat

Since the strike authorization vote was announced, UPS Teamster activists sprang into action to turn out a high ‘yes’ vote. The union’s hand at the bargaining table becomes stronger with a credible strike threat capable of shutting down UPS, which processes an estimated 6% of the U.S. gross domestic product and 3% of the world’s GDP in its system every day.

On the other hand, a big ‘yes’ vote also puts greater pressure on Taylor and his negotiating team to bring back a high-quality tentative agreement. It demonstrates that members are willing to fight for a contract that actually addresses their issues – and to push back against any concessions demanded by the company.

UPS’s demand for givebacks and cuts from Teamsters comes at a time when the company’s profits have reached record highs. In 2017, UPS made a profit of $4.9 billion – $1.5 billion more than the year before. Some estimates show the company profiting an additional $1 billion from the tax bill passed by Congress last year.

But for all these profits, the starting wage for part-timers at UPS, who make up around 70% of the workforce, is just $10 per hour.

Richard Blake, a UPS part-timer in Jacksonville, Florida and shop steward for Teamsters Local 512, hit the gates with other Teamsters militants in his local, handed out flyers and talked with coworkers about the need to vote ‘yes’ on strike authorization.

“The response was fantastic,” said Blake. “Part-timers don’t have a lot to lose at $10 per hour and a whole lot to gain in this next contract if we won $15 per hour and $5 per hour bump raises. Literally 100% of the package car drivers we spoke with said they planned to vote yes. They understand it’s about a credible strike threat at this stage, but they’re ready to follow through if UPS stonewalls us.”

Joan-Elaine Miller, a UPS package car driver and member of Teamsters Local 623 out of Philadelphia, sees the vote as a critical opportunity for package car drivers to defend their job standards and pay.

“A yes strike authorization vote sends a strong message to both the IBT and UPS that we, as package car drivers, realize top-rate, full-time jobs are too important to not protect.” She continued, “It’s pretty much the only leverage that puts full-timers and part-timers on an equal basis. A yes vote across the board lets the company know we’re prepared, if necessary, to withhold the labor that produced all those profits.”

Teamsters expected to vote overwhelmingly ‘yes’ for strike authorization

“I expect the outcome of the vote to be an overwhelming ‘yes,’” said Lawrence Cruz, a full-time combo worker at UPS and shop steward for Teamsters Local 396 out of Long Beach, California. In an interview with Fight Back!, Cruz said, “The strike authorization vote will play an important role in negotiations with UPS. It demonstrates unity and the willingness to go on strike if needed.”

Cruz is not alone. Teamster leaders across the country expect a strong ‘yes’ vote for strike authorization.

In a statement released through their official Facebook page, Teamsters Local 89, the largest UPS Teamsters local, said they “fully expects this strike authorization to pass. The only question is how much it passes by. The higher the number, the stronger our hand becomes at the negotiating table.”

But Teamsters leaders and fighters like those in Local 89 are still working to drive turnout higher through parking lot meetings and distributing information to members at work. According to Stephen Piercey, the Communications Director for Teamsters Local 89, “If the company believes that members aren't willing to go the distance, they aren't going to be serious about negotiating a fair contract.”

Local 89 is home to Fred Zuckerman, the leader of the national Teamsters United movement. Under Zuckerman’s leadership as president, Local 89 led the charge in voting down the concessionary 2013 UPS contract, which IBT officials eventually forced through after failing to win the members’ approval. In 2016, Zuckerman ran against current IBT president Jim Hoffa Jr. and nearly unseated the 77-year-old leader on a platform of mobilizing the members to fight for better contracts, organizing in core industries like freight and logistics, and using a credible strike threat to do it.

Building strike readiness

The historic UPS strike of 1997 was the last time the Teamsters shut down the package giant. The nearly three week strike resulted in massive gains for workers and the creation of full-time combo jobs – the “22.3 positions,” known by the article governing them in the contract. Since that time, though, wages for part-timers have remained basically stagnant and conditions in general have worsened

In 2018, there’s no appetite for another concessionary contract among Teamsters. UPS Teamsters voted against the concessionary 2013 tentative agreement in record numbers – and the problems faced by Teamsters and the company’s profits have only grown since that time, like the 70-hour work week demanded of package car drivers during last year’s peak season. While a strike at UPS and UPS Freight is a long way off, it’s by no means impossible.

The IBT has a strike fund totaling more than $152 million – an enormous amount owing to the low number of strikes the Teamsters and most international unions have called in the last three decades. During strikes, the fund can pay benefits out to members who walk the picket line to offset expenses.

But strikes are won through strong organization of the rank-and-file members, militant picket lines, and solidarity among workers – not giant strike funds alone. All of this takes preparation, which the IBT has neglected.

Many Teamster activists at UPS are stepping in to fill that void, believing that strike readiness is essential to making the threat credible.

Lawrence Cruz, who was a strike captain in the 1997 UPS strike in California, offered some advice for newer UPS Teamsters, “Be patient. We were all concerned and afraid in 1997. It's critical that we stay united, and inform our newer Teamsters about participating in a picket line. I can't overemphasize to prepare for a strike, save your money.”

While strikes reached a low point in the last few years, 2018 has seen worker militancy and the strike weapon come back with a vengeance. Richard Blake from Jacksonville sees a connection between the wave of teachers’ strikes, which began in West Virginia in February, and the fight for a better contract at UPS.

“Successful teacher strikes around the country show that standing tough can get us better contracts,” said Blake. “From West Virginia to Arizona, teachers used the biggest weapon in every workers’ arsenal – the strike – and won better pay. With so many part-timers scraping by in part-time poverty, we should take a page out of their playbook. If there was ever a time to mobilize the members for a credible strike threat at UPS, it’s right now.”

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