EDITORS NOTE: Just before this posting of Marxism-Leninism Today, it was reported on July 16th that Teamster President Sean O’Brien had requested that President Joe Biden not involve himself in a possible strike at UPS.
Final union contract negotiations are proceeding between the Teamsters Union and the gigantic and super-profitable UPS (United Parcel Service) Corporation. Will the 330,000 union members be forced to strike on August 1? Will UPS agree to the reasonable demands of its workforce, preventing any work stoppage? Or, will UPS successfully use President Joe Biden to stall or even break the strike and save the company? Will Biden jump in even if the company doesn’t ask him to? With the recent spectacle of Biden’s contemptible wrecking of the rail union strike just 9 months ago fresh in mind, it’s a real possibility that the self-proclaimed “most pro-union President” may yet again prove that he’s not.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
The more than 330,000 Teamster members who work for UPS generate enormous profits for the company. This landmark battle has been shaping up for almost 30 years, and has been intensifying to an unprecedented degree this year. UPS personifies the super-profitable U.S. corporation, having generated more than $22 billion dollars in profits in just the past two years alone. UPS controls more than 43% of the U.S. package delivery market and during the pandemic the company saw a huge jump in package volumes as millions of people shopped on-line and required home delivery. UPS has systematically and scientifically designed the delivery process from beginning to end to squeeze maximum efficiency from its workforce, making UPS a very difficult place to work on account of the punishing production requirements and omnipresent management surveillance of everyone at work. Every job is continuously studied, timed, and monitored; whether it be loading the package vans or the time spent delivering them out on a route. Employees who fail to meet the onerous requirements are disciplined and fired. For more information see this detailed explanation of the UPS issues by Teamsters Local 90 President and Business Agent Tanner Fischer https://youtu.be/BL95hDDoc2U from FightBack! Radio.
Almost half of the workforce are also hired as part-timers, at far lower starting wages. Combined with the backbreaking production requirements and wages as low as $16 hour, turnover is astronomical. Many of these lower-tier, lower-paid jobs were created during the Hoffa years with his full consent, and the creeping cancer of contracting-out of UPS jobs to unorganized low-wage companies likewise took root on the Hoffa watch. Today’s battle features a major union priority of eliminating the lower-tier wage schemes and limiting and rolling back the contracting-out and loss of union positions.
THE COMPANY FEARS ANGRY UNION MEMBERS
Initial company bending on the issues of two-tier elimination, air conditioning for vehicles, and granting of the ML King Jr. federal holiday were clearly offered in the hope of pacifying the increasingly agitated workforce. In the end there are many other key issues including the all-important wage package. A substantial wage package that is overdue for many reasons, not the least of which is the galloping rate of inflation and the fact that UPS workers went all-out during the pandemic – with tens of thousands sickened and countless killed by the virus. Teamster members slaved non-stop during the pandemic but have received no bonus, no “thank you” compensation from the company for Covid-19 duty, no wage increases other than those negotiated 5 years ago when the rate of inflation was low.
The expectations of the union membership are high, and they should be. The Teamster membership – now free of the corrupt misleadership of Jimmy Hoffa – appear to be ready to fight. New Teamster president Sean O’Brien led his campaign for President on the program of mounting a serious and sustained campaign to win not just a better contract at UPS, but a contract that would correct egregious past concessions from the Hoffa era – and take members forward in significant ways over the coming 5 years. All indications are – so far – that the O’Brien campaign to win a better contract at UPS is unfolding from coast-to-coast and is being greeted by members with great support and enthusiasm.
BIDEN: STRIKEBREAKER IN CHIEF
The UPS negotiations take place in their own category, much like the giant railroad labor battle of last year. Both struggles were exceptionally large in size and national in scale, especially in a U.S. labor scene that has seen the destruction of most large pattern-type union agreements. Rail and UPS both present the possibility of some national economic impact, and both have offered simple contrasts between greedy and profitable employers on the one hand, and angry union members on the others. While the UPS battle with the Teamsters may at first glance look like just a large scale but simple union-management fracas, in reality the entire corporate establishment will be in the UPS corner. Big business and its political hirelings are well aware of the danger – to them – of a Teamster win at UPS. And where will the Biden regime come down? Since Biden actively and publicly leaped into the railroad fray, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect him to do likewise with UPS?
In the case of the railroad labor negotiations, Biden cynically inserted himself personally, and by dispatching then-Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh to insinuate his way into the multi-union rail negotiations. From the start Walsh’s only role was to avoid a strike with the giant and profitable rail carriers. The outrageous situation of the rail workforce – gross overwork, virtually serfdom conditions owing to a lack of time off, safety issues, badly lagging wages – had to be subordinated so that Biden could avoid the alleged economic damage that would result should the workers be allowed to strike. (For background on the rail fight see my previous articles: “Lions Led by Asses” | MLToday and Learning from the Biden Strikebreaking | MLToday )
Biden and Walsh both systematically played politics with the rail fray. For several months both spoke out against strike as an option, never once supporting the struggle of the rail workers openly. Never once did the Biden regime denounce the greed and perfidy of the rail barons, never once sounded the need for active federal intervention on behalf of the workers’ struggle against this corporate outrage. With the active collusion of several of the 13 rail union Presidents, as well as the rail corporations themselves, in the end the strike momentum was derailed and deflated, and the unions were defeated. The rail strike had been several decades in the making, and an uncontested case exists that a national railroad strike was not only justified, but it was also overdue. With the anti-worker “bag job” completed, the Biden White House declared victory – for itself – and promptly abandoned the whole affair. The rail corporations gleefully celebrated while the exhausted and demoralized rail workforce was left to listen to Biden’s continuous claim that he is “the most pro-union President in U.S. history.”
Throughout the entire rail labor drama, Biden emphasized over and over the “economic damage” that a strike by the 110,000 rail workers would do somehow to the national economy, even if the strike was short-lived. Of course, “the most pro-union President in U.S. history” apparently does not grasp the fact that strikes by their very nature are acts of last resort, and yes, are intended to damage the employer’s economic fortunes. Lost in the media reports of the rail debacle was the fact that the UPS showdown – then still at least 10 months off – involved a workforce 3 times as large as the combined rail union membership – and in many ways promised to be far more disruptive to the national economy. But the precedent was set and the question was posed; if Biden would crush the rail strike momentum of 110,00 union workers so brazenly, wasn’t it almost a sure thing that he would do likewise in the UPS fight?
TEAMSTER MEMBERS ALSO BIGGEST BIDEN TARGET IN RAIL STRIKEBREAKING
In a twist that is apparently unknown, it was the Teamsters Union that also bore the brunt of Biden’s strikebreaking in the railroad fight. Two unions: the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way (BMWE), combined, represented a majority of the rail union membership. Both unions have been affiliates of the Teamsters Union for several decades. These rail “operating” members also faced the direst situations with the rail carriers draconian attendance regimes as these workers travel extensively and frequently away from home in their work assignments and essentially were on-call practically every day of the year. Likewise forgotten is the fact that the Teamsters Union has been an independent union for nearly 20 years, having quit the AFL-CIO as part of the Change to Win movement in 2005. With the AFL-CIO already unconditionally in Biden’s grip ( See; Top AFL-CIO Leaders Cast Their Lot with Biden | MLToday ) it will be of paramount interest to see how the Federation and its unions react as the increasingly frantic White House scrambles to recruit labor allies in advance of the UPS showdown.
Teamsters President Sean O’Brien is well-aware that many of the AFL affiliate leaders will try to “have it both ways”, by telling the Teamsters they have their support and likewise telling Biden that they are in his corner. Many unions realize the key role of the Teamsters Union in their own employer fights, so outright abandonment of the Teamsters is unlikely. But the Teamsters will need to continue to be forceful with the slippery and weakling union leaderships all-too prevalent in the labor movement to prevent any significant public breach from developing. The role of the UPS company can be easily predicted, as it will do just about anything, and say just about anything, only needing to escape a strike. But it is almost a certainty that the Biden forces will continue to try to avoid or even sabotage a UPS strike – perhaps maneuvering that has already been underway for months.
Despite the ravings of some Democrats, folks in the political industry enriched by this regime, and Biden labor bootlickers, the Teamsters dare not trust this President in the UPS battle as these facts attest. The months-long Hollywood Writers strike has elicited little apparent White House support – even rhetorical statements. As that strike began more than 3 months ago Biden said he hoped that the striking writers are given a “fair deal as soon as possible”. Lifted from the standard say-something-but-don’t-do-anything political playbook, Biden has not even dispatched his hapless-and-in-need-of-an-assignment Vice President Kamala Harris to Writers Union picket duty. Has the First Lady or Cabinet members been asked to show overt support for the striking writers? Of course not.
The start of the far larger Screen Actors Guild strike now adds new pressure on Biden. Additional tens of thousands of union members are joining the picket line, also confronting the egregious corporate greed in their case by the entertainment overlords. Can Biden bring himself to carry a picket sign, even long enough for a cheap photo op? Can he bring himself to speak out clearly and forcefully against the corporations forcing these disruptions? Might the self-proclaimed “most pro-union President” find the time to stop by the Writers picket line, or the Screen Actor’s picket line, or any of the Teamster “practice pickets” now spreading across the country in front of countless UPS depots and garages? Will he?
THE TALE OF THE TAPE
A glance at the following video tape from just several years ago tells the tale. In an election eve scramble for Teamster votes and manpower in his 2020 election, Biden issued a message heaping praise on the Teamsters Union, and its soon-to-be exiled president Jimmy Hoffa. (A message from Joe Biden to the Teamsters https://youtu.be/SbECBQUd7Qw ) Praising the same Hoffa who systematically conceded all manner of work rules and two-tier schemes to UPS in previous negotiations. The same Hoffa who stood down at the last Teamster election certain in the full knowledge that his members would never re-elect him, led in large part by the giant UPS block of Teamster voters. The entire Biden message is for the members to support him in his election fight. Biden makes no mention of the rail strike then already taking shape, and certainly no mention of the inevitable UPS fight building even then. Almost 400,000 Teamster members work in UPS and the rail industry alone, but why bother to offer specifics about support that he would tender once the union was in need?
THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE LEFT
As the UPS contract deadline approaches on August 1st, pay close attention. A strike is not a certainty, and there may be a settlement, or an extension of time. But should the strike materialize, this will be the largest and most important labor battle for the past – or the next – 10 years. Now joined by more than 100,000 additional entertainment workers, by August 1 we may see nearly 500,000 union members on the picket line together. The Teamsters Union web site will include factual updates Front Page – International Brotherhood of Teamsters as will the web site of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, (TDU), the leading member-driven militant caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (tdu.org) Labor Notes is also a reliable source. Labor Notes | The rail strike situation proved that the bulk of the news media are either incapable of telling the factual real story of a labor fight, or are systematically interested in twisting it for right-wing purposes. Many left outlets will do their best to follow the developments, but again, be careful and skeptical of the reports manufactured by the corporate media who have unhidden loyalty to UPS.
Picket duty to support the Teamsters and the Hollywood workers, and other demonstrations of support will likely appear all-round. Anyplace where there is a UPS depot, garage, or UPS-run facility there will likely be a picket line on day one, August 1. That date may shift forward should there be an extension. It is critical that the company – and the Teamster members – see public support. The 1997 UPS strike 1997 United Parcel Service strike – Wikipedia lasted 15 days and was viewed as a major success. It also set a bar and goals that eventually led to the exit of Hoffa set the stage for today’s fight.
The U.S. left, especially the labor left, has so far played a positive role in the UPS battle, and that must continue and expand. The outcome at UPS may influence more broad labor developments, particularly at Amazon. Young workers need also take particular interest as the shape of the future U.S. workplace will be influenced by the Teamster fight.
Left for last – where it belongs – is a postscript regarding the sorry and former Biden Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. A smalltime union leader-turned-politician, Walsh rose from position to position always trading on his trade union credentials. Arriving eventually as the hand-picked Secretary of Labor in the new Biden regime, Walsh was endlessly ballyhooed as a remarkable figure, a “first”, an extraordinary union and political leader, on and on. Most major unions and the AFL-CIO praised Walsh at every turn, touting his union credentials, excited just at the thought that Biden would actually pick a union member for one – but only one – of his top spots. Where is Walsh today? The rail strikebreaking job was barely buried when Walsh abruptly resigned his position and took a multimillion-dollar job as the head of the Hockey Players Union. His supporters and worshippers were stunned and dumbfounded. As for real union members and working people, having seen his disgusting strike-breaking role during the rail negotiations, his role as special emissary from Biden to wreck the strike at all costs, Walsh now joins the ranks of exiled and discredited misleaders of labor, hopefully to be forever forgotten.
Chris Townsend is a 44 year trade union staff and organizer. He was the Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and was the International Union organizing and field director for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). He may be reached at email@example.com
This article was produced by Marxism-Leninism Today.