UPS, Teamsters Poised for Massive Contract Talks

'We Will Set the Tone for Organized Labor With This Contract,' Says Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien
A UPS worker at a campaign rally
A UPS worker at a campaign rally in December, 2022. (Natrice Miller/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via Tribune Content Agency)

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Negotiations are looming for the largest private collective bargaining agreement in North America, a high-stakes matchup between the Teamsters and package delivery giant UPS that could have reverberations far beyond the Sandy Springs, Ga.-based company.

The talks will determine the pay and terms of work for about 330,000 UPS workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. A new contract will also chart the path for how consumers get packages delivered to doorsteps for years to come.

And Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien intends to use the UPS contract negotiations to demonstrate what they say employees at Amazon and other large companies could get if more of them unionized.

“We will set the tone for organized labor and the entire country with this contract,” O’Brien said at a UPS Teamsters rally in Boston earlier this month.

“On August 1, if we don’t have the contract you deserve,” Teamsters General Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman told the members, “there will be no UPS Teamsters working.”

UPS said it is committed to reaching a deal before the current contract expires at the end of July. A strike would cause tremendous disruptions and lost business for the shipping giant and for commerce around the world. UPS carries about 6% of the U.S. gross domestic product and 2% of world GDP daily. UPS Inc. ranks No. 1 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

A bruising 16-day strike in 1997, the only strike in UPS’ history with the Teamsters, cost the company dearly. The company faces pressures to deliver millions of packages every day amid stiff competition and economic uncertainty. But UPS expressed confidence in striking a deal.

“We want to keep rewarding our hard-working employees with industry-leading pay and benefits while staying flexible so we can keep meeting our customers’ changing needs,” UPS said in a written statement. “We are aligned with the Teamsters on many issues,” the company added.

‘We have bargained in good faith’

The UPS-Teamsters talks, scheduled to start April 17, launch amid a rise in organizing activity nationwide and a union-friendly Biden administration. Workers at Starbucks have successfully unionized hundreds of cafés, and Amazon package handlers have organized at a New York City warehouse, though that union effort has faced challenges.

Petitions filed for union representation increased to 1,200 in the October 2022-March 2023 period, from 1,174 a year earlier, according to the National Labor Relations Board. That followed a 53% increase in fiscal year 2022.

UPS logo

There are less than four months until a July 31 deadline for UPS to reach a deal and avoid a massive strike. Yet the sides are at odds even before the start of the national negotiations.

The Teamsters on April 12 demanded UPS finish talks on local and supplemental agreements by April 17 before the national bargaining begins.

The union said the national bargaining would not start April 17 in Washington, D.C., until UPS “gets its act together.”

The Teamsters negotiating committee said it would meet with UPS on April 17 to resolve supplemental negotiations, before bargaining on the national contract.

UPS said its management will be there “ready to negotiate with the Teamsters on the National Master Agreement and the supplemental agreements” and added that both sets of discussions “often take place at the same time.”

The supplemental negotiations are for provisions not covered under the national agreement, including detailed terms on paid time off, seniority and overtime. Some of the supplemental negotiations have focused on adding Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth as paid holidays for workers.

“We have bargained in good faith since the start and will continue to review and consider all proposals that are brought to the table,” UPS said.

Other union demands

O’Brien aims to win pay increases for UPS workers — including for part-time package handlers that make far less than well-compensated drivers — and do away with a two-tiered pay system that was put into the current UPS contract.

The union wants to win other worker protections, including safer conditions to prevent heat strokes during increasingly hot summers. Other priorities are to add full-time jobs, cut the use of drivers who use their own cars to drop off UPS packages, and stop what they call “forced overtime.”

“Society and e-commerce is driving the 7-day-a-week appetite for commerce being delivered,” O’Brien said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’re not naïve to the fact that there is going to be 7-day-a-week delivery. But what does that look like when the public hits that button?”

Teamsters general president Sean O’Brien speaks to the media

Teamsters general president Sean O’Brien speaks to the media at a December rally. (Natrice Miller/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via Tribune Content Agency)

When someone hits the button to order an online item for delivery, Natalie Smalls knows what it looks like.

As a driver who delivers packages and works inside a warehouse, she said she starts her day at 6:30 a.m. to drop off packages around the Atlanta area. Later in the day, Smalls works more hours inside UPS’ massive hub on Fulton Industrial Boulevard.

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“Basically, I work a 12-hour shift and most of my life is working at UPS,” Smalls said. “I don’t get to spend that much time with my family,”

Smalls started at UPS at 19 as a part-time loader. She’s now 45. Early in her career, she lived through the UPS Teamsters strike of 1997.

“It was scary,” Smalls said. “After we made it through the whole week, it seemed UPS wasn’t going to budge.”

The 1997 strike lasted 16 days, paralyzing commerce across the country, costing UPS more than $1 billion in revenue and driving some of its largest customers to competitors, including non-Teamster FedEx.

“I still had faith,” Smalls said. “That was the only way we were going to get what we needed.”

Smalls says she now gets paid about $36 an hour to handle and deliver packages that can weigh up to 70 pounds. “It’s a lot of wear and tear on my body,” she said.

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UPS reported revenue of more than $100 billion in 2022, and profits of $1.55 billion. UPS CEO Carol Tomé’s total compensation amounted to $19 million last year, down from $27.6 million in 2021.

O’Brien wants more Teamsters members to benefit from their labor.

For example, the current Teamsters contract effective in 2018 created a combination driver classification, which is paid less than regular UPS package car drivers, to allow UPS to add weekend deliveries amid the e-commerce boom. O’Brien has said the two-tier system has caused division and unequal pay and wants it gone.

During the pandemic, “one constant in every single neighborhood was UPS people delivering packages,” he said. “UPS needs to reward these people.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC