Embattled Hoffa Offers Two-Tier, UPSers Push for a Better Deal

A UPS Teamster fills out a Teamsters United contract campaign card. Credit: Teamsters United

In negotiations over the nation’s largest union contract, a three-way battle is raging. UPS is demanding new givebacks, top Teamsters are offering them up, and rank and filers are organizing a grassroots network to push for better—and getting ready to vote down a bad deal, if necessary.

In February, Chief Negotiator Denis Taylor threw one opposition leader off the UPS bargaining committee; in May he kicked off three more. Their apparent crime was breaking the information “brownout” that keeps Teamsters in the dark about their own contract negotiations.

“We were told that negotiations could be just two people in a room and somehow that’s acceptable,” said Matt Taibi, principal officer of Local 251 in Rhode Island and one of those tossed from the committee. “It’s not. You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people who have a stake in it.”

Word had leaked out that the union was proposing a major concession—creating two-tier pay in package delivery. New “hybrid drivers” would work 40 hours a week, which could be split between delivering packages and working inside a hub. They would work Sunday-Thursday or Tuesday-Saturday at straight time, with lower wages and without the overtime protection or weekend premium pay that full-time drivers get.

“UPS will now get drivers for as long as they want them, seven days a week, and it’s going to cost them less money,” said full-time driver Joan-Elaine Miller in Philadelphia. “It’s bad for everybody. They’re going to want to phase me out.”

Already the union has allowed UPS to create a vast underclass of low-paid part-timers who do much of the inside work—sorting, loading, and unloading parcels. But till now, package delivery jobs have been sacrosanct.

The kicker: this giveback proposal came from the union, not the company. The rationale was to protect existing drivers by shunting cost savings and overtime onto a new scapegoat.

That’s a recipe to tear a union apart. “You take the new hires and abuse them, then you think you’ll have them on board?” Taibi said. “No—you’ve humiliated them. You’ve created a second-class driver.”

EVERY STEP YOU TAKE

The contracts expiring July 31 cover 280,000 Teamsters who work at UPS and UPS Freight. UPS expects to make $6 billion in profit this year.

Members’ biggest on-the-job concerns include speed-up, forced overtime, technological surveillance, bullying by supervisors, and the low wages of part-time workers.

Drivers routinely work 10-12 hours to complete a delivery assignment spit out by a computer. Contractually, if you’re working more than 9.5 hours a day, you can request a shorter route and get on the “9.5 list,” allowing you to grieve excessive overtime and make the company pay a penalty.

But drivers say opting onto this list makes you a target for harassment by supervisors who see overtime as your own fault for moving too slow. Sensors on the truck, and in the mini-computer they carry around, are used to track drivers’ every move.

“They’re constantly hounding you,” said Mark Ham, a 30-year driver in Iowa. “They pull you aside after the morning meeting, in front of your co-workers, like being taken to the principal’s office, and say, ‘Why did it take you an extra 12 seconds at this delivery stop?’ or ‘We noticed you had your bulkhead door open for an extra 3 seconds.’”

Another tactic is the on-the-job supervisor ride. “That’s where your immediate supervisor rides with you, walks behind you with a clipboard, and takes notes on everything you do,” Miller says.

“They say they’ll have to start disciplining me if I call in sick—‘if you go by letter of the law, I’ll make everyone go by letter of law.’ They harass me about having the right socks.”

Part-timers start as low as $10 an hour. “No one wants to wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and go in loading package cars,” said Richard Dill, a 25-year driver in Charlotte, North Carolina. “You’re making that at McDonald’s. You’re more likely going to keep good people if you pay them a good wage.”

UPS also wants to routinize a 70-hour week during the holiday “peak” season. Already the company exploited a regulatory loophole to impose this change on most of the country last December. But in New England, workers forced the company to back off by organizing early-morning rallies and boycotting an early start time on Mondays.

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“Guys are tired,” said Dill. “They’re tired of the long hours, getting home late, and then you forced them to work 70 hours during Christmas. Physically and mentally you cannot sustain that.

“My biggest fear is not hurting myself, but hurting somebody else. I mean, I’m an ex-football player and I went to college. But I don’t care how much training you’ve got. Your body gets tired.”

A GROWING OPPOSITION

Five years ago, members furious over givebacks voted down many of the local supplement agreements to the last UPS contract, holding up the national deal. Teamsters (IBT) President James P. Hoffa finally imposed the supplements despite the “no” votes.

Since then, opposition forces inside the union have grown stronger. In 2013, “one guy started a ‘vote no’ page on Facebook, just on a whim,” said Mark Cohen, a 21-year driver in New York City. “By the end of that contract it had 5,000 people. Now he’s got 17,000 people on that page.”

Leading the battle against concessions is the partnership of Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Teamsters United, the TDU-backed opposition slate that nearly toppled Hoffa in the 2016 election for the union’s top officers.

The election was a squeaker. The Teamsters United ticket won six vice president seats and 48.5 percent of the overall vote. The reformers won outright in most locals that represent UPS workers.

This year, Teamsters have three competing sources of information about negotiations—the employer, the international union, and the rank-and-file network.

To get the company message out, UPS has created a mobile phone app that it’s urging employees to download. “They bring it up every day,” said Ham. Many of his co-workers are reluctant; they’re worried the app will be used to track their cell phones. So UPS is offering incentives: “They’re going to have a drawing for this gas grill-smoker for anybody that joins the app as a full-timer.”

The union has its own website and app, UPS Rising. “They have local officials telling people that’s the best place to get information about the contract,” Cohen said. “I think it does the members such a disservice, because that website offers the members absolutely no information.”

GIVEBACKS WON'T FLY

The insurgents aren’t using an app, but they do have their own online hub, UPS Teamsters United, which sends out email and text updates. Cohen also set up a website to share substantive updates about the local supplement negotiations. He says text messages and Facebook are good ways to reach people who don’t check email as often.

“But at end of the day, you still need the boots-on-the-ground type of campaign,” he said. “It’s the one-on-one conversations with members that effect change.”

So the insurgents are also organizing the old-fashioned way: leafleting at the workplace gates, meeting in the parking lot, and spreading the word on the job. Stewards coordinate regionally through conference calls. In New York, workers are wearing rubber bracelets with the slogan “Teamster contract unity.”

“We’re the real deal,” said Miller. “Everybody’s worried about the contract, so when you’re there and actually have honest answers and information, that makes them pay attention.”

The current push is to get as strong as possible a “yes” vote in the union’s strike authorization vote. Results will be announced June 5.

“The key is to get participation up now, so that the IBT and the company can see that an unacceptable contract won’t pass,” said Taibi. “That’ll be the first step.”

“We’re not trying to undermine the IBT,” Miller said. “We’re trying to let them know, ‘We are the IBT. You have failed us the last three contracts and we’re paying attention. You’re not going to get away with selling us up the river this time.’”

Jonah Furman contributed reporting to this article.

Alexandra Bradbury is editor and co-director of Labor Notes.al@labornotes.org