The Multi-Movement Organizing that Secured the Teamsters Victory
On the 25th of July, 2023, members of the United Parcel Service and the UPS Teamsters met for the first time in 20 days. They were meeting to restart negotiations. UPS had promised to deliver the Teamsters - who represented over 330,000 workers around the United States -, a contract by July 5th.
They did not.
So, the Teamsters returned to their homes across the country and they prepared for what they knew was coming, for what this had always seemed like it would become: A strike.
(A Practice Picket for the UPS Teamsters. Source: https://www.wdrb.com/ups-teamsters-practice-picket/collection_32e4c5ea-15f6-11ee-978a-3bd8e9d0e296.html )
All across the country people took to the streets in great numbers. They were practicing picketing. The display had two purposes: 1. Genuine practice, it helped people understand what the nature of the strike would actually be, and 2. To show force. The practice pickets showed everyone a pale reflection of what a real strike would look like, and even that pale reflection was immense. Hundreds of people in dozens of cities, holding signs that said: “Just Practicing for a Just Contract.”.
The pressure was building, the days ticked on. On August 1st the strike would begin. It would slow down packages everywhere, it would boost UPS’s competitor FedEx by a wide margin, and it would put pressure on those who would have to live on Union Dues for however long it took for the company to decide to end the strike. A 10 day strike would have cost UPS billions of dollars.
But then, an invitation, a meeting room. A sunny Tuesday on July 25th. Representatives of the UPS corporation and the Teamsters that work for them walk into a room, championed by Sean O’Brien, and they walk out with the “most historic tentative agreement for workers in the history of UPS”.
(The UPS committee reaches a tentative agreement. Source: https://smmirror.com/2023/07/ups-and-the-teamsters-have-reached-a-tentative-agreement-to-prevent-a-strike/ )
The agreement hasn’t been ratified, next, on July 31st, representatives from all of the 176 Teamsters local cells will meet to review and correct the contract. Then, voting will begin on August 3rd, and it will conclude on August 22nd.
But, what is in this agreement? Why was the threat of a strike even on the table, and what did the Teamsters ask for? What made this cause so important that over 330,000 people signed onto it?
“Start-time pay right now is 15.50$ an hour, and I make 16.67$ an hour, and I’m trying to move right now so the demand of 20 to 25 dollars an hour would be really life-changing for me.” Said Simon Rowe,
a rank and file teamster for their local teamster cell, 79. He is also a part-time driver and a transgender person. The tentative contract, were it to be accepted, would immediately result in an at least 4.33$ raise for Simon. The contract would also resolve the two-tier wage system, which created an environment where many workers, specifically often Part-time workers, were paid considerably less than
(A picture of Simon Rowe) other workers for doing the same amount of labor.
"...I think, you know, UPS making a pride post in June doesn’t change our experience, and we should talk about it so that we can change that environment.”
In addition to these more material concessions, the new contract will include the strengthening of anti-harassment measures, which Simon Rowe specifically mentions as an issue with the current environment that the company creates.
“I feel like it’s important to talk about. Just last week I remember looking up UPS on the Human Rights Campaign and they have a perfect score, but stuff like that doesn’t tell the whole story of the experiences of trans workers at UPS.” Said Rowe. “I mean, in my experience there is deadnaming. Because I load package cars they print out these reports daily about you know, our misloads, how many packages we got - and we’re supposed to display it but they’ve been printing my deadname and hanging it up for weeks now. Which is frustrating. There are sometimes issues with misgendering… I’ve heard stories from co-workers who are trans women facing even more harassment in terms of when they use the bathroom and comments on their identity or their appearance. Which is really awful, because I know, I’ve seen the statistics that harassment of trans workers is very common and it often pushes us out of the workplace. And I think, you know, UPS making a pride post in June doesn’t change our experience, and we should talk about it so that we can change that environment.”
And talking about it is the only way in which things as large as the teamsters movement occur. In Florida, and specifically Tampa and the area around it, the Teamsters have found themselves supported by people across political aisles. Activist Organizations like the Tampa Bay Community Action Committee have hosted events based around organizing in support of the teamsters and have sent delegations to practice pickets. And, in return, the Teamsters have found themselves embroiled in the political struggles around them, Simon being one of many teamsters who have shown up in defense of the “Tampa 5”, a group of USF students who are being charged with battery of a law enforcement officer, disruption of a school or campus function and resisting arrest without violence, despite many saying that video evidence shows that violence was perpetrated AGAINST them by police officers. The teamsters have become a large part in the call for the charges to be dropped against the Tampa 5. At every protest you can see their hand-painted shirts and their union colors, proudly marching arm and arm with Student for a Democratic Society members and TBCAC members.
(Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society Members on the practice picket. Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cu-Z6kdx2DT/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA== )
"...Just focusing on workers rights to the exclusion of everything else - then we’re just gonna leave a lot of people behind. That’s why I organize with the teamsters, but I also fight for the Tampa 5 and I’m also politically active outside of that."
“I don’t want to whitewash the history of unions being discriminatory, but acknowledge it as something that needs work and needs to be changed and that there are people doing that are doing the work to change it.” Says Simon. Rowe is also a part of a Caucus within the union called “Teamsters for a Democratic Union”.
TDU is an interest group that pushes for stronger unions that fight for their members. They have, in the past, had a contentious relationship with Teamsters leadership, as described by Rowe. Sean O’Brien was famously voted in for promising a more militant approach than past union leaders, and has for that reason maintained good relations with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
These groups within Unions like the teamsters that push for more inclusion and representation by leadership are important in keeping a Union from becoming corrupt. These groups gaining more popular support is indicative of a broader change in the attitude of the labor movement as well.
“We all need that kind of worker protection. It’s not just trans people, it’s not just gay people, it’s also members of color within the union. Black people, latina people, and their rights also need to be fought for and respected. And so just focusing on workers rights to the exclusion of everything else - then we’re just gonna leave a lot of people behind. That’s why I organize with the teamsters, but I also fight for the Tampa 5 and I’m also politically active outside of that.”
“Because, I don’t know - Workers rights will encompass trans rights, I see them as things that we need to fight for together and I’m glad to see a- frankly a big change in the labor movement to fight for and include us. I think our future is bright.” Says Rowe.
The Teamsters sudden rise to prominence and wide-support is also part of a broader social movement. For the past few decades, the labor movement had been on the decline, according to Rowe. “With the strike-breaking of the Reagan era and the loss in membership overtime, and the awful rise in things like the right-to-work bills like we have here in Florida that make unions not as powerful as they could be and really just decimate membership.” Cites Rowe, referencing the right-to-work policies in Florida which prohibit employers from making unions compulsory, or for not hiring folks based on their union status, encouraging lower union membership rates.
(A protest against Reagan's anti-union policies. Source: https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/today-in-labor-history-reagan-fires-air-traffic-controllers/ )
“Despite awful laws that weaken unions, membership is going up. Despite this union busting bill that passed in Florida a couple weeks ago, public sector unions are working hard to build up membership and switch over to a new dues system even though it’s ridiculous that they have to do that, they’re still putting in the work, and it’s fantastic what they are able to accomplish despite that. With people working harder than ever before, and more young people joining the movement, we’re really seeing this resurgence and this increase in strikes. Because, you know, conditions aren’t great right now, with rising inflation and the economy being weak, there are plenty of reasons to want more and to demand more, it’s just now we’re finally going to be in a time where we can get everything we deserve, that we have worked hard to earn. That’s part of why I’m excited to see what happens on August 1st.” Says Rowe.
When this was initially said, a strike seemed like the only thing that was possible. Now, the world waits with bated breath as the teamsters head to the negotiating table and prepare for a long month of voting. Will this contract be ratified? What additions will be added in the process? These questions still remain in the air, and they will remain until August 22nd.
There is one demand that the Teamsters make that goes unnoticed by many, who turn their eyes instead to the understandably noticeable monetary changes or the dissolution of the two-tier wage system.
This change is the fact that UPS vans, large machines made of steel that drive constantly throughout the day, often with no doors and large windows, will be given air conditioners. It is especially notable that even in a place as hot as Florida, where Rowe is from, UPS drivers were not given air conditioning, and were often forced into 6 day work weeks. And, that in order to get that concession, it took mass-organizing, across movement lines.
The situation is ongoing, but Rowe says: “I think our future is bright.”
This article was written by Samira Burnside. For leads, inquiries, or comments, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org