Detroit Union Education League panel: UPS workers have mixed opinions on tentative contract
A panel of UPS workers discusses the tentative contract between their union, the Teamsters, and the logistics giant at a panel hosted by the Detroit Union Educational League. | Photo courtesy of DUEL

DETROIT—As summer comes to a close, the labor movement continues to heat up. Strikes, contract campaigns, and union drives are sweeping the U.S. Workers in manufacturing, education, transportation, retail, food service, and entertainment are all organizing to demand better working conditions.

One of the largest potential strikes facing the nation in recent months was that of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the labor union representing 340,000 workers of the United Postal Service (UPS).

Preparing for a transition into their next five-year contract, workers put pressure on the multi-billion-dollar corporation to meet their new demands. Had an agreement not been reached, it would have triggered the largest private-sector strike against a single company in U.S. history.

On July 31, the Teamsters Bargaining Committee recommended the new contract to the membership; voting is underway through Aug. 22. The new contract terms would ensure massive gains for many at UPS, including higher wages for full- and part-time workers, 7,500 new full-time positions, air conditioning in delivery vehicles, and other benefits. While the deal is substantial and being hailed in the media as a historic win, it still leaves some concerns unaddressed.

One day before the contract was finalized, the Detroit Union Education League (DUEL) hosted a panel discussion with four rank-and-file UPS workers and members of the Teamsters union in Detroit, Local 243. Panelists Josh, Jason, Emily, and Severn, who all work in different positions and warehouses at UPS, offered their thoughts on the new contract, and what lessons could be taken from their effort.

When asked their view on the strengths and weaknesses of the new contract, the panelists agreed it presents a mixed bag.

Severn, a UPS worker out of Lansing, Mich., noted, “A lot of what we gained was just rolling back previous concessions. It’s important to keep bringing this energy forward, we can’t stop here.” Many have persistent reservations about the benefits offered to part-time workers at UPS, who comprise over 60% of the company’s workforce, the panelists noted.

Although the contract contains higher wage increases than any previous deal, the rates are locked in proportion to employees’ starting wages. That means part-timers get a much smaller raise than their full-time coworkers, despite doing similar labor at the same company.

Emily, a shop steward out of Lansing, remarked: “Every little bit helps, but many of my coworkers agree our pay still isn’t enough to have economic security, or buy a home. There were a lot of part-timers at the helm of this fight, but we’re not seeing the same returns. Drivers make more than twice the hourly wage that warehouse workers do.”

In addition, there are substantial barriers to earning full-time employment at UPS. Although the new contract creates 7,500 new full-time Teamsters positions, in a union of over 340,000 members, that’s a small number of employees eligible for a chance at advancement.

Emily added, “It’s very rare for a part-timer to get a full-time job without becoming a driver first, and there are many people who can’t do that. Deaf employees and anyone who wouldn’t be able to work a 60-hour week, like single parents or people with medical restrictions, would be excluded.”

Additionally, the Teamsters have no oversight of the qualification process; UPS has total control. The panelists argued that union oversight and a shorter work week for drivers would not only improve conditions for current drivers, but allow many more employees to build towards full-time work. The new proposed contract does not fully address these concerns.

Emily’s own experience trying to gain a full-time position at UPS was predictably difficult. “Before I tried to qualify, I was a union steward and activist. I was filing grievances on supervisors; I was enforcing the contract. And it was no surprise to me that when I tried to qualify, they gave me the hardest route, over-supervised me, and disqualified me days before the deadline. They used me for as long as they could and then sent me back to the warehouse.”

The panelists emphasized the need for stronger unity among coworkers, particularly between those working full- and part-time.

“I’ve realized how important the union is for my livelihood, for all of our livelihoods,” Emily noted. “But I see the wage disparity as an existential threat to the union. There is solidarity between the two, but when I go to work, I still feel the underlying culture that part-timers are a class beneath the drivers. The truth is they need us, and we need them.”

She continued, “Workers alone are what made UPS $100 billion in revenue last year alone. Just under $14 billion of that was pure profit.”

“When bargaining started, UPS wanted to give us absolutely nothing,” Jason, a shop steward and worker at UPS for over 25 years, explained. “They gave massive amounts of money to themselves and to investment bankers, but nothing to the workers who make the company run.”

He then offered the audience a brief history lesson, continuing, “When UPS first went on strike back in 1997, the company was shut down for 15 days, and it took ten years for them to recoup those losses. It hit the executives’ own pockets. But today, it’s a publicly-traded company. Wall Street has a lot of loans and shares tied up in UPS. Now, they would be gambling with public money, with your money—and the losses would be astronomical. That’s what’s at stake.”

When taken as a whole, it’s clear that UPS is exploiting the division between full- and part-timers to pay a majority of their workforce as little as possible. Jason noted that in his decades of experience at UPS, he’s seen the “cushy” benefits come and go.

“What some full-timers don’t see coming is the bigger fish down the line. You may have spent years voting to take care of your own needs, but eventually, your group is going to shrink. Your co-workers may leave, or pass away. You’ll find yourself outnumbered by the ‘lower guys.’ Then, the company will come in and cut your benefits, cut your pension, and you’ll be right down with the others.”

It’s a valuable lesson for other unions to take note of: Disunity at any level can ultimately be used to bring everyone’s benefits and wages right back down.

Josh, a part-time pre-loader out of Detroit, stated:

“I take every opportunity to talk to my coworkers and make sure they understand that any changes in the workplace come from the bottom, from the rank-and-file. When my coworkers talk about the benefits they enjoy at UPS, I make sure to let them know, UPS didn’t give you that. The Teamsters did!”

Emily added, “What we got from UPS and our bargaining committee was only because we lit a fire under them. And I believe we could have gotten a lot more if we did go on strike.”

The importance of solidarity extends far beyond the shop floor at UPS. Jason remarked, “a co-worker of mine was called an ‘economic terrorist’ for being willing to strike. That’s unacceptable. We need the public to realize that when we fight for ourselves, we fight for all other workers, too. When we elevate ourselves, it puts pressure on other employers to compete with that. This is a struggle we’re all in together.”

He continued, “Labor laws in the U.S. are in place because we fought for them. If not for the bloodshed in the 1930s and ’40s, you would be working every weekend, 16-hour days, you’d have no overtime, no benefits. Those are things that unions fought for, that people died for. Even if you’re not in a union, you can thank a union for labor laws.”

The Teamsters’ new tentative agreement with UPS represents both historic progress and challenges. The labor movement’s triumphs have shaped the modern workplace, but gains have never been won without resistance. The ongoing struggle of workers at UPS should remind us all of the significance of collective action, unity between full- and part-time employees, and the pivotal role unions play in shaping our livelihoods.

The strength of the labor movement lies in its unity and determination to build a more equitable and prosperous future for every worker.

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Emma DeLuca
Emma DeLuca

Emma DeLuca is a community organizer based in Detroit.