The contract that Teamsters just won at UPS isn’t perfect, and we should keep broader strategic goals in mind when evaluating union settlements. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that this is the best UPS contract ever negotiated.

UPS workers hold placards at a rally held by the Teamsters on July 19, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. (Frederic J. BROWN / AFP via Getty Images)

Sam Gindin’s recent article in Jacobin on the new UPS Teamsters contract provides a good roadmap for socialists organizing in the workplace as to what to fight for going forward. But as a concrete analysis of the context and outcomes surrounding the contract, it falls short.

First, it’s not true that the contract didn’t address part-timers’ concerns. Talks broke down on July 5 specifically over part-time wages, and that was the big sticking point when it came time for the settlement — the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) leadership was going down to the wire to address the core issue that part-time UPS workers cared about. There were other part-timer issues addressed as well, including stiffening the penalties on supervisors working (stealing bargaining unit work, a big workplace issue) and strengthening transfer rights between facilities to make it easier for part-timers to keep their jobs when they move.

Gindin’s discussion of tiers is misleading too. He is correct that the new contract leaves intact the part-time/full-time divide that has been in place since 1982. But as I wrote previously, no UPS contract since the divide was introduced in 1982 has done more to reduce that divide than the 2023 contract. Even with the creation of the new tier for new part-time hires, no UPS contract has brought up the bottom of the UPS wage distribution more than the current one. And while there are wage increases across the board for all job classifications and seniorities, the biggest wage increases are concentrated among the lowest-paid workers.

True, the contract doesn’t abolish the wage gap between part-timers and full-timers, but it closes the gap more than any prior contract. I’m not sure we could expect IBT leadership, no matter how militant and strike-ready, to be able to eliminate the part-time/full-time divide — which has been built up over forty-one years — in a single contract.

Gindin notes several of the noneconomic issues that were addressed in the new contract, but still argues that IBT leadership didn’t do enough to address workplace issues. In doing so, he ignores a few key protections that UPS drivers won regarding work time. One is the elimination of the “sixth-day punch,” i.e., forced overtime.

Another is strengthening so-called “9.5 rights,” which govern the length of the workday. It’s not everything that UPS Teamsters wanted (such as the right to turn the truck around and bring it back to the center after nine and a half hours), but it increases the penalty so that drivers forced to work more than this are paid at four times the standard rate. So if you’re a regular package car driver who will be making $49 an hour by the end of the agreement, UPS would have to pay you close to $200 an hour to make those overtime deliveries.

The Question of Full-Time Jobs

Gindin’s analysis is flat-out wrong when it comes to the question of creating full-time jobs. He minimizes the gains of the 1997 contract, which forced UPS to convert 20,000 part-time jobs into 10,000 higher-paid full-time jobs. He claims that “only a fraction of these jobs materialized for part-timers,” and that “all proposed increases in full-time employment under the new agreement would be subject to growth in business.”

His evidence for these claims is a March 20, 1998, report written by Leo Troy for the right-wing Heritage Foundation. While there is nothing wrong with reading and citing right-wing, pro-business sources, context is key. Here, the context is that Troy is trying to reassure his right-wing, pro-business audience that, media coverage aside, UPS actually didn’t suffer a resounding defeat at the hands of Ron Carey’s Teamsters, and that the purported gains were illusory.

This is very much on-brand for Troy, who built his entire academic career on proclaiming the terminal decline of unions and the futility of trying to revive them. But it is strange for a labor intellectual of Gindin’s caliber to repeat Troy’s pro-company propaganda as if it is fact.

Moreover, Troy’s report was written in early 1998, just months after the 1997 strike, so he was prognosticating about what might happen with full-time job creation at UPS in the future. But twenty-six years after the strike, we can look and see what happened with full-time jobs at UPS. And what happened is that UPS did combine 20,000 part-time jobs into 10,000 full-time jobs (known as Article 22.3 or “combo” jobs). In the 2002 UPS contract, then general president James P. Hoffa was able to coast on the strength of the 1997 strike and get UPS to agree to create another 10,000 jobs from 20,000 part-time jobs, although some givebacks in the 2013 contract whittled that number down to just over 14,000 today.

The 2023 contract put the full-time jobs issue back on the agenda. Taking into account the 7,500 full-time jobs provided in the national UPS agreement, along with a few thousand more in the separate Local 705 and 710 agreements that cover Chicago and parts of Indiana, there will be roughly 24,000 higher-paid full-time jobs created from 48,000 part-time jobs by the end of the contract (Article 22.3 inside workers currently make roughly $39 per hour).

This was the signature achievement of the 1997 UPS strike, and it is one of the signature achievements of the 2023 contract. It will do more to reduce the ratio of part-timers to full-timers than anything we have seen from the Teamsters since 1997.

TDU’s Role in the Campaign

Finally, it’s not clear what advantage Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) would have gained by staying more on the outside of the Sean O’Brien–Fred Zuckerman coalition and maintaining greater independence from IBT leadership. More important, I don’t think Teamster members would have benefited from that. TDU played a critical role in developing and implementing the IBT’s UPS contract campaign. Without TDU’s integration into the O’Brien-Zuckerman coalition, we simply wouldn’t have seen the same kind of militant contract campaign that we did, which involved tens of thousands of Teamsters mobilizing around their contract issues.

Would it really have been better for TDU to keep a more arm’s-length relationship to the contract campaign, with the result being a worse campaign and, perhaps consequently, a worse contract? I don’t think so, unless the main goal is to be able to publish articles criticizing the union bureaucracy after a settlement is announced.

I’m grateful that Gindin is reminding us of the wider horizon we have to keep in mind as we assess union contract settlements. The 2023 UPS contract may fall short in several important respects, especially if evaluating it by Gindin’s much broader set of criteria. But for all its faults, it remains the best UPS contract ever negotiated, and our concrete analysis has to start by recognizing that.

The important next step is in figuring out how to build on the contract’s gains. That involves enforcement of the existing language, but also thinking ahead: What is the longer-term game plan for closing the part-time/full-time divide? What about reining in management harassment, or exerting greater control over proposed technological changes? There is no shortage of vitally important issues left for UPS Teamsters to address that aren’t adequately addressed in the current contract. But that contract puts them in a much better position to address those broader issues than they were before.

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