NATIONAL STRIKE? - National negotiations will resume Tuesday between the Teamsters and United Parcel Service (UPS) after a two week hiatus following the collapse of talks on July 5th. The sticking point in the negotiations appears to be over a new and higher start pay for the lowered paid part time workers. Part-timers make up sixty percent of UPS’s employees in the United States.
Teamster General President Sean O’Brien has pledged to end “part-time poverty” at UPS, whose revenue exceeded $100 billion last year with $13 billion in straight up profit. Teamsters Mobilize, a nationwide network of UPS Teamster part-timers, have demanded a new start pay of $25 an hour. Fred Zuckerman, the General Secretary-Treasurer of the Teamsters , has called for a wage “north of $20” per hour for part-timers. According to Zuckerman:
“McDonald’s is going north of $20. DHL is at $24 at Cincinnati airport. Everywhere you go, corporate America knows that if they want to have quality employees, they’ve got to raise that rate up. And UPS has got a responsibility to do the same thing for their employees.”
Sean O’Brien reported journalist Teddy Ostrow says that he’s fighting for $23 an hour for new hires. Even UPS announced last week that it was prepared to sweeten the deal on pay increases. In a press release, it said:
“We are pleased to be back at the negotiating table next week to resolve the few remaining open issues. We are prepared to increase our industry-leading pay and benefits, but need to work quickly to finalize a fair deal that provides certainty for our customers, our employees and businesses across the country.”
All of this may appear to be good news for part-timers. However, during the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic, UPS started new part-time workers well above the negotiated union pay scale to get workers in the door and retain them. Ranging from $20 to $23 an hour these Market Rate Adjustments (MRA’s) were well above the union scale. Starting on August 1, 2020, 2021, 2022, UPS part-time new hires made $14.50, $15.00, and $15.50, respectively. Many local minimum wage ordinances match or exceed these rates.
Dom Belcastro, a part-timer at UPS in Portland, Oregon, wrote into Tempest magazine:
I work as a part timer at the Portland, Oregon Swan Island hub, and I started in August 2021 at $26, and now currently make $23 an hour. For some extra context on the abysmal contractual starting rate and UPS’s desperation to keep PT workers, we kept that wage during peak season all the way through February 2022.
Clearly, UPS is not only able but willing to pay a new start pay north of $25 an hour, when it needs too. Keep in mind also that according to the Federal Reserve’s Inflation calculator $8 in 1982 is worth $25 today. The dispute, right now, between the Teamsters and UPS is not about how high start pay will be but how low.
Getting two-tier right
Pulling back the lens, we can see that part-timers’ low wages and brutal jobs were part of the many retreats of the Teamsters from the 1980s onward. The 1982 Teamster-UPS National Master contract cut start pay for part time wages by four dollars to $8.00 an hour. It remained at $8 or $8.50 an hour for the next three decades. As I wrote in my book The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS, “The ‘savings’ in part-timers’ wages was an important factor in subsidizing the company’s massive expansion.”
This is the proper way to understand “two-tier” wages structures—where they have become deeply embedded in contracts, especially in the industrial sector of the economy. Many of the strikes and contract battles over the last two years having been about rank and file demands to abolish two-tier in their workplaces. The John Deere, Nabisco, and Kellogg strikes during 2021, where two-tier were at the heart of the disputes. Kevin Bradshaw, a Kellogg worker and vice president of Local 252G in Memphis, Tenn, told NBC News:
“If you’re not equal in pay, you’re not equal. We’re fighting corporate greed because none of the companies asking for a two-tier system actually need it, they just want it. Time has run out on giving companies big concessions, settling for things and not fighting back.”
Abolishing two-tier has proved difficult not only because of the pots of cash employers make off of newly hired workers, but that union officials in many industrial unions are complicit in the worst practices of playing off one group of workers against one another.
The disgraced, former chief negotiator for the Teamsters during the 2018 UPS negotiations admitted in a national call in September 2018 that the start pay for part-timer had been kept “artificially low” since the early 1980s, according a report by KDRB reporter Chris Otts in Louisville, Kentucky. Because of the high turnover rate and low wages of part timers, these “savings” could be given to more senior UPS Teamsters.
“You might ask, what did we get in exchange for keeping the rates so low over the many contracts?” Taylor asked. “The answer is simple … UPS was able to save millions of dollars each year, and the Teamsters negotiators were able to extract millions of dollars more in wages and benefits during each successive contract. This model has been in place for the last 36 years.”
Such cynicism is cringeworthy even for an old guard Teamster official but revealing about their bargaining strategy for decades. We can also add that the Teamsters also got a weaker and highly stratified union with a very divided workforce. For part timers now, what would be an historical leap forward and beginning to right the wrongs of the past is that a $30 an hour start pay would be the beginning.
(Joe Allen is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service. This article was featured in CounterPunch.org.)