Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Teamsters across the country have been thrust into an unexpected crisis of unforeseeable proportions. At UPS, no sooner did many of us find out that we were a part of the “essential workforce” than we were fighting on the shop floor to protect ourselves from the virus.
The same situation applies to Teamsters in grocery distribution, waste, and many other fields.
The demands coming up from the members were clear, simple and absolutely necessary — social distancing in the workplace, access to as much personal protective equipment (PPE) as needed, paid sick leave and hazard pay for all essential workers. Workers in all other essential industries, union and non-union, demanded the same.
While the moment was terrifying, conditions were very good for us to fight back. We were declared essential workers by the federal government, meaning that our employers were under historic pressure to maintain production and service levels.
In exchange for allowing operations to continue during the crisis, unions can, and some have, demand major concessions. We provide the labor, and when labor is in demand we hold all of the cards.
On March 18, not even two weeks into the crisis, IBT Parcel Director Denis Taylor announced that the IBT had reached an agreement with UPS. Two weeks of paid sick leave were to be provided to workers affected by the virus, and short-term disability benefits were to be expanded. While these were important, the concessions did nothing to address the lack of safety equipment or hazard pay.
Into this void, Teamster locals have stepped up in incredible ways to provide PPE to their members. Some really stand out, like the members of Local 804 that find themselves at the epicenter of the pandemic in New York City. This rank-and-file pressure has done a lot to keep us as safe as possible.
But what can be done about hazard pay, an issue that can only be addressed by the international union? Nearly 300,000 people have signed a petition on change.org calling for hazard pay at UPS. What is Hoffa’s response?
On April 13 - nearly a month after paid sick leave was won, and long after the online petition caught national attention - James Hoffa signed an op-ed in USA Today titled “Coronavirus is a stress test for capitalism, and we see encouraging signs.” Co-written by three other labor leaders, the article heaped praise on “well-managed companies” that have responded positively to the crisis. UPS is among those companies, according to Hoffa who personally thanks them in this article for paid sick leave.
Hoffa and his fellow authors end their piece by promising that “unions are eager to work with companies who are stepping up to face the new reality,” and they cannot wait for the day when they can “hammer out agreements that will restore profits and economic growth as we emerge from this crisis, and protect as many jobs as possible as we battle it.”
Hoffa has always been a closer friend to UPS’ shareholders than he is to the Teamsters that pay his salary. During times of unprecedented profits, Hoffa imposed a concessionary contract that established a three-tier wage system at UPS, despite a majority ‘no’ vote from the members and UPS’ expressed willingness to return to the negotiating table.
During the worst crisis in modern times, he does not change an ounce. Hoffa does not talk about improving the livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands of workers being forced to work through a viral pandemic, he talks about prioritizing corporate profits.
Every Teamster should remember where Hoffa and his allies stood during the COVID-19 crisis. The interests of the members could not be farther from their minds. All that they are concerned with is the profits of multi-billion dollar corporations. In 2021, we have a chance to elect leaders that will always put the interests of the rank-and-file first. Teamsters across the country should look to the principled leadership of the O’Brien-Zuckerman slate during this crisis, and go all-out to bring them into office in 2021.
By Sean Orr, Package Car Steward, UPS, Chicago Local 705