At the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) convention last week, local officers and rank and filers dissected bargaining now underway with UPS, by far the largest employer of Teamsters at 250,000 members.
To an observer who's seen nasty concessions foisted on dozens of unions, it was remarkable to hear members focused instead on advances their union has vowed to win.
Even profitable companies like Verizon and GE have forced workers to pay more for their health care and to give up defined-benefit pensions for new hires.
There are two reasons UPS workers may not get hit with such demands this bargaining round.
One is that the truck drivers and package sorters and loaders who make profits for UPS ($1.66 billion in the third quarter this year) have leverage—their jobs can't be shipped overseas. Technology is enabling tremendous speedup, but workers can't be automated out of existence.
The other reason is TDU. Teamster officials are inclined to be quite bendable when it comes to the demands of their largest transmitter of dues money, but they know that TDU is publicizing their every move. At contract time tens of thousands of UPSers rely on the reform caucus for information and for analysis of why givebacks aren't necessary.
At a September 21 meeting of officers from all UPS locals, the Teamster leader in charge of UPS, Ken Hall, was rather vague on the union's goals, but officials did attack TDU five times from the mike.
Rank-and-File Opinion Counts
Because Teamsters have direct elections for officers, top officials have to pay attention to rank-and-file opinion, at least at UPS, where members are most likely to vote. Hall plans to succeed Hoffa as president. "Hall doesn't want to look like a turkey," said TDU organizer Ken Paff. A bad contract would certainly be remembered next election.
That's why the talk at the TDU convention was not of staving off health care cuts—as in just about every other union's contract fights in the last five years—but of how to enforce the contract and beat back harassment.
The five-year contract doesn't expire till July 31, 2013, but Teamsters President James Hoffa wants to get it out of the way by March. Hall has said he will not settle early unless harassment is dealt with to the union's satisfaction.
That would mean enforceable protections against excessive overtime—UPS drivers routinely work 10- and 11-hour days. And bosses' right to discipline workers based on monitoring would be restricted. Every second of a driver's day is now surveilled, using 200 sensors in their trucks and information continually transmitted through their hand-held tracking devices.
The anti-harassment demands put on the table by Teamster leaders mirror those made by TDU.
Concessions by Other Means
Big Brown is not asleep at the wheel, when it comes to squeezing more out of the workforce. After all, its execs need to hold up their heads at the country club, when all their corporate brethren are bragging about their own workers' concessions.
So UPS has chipped away at pensions in a subtler way than making new hires take 401(k)s. With the blessing of the Teamsters International, half the company's full-timers have been shifted out of a multi-employer pension fund and put into a UPS-only fund that saves the company money (while weakening retirement for non-UPS Teamsters).
And the company has long enjoyed one of the ugliest two-tier wage set-ups anywhere, with part-timers who move boxes from trailer to truck starting at just $8.50 an hour, with no health care for a year. Turnover means UPS pays very little in benefits for half its workforce.
Still, the full-time driver in brown who humps boxes to your door makes about $31 an hour, has family health insurance fully paid by the company, and gets a decent pension. There was some talk at the TDU convention that supervisors on the floor are talking up a two-tier wage. But no one believes UPS will go for 401(k)s.
The concessions its strategists are planning look far down the road. They want to give the work of over-the-road drivers to the lower-paid UPS Freight division.
But that may not happen in 2013, because organized rank-and-file workers at UPS can make a difference in their contract terms.