In the 2002 documentary American Standoff, Teamster John Murphy stars as the protagonist in the fight to organize Overnite Transportation, then one of the largest freight trucking companies in the United States. Between 1999 and 2002, the Teamsters union struck the company in an effort to win union recognition across all the carrier’s terminals and secure a first contract. They treated the struggle as existential for the future of the Teamsters—and its new leadership within the union.
In the early minutes of the film, Murphy set the stakes for the filmmakers. The deputy director of organizing and a vice president at the international Teamsters union, he leaned forward in his chair and raised his eyebrows during the interview. “It’s a do or die situation. Failure is not an option,” he said soberly.
“For us to be an effective labor organization, we have to keep this industry unionized,” Murphy explained. “If we can’t be a major force in the trucking industry in this country, why would any workers want to join us from other industries?”
Ultimately, the strike failed. Overnite Teamsters were left without a contract, and the freight company would remain mostly non-union until UPS bought it and converted it into “UPS Freight” several years later. (It would then be sold to TFI International in 2021 and become “TForce.”) In the two decades following the strike’s end, the Teamsters’ grip on the freight industry, already tenuous since deregulation rocked trucking in the 1980s and ’90s, would loosen further. The union overall would lose roughly another 200,000 members between the late ’90s and today.
Two decades later, some labor activists hope for resurgence, not only at the Teamsters but in the broader labor movement. A key spark could be the Teamsters’ contract fight at UPS, where 340,000 workers have threatened to strike should their demands not be met in a new contract by Aug. 1, 2023. The organizing potential of a successful UPS strike is enormous: the union could leverage a strong win at UPS to achieve its twin goal to organize the mostly non-union Amazon delivery drivers and warehouse workers.
In addition to these high profile stories, there is another piece of the Teamster agenda: the reorganization of the Teamsters’ (former) bread-and-butter industry, freight trucking.
The first step is to halt decades of concessions in the union’s existing shops. As has his predecessors, Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien has promised a turnaround. “The day our administration took office was the day concessions to the freight industry ended,” O’Brien said earlier this year in a Teamsters press release. “We’re eager to get to work on negotiating contracts that raise standards and rebuild this industry for workers.”
On June 30, over 8,600 Teamsters ratified a new contract at ABF Freight, a subsidiary of ArcBest. The contract is considered by many workers to be the best in the business, with 24% wage increases for full-time drivers over the life of the contract and protections from automation and surveillance technologies. Meanwhile, TForce Freight and the Teamsters, which represents 7,000 workers at the company, came to a tentative agreement on July 13, a month after workers authorized a strike by 91%. At the time of writing, details about the TA which still needs to be ratified by member vote have not been released, but the union claims the “highest wage increases in the history of the national contract,” as well as protections from subcontracting, which is a major issue at the carrier.
However, reorganizing and raising standards in an industry fractured by deregulation and decades of recomposition is easier said than done. The conditions and structure of the freight industry today are such that—like in a semi truck—a full-on u-turn doesn’t appear possible for the Teamsters’ organizing.
The most immediate obstacle is the potential implosion of Yellow Corporation (previously YRC Freight), where 22,000 Teamsters could lose their jobs if the 99-year-old company goes bankrupt by the end of the year. Teamsters are threatening to strike the company on or after July 24 unless it pays the required contributions to health and welfare and pension funds that it missed in June and may miss again this month.
Even prior to the crisis, workers say Yellow’s contract, which expires next year but may be renegotiated early, is so subpar that it has severely damaged the union’s ability to organize in the industry.
Despite this, workers across ABF, TForce, and even Yellow are hopeful that we’re witnessing the first signs of a shift—or the first move in a three-point turn. “If we want to organize another freight barn, the Teamsters have to show what they can offer,” James Talamantes, a Local 222 Teamster in Salt Lake City, Utah, told The Real News.
The jewel of the Teamsters union—and the envy of the rest of organized labor—was once the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA). First negotiated in 1964 and the result of tireless planning and organizing, the NMFA set the wages and working conditions for 450,000 truckers across 16,000 companies.
Eighty percent of the trucking industry was unionized by the early 1970s. A trucking job was nearly synonymous with the “American Dream.” According to sociologist Steve Viscelli in The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, Teamster members’ wages were up to 20% higher than even unionized auto and steel workers.
By the time the Teamsters struck Overnite Transportation in 1999, union density in trucking had fallen to 20%, and it has continued to decline. Today, the average trucker makes less than half what they did at their peak when adjusting for inflation. Less than 60,000 Teamsters freight workers remain. The principal cause of this decline was the deregulation of the freight industry.
“The whole idea of deregulation was to knock down inflation by making the industry more competitive and driving down price,” said Michael H. Belzer, a former Teamster truck driver and economist who wrote Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation.
The inflation crisis of the 1970s and the threat posed by strong bargaining power of the Teamsters pushed a bipartisan coalition of politicians, business associations, and right-wing economists to deregulate the industry and break the union. “The Motor Carrier Act of 1980 passed and the next three years absolutely destroyed the industry as we knew it,” Belzer said.
After 1980, the bar for market entry lowered dramatically. The industry’s highly concentrated structure, which provided bargaining leverage to the Teamsters union, gave way to hypercompetitive conditions. Non-union companies and small mom-and-pop “owner-operators” flooded the industry, converting wildly profitable unionized carriers into bloated, highly indebted zombies.
“Legacy carriers just started folding one after another like a house of cards collapsing,” remembered George Stokes, a 35-year veteran of the trucking industry.
As these companies filed for bankruptcy the industry rapidly de-unionized, forcing the Teamsters, where they remained, to acquiesce to serious concessions on wages and working conditions. Today, the Teamsters are almost exclusively concentrated in “less-than truckload” (LTL) freight companies, which transport freight from multiple shippers that don’t require a full truckload trailer. The more structured nature of the LTL industry has allowed the union to keep a foothold. But in “truck load” (TL) companies, which ship full-trailer freight using “over-the-road” or “line-haul” drivers, unions are practically non-existent.
It is primarily in the TL sector where we’ve seen the dirty secret of the industry: truckers are exempt from the protections against unpaid overtime in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). “The practice of paying people for all their time, was forced out by paying people for no time,” explained Belzer. Without unions, employers who once paid truckers hourly wages began paying them “by the mile,” or the distance they traveled. Countless hours of work now go unpaid.
“A line-haul driver doesn’t get paid for a lot of his work time, like dropping, hooking, fueling or motel delays, like we do,” said Stokes, who has worked for five years at ABF, an LTL carrier, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
On the road for weeks at a time, line-haul drivers are severely overworked and sleep-deprived, putting themselves and others on the road at risk. Highway crashes increase year by year. Meanwhile, the surveillance technologies that are mandated in trucks as of December 2017 were pitched as promoting safety, but in reality have solved few of these truckers’ issues and only deepened managerial control.
The prospect of Teamsters organizing over-the-road drivers in the present regulatory environment is practically nil, according to Belzer. “There is no stability. [Drivers] are ping ponging all over the country, and there are no market control frameworks to make any of this organizable,” he said. Even if workers could organize, he continued, “the law has favored employers to just not negotiate a contract.”
Pumping the brakes on concessions
For a turnaround, the Teamsters would have to plow ahead in the LTL sector, where unionized shops no longer set the standards for the industry. The union has seen mostly failure in its attempts to organize and win contracts at XPO Logistics and FedEx Freight in the past decade. The renegotiation of freight contracts under the leadership of O’Brien gives some observers hope for the union to pump the brakes on concessions, and to begin significant organizing again.
“It’s going to be quite a challenge given the circumstances, but the social environment is more favorable now,” said Belzer.
During the ecommerce boom of the COVID-19 pandemic’s early years, freight companies renewed their alarms over a so-called “driver shortage,” which according to Belzer is a framing that papers over the dire conditions of the work but also emphasizes the importance of and potentials for the industry. “There’s a greater recognition of the need for freight transport, and they’ve also gotten down to the very bottom of the barrel in paying truck drivers,” he said.
Paired with a 97% strike authorization vote, the Teamsters were able to leverage those conditions, and specifically the profitability of ABF Freight, to renegotiate a contract that some workers view as a major victory. ABF workers’ pay previously lagged behind most union and many non-union LTL carriers. The new five-year collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified on June 30, included raises of $6.50 an hour for full-time workers over the life of the contract. That’s a 24% increase, making the company among the industry leaders in wages.
“This is gonna be like the best contract that ABF ever had,” said Talamantes, who drives with ABF Freight. Some drivers wanted higher wage adjustments that surpassed inflation, he said, “but ultimately, it’s a really solid contract.”
While Talamantes was happy about wages, he says that many drivers were concerned about forced overtime at the company, too. In his region’s supplemental agreement, there were few protections for workers from being forced in for a sixth day of work. “Sixth day punch” was not abolished in his new supplement, but it was limited to once a month.
Other concerns include uncertainty around how increased contributions to health, welfare, and pension plans will be allocated, as well as the meager wage increases for casual dock workers, which some Teamsters claim is tantamount to securing a tiered wage structure at the company.
Stokes believes that within the context of decades of concessions by the union, the contract is a win. Other improvements include more paid sick days and Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday, and prohibition of autonomous vehicles and surveillance technologies, including inward facing cameras or body sensors.
Optimistic eyes have now moved onto contract negotiations at TForce Freight, where the union and the company came to a tentative agreement on July 13. According to Todd Hurley, a 23-year Teamster and TForce driver in Reno, Nevada, the biggest problem with their contract is the lack of subcontracting protections.
“The impact of subcontracting is pretty simple,” said Hurley. “You’ve got a guy that’s laid off, sitting at home and he can’t pay his bills and put food on his family’s table because the company is allowed to subcontract in unlimited fashion.” Hurley also explained that workers lose their health insurance during layoffs and often cannot afford their COBRA premiums. Stokes at ABF told TRNN that he left the company (when it was UPS Freight) precisely because subcontracting was running rampant.
Few details have been released about the tentative agreement at TForce, but the union stated that the deal includes “the highest wage increases in the history of the national contract, protections against subcontracting, a return to work for laid-off workers, pension increases, reduced insurance premiums, language against road drivers working the dock, work preservation, and card-check neutrality.”
“We will never have as much leverage as we do now,” said Hurley. “Because in the first contract [since the company was bought by TFI International] you have to be tough on it and build off of that. If you fold up like a house of cards, the company’s gonna take advantage of that every chance they get.”
Hurley believes that after the membership voted 91% in favor of authorizing a strike and ABF secured a solid tentative agreement, the union was in a good position to demand concessions from TForce. “Hopefully O’Brien can put his money where his mouth is and get us a rock solid, strong contract that we can build on for future generations,” Hurley added before the TA was reached.
The elephant in the room
Besides the generally unfavorable regulatory structure of trucking, which some lawmakers have sought to change, the most immediate obstacle for the Teamsters in freight is the conundrum at Yellow Corporation. The company is on the verge of bankruptcy, threatening 22,000 Teamster jobs, and the Teamsters may be on the verge of a strike at the company as soon as July 24.
Trouble at the company is years in the making. Alleged financial mismanagement has plunged the nearly century-old corporation $1.5 billion into debt, including $700 million to the federal government from a pandemic-era loan, which a congressional commission described as a mistake.
The crisis reached a breaking point when Yellow attempted to unilaterally implement a change of operations that, among other issues, would force many truck drivers into jobs that include dock work—something many drivers have never done and represents a kind of flexibility for the company that the Teamsters have typically rejected in freight contracts. The Teamsters refused the proposed change of operations, which would be the second phase of the company’s larger restructuring plans.
“Instead of sitting down and negotiating a new contract with the Teamsters, they are trying to do this change of operations,” said Billy Camp, a Yellow dock worker, who has worked in freight since 1995 and held an organizing position at the international Teamsters. The union and the company agreed to address the issues by reopening negotiations on their contract, which expires in 2024, but there’s been no progress.
Yellow is claiming the Teamsters are putting the company at risk of bankruptcy and has sued them for $168 million, but the union has insisted that they’ve given billions of dollars in concessions to the company over the years to ensure its stability. “The concession stand is closed,” said John Murphy, the Teamster from American Standoff, who is now the union’s freight director, on an update call with Yellow workers.
Of Yellow’s lawsuit, Camp told TRNN that “it’s a PR move…another example of the company’s wasteful spending. This time it’s on lawyers.”
Meanwhile, blaming its low cash-flow, two of Yellow’s companies reneged on pension and health and welfare contributions in June and plans to withhold payments in July. In a delinquency notice to the company, the board of trustees of the Central States Funds, which manages half of Yellow’s Teamsters’ plans, said that workers’ health insurance claims will go unpaid and pension accruals will be terminated if payments are not made by July 23.
Murphy sent a letter to local unions instructing them to demand Yellow make funds payments by Friday, July 21, or risk a potential strike by the 24th. In the letter, Murphy quotes the NMFA: “In the event an Employer is delinquent in its health & welfare or pension payments in the manner required by the applicable Supplemental Agreement, the Local Union shall have the right to take whatever action it deems necessary until such delinquent payments are made.”
According to the Teamsters, the company offered wage increases a few days prior to deferring their required funds payments, which total $50 million for June and July. “We are not going to agree to informal offers for new wages in the hopes of getting a fair contract next year when [Yellow subsidiaries] can’t even figure out how to pay their bills right now,” O’Brien said on July 19.
In an email response, a Yellow spokesperson said that the Teamsters have refused to meet with the company over the past nine months. “Over several months, the company has made numerous offers to increase wages. Teamster leadership has irresponsibly ignored the opportunity to secure higher wages for its members,” they wrote.
Yellow has filed for a temporary restraining order in federal court to prevent a Teamster strike, reported The Wall Street Journal.
According to Camp, who has worked the docks at Yellow since 1999, members’ wages, benefits and pensions are significantly worse than most union freight companies, as well as some non-union ones. “We have the oldest average age at Yellow,” explained Camp, because workers don’t make enough in wages and retirement benefits to retire as early as other Teamsters.
Yellow’s bankruptcy would be a major hit to the Teamsters and devastating for tens of thousands of workers. But the current pay and benefits at the company and its looming crisis are already liabilities for the union, according to workers.
“They really hurt us when it comes to organizing another freight company,” explained Talamantes. When he speaks to workers at non-union companies, they often ask him about the union. “I tell them about all the benefits, but they always go, ‘Well, I’m kind of worried, because I don’t want my company to turn into Yellow.'”
Despite the concessions of the union over the past decades, Talamantes says that the difference between union and non-union is like night and day, especially when it comes to safety and discipline. At non-union companies, “they cut a few corners here and there. They pushed their employees to do more and more,” he said. “Here they don’t even try that.”
All the workers TRNN spoke to were under no impression that a resurgence of freight organizing was around the corner. A regulatory overhaul would be needed for that, according to Belzer. But neither were they quick to discount that this moment could be a turning point.
Multiple workers pointed to the pro-business concessions of the previous Teamsters leadership, led by Jimmy Hoffa’s son, James P. Hoffa. “We can’t expect Sean O’Brien in five years to fix all the mistakes that guy made in 20,” said Talamantes. “That’s why this contract that we got [at ABF] and the one that TForce is gonna get are super important.”
“It’s hard to know what’s a turning point,” concluded Belzer. “You only really know when you look back and say, ‘oh, it looks like we turned.'”