This article is being co-published with In These Times.
On one Sunday morning in early August, rank-and-file UPS workers with the Teamsters began trickling into their union hall in East Providence, R.I. The workers greeted each other and picked at a spread of donuts and coffee before taking their seats. Nearby, a cardboard box of tubes and an unpackaged stack of posters sat unnoticed.
The members of Teamsters Local 251, which represents more than 1,100 UPS workers in Rhode Island, had been using these materials to make protest signs for “practice pickets” at their UPS facility. After contract negotiations between the Teamsters and UPS broke down July 5—and it increasingly looked like the union might strike—workers ramped up their organizing efforts across the country to send a strong message to the company: We will strike if we have to.
The pressure appeared to pay off. On July 25, just a week before the contract deadline, the two sides returned to the bargaining table. Within hours of sitting down, the Teamsters announced they had reached a tentative agreement with UPS, temporarily stopping what would have been one of the largest single-employer strikes in U.S. history. On July 31, in a nearly unanimous vote, two representatives from each of the union’s participating UPS locals met in a committee meeting and endorsed the agreement. (Louisville Local 89 originally chose not to endorse the tentative agreement because of an unresolved issue, but later reversed its decision.)
At that point, the UPS Teamsters membership had just under three weeks to vote on the temporary agreement.
If approved, the deal would, among other things, abolish a two-tier wage system for delivery drivers; end forced overtime on drivers’ days off; create thousands of new full-time jobs; eventually equip the package car fleet with air conditioning and other heat protections; and provide raises and an extra paid holiday. But there were some things the union had wanted that it didn’t completely secure.
So on this particular early August Sunday, Local 251, much like other locals across the country, was taking time to meet with membership and discuss the temporary agreement, to review what they had won and what they didn’t, and to decide whether to send their leadership back to the bargaining table for more—or perhaps to stop bargaining and strike.
It was not immediately clear how the hundreds of thousands of Teamsters across the union’s 176 UPS locals would vote on the tentative agreement. No single local could tell the full story. Text messages and phone calls with members across the country revealed a diversity of opinion and ambivalence. Priorities, expectations and reactions varied by region, by local, by facility, by worker.
After spending a few days with Local 251, it became clear that many of these UPS workers’ thoughts were not as cut-and-dry as the blunt viewpoints that had been amplified online or in mainstream media. Workers I spoke with approached the decision critically. They considered it individually—how the contract would affect themselves and their families—but also collectively—whether it was good enough for their coworkers, the union and the broader labor movement.
As labor sociologist Barry Eidlin observed in a Jacobin article, despite the major gains won by the Teamsters in the tentative agreement, the idea of completely averting a strike was disappointing to some. A vocal activist segment of UPS Teamsters who emerged (it was difficult to gauge how large of a group it was), Eidlin explained, “felt that a strike was necessary not only to win more at the bargaining table, but to send a message to UPS and to galvanize the broader public.”
Despite their complex—and sometimes contradictory perspectives—the more than a dozen workers I spoke with from Local 251 were generally supportive of the agreement—and their views were largely reflected in the contract’s eventual approval.
On August 22, the contract was ratified by 86.3%.
Back in Rhode Island on that early August Sunday, the roughly 70 attendees took their seats in several rows of foldable chairs, and the meeting began. It was the first of three such contract review sessions the local would hold over the next couple weeks. Members watched attentively, several scribbling notes with key information.
Local 251’s principal officer, Matt Taibi, who spent much of the previous four months in Washington, D.C. as a member of the union’s national negotiating committee, started the meeting with a disclaimer: no contract is perfect, he said, but they felt they had secured the best deal they could. Taibi urged respectful discourse and noted that, while he and the rest of the local leadership were recommending a “Yes” vote, members should vote how they wish.
There was some sense that they were trying to be measured, but overall there was an unmistakable air of triumph from the union leadership. Matt Maini, one of the union’s full time representatives, colored the session with battle stories from inside the bargaining room. The room erupted in cheers at each win and cascaded into boos and head-shakes when union leaders presented the concessions that UPS had initially demanded.
Speaking into the microphone with a cool pride, Taibi conceded that they had failed to make gains on two of the membership’s key demands: First, reducing the progression, or the number of years it takes full-time workers to reach their top wage rate. Second, getting UPS to pay for the company-branded socks that drivers are required to purchase should they decide to wear shorts on a hot summer day. The latter shortcoming earned a round of laughter in the hall.
After the presentation, a few members raised their hands with questions. One driver wanted to know whether his wages would be cut if he’s forced by the company to work in the warehouse. Another asked who will get priority for the facility’s new full-time jobs. The meeting began and ended less like a contract review session and more like a celebration.
“Overall, I like what I see with the contract,” William Dempsey said immediately after the meeting.
Dempsey, who has worked eight-and-a-half years at UPS and was one of the few part-time workers at the meeting, makes $20 per hour and would make $28 by the end of the five-year contract—a 40% increase—with the deal.
“As a part-timer, I still have to have a second job and I go to school too,” Dempsey explained. “So that won’t change, but a little extra money in the paycheck always helps.”
“$25 an hour minimum would’ve been nice,” he continued, “but, I mean, you can’t get everything.”
Dempsey added he hadn’t read through the full contract yet and wasn’t sure how he was going to vote, but he was leaning toward yes.
Jose Ortiz, who has worked for two years at UPS driving tractor trailers, wasn’t as impressed. “The money is good, but I wanted a two-year progression,” he said. Even working one of the highest paid jobs at UPS, Ortiz believes that, with this contract, it would take too long for him to reach his top wage. “Everything is going up. It’s not enough to survive.”
Whether workers won enough in the tentative agreement was a debate playing out across the Teamsters since it was announced. As expected, the union’s international office sang its praise across social media, through its UPS Teamsters phone app and in the ensuing media avalanche.
“We’ve changed the game, battling it out day and night to make sure our members won an agreement that pays strong wages, rewards their labor, and doesn’t require a single concession,” Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien declared in a July 25 press release. “This contract sets a new standard in the labor movement and raises the bar for all workers.”
Chief among the agreement’s advancements is the abolition of a despised two-tier wage and protection system among delivery drivers. It was the introduction of this concession in the 2018 tentative agreement that spurred many rank-and-file Teamsters, with the help of the reform union movement Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), to organize a successful “Vote No” campaign on the contract that year. The UPS Teamsters membership rejected the deal by 55%, but the union leadership, helmed then by James P. Hoffa, ratified it anyway using an undemocratic loophole in the union constitution. That loophole has since been struck from the books, ensuring that, this year, a simple majority vote couldn’t be overturned.
This 2023 deal, which members ratified with an unprecedented 58% voter turnout, was the culmination of the Teamster’s year-long contract campaign that became one of biggest stories in the world of work. It also reflected the longer-term organizing by the TDU, which has aimed to push the union out of pro-business complacency and into a more aggressive stance toward bargaining and organizing nonunion shops.
“The contract campaign was a model,” Rand Wilson, who was an organizer on the UPS campaign with TDU, tells me. “The scale of it; the steady drumbeat; the utilization of new technology … It yielded the best contract that people have seen in a very long time. It sets the standard now.”
Workers in other companies are taking notice. According to Luis Feliz Leon’s reporting in Labor Notes, workers at Amazon, who the Teamsters are actively trying to organize, are already setting their demands higher. “The UPS workers have raised the standard, and we know that’s going to put pressure on Amazon from outside,” one Amazon worker told Feliz Leon.
The Teamsters’ success has appeared to embolden and inspire workers in other industries as well. The United Auto Workers have erected their own practice pickets in several states to build strength for its current contract campaign with the Big Three automakers. The contract for nearly 150,000 auto workers at Ford, GM and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) expires September 14. Much like the Teamsters did, the union is demanding the abolition of wage and benefits tiers in the workforce. The union’s militant leadership has also indicated a massive strike is on the table.
While the Teamsters declared the July 25 deal “the most historic tentative agreement for workers in the history of UPS,” members on the shop floor, in union halls, and on social media shared much more complicated sets of praises, criticisms, questions and concerns.
Elbe Lieb, who has worked part-time at UPS for 27 years, says she wasn’t sure how many other part-timers have dug into the tentative agreement at her hub in Bloomington, Ind., but that some have voiced strong opinions. “I think the big thing for some of them was that they were maybe kinda hoping for a little more money and wishing that the benefits kicked in sooner,” says Lieb, who is a shop steward with Local 135. But overall, she explains, most appeared happy for a raise.
“As time progressed after the TA [tentative agreement] was released and people had a chance to settle their emotions, people have been generally positive,” according to Chris Wallace, who was a second-tier package car driver out of Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville, Ky. “The conversations I’ve had recently, encouragingly, have tended to center on where we want this union, and specifically this local, to go in the coming years.”
Wallace adds: “Who do we see emerging as leaders, or potential stewards? What will central issues be for not only enforcement of this contract, but what we want to see in the next one? How do we build trust among one another?”
While TDU celebrated the tentative agreement, some of its activists were among the layer of Teamsters who would have preferred a strike. “We were prepared for a strike. … When workers are ready, strike action is always favored,” wrote Sean Orr, a package car driver in Chicago and co-chair of TDU, in a reflection on the national solidarity campaign by the Democratic Socialists of America. Orr also co-chaired DSA’s Strike Ready campaign. “Workers who are ready will win more through a strike,” he continued, “not just in terms of wages or benefits, but in terms of nerves of steel and self-awareness of our strength as workers.”
Over two days at Local 251, I spoke with workers in various positions and of varying seniority. Despite some misgivings, these workers’ opinions about the tentative agreement were mostly positive. Nearly all of them were relieved to have at least temporarily avoided a strike. None could name more than a handful of their coworkers who stated that they were openly voting no. The passage of the national contract by a wide margin suggests similar situations around the country.
Some at Local 251 were undecided, but mostly because they were still unfamiliar with the entire agreement or because they were waiting for UPS’s quarterly earnings report, which some said might influence their decision.
“I’ve been trying to get perspectives from everybody,” said Corey Levesque, a package car driver who is temporarily doing full-time organizing work for Local 251. “Is every issue going to be addressed in the contract? No. But that’s why you continue to mobilize and organize people.”
As Brian Roberts spoke, he leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. The ample grays of his short hair match the color of his v-neck. He’s 53 and might be ready to retire in a few years.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “What I like personally is I get an extra week’s vacation.”
After the meeting, I sat down with Roberts, who started as a part-timer at UPS in 1989. Now a “shifter” in the tractor-trailer department, moving trucks around the parking lot all day, he’s nearly 35 years in. Because of the New England region’s supplemental agreement to the deal, if it all passed, he’d earn one more week of paid vacation.
In previous contracts, he said “that’s something we never got.”
“Everything was givebacks,” he said of previous agreements. “We went from the concession stand being open to now the concession stand being closed.”
He believes the July 25 tentative agreement is a sea change: “We all worked during the pandemic, and they made record profits. It was nice that, you know, we’re getting our fair share.”
“It’s not perfect, but the money’s good. …The language to me is more important,” Roberts continued. “I like having a good raise, but you don’t wanna lose some of the protections that you have under the language, and the language—it looks pretty good.”
The abolition of wage tiers among drivers was the big win, according to Roberts. He doesn’t believe there was anything left worth striking over—though he would strike if the union called for it. But he added that a handful of people wanted to strike no matter what.
While some workers believed the union had enough leverage to squeeze more out of the company, Roberts worried the union could wind up worse off if they voted the tentative agreement down. His opinion seems like it may have resonated with that of writer Sam Gindin, who, in a recent essay in Jacobin, argues that a post-deal strike may not have been as effective as some hoped.
“It is one thing to strike over matters of principle like refusing concessions or a monetary offer that lags inflation and other settlements,” Gindin writes. “But it is quite another when it is too late to credibly launch a fight over principle, and the size of the wage package is comparatively good.”
“In such circumstances, the demand for ‘more’ comes up against the cold calculation of losing weekly pay for an uncertain period, to win what would at best likely only be marginal increases.”
For the principal officer of a local reputed to be among the most militant in the union, Taibi radiates an unlikely calmness. Sitting for a late lunch at Chelo’s in East Providence, he wears a blue Teamsters polo, tucked into his gray slacks. He speaks quietly, but confidently, and we order half-chickens and ziti—a knock off, Taibi explains, of Wright’s Farm’s famous family-style chicken dinners.
Taibi has been a member of TDU since he started as a part-timer at UPS in 1999, and he is a proud Teamster. His pride for his local, which he’s led since ousting the old guard in 2013, can be found on the vanity plate of his personal Ford Escape: “IBT251.” In 2021, Taibi ran on the same slate as O’Brien and won a spot on the union’s international executive board as vice president of the Eastern region.
“It’s been positive, for sure,” Taibi says of his members’ reaction to the tentative agreement. “There’s just a lot of folks that—particularly people that have been around a while—see the overall gains as being better than any previous contract.”
Indeed, Taibi was among those who were infamously kicked off the national negotiating committee in 2018 after opposing the introduction of the driver two-tier. His members largely backed him then, and voted 85% against that deal. Based on the earlier review session, it appeared they would back him again—but this time, in support. (According to Taibi, Local 251 would go on to vote 92.53% in favor of the national agreement, with a 55.36% turnout.)
But Taibi concedes “there is some disappointment in not gaining certain things that [members] saw as important.”
He says some members wanted more time off, for example, but argues that not winning those things is not the same as a concession. “[The disappointment] is not saying, ‘We gave something up.’ It was, ‘We should have had more,’ which—hey, I’m all in favor of making improvements everywhere you can. It doesn’t mean you’re gonna get ’em every time.”
“I do believe it is historically speaking,” he says, “a big win.”
But winning at the bargaining table is only the first step, Taibi says. After the deal’s ratification, the union will have to go to war with the company on the shop floor.
“A big part of moving forward is enforcement, strengthening our membership at the shop floor around issues,” he says. “It’s needed because UPS—they want their money, they want their profits, and they’re gonna try to get it over people’s sweat.”
When I emailed UPS to ask how they plan to ensure the contract is enforced, and to respond to a number of claims in this article, a UPS spokesperson directed me to future “public presentations” on September 12 by the company’s CEO and CFO, who would then answer several of the questions I posed.
Even after such a long contract campaign and such tense negotiations, Taibi says there are pressing fights on the horizon for both the Teamsters and the larger labor movement.
“The big elephant in the room is Amazon, and other competitors,” Taibi says. “As a union, our obligation is to bring some equity into the whole industry.”
“A strong contract at UPS,” he says, “is a good sign for workers to say, ‘This is how important it is to be a Teamster,’ and, ‘To be union is what lifts up standards.'”
The next morning, I meet Ronnie Buchanan at the union hall.
A week earlier at work, Buchanan, who delivers packages at UPS, had tried to catch a falling, 93-pound package, and stressed a muscle in his neck. When I meet him, he is out on workers’ compensation and getting ready to go to physical therapy. This isn’t Buchanan’s first injury at work. He still gets Cortisone shots in one of his shoulders from another injury, and he has scars from a dog that bit him fiercely along his route.
Injuries aside, Buchanan says the job’s been worth it. Before he joined UPS, he was earning $18 per hour at a moving company. Before that, he worked in kitchens, pulling in only about $280 a week as a dishwasher. He had no insurance, so he never went to the dentist, and drove an unregistered Subaru he describes as a “shitbox.”
But in 2020, when he started as a second-tier driver at UPS, his life changed. He made more than $20 per hour and received a full suite of benefits, including a pension. He could help support his mother and, for the first time, could buy nice gifts for his nieces and nephews.
During our interview, Buchanan, a charismatic 33-year-old, wears a gray Teamster sweatshirt with union buttons adorning the chest’s equestrian graphic. He sits clutching a rolled-up copy of the New England supplemental agreement, which he waves around as he speaks.
“To be honest with you, I was hoping for a strike,” Buchanan says. “Not for a long one, but just to let the supervisors know that our job is not easy. They don’t know what we’re going through. [They] haven’t sat in a 140-degree truck all day, going in the back, sweating, dripping sweat on the ground, tripping over boxes, lifting TVs, couches.”
But Buchanan adds he’s going to vote yes on the agreement because of what it does for him as a second-tier driver. “Getting rid of the two tiers—that really kind of changed the whole game for everybody. … You know how happy I was to hug my mom and say, ‘Listen, I made it’?”
With the ratified agreement, Buchanan will eventually earn a significant raise as the tiers collapse. Even better, he suspects he’ll be subjected to much less excessive overtime.
“I don’t care about the money; I want to see my family,” he says. “I want to go spend time with my mother.”
Buchanan looks down intimately at the agreement. “I appreciate this contract,” he says, his voice softening. “I love everything about it. … You gotta take wins with losses, you know what I mean?
“You can’t count your dollars; you count your blessings. And this thing right here was a blessing. I’m gonna vote yes because, as a driver, this contract is good for me. … I can’t speak for part-timers, I can’t speak for people inside the building cause I don’t do that job,” he says. “If they want to vote no, that’s their decision. That’s why we’re Teamsters. We have a voice. If you wanna voice your no vote, voice it.”
Later that afternoon, four brown package cars sit in the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts on Gano Street on the east side of Providence. They park here every weekday between 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. On this Monday, with temperatures in the mid-70s, if the ground weren’t wet from the morning rain, the drivers would likely have been playing their usual basketball game at a court adjacent to the lot.
On this Monday, however, they remain inside for their lunch hour. “This has been the East Side crew’s hang out for a long time now,” says Jack Warren as he sips on a large iced coffee. “It’s an oasis from the madness—probably since they built this Dunkin’.”
By “madness,” Warren means the stress of his work and that of his brown-uniformed colleagues. They are package car drivers out of the East Center in Rhode Island’s single UPS facility in Warwick, and they are also shop stewards of Teamsters Local 251. They talk about the changes coming to their workplace.
Soon these “East Siders,” as they’re referred to in their local, may have to cut their meet-ups short. Due to demand by UPS Teamsters in the region, union leadership negotiated with the company, in the New England supplement, a tentative reduction of drivers’ lunch time, from one hour to a half-hour. While some drivers demanded a shorter lunch so they could theoretically finish work earlier, more senior workers—like Warren, who has worked at UPS since the mid-1990s—aren’t happy with that change. But when Warren looks at the bigger picture, he says he can’t complain.
“It’s not enough for me to say I’m gonna vote no,” says Warren, who is the chief steward of Local 251’s UPS Teamsters. “Overall, I think it’s a great contract.”
Speaking between bites of his lunch, Adam Deneault says he already voted yes on the national and supplemental agreements. “Based on what I have read, I’m satisfied with it,” the driver of four years says. “Is every contract perfect? No. It’s never gonna be. You know, you always get a give and take.”
The next day, I set out to meet Brian Hardy as he finished his 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift at the UPS warehouse in Warwick. The morning came and went, and Hardy, who’s a part-time preloader, was still at work.
On this Tuesday, for the second time in two weeks, the belts that carry packages to the delivery trucks had broken down, causing a massive back-up of volume. The warehouse workers were forced to wheel stacks of packages on carts or motorized “trains” to the trucks. This process took hours longer than if the belts were functioning.
When I catch up with Hardy by phone several days later, I ask what he thinks of the tentative agreement as a part-timer. “It felt nice to be appreciated,” he says in a slow candor.
For decades, part-time workers like Hardy were largely neglected by union leadership. Real wages declined under inflation. Now, Hardy believes the union is moving in a positive direction. “This is the first step in repairing all of them other bad contracts,” he explains.
“What I like about the new language is the fact that guys that have been there,” he says, “get certain pay increases for longevity and service time.”
In the new tentative agreement, part-time workers will immediately get “catch-up raises” of up to $1.50 more per hour. Because Hardy has worked 11 years at UPS, he’ll get $1 extra on top of the $7.50 general wage increase across five years.
“It means after work, I can be home more,” says Hardy, who drives for Lyft when he’s not at UPS. He says the raises will help him pay his bills, which have gone up “astronomically” over the past few years. With high inflation, “every day I lose money that I used to make more than two years ago,” he adds. “And we worked through the pandemic. All of us worked.”
Hardy says he was also relieved to see his benefits maintained or improved. “Our pensions have grown. We still retain our medical and our dental and our vision. And as a full-custody father, that’s a big expense in America right now,” he says. “It gives me a certain level of ease to know that my children get proper medical care.”
Hardy likes the flexibility UPS and Lyft give him to spend time and take care of his two daughters, so he’s not looking to go full-time. But the lack of full-time jobs for part-timers is a problem, he explains. The tentative agreement’s 7,500 new full-time warehouse jobs will be a big help. “That is a good thing so that you can have an opportunity to move up,” he says.
I ask Hardy whether many of his co-workers shared his opinion about the tentative agreement. “It’s like a mixed review, but overwhelmingly a lot of people like the contract,” he says.
Most of the opposition he’s heard has been online. Indeed, many part-time workers around the country took to social media to express their no votes during the weeks of voting.
Some felt the union had enough leverage to hold out for a higher starting pay—which, at $21 per hour, they believed wasn’t adequate—and to reject a lower wage tier that would be established for new hires. Despite the union’s assurances, some workers in specific regions weren’t convinced that UPS couldn’t take away their market-rate adjustments—the starting wage increases UPS offers in competitive markets—meaning they could receive wage cuts at any moment.
“I voted for the contract because I’ve been there a long time,” Hardy says. “I’ve been there through the tougher times, when some of these contracts were just bad contracts. That’s why I understood what Sean O’Brien was trying to do and what he was fighting for.
“[O’Brien] actually stood by his word and it actually felt nice that someone stood up for you.”
When I ask what Hardy thinks of part-timers who want more out of the contract, his voice turns stern. “Everyone wants more. Everyone does. … Everyone has a right to be heard,” he says.
“I think it’s gonna pass because it helps out a lot of people in certain regions,” he says. “Since I’ve been in the company, this is our best contract.”
Five minutes after we end our call, Hardy calls me back.
He’d forgotten to tell me his favorite part of the contract: Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday. “That right there, that was the biggest win of the contract if you ask me,” says Hardy, who is Black. “Sometimes victories aren’t won financially. They’re won morally. [The union] wanted to make me and others like me feel included.”
“I know for me and mine, now, I can take that option to observe it with my children,” Hardy says. “I never thought in all my years I’d see it happen, but it just happened.”