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UPS union negotiated a historic contract. Now workers have the final say

UPS workers are voting on whether to approve a deal negotiated by Teamsters leadership.
Brynn Anderson
UPS workers are voting on whether to approve a deal negotiated by Teamsters leadership.

When Luigi Morris reports to the UPS distribution center in Canarsie, Brooklyn at 4 a.m., packages are already overflowing off the conveyor belt.

Morris, a part-time warehouse worker, spends his three-and-a-half hour shift loading heavy items — bed frames, car tires, air conditioning units — on trucks for delivery across New York City. He's typically expected to load a minimum of four trucks with 300 packages each.

"My hands hurt, my knees hurt, my back hurts," Morris said. "And we only have a ten-minute break."

Morris earns $16.60 per hour — up from $15.50 when he was hired last year.

On July 25, the Teamsters union reached a tentative contract agreement with UPS, securing wage increases for the 340,000 workers it represents and narrowly averting a nationwide strike after weeks of stalled negotiations. Teamsters leadership had threatened a disruptive walkout if the company failed to meet their economic demands.

Rank-and-file union members are casting their ballots until August 22. For the deal to go into effect, it needs to pass by a majority vote.

While Teamsters leadership is boasting of historic gains, Morris isn't convinced the deal does enough to fairly compensate and protect UPS employees — especially part-timers, who make up the majority of the company's unionized workforce, and whose strenuous work the delivery giant relies on.

Under the five-year agreement, wages for existing part-timers would be raised to no less than $21 per hour, with subsequent increases over the course of the contract.

"The contract has a lot of gains. There are many positive things we obtained because of the strike threat," Morris said. "But then, $21 an hour is below our expectation."

Morris said he's voting against the deal — not because it isn't a step forward for workers, but because he thinks the union could leverage its momentum to fight for more.

José Francisco Negrete, a part-time package handler in Anaheim, California, is also voting no on the deal. He said he was "discombobulated" when he saw the economic provisions of the tentative agreement.

"I wanted UPS to acknowledge what we gave to UPS during the pandemic, especially the lockdown of 2020," Negrete said. "Nowhere in this contract does it reflect what we gave UPS during that time."

Union says deal 'raises the bar for all workers'

This year, UPS workers have more power to reject the deal than in previous contract votes. That's because Teamsters general president Sean O'Brien, who took the helm of the union in 2021, pushed for a change to the union constitution that allows workers to vote down a deal with a simple majority.

Previously, two-thirds of workers needed to vote down a contract in order to override Teamsters leadership if turnout was below 50%. Former Teamsters leader James Hoffa, for example, ratified the 2018 contract despite 54% of workers voting against it.

Teamsters leadership is urging workers to approve the deal. The union's social media channels are filled with video testimonials of workers who say they're voting in favor of it.

Along with wage increases, UPS agreed to equip new delivery vehicles with air conditioning, end forced overtime and eliminate a two-tier pay system for delivery drivers, among other concessions.

"This is the most lucrative contract in labor history," O'Brien said during a webinar for union members, referring to $30 billion in new money in the agreement. "We got more money, higher wages than ever before, huge non-economic gains."

Local Teamsters chapters across the U.S. voted nearly unanimously to endorse the contract. O'Brien said it "sets the tone for the entire labor movement."

A Teamsters spokesperson said workers gain more in this tentative agreement than over the last 40 years. Part-time wage growth from 1982 to 2022 was $7.25 an hour; over the course of the new five-year agreement, it would amount to $7.50 an hour.

UPS CEO Carol Tomé also called the deal a "win-win-win" agreement for Teamsters leadership, employees and the company.

"This agreement continues to reward UPS's full- and part-time employees with industry-leading pay and benefits while retaining the flexibility we need to stay competitive, serve our customers and keep our business strong," Tomé said in a statement when the deal was announced.

During an earnings call on August 8, UPS said its revenue for the most recent fiscal quarter fell short of expectations, as delivery volume dropped during labor negotiations. UPS also lowered projected 2023 revenue due to the cost of the contract, which is the largest private sector bargaining agreement in North America.

A strike among 340,000 UPS workers would disrupt package deliveries across the country and shake up an increasingly competitive package delivery market. President Biden praised Teamsters and UPS for avoiding the widespread ramifications of a shutdown.

If workers vote down the tentative agreement, they could force the Teamsters negotiating committee to re-open talks with the company — and bring back the threat of a strike.

A range of opinions among workers

UPS workers have a range of views on the deal hammered out by the union. Christina Pixton, a part-time package handler in Reno, Nevada, said she's content with the hourly pay raise she would see: $23.20, up from her current rate of $19.

"I saw enough movement in the contract to get us in a spot where I don't have a reason to vote no," Pixton said. "Our last contract really took us backward, so for us to make progress is huge for us."

But some employees are pointing to the company's recent economic gains as evidence that it can afford to raise starting wages more. UPS posted a record profit last year, as the company reached $100 billion in revenue in 2022 for the first time.

Jennifer Hancock, a part-time package sorter, has worked at UPS for more than three decades. She's an organizer with Teamsters Mobilize, an employee group that aims to level the playing field for part-time workers. Hancock said she thinks the economic elements of the deal could go further, like establishing a $25 base rate for part-timers.

But the fact that O'Brien has challenged the Teamsters status quo and pushed UPS to make concessions, Hancock added, has empowered workers to voice this kind of dissent.

"The election of Sean O'Brien really motivated people to think that they could make a difference — that we have a new contract coming up, we have a new president, let's try some new things," Hancock said. "That was a signal that things had changed."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.