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The UPS Teamsters Contract is a Win for Workplace Democracy
Whether we agree with the vote or not, what matters is that the workers got to vote.
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Last week, UPS workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters overwhelmingly voted to ratify a historic union contract. While the negotiations had been ongoing for close to a year, things heated up in the summer months as Teamsters across the country showed they were willing to strike. Wanting to avoid a shutdown, UPS offered a contract with less than a week to spare before the deadline. 86.3% of Teamsters’ membership accepted the deal, making it the highest affirmative contract vote in UPS Teamsters’ history. And, with the final supplemental issue ratified last Friday, the 340,000 UPS workers represented by the Teamsters finally have their new contract.
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Above: A video I took at a Teamsters practice picket in July.
As it passed with overwhelming support, it’s no surprise the deal was popular amongst the rank and file. One worker called it “unquestionably the best contract we’ve ever seen.” The deal gives workers a $2.75 hourly raise this year while scheduling an additional $7.50 hourly raise over the next five years. Package delivery drivers will see their total annual compensation (pay + benefits) rise from $145,000 to $170,000 by 2028 when the contract concludes. Other contentious issues were won, such as the inclusion of air conditioners in new UPS trucks, the end of a two-tiered wage system, and forced cancellation of off days.
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Though the deal passed overwhelmingly, it was not without its opponents from both inside and outside the Teamsters organization. The previously mentioned UPS worker who called the deal “the best contract we’ve ever seen” told The Washington Post he voted against it as it lacked an increased vacation days. During the voting process, the group Teamsters Mobilize orchestrated a “Vote NO” campaign, citing a need for a $25 wage, increased access to full-time jobs, and shorter hold periods on health insurance, amongst other issues.
In addition to the debate amongst the workers who would be subject to the contract, both during the voting process and following the result, external commentators have offered thoughts on whether or not the Teamsters were right to accept the tentative deal.
While I’m sure each opinion comes from a well-intentioned desire to see UPS workers (and the working class at large) earn the best conditions possible, in my opinion, it is misplaced for socialists to engage heavily in such debates. For those of us outside a particular workplace, whether it be UPS, Amazon, or even the local Starbucks, our goal should not be to determine specific conditions within the workplace — it should be to help the workers determine their workplace conditions themselves.
The Goal is Workplace Democracy
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Socialism will not be harmonious.
Like any societal system, socialism will be rife with disagreements between people, even those who come from the same class. This is inevitable, as human beings are individualistic creatures, each of us desiring and prioritizing different things, even when our interests align.
Nowhere is this more true than in the workplace. For example, full-time UPS parcel delivery drivers are likely to care more about getting air conditioning in their trucks than increasing the rate of part-time workers that become full-time. Naturally, part-time workers will hold the opposite opinion. As the aforementioned “NO” voter mentioned, he was unsatisfied with the number of vacation days in the deal. Apparently, the majority of his coworkers disagreed, or at least thought the other gains outweighed lackluster time off. Similar divisions arise in every provision of the UPS Teamsters’ contract, making it beyond difficult for outside observers such as myself to grade.
Fortunately, the opinions of outside observers ultimately don’t matter. It should not be our role to tell the workers of UPS whether they should prioritize a pay raise over Sunday deliveries, better health insurance over vacation time, or air conditioning over 401k contributions. Much like the numerous factors that go into a voter deciding to cast a ballot for one politician over another, every workplace is rife with debates, balances, and tradeoffs those outside the organization can’t accurately weigh, as our lives aren’t controlled by them. And, as we are not the ones who will have to live with those tradeoffs — or suffer the hardship of enduring a strike — our focus should be supporting the workers as they settle these differences themselves through the process of workplace democracy. That means showing up to their picket lines, donating to their strike funds, and doing anything else it takes to ensure the working class has maximal control over their workplace.
Absent worker ownership of the workplace (which is the only absolute form of workplace democracy), contract negotiations through democratic unions are the best means of giving the working class such control. Back in June, UPS Teamsters voted 97% in favor of authorizing a strike, and over 58% of eligible voters cast ballots in the contract ratification vote, a figure comparable to turnout in most U.S. Presidential elections. Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the prevailing reformist group that helped wrestled control of the union away from the mobbed-up bosses and hand it back to the rank and file workers, celebrated the vote as a win for the working class. Objectively speaking, the Teamsters’ contract ratification process was democratic and transparent (all vote counts can be seen, here). Faced with a choice, the workers of UPS made their decision. It may not have been the decision we outside observers would have made if we were in their shoes, but that is of minimal importance, as it was not our decision to make.
This is not to say leftists should remain mute on everything involving union contract votes. No tongue should be held if what we see is a violation of working-class principles. If a union leader is selling out the membership for kickbacks, or one group of workers foregoes class solidarity and betrays the other, it should be met with a unified uproar. But in cases such as the UPS Teamsters negotiation, where democracy was the heart of the process and the will of the workers was achieved, celebration should be our first and most pronounced response, even if we would have voted differently.
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Now that the process is concluded, what do you think about the Teamsters vs. UPS contract negotiations? Share your thoughts in the comments.