New York, NY – This weekend, the threat of a possible Teamsters strike against UPS Freight looms large — but there’s another union battle being waged in the City of Brotherly that advocates for workplace democracy say must be won in order to beat back anti-labor forces bent on extending devastating Right to-Work laws nationwide.
“I’ve been a Teamster for almost 20 years, and one of the things that they first told me was being in the union — being a Teamster — gives you a voice in the workplace,” 39-year-old UPS worker Richard Hooker tells LaborPress. “But when it’s the people that you are paying who are taking your voice — then it’s not democratic. They want you to feel it’s a democratic process, but, in actuality, if you don’t go along with what they want, then it’s not Democratic.”
Hooker is part of Teamsters Local 623’s “623 Lives Matter” movement in Philadelphia — a rank & file campaign critical of both IBT leadership and ratification of the Small Package National Master Agreement with United Parcel Inc. — a pact that 54.2-percent of voting members rejected earlier this fall.
“[The union leadership] used this loophole in our constitution that enabled them to go ahead and implement the contract even though we voted no,” Hooker says. “Less than 50-percent of the membership voted on the contract — you have to have two-thirds of the voting membership to vote ‘no’ on it. We had about 55-percent that voted ‘no.’ But it was only 44-percent that voted. So, we didn’t have the numbers for them to honor the vote.”
The thing is, according to Hooker, once the contract was voted down, UPS announced it was ready to go back to the bargaining table. At that time, Hooker insists, the IBT negotiating committee was actually in a commanding position to bargain a contract more amenable to the majority of members who voted ‘no.’
“UPS can never afford a strike — but they definitely can’t afford a strike right now during this time of year,” Hooker says. “So, the leadership had every advantage.”
On Friday, October 6, Matthew O’Connor, UPS Senior Manager, Public Relations, sent out an email saying, “You may have heard that Teamsters members did not ratify the tentative Small Package and Freight National Master Agreements proposed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and UPS. We are disappointed the contracts were not ratified. UPS will meet with Teamsters leadership to discuss next steps. We have contract extensions in place and we expect to operate on a business-as-usual basis.”
“We had it,” Hooker says. “The members voted ‘no.’ Earlier in the year, we [also] voted 93-percent to go on strike if we needed to — we had everything. Our leaders are the ones that sold us out because it was personal and political.”
Critics of IBT General President Jim Hoffa’s leadership mounted a serious challenge during the 2016 general election, coming close to actually unseating the longtime union leader, while managing to claim six lesser posts. Members of “623 Lives Matter” remain determined to vie for greater power.
“The [contract] voters have spoken,” fellow “623 Lives Matter” member Local 623 trustee “Jumbo” Nathan Daniels says. “They want to give us $13 an hour — that’s the biggest problem. They want to give my guys $13 an hour. Amazon is $15 an hour; $16 an hour if you work nights; $16 on weekends. The correct price is $15 an hour. That’s $15 now — not $15 in 2021 or 2022 — $15 now. That’s the price. They’re killing us.”
They used this loophole in our constitution that enabled them to go ahead and implement the contract even though we voted no. — Richard Hooker, 623 Lives Matter
Always crucial to the labor movement, but even more so now in this Post-Janus, Trumptonian world, member engagement is on the minds of trade unionists everywhere attempting to sure up the ranks in the face increasing anti-labor assaults.
“It’s a disappointing story, but also shows a lot of potential for people to fight back,” says Paul Prescod of the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers [PFT] — two of the groups supportive of the “623 Lives Matter” campaign. “This could be such a huge, almost like a turning point, if they would take on UPS and win.”
Current IBT leadership, however, dismisses the whole notion that efforts to ratify the Small Package and Freight National Master Agreements with UPS have been undemocratic.
“To use the contract ratification procedures to mischaracterize the union as “undemocratic” is as inaccurate as claiming the United States is not democratic because a candidate for president can win the popular vote and still not be elected,” IBT spokesperson David White told LaborPress in an email.
That said, White also maintains that while the existing Teamsters constitution required ratification of the UPS contract— it also “provides that the union can return to bargaining if the proposal has not been rejected by 2/3 of the voters.”
“Which is what we fully intend to do for the nationwide language and those supplements/riders that were not rejected under the terms of the constitution,” the IBT spokesperson said. “The nationwide language has been ratified, but the negotiating committee can gain further improvements for the members with the agreement of the company. The supplements/riders that were rejected must be renegotiated and new proposals will be submitted to the involved members for ratification. The master nationwide language and all of the ratified supplements/riders, cannot be implemented until all of the rejected supplements/riders have been ratified.”
The IBT spokesperson further challenged the idea that the negotiating committee had every advantage to push for a better agreement after members voted down the UPS deal.
“Keep in mind that 24-percent of the eligible membership voted against the contract,” White said. “We cannot win a strike against a company where 76-percent of the workers are happy with their contract. Beyond our Union concerns, imagine the outcry, and the effect on the economy, if we took UPS out on strike during the Christmas holiday season, disrupting not only UPS but every one of its customers that consumers have come to rely on for their e-commerce, because 24% of the workers are not satisfied with a $4.15 hourly wage increase, fully paid health insurance, and a defined pension plan fully funded by their employer.”
The next Teamsters general election will be in 2021. Opponents of Hoffa’s leadership say they are trying to amass enough delegates to challenge him once again, while also eliminating the kind of constitutional language that made ratification of the UPS Small Package National Master Agreement possible.
“We have to create activity,” Hooker says. “You can’t take people’s votes away and expect them to come out to [union] meetings. Especially when you have Right to Work people that are really chomping at the bit right now because their whole thing is, ‘This is what unions do — they take your dues…they take that…what are they doing for you?’ And this fits right into that narrative. We have to try to keep Right to Work legislation at bay — but it’s going to be extremely difficult now. This is the poster child for every Right to Work legislator.”