TThe recent contract settlement between the Teamsters and UPS continues to spark debate and reflections on the Left. Sam Gindin’s critique published in Jacobin was met with a response from Barry Eidlin. Gindin responded to Eidlin in The Bullet. In this article, Tempest’s Joe Allen surveys Gindin’s critique and what it means for Teamster activists.
Many people in the U.S. Left feel disoriented following the end of the UPS contract campaign. For the several hundred members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), other socialist organizations, and independent radicals in the Teamsters, the sudden announcement of a Tentative Agreement (TA) between the Teamsters and UPS on July 25 caught many off guard. They expected to be part of the biggest strike in modern U.S. history. The foregoing two weeks of “practice picketing” across the country had generated the strong impression that a strike was imminent. Instead, it all ended with a whimper, not a bang.
The TA was hailed as a historic victory and a game-changer by the Teamsters. The Teamsters and UPS emphasized that it provided some of the largest pay increases in decades for full-time and part-time workers. For many UPS Teamsters, the 1997 strike is a dim memory at best; their experience has largely been that of a weak and moribund union for the past two decades. For the first time in their working lives, the union came alive. This was especially important emerging from the worst years of the pandemic that proved to be a bonanza for UPS. It cracked $100 billion in revenue and a clear profit of $13 billion in 2022 alone.
However, some UPS Teamsters dissented and saw major shortcomings in the TA, including a missed opportunity for further gains in part-timer pay, air conditioning, and excessive overtime. Calls for a no vote by Teamsters Mobilize, a small network of part-timer activists, and a handful of package car union stewards, failed to win over the overwhelming 86.3 percent of UPS Teamsters who voted to ratify the contract.Voting turnout by UPS Teamsters also climbed to 58 percent from 44 percent in 2018.Voting turnout by UPS Teamsters also climbed to 58 percent from 44 percent in 2018.
The Teamster officialdom led by General President Sean O’Brien appears to have recouped some lost credibility in the eyes of the UPS membership. At the same time, how this new historic contract will actually change the daily work life of UPS Teamsters remains to be seen. The shocking death, a day after the ratification vote, of Chris Begley, a fifty-seven-year-old UPS package car driver in Texas served as a reality check on how dangerous it is to work at UPS. According to a local news source:
Begley was delivering a package to a business in Farmersville on Aug. 23 – a day when the highest temperature reached 101 degrees. Heat index values were up to 108 degrees, and a heat advisory was in place.
Begley collapsed to the floor in the Farmersville business and was attended to by those who worked there. He said a UPS supervisor drove to his location in his personal vehicle, left the company truck at the site, and took Begley home. The 57-year-old was later hospitalized and died four days later.
There is literally nothing in the new UPS contract that would have saved his life.
For the U.S. Left, an honest accounting of what took place and why is necessary for the future of not only our political work in the Teamsters but also the broader working-class movement. Labor Notes and TDU quickly rallied to endorse the contract settlement with some qualifications. In the past, they would have either critically examined or, in the case of TDU, even campaigned against it because of its severe shortcomings.
It’s hard to find anyone associated with labor reform politics who has raised any concerns about the UPS contract settlement. Most have publicly embraced it, and the UPS contract campaign appears to be something of a model for the UAW’s current contract campaign against the Big Three automakers. One person who has raised broad-ranging questions is Sam Gindin, and his questions deserve answers.
Sam Gindin may not be a household name in the U.S., but he is an important figure among labor-Left and socialist intellectuals in North America. The former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974–2000, he is also co-author (with Leo Panitch) of The Making of Global Capitalism and The Socialist Challenge Today. His book on the history of the Canadian Auto Workers is essential reading. Gindin’s other writings are available here and here.
Gindin’s assessment of the UPS deal will undoubtedly ruffle more than a few feathers. He bluntly wrote,
Against the excited headlines about “ending two-tiers,” the reprehensible secondary status for part-time workers — generally the “inside” workers in the warehouses and a majority of the union members at UPS — remains firmly in place, and the promise of more full-time jobs is little more than a paper commitment. Also, warehouse workers saw little or no attention paid to their working conditions. How then do supporters of democracy and militancy so readily accept a settlement, resolved without a strike, that limits workers’ active resistance for five years?
I think Gindin hits this nail on the head:
“Historic” union victories rarely occur without testing the bosses on a matter of principle through a protracted withdrawal of labor. The agreement clearly includes significant gains, especially in monetary terms, and it is no surprise that members voted to ratify the contract, with an 86 percent yes vote. But the Left’s conspicuous and generally unreserved enthusiasm for the agreement — very few exceptions aside — merits serious questioning.
Gindin captured well the suffocating conformity embraced once a Tentative Agreement (TA) was reached:
The Teamsters quickly declared the agreement “historic,” and the broad left quite generally concurred. Notably, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the longtime militant opposition in the union, hailed the agreement. Ditto Labor Notes, prominent since the late 1970s in the rank-and-file struggles for internal democracy and militancy, and influential in the development of TDU.
Not to be left out, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) belatedly jumped on the bandwagon, after initially issuing a brief, neutral statement after the TA was announced. They endorsed the contract after it was ratified by UPS Teamsters on August 22.
Who’s to blame?
Gindin doesn’t shy away from where he thinks much of the blame lies:
What of TDU’s role in this agreement? There was a moment in US labor history when democratization and stubborn resistance challenged the corporate-state determination to decisively weaken the labor movement. Groups like TDU fought back courageously and organized effectively, but they were not immune to the pressures and defeats around them. In that context of demoralization and lowered expectations, it is not all that surprising that TDU came to pin its hopes on the election of Sean O’Brien, a defector from the Hoffa caucus, as the new Teamster president.
Gindin doesn’t disagree with TDU’s choice to endorse Sean O’Brien for the leadership of the Teamsters in the 2021 Teamster election, however:
The problem was not TDU supporting O’Brien over the Hoffa-chosen candidate, especially since the group could not win on its own and running would split the progressive vote. Rather, the issue was that TDU gave up most of its independence in exchange for an influential role in the contract campaign. It was integrated into the O’Brien camp and — despite some independent organizing early in the campaign — became loyal in carrying out the limited bargaining program.
Much of what Gindin says here is true, but I disagreed with the endorsement of the O’Brien-Zuckerman “Teamsters United” Slate in 2021. I always thought it was a false choice. Tom Leedham, who ran with TDU’s support three times against former General President James P. Hoffa, Jr., thought so, too. During an online forum discussing the first Teamsters election debate, Tom Leedham explained:
There’s no reform slate in this  election. People say this is the reform slate with TDU. There’s essentially five candidates [on the Teamsters United slate] that proudly carry a TDU moniker. Two of them will be in non-voting positions. It is so difficult to make anything happen when you have three seats on a 25-person board.
Gindin, however, can’t be dismissed by the broad Left as a sideline commentator with no experience of the trade union movement or as someone unfamiliar with U.S. unions. The fact that his critique was posted in Jacobin tells us that they couldn’t dismiss his article even after the contract ratification.
For Gindin, the Left’s rallying to the contract settlement reveals a deeper problem. He writes:
In its twenty-year retrospective on the 1997 Teamster-UPS confrontation, Labor Notes dubbed the strike “a showdown between union reformers and business unionism.” The 2023 tentative settlement raises the question of whether the former reformers are now — in spite of their impressive history — to be understood as promoting simply a militant variation of business unionism, with all its ultimate limits. The largely unqualified support on the Left for the Teamster agreement seems to reinforce this climbdown.
If Gindin is hoping that Labor Notes and TDU will change their political direction, such a change is hard to imagine. TDU has a comfortable place as a part of the leadership of the Teamsters, while many Labor Notes alums have ascended to high-level staff positions in the UAW. Taking on leadership roles over a period of four decades, members of the International Socialists have traveled at different speeds from the revolutionary Marxism that animated their politics and the rank-and-file strategy that they pursued in their trade union work.
This retreat is especially true in TDU, which had its roots in the radical rank-and-file movements of the 1970s and was responsible for many important democratic reforms beneficial to the Teamster membership. However, TDU has changed over the decades, which have been some of the most difficult years that radicals, socialists, and trade union activists have seen. Many of the founding members of TDU have passed away, including Pete Camarata, the best-known Teamster rebel of the 1970s, or are long retired. Many TDU staffers haven’t been working Teamsters for decades, if ever.
The transformation of TDU has been in the making for many decades, but it’s the last few years that have startled many previous supporters. As I previously wrote in Tempest, “TDU has for the past decade been accommodating itself to a growing number of former Hoffa loyalists hoping to achieve the type of political success that has eluded it since the Carey years in the 1990s.”
For example, at its 2021 convention, the TDU removed the “Rank and File Bill of Rights,” one of TDU’s foundational documents, from its bylaws and constitution. It no longer publishes the $200,000 Club, a popular exposé of bloated officer salaries; it is now done by Teamsterlink.
All of this feels as if TDU is increasingly accommodating itself to its coalition partners in the leadership of the union. Whether this means that TDU is no longer a force for rank-and-file power in the union is something that needs to be discussed.
If the broad U.S. Left’s climb-down on the UPS contract demonstrates anything, it is the need for revolutionary socialists in the United States to reestablish some basic benchmarks, including the centrality of Marxism and the rank-and-file strategy. Gindin’s critique of the state of the U.S. Left in the labor movement is an important contribution enabling an honest assessment of where we are and where we need to go. It should be widely read and discussed.
Featured image credit: Raw Pixel; modified by Tempest.
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Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.