Louisville UPS package handlers caught up in national Teamsters power struggle

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As thousands of unionized local UPS package handlers are weighing how to vote on a new contract proposal in the next three weeks, they’ve become ensnared in a political battle for national union leadership that has pitted the local boss, Fred Zuckerman, against Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa.

Zuckerman, whose Local 89 is one of the nation’s largest and represents the bulk of UPS’s 21,000 Louisville workers, opposes the tentative five-year agreement negotiated by Hoffa’s team.

Hoffa and Zuckerman clashed in a narrow election for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters leadership in 2016, and Zuckerman announced this year that he would try, with the help of an ally in Boston, to oust Hoffa again in 2021.

On Oct. 5, the union will tally votes on the new contract from about 260,000 Teamsters, including 7,000 part-time package handlers at Worldport and another 1,000 at Centennial and Bluegrass ground hubs in Louisville. Voting materials already have been sent to members, and some already have cast their ballots.

Hoffa’s team and UPS are praising the new agreement’s higher starting pay, better pension benefits and the addition of 5,000 full-time jobs nationwide, but Zuckerman criticized multiple aspects of the deal, including that the starting pay remains too low.

Hoffa’s team told Insider that Zuckerman’s opposition is fueled by politics. Zuckerman rejected that notion.

“Nothing political about it,” he told Insider Thursday. “It’s just a bad contract.”

Starting wages bumped to $13

The agreement calls for starting wages to jump to $13 per hour, from the current $10.50, which means any employee who earns less than $13 would immediately get a raise. And, UPS said, existing part-time workers also would get raises of $4.15 over the life of the contract.

The deal also would require UPS to create 5,000 full-time jobs over the five years and to review with the union any proposed technological changes, such as drones and driverless vehicles.

Zuckerman told Insider that the starting wage of $13 is still at least $2 too low and assures that UPS will continue to lose workers to other local employers who pay more.

In addition, he said, UPS uses so many part-time employees in the Louisville area that the company cannot find enough to fill all the open positions, which puts more pressure on the existing full-time workers and forces them into overtime.

Zuckerman also said that the union has made major concessions on health care benefits over the last few years.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “we want some of that stuff back.”

The logistics giant can afford it, Zuckerman said, because it is doing well. Second-quarter revenue, at $14.5 billion, was up 9.6 percent from a year earlier, while profit, at $1.5 billion, rose 7.3 percent.

On Sept. 7, Local 89 held a “Vote No” rally in Louisville, in which Zuckerman and Vice President Avral Thompson urged local members to vote against the national union agreement and a regional supplement — though they want the local agreement, which Zuckerman’s team negotiated, ratified.

The local agreement calls for the creation of 250 new full-time jobs in Louisville in the next five years and addresses items including an additional break for a shift that lasts longer than six hours and allowing part-time employees the use of their cell phones.

Local Teamsters leaders since also have taken to social media to tell local members to vote no on the national and regional agreements, though some members also have indicated that they will reject — or already have — all three agreements. “Noooooo on all,” one commenter said on Facebook. “Hell to the NO!!!!” said another.

All three contracts must be ratified before any one of them goes into effect. If the members reject the agreements, the parties go back to the negotiating table.

In their rallies and on social media, Local 89 leaders also have criticized the proposed creation of “hybrid drivers,” a new position that will have employees deliver packages and working inside operations.

Local 89 leaders worry that the position will create a two-tier wage system for drivers that will undermine job security and pay for existing drivers. However, national union leaders and the company said that the new positions would create more full-time jobs and allow existing full-time drivers to return to Monday-to-Friday shifts because they hybrid drivers would work a Tuesday to Saturday shift to help meet increased e-commerce business, which also would mean less forced overtime for other workers.

A full-time driver, who asked to remain anonymous, told Insider that he worried primarily about his pension and health benefits. He said he could not afford to strike, but he also said he was at the mercy of the package handlers, who outnumber him by a factor of 20: UPS employs only about 400 full-time drivers in the Louisville area.

Politics

Hoffa’s team told Insider that the opposition from the leaders of Local 89 has nothing to do with any provisions in the agreement.

Denis Taylor, director of the Teamsters Package Division and co-chair of the Teamsters UPS National Negotiating Committee, told Insider via email that “political detractors” have opposed the agreement since negotiations began in January.

“Unfortunately, some local union leaders have politicized the contract process,” Taylor said. “We’ve negotiated a $14.5 billion contract that continues to provide wage increases, full health care at no cost to the members and a defined-benefit pension plan for all members — part-time and full-time.”

But Hoffa’s team also may be feeling the heat. While Hoffa easily won elections in 2011 and 2016, garnering more than 60 percent of the vote each time, his margin of victory shrank to 4 percentage points when he faced Zuckerman in 2016.

Zuckerman in May announced that in 2021 he would run for the Teamsters’ No. 2 spot, on a ticket with Sean O’Brien, president of Local 25, in Charlestown, Mass., who plans to replace Hoffa. O’Brien could not be reached.

Zuckerman told Insider that the national negotiating leaders are simply trying to gloss over their failure to negotiate a good agreement by blaming union politics for any opposition to the deal.

“Denis Taylor needs to blame somebody for negotiating a bad contract,” he said.

The Hoffa and Zuckerman teams have had several run-ins this year. In May, teamstersunited.org, an anti-Hoffa faction of the Teamsters, reported that Taylor had thrown three members off the UPS national Negotiating Committee, including Thompson, who is Zuckerman’s VP at Local 89 in Louisville. Teamstersunited.org called the event a “Friday morning massacre.”

Zuckerman said Thursday that even high-ranking national union officials rejected the national agreement, and opposition among members does not stop at the borders of Kentucky or Massachusetts.

All along the East Coast, from Florida to New England, members will reject this deal, he said. And he predicted members also would vote against it in places including Wisconsin and Texas.

“Our folks will reject it,” Zuckerman said, “in big numbers.”

Taylor said he’s sure the Teamsters will approve the deal.

“We anticipate that the members will see beyond the politics and ratify an agreement that protects and rewards them for the next five years,” he said.

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Written by Boris Ladwig. Cross-posted with permission
from Insider Louisville via the Kentucky Press News Service.