(Bloomberg) — There’s nothing subtle about Sean O’Brien’s negotiating style.
O’Brien, the new leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, punctuated his speech with words like “leverage” and “pressure” and “fight” and wants United Parcel Service Inc. understand that he is not going to play as well as his predecessor, James P. Hoffa. There are 16 months before the Teamsters’ collective contract with UPS expires, and O’Brien is already talking about a general strike if his demands aren’t met.
“We’re putting them out on the street,” O’Brien, 49 and a fourth-generation Teamster, said in an interview at the union headquarters in Washington last week.
On Tuesday, O’Brien takes over the reins of the 1.3 million-strong union from Hoffa. He defeated Hoffa’s handpicked candidate, a man who, like his patron, represents a more moderate wing of the Teamsters. But that conciliatory approach has fallen out of favor at a time when workers across America — from Starbucks baristas to Deere factory workers — are making high demands amid the pandemic and the acute labor shortages that accompany it.
O’Brien’s combative style, which he has honed over the past two decades with the local Teamsters in his native Boston, is fitting for the moment. In his view, resetting the Teamsters’ relationship with UPS — O’Brien wants, among other things, a $20 per hour minimum wage for part-time workers and the removal of cameras in trucks — is a critical step toward a much more ambitious goal: to unite Amazon Inc. It’s a mammoth task and one that’s been rolled back before, but if ever there was a moment for the cause, O’Brien thinks, this is it.
“O’Brien has a historic opportunity,” said Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies labor markets. “There has been no better time in the last 50 years for unions to advocate that they should be a part of the US economy and make it fair for working people.”
Game planning takes place at a 25-foot conference table strewn with coffee cups and laptops. O’Brien and his transition team see opportunities after the labor shortage caused by the pandemic pushed wages up. In January, there were 11.3 million unfilled vacancies in the US, compared to 7.2 million two years ago.
O’Brien plans to shake up the union that he says has grown complacent over the course of more than two decades under Hoffa, 80. Hoffa hasn’t used email and has rarely worked from its Washington headquarters since the pandemic hit, it said. staff. The union still uses faxes to distribute information.
He’s counting on negotiating a UPS contract that he can use as a model to persuade workers elsewhere to join a union, including Amazon warehouse workers.
Atlanta-based UPS faces its toughest negotiations since employees resigned in 1997. O’Brien outlined at least four “strike issues” that he believes must be resolved to avoid a strike next year. In addition to raising wages for part-time workers by a third and removing inward-facing cameras in trucks, he wants to eliminate a new class of drivers created by the 2018 contract and stop the use of non-union drivers for large trucks.
Rather than start talks lasting more than a year, O’Brien plans to negotiate just four or five months before August 1, 2023, with the current five-year deal expiring.
“You don’t have to start early. They know our problems,’ O’Brien said between bites of Kiev chicken from the cafeteria at headquarters.
O’Brien said Carol Tome, UPS’s chief executive officer, called him on March 10 for the first time since last year’s election and the two had a 10- to 15-minute conversation. The 2023 round will mark the first time that Tome, who took on the top position at UPS in June 2020 and longtime Chief Financial Officer of Home Depot Inc. was, will negotiate a company-wide union contract. UPS declined to comment on the call.
“Our focus during negotiations will be to agree on a contract that provides the flexibility UPS needs to maintain its industry-leading track record of reliable service and continue to offer employees strong pay and benefits,” he said. the company’s press office in a statement.
The new class of UPS drivers, who earn less than regular drivers and may be asked to work in the hub’s load packs, was a heated issue in the latest contract — a pact opposed by a majority of voting members. but was approved by the union on a low turnout ordinance. That turnout threshold was lifted during the Teamsters convention last year.
O’Brien is pushing for a big increase in part-timer wages, which under the last contract were initially $13 an hour and scaled up to $15 in 2021. One motivation is what it will mean down the road to target Amazon.
“It should be $20 an hour. Nobody can get by on $15 an hour,” he said. “If we don’t get close to $20 an hour for a part-timer starting rate, it won’t help us organize Amazon where they pay their part-timers $18 an hour.”
O’Brien wants the Teamsters to be the only union that organizes workers in Amazon’s fulfillment and sorting centers, as well as drivers, which are jobs similar to what UPS does, he said. Currently, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a subsidiary of the United Food and Commercial Workers, is battling the company to create a union presence at a facility in Bessemer, Alabama. The upstart Amazon Labor Union tries to organize workers in a warehouse on Staten Island.
Amazon did not immediately return a request for comment via email.
While Amazon’s entry-level wages have overtaken UPS’s for warehouse workers, UPS drivers are the highest paid in the parcel industry, earning about $90,000 a year with overtime and benefits not included.
To energize union members after voter turnout fell below 20% in the last few general elections, O’Brien plans to spend Mondays and Tuesdays on the road. To sample that effort, he visited a UPS facility in Maryland on March 18, where he greeted union members as he walked through the narrow aisles where workers load packages into rows of trucks parked just inches apart.
“We have a big fight in ’23 with the new contract,” O’Brien told the drivers. “Get involved.”
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