This new Teamster union leader could start the biggest strike in decades

New York
CNN Business

You may not know Sean O’Brien. But he is ready to shake up the US economy in a way that no one else has in recent memory.

O’Brien was sworn in on Tuesday as the new general president of 1.3 million members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, succeeding James Hoffa, son of the union’s most notorious president. The younger Hoffa had worked for 23 years, far longer than his father led the union.

O’Brien, a self-described “militant,” promises to take a much tougher line on employers than his predecessor did. And that could lead to a strike by the country’s largest union employer when Teamsters’ UPS (UPS) contract expires on July 31, 2023.

If that happens, it’s going to be the country’s biggest and most disruptive strike in decades.

Teamster’s union no longer has a chokehold on the nation’s truck system, as it did in the 1960s when Hoffa’s father ran it. But it still represents 327,000 employees at UPS, which is by far the country’s largest transportation and supply management company.

Sean O'Brien, the new President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, speaks at a union meeting on this November 2021 file.

O’Brien seems to be spoiled for choice. “You’re not going into any situation that wants a strike,” he told CNN Business this week. “But these employers need to understand that we will not be afraid to pull the trigger if necessary.”

He points to UPS’s record profits and the union’s $ 350 million strike fund by discussing the dynamics of upcoming negotiations, negotiations that he himself intends to lead, something his predecessors never did.

“UPS has been successful. We’re going to take advantage of that success,” O’Brien said. “People are tired of seeing these companies make billions in profits and not share the wealth.”

UPS would not comment directly on O’Brien’s position, but said the company believes it can find a way to work with the union.

“UPS and Teamsters have worked together for nearly 100 years to meet the needs of UPS employees, customers, and the communities in which we live and work,” the company said in a statement to CNN Business. “We believe we will continue to find common ground with the Teamsters and reach an agreement that is good for everyone involved.”

The company’s statement seems to suggest that it will not go on to undo some of its gains in previous contracts that outraged critics of Teamster management such as O’Brien, such as the two-tier pay system for some union members at UPS.

“The delivery and logistics industry is becoming more and more competitive. Our focus during the negotiations will be to agree on a contract that provides the flexibility UPS needs to maintain its industry-leading track record for reliable service, ”the company added.

Some external observers believe that a strike at UPS next year is inevitable.

“I do not have a crystal ball, but unless the UPS reads the writing on the wall, a strike is almost certain,” said Todd Vachon, an assistant professor and director of vocational training at Rutgers University.

Vachon points to other recent strikes in which workers rejected lucrative tentative pacts between their own union leadership and corporate leadership.

Last year, about 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers’ Union twice voted down such agreements with agricultural and construction equipment manufacturer John Deere & Co. (DE) when the company reported record profits. Trade unionists went on strike for five weeks before finally accepting an agreement that gave them an immediate 10% increase, a $ 8,500 signature bonus, additional fixed increases, one-time payments and cost-of-living increases.

“I think these upcoming UPS lectures rhyme a lot with John Deere,” Vachon said. O’Brien’s choices are fair the latest sign of growing militancy among rank-and-file union members, he added.

The current contract with UPS was signed in 2018 due to objections from 54% of the rank and file Teamsters who voted against it. The union’s rules at the time allowed the pact to enter into force if less than two thirds of all members participated in the ratification vote.

The unpopular deal was a significant factor in O’Brien’s election in November. He defeated a Hoffa-backed candidate after Hoffa chose not to seek another term.

A strike at UPS would be big enough to take a bite out of the overall U.S. economy. UPS estimates that their trucks carry more than 6% of US gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the country’s economic activity. The company also handles 2% of global GDP.

UPS has grown significantly since its last strike, a 16-day strike in 1997 in which the union represented 180,000 employees. It was the largest U.S. work stoppage in 30 years, according to Labor Department statistics.

A UPS strike now would be the largest in decades – and perhaps the largest US strike ever against a single company.

O’Brien’s background is vastly different from that of James Hoffas, who was a union lawyer before he became president. O’Brien is a fourth-generation Teamster who joined the union at the age of 18 as a heavy equipment driver in the greater Boston area.

“One thing is, we get a leader who has worked his way up through the congregation,” O’Brien said when asked about the biggest difference between him and his predecessor.

O’Brien is pleased with the latest signs of strength in the U.S. labor movement and believes the current environment is likely to be a turning point in the relationship between labor and management after years of unions accepting concessions, such as two-tier pay systems.

“There’s an appetite to fight the boss,” O’Brien said. “[Workers] want to reap the benefits of their work and not be a victim of the bottom line in a balance. ”

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