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Upcoming Teamsters Election Will Decide Amazon Organizing

Two different leadership visions for organizing Amazon are running to lead the Teamsters

Kris LaGrange's picture
May 12, 2021

In November one of the largest unions in the country, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, will be voting on a new International President. For the first time since 1998, James Hoffa will not be on the ballot. Instead, Teamsters will be choosing between Boston Teamster leader Sean O’Brien and Colorado Teamster leader Steve Vairma.

Two issues hanging over the election are the controversial 2018 UPS contract and Amazon, which is expanding further and further into the Teamsters territory every year. The 2018 UPS contract saw 54% of the members vote against it, but the leadership overrode the vote and instituted the contract. This created a starting wage that was actually lower than what an Amazon driver makes, although UPS drivers are still much better compensated over the career of a UPS worker.

This poses a problem as the Teamsters are one of the unions that is making a run at organizing Amazon workers. Amazon is a business that the Teamsters know well, especially on the delivery side where Teamsters at UPS handle sorting, tracking, and delivering packages. They also have experience working with a major multi-national company as the UPS contract is currently the largest private sector union contract in the country. However, if UPS Teamsters are not happy with the union, they will be less likely to take an active role in organizing Amazon.

“First and foremost, Amazon is our most formidable opponent, not just for the Teamsters but for organized labor in general,” O’Brien told the Intercept. O’Brien, who together with his running mate Fred Zuckerman, helped lead the opposition to the 2018 UPS contract that covered 250,000 Teamsters. “Amazon moving into this industry could destroy thousands and thousands of middle-class jobs and benefits. It’s unfortunate when a company like Amazon cares more about their balance sheets than their workers.”

While Vairma and O’Brien might be on different sides of the Teamsters fight, with Vairma being allied with the Hoffa faction, both have pledged to go after Amazon and another big non-union freight hauler FedEx. Both have also said they will get rid of the controversial rule that allows the board to overrule the vote of the membership on a contract.

Organizing Amazon is also important for the sustainability of UPS and the 250,000 members who work there. As Amazon grows, more and more products are shipped with their non-union drivers, taking business away from UPS and lowering the pay for the industry. If UPS’ bottom line gets squeezed, they will likely take it out on the workers through layoffs or cuts to pay and benefits. However, if Amazon is union especially with the Teamsters, they can play both companies off of each other to ensure that workers at both companies are being paid fairly and neither company is getting squeezed.

O’Brien tells The Intercept that organizing Amazon is essential for the health of the union and criticized the Hoffa administration for not making it a priority or having a strategy to organize the e-commerce giant. “It should have been a target 10 years ago,” he said. He believes a successful organizing effort will require cross-union support. “It’s not just about the Teamsters processing packages, loading packages and delivering,” he said, adding that the organizing drive can’t be “old school”; instead, it should rely on alliances with unions and partnerships in the community and must utilize existing Teamster members at UPS and courier giant DHL to assist with organizing the megafirm. “Do I think it’s attainable? Yes,” said O’Brien. “Will it happen tomorrow? No.”

Vairma also signaled a new approach to going after Amazon saying “It will take more than the Teamsters to organize at Amazon,” he said. “We need to build a campaign to engage the entire labor movement, aggressively elect more pro-labor elected officials, pursue a 50-state legislative strategy in Congress, and build support in the communities where our members live.”

Ken Paff, a national organizer with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) argues that if the Teamsters organize Amazon, they will need a mobilized membership. He suggested using UPS members to sit down with Amazon drivers and talk to them about the benefits of joining the union, instead of having organizers in suits making home visits to the Amazon workers.

“If you had even 100 Teamsters committed to having coffee with Amazon workers next door, you’d have a hell of a lot better chance of organizing Amazon. You need a powerful national union in the logistics industry [to take on Amazon]. You need to show what you can do for UPS workers, that sort the packages and load the trucks.”

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