The Part-Time Fight for $25 at UPS, the Betrayal of TDU, and the reformist Left of DSA and FRSO

With UPS and the Teamsters at the negotiating table, Edgar Esquivel takes issue with those in the US Left who have tailed the leadership of Teamster President Sean O’Brien. 

The Teamsters have recently declared that they are back at the negotiating table with UPS. Nearly all the details of the contract have been agreed upon, with the critical exception of one: Wages and conditions for part-time workers.

With one week left before the expiration of the largest private bargaining agreement in America between UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT)—soft-left and/or progressive organizations like the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Labor Notes, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and even the Stalinist-Maoist Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) have dropped their part-time wage fight for $25. Their sudden 180-degree turn is not only a stab in the back of the militant and independent part-time rank-and-file group Teamsters Mobilize, but a complete capitulation to the Teamsters hierarchy and the demands of the self-serving general president of the most bureaucratized union in North America – Sean O’Brien. 

At the direction of TDU, the organizations mentioned above all played instrumental roles in mobilizing their constituents in electing the O’Brien led OZ Teamsters United slate in the Fall 2021. Since assuming office in March 2022, together they have ignored the now sophomore administration’s failures. To name a few, the list includes the unpopular government brokered and imposed railroad agreement where O’Brien stood on the side of Washington and watched his members get railroaded; the eight-and-a-half month extension at Costco Wholesale that resulted in a below inflation and substandard contract he himself remained neutral on—and four lost strikes at Sysco Foods in Boston, Syracuse, Louisville and Indianapolis where the Teamsters failed to get the members into a union pension fund. This does not include the shady and unconventional manner the ABF Freight vote was conducted for 8,800 members in early July that barely squeaked by after two supplements were overwhelmingly rejected. The IBT has yet to release the official vote results of the concessionary deal.   

With the fight at UPS, TDU and its subordinates all have become accomplices of O’Brien’s broken campaign promises beginning with his pledge to end the information brownout during his run for general president; and then flipping to agree with UPS on signing non-disclosure agreements (NDA). As O’Brien centralizes bureaucratic control as the sole decision maker of the union and ties the IBT to the neoliberal establishment and Joe Biden’s White House, TDU and company have remained silent. However, they have together falsely defended that O’Brien is a “militant” Teamster despite his open collaboration with Wall Street and the Democratic party—the graveyard of social and labor movements.   

Left adrift by O’Brien and these so-called left groups are two-thirds of part-time UPS Teamsters who load, unload, sort and conduct many other laborious tasks kept hidden from the general public. They are the forgotten Teamsters making poverty wages for the logistics behemoth. 

The Soft-Left and the Falsification of Teamsters History 

With the exception of CosmonautCounter PunchNew PoliticsSocialist Alternative and Tempest, outlets with ties to TDU, DSA and the FRSO have abandoned their principles and integrity in defense of Sean O’Brien by dismissing, revising, suppressing and falsifying Teamsters history. David Levin – TDU’s national organizer who was never a rank-and-file Teamster himself was among the first to sell his soul to O’Brien in 2018 when he lobbied his organization to endorse O’Brien for general president. Levin who is also a long-time member of DSA and part of the Bread and Roses caucus along with former national organizer Ken Paff—since 2018 have succeeded in recruiting many enthused Millennials and Generation Z DSA UPSers into their ranks. 

The overwhelming majority of these young UPSers were hired just prior to the 2018 contract or shortly after. Among them was Sean Orr of Local 705 in Chicago, and former member of the FRSO. Over the past six years he joined TDU, was elected to the organization’s International Steering Committee (ISC) and split from the Stalinist-Maoist organization to join the DSA. Both Levin and Paff have groomed Orr and as of recently appointed him to chair many of the UPS Teamsters United webinars. UPS Teamsters United is an affiliate of TDU created prior to the 2018 contract negotiations and have used it as another fountain of their fundraising. Amongst a large number of UPS and DSA young members who have also joined TDU since 2018, Orr has succeeded in positioning himself as one of the leading figures.

Hence, Labor Notes and Jacobin, who are catering to the O’Brien leadership, had up until a few weeks ago published a number of Orr’s pieces calling for a strike if the $25 demand was not met. Over the past few weeks he has been on several podcast shows and even the The Young Turks for interviews where he has given inaccurate statements, revised events and even dismissed, suppressed and falsified Teamsters history. For instance, Orr made the false statement that James P. Hoffa Jr., appointed both O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman to lead UPS negotiations and later removed them after the “militancy” they showed and their aims at “transparency.” In fact, O’Brien was appointed as UPS Package Director in February 2017 and was removed seven months after for reaching out to Zuckerman and UPS Teamsters United before official negotiations with UPS commenced. As of now, O’Brien has not been transparent with the membership during the current negotiations, refusing to give them any details on the economics that have been agreed on for current members.  

Orr, like most of the TDU-DSA faction, have sensationalized facts and incorrectly added that the current top rate for 22.4s is $9 less per hour than that of regular package car drivers (RPCDs)—when in fact it is just under $6.39 in Southern California and lower in other geographic locations. He also defended that UPS wanted the 22.4s in 2018 for flexibility purposes when it was actually the Teamsters that proposed that classification and sold the members out. UPS happily accepted the new classification as a win for them. Orr concluded his interview by stating the union’s high expectations by claiming it will not accept anything less than $25 as the new starting wage. In fact it has been leaked to Teamsterlink by frustrated Teamster negotiating committee members that the IBTs proposal for a new starting wage was nowhere near the $25 Orr has falsely defended. 

Furthermore, the fight for $25 was dropped by TDU last month when they removed their demand from their website and replaced it with a call for “higher part-time wages.” It is likely that such changes were made at the request of O’Brien himself who according to several TDU members is being provided with a $30,000 yearly stipend from the IBT. Chris Otts of WDRB news in Louisville reported recently: 

"Teamsters for a Democratic Union, an independent group that supported O’Brien’s campaign, once circulated leaflets calling for the $25 minimum. But the group no longer specifies a target wage in its current literature.

We’re backing the international union and the fight for part-time pay of over $20 an hour and catch-up raises and more full-time jobs,” said TDU staff director David Levin, who declined to comment on the previous leaflet."

Orr is of course not the only one in the soft-left who is engaged in historical falsification. Journalists like Teddy Ostrow, who hosts the In These Times labor podcast The Upsurge and who has made the rounds in a variety of publications and outlets to sing praises for TDU and O’Brien, has also played a key role. In early July, Ostrow had an article on the struggle of part-time UPS workers published in Jacobin. In this article he falsely labels O’Brien as a militant and while mentioning the plight of part-timers and their fight for $25/hr, he refuses to mention that TDU had dropped this demand. Recently Ostrow went on the Labor Valley Report to, like Orr, paint a false rosy history of the TDU. 

By portraying O’Brien as a militant unionist, TDU and their accomplices have attempted to dismiss his past, but more so the history of the UPS Teamster Vote No movement born in 2013 as result of Ken Hall’s and Sean O’Brien’s orchestrated sellout.  

The Forgotten History of the 2013 Sellout, the Southwest Rider Fiasco and the Birth of the Vote No Movement! 

When the Teamsters opened negotiations in 2013 Hoffa appointed his most ardent old-guard supporter in New England – Sean O’Brien – as assistant to Ken Hall and coordinator of supplemental negotiations. Together they went on to lead an information brownout covering over 240,000 members and the most concessionary contract in UPS Teamsters history. Hall and O’Brien toured the country and held rallies where they claimed UPS wanted members to pay for healthcare. Their contract campaign slogan became, “Teamsters will not pay $90, $9 or 9 cents toward their healthcare.” About 45% of all UPSers had been covered under a company-administered Cadillac healthcare plan. The rest were covered under union-administered Taft-Hartley plans with inferior coverage. Hall’s and O’Brien’s plan was to shift all those members under the company-administered plan into the newly created Teamcare. 

When a TA was reached over three months before expiration, members quickly knew it was a bad deal. When the details were presented to members it clearly showed that Teamcare had reduced services and reduced prescriptions, and that coverage was cut from thirty days—down to seven. The general wage increases were below inflation at $3.90 over five years and in the last two years it split the raises in half—into two raises six months apart: August and February. More concessionary, it raised progression from three to four years. The part-time wage was finally raised after sixteen years from: $8.50 to $10–but only as a result of minimum wage rising in California and other large metropolitan localities. O’Brien, in charge of getting the supplements ratified, showed up to multiple locals demanding concessions. At Local 804—the home of Ron Carey, he attempted to strongarm them into accepting a concessionary supplement and to give up their “25 and Out” pension clause. Former leader of Local 804 Tim Sylvester best summed it up: 

"During the last contract negotiations O’Brien tried to strongarm my local into accepting a lower pension increase and eliminating “25 and Out.” O’Brien said to me: ‘we [Local 25] gave-up 25 and Out years ago and our members don’t miss it.’ My reply was, I’m 804, I might as well slice my throat at the next general membership meeting if I give up 25 and Out! We refused and united the members instead. We won $400/month pension increase including the twenty-five years of service and out regardless of age."

Enraged members organized against the sellout and the Vote No movement was born. Mark Timlin, a former TDU activist out of Local 177 in New Jersey created the Vote No on UPS Contract Facebook page out of anger and frustration that quickly gained thousands of members. When the concessions filled contract was presented at local halls, officers and business agents were met with furious and angry members shouting a barrage of obscenities. For the Southwest Rider covering ten locals in Arizona, New Mexico, Las Vegas and Southern California; the shift to Teamcare would have eliminated their Program for Enhanced Early Retirement (PEER) 80 covered under the Western Conference of Teamsters Pension Plan—that is when the combined age of a member and years of service equal eighty. Teamcare coverage required members to work until age fifty-five to qualify for retiree medical benefits. When Southwest locals raised their concern over jeopardizing PEER 80, Hall and O’Brien completely disregarded them. Angry members packed their local halls across the Southwest and united to reject the deal. As a matter of fact, eighteen supplements and riders were rejected in total by members over healthcare concessions crafted by O’Brien himself. Unfortunately, the NMA narrowly passed with 53% approval.    

The members’ reluctance to accept inferior healthcare in the Southwest and Local 177 pushed their local leaders to “carve-out” their own plan that would protect PEER 80. In November 2013 they succeeded in carving out a new Taft-Hartley plan—the Teamsters Western Region & Local 177 Health Care Plan. Although the plan was not “identical” to the company-administered plan like the hofficers claimed when it was presented, it was superior to Teamcare. But it came at a huge cost. When details of the new plan arrived at members’ homes via mail, Jim Brown and Mike Deszcz—now retired drivers out of Local 952 in Orange County, CA., immediately noticed that pension increases were being diverted to pay for the creation of the plan. Out of the lousy $2.50 in pension increases the members were due to receive under the original TA, Western Package Director and chair of the new healthcare plan Andy Marshall agreed to divert $1.25 during the first three years of the agreement to pay for it. 

During those first three years of the agreement, Northern California and Pacific Northwest members enjoyed increases of $1.50, while in the Southwest members saw it increase by just 25 cents. Due to the diversion of pension, UPSers covered by the Southwest Rider today receive the lowest contribution into the Western Conference of Teamsters (WCT) Pension Plan. The $50 per month healthcare cost retirees had enjoyed for many years under the company-administered plan was also given away. The new plan cost future retirees $150 and $300 for those with a spouse. The agreement was so unpopular that in the small Local 186 in Ventura, made up of by a majority of UPSers, members united behind feeder driver Abel Garcia and ousted longtime incumbent Bill Elder two years later.

Ten months after the 2013 concessionary TA was reached—the Louisville, Western Pennsylvania and Philadelphia supplements were again rejected for a second time by the membership over the same healthcare concessions and a variety of other issues. Two weeks later, Hoffa with the blessing of Hall, O’Brien, and the rest of his old-guard general executive board voted to impose the three remaining supplements on the members using a loophole in the Teamsters Constitution.

After the 2013 fiasco, the Vote No movement and Facebook page created by Mark Timlin remained intact. The page became the foundation of the anti-Hoffa and anti old-guard rank-and-file movement that catapulted the Teamsters United slate and movement founded by Local 804’s Tim Sylvester in 2015. And although the founder of the page has since retired and left TDU in disgust with their alliance with one of the most thugged-up elements the Teamsters has to offer—the page has grown to over 27,000 members.   

DSA-TDU UPSers Begin to Speak Out!

As of the past few months, many young DSA UPSers who put their faith in TDU and O’Brien have lost their patience with the lack of transparency from both. These include members like Corbin Palakarn, a seven-year UPSer out of St. Louis; as well as two-year hub employee Dom Belcastro out of Portland, Oregon. Palakarn was due to deliver a presentation on the contract negotiations for the St. Louis DSA chapter but was censored after writing a critique on the current state of O’Brien’s led negotiations and his frustration with the top-down bureaucracy of the Teamsters. Belcastro who is a DSA-TDU and Teamsters Mobilize member responded by writing about his frustration over the market rate adjustment (MRA) being reduced from $26 down to $23 at his Portland Swan Island Hub. For these young members, $20 as the new starting wage proposed by the IBT is an insult. 

But other TDU veterans with no ties to the DSA or any other left organizations are beginning to split. Thirty-one year veteran Hugo Leal out of Local 396 in Los Angeles is another one of these long-time TDU members that disagrees entirely with the information brownout and the signing of NDAs. He himself does not agree with the direction Levin has taken TDU or O’Brien has taken the IBT. Levin has in fact ignored his recent phone calls. As a genuine reformer, Leal stands in solidarity with part-timers and their fight for $25. He has indicated he will not renew his memberships with TDU, nor attend their upcoming convention.

The hardest hit taken by the TDU-OZ coalition was the split from international vice-president John Palmer who has been critical of the direction O’Brien has taken the IBT. Palmer, as a former TDU-ISC member has publicly criticized the NDAs and stated: “TDU has gone from being a Teamsters watchdog to now an O’Brien lapdog.” O’Brien has purged Palmer and relieved him from all organizing assignments. Since his removal, Palmer has thrown his support behind the Teamsters Mobilize movement and their fight for $25. He remains the only general executive board member to stand firmly with the part-timers. In disgust with the coalition, Palmer has also split from TDU. 

After O’Brien fails to deliver a $25 starting wage for part-timers more splits from within DSA will come to the fore. A good quantity of them have been attacked and accused of being “childish” by DSA and even an IBT staffer, Nick Perry, for simply calling to organize a new Vote No campaign. Ironically, Perry, seemingly forgetting where he came from, was himself a leader of the 2013 Vote No movement in Ohio. A lucrative cozy job at the IBT can certainly cause memory loss! An overwhelming majority of these young members will also leave TDU as soon as a TA is presented. Not surprising, TDU has been offering a $100 discount for registering early to their November convention—a clear sign of discontent. Palmer strongly urges members: “if TDU cannot stand next to the part-time fight for $25, then they have no business asking anyone to attend their convention, let alone take their money.”     

The Actual State of the Teamsters Union

Despite Sean O’Brien’s self-proclaimed credentials of “militant” Teamster and those echoed by Sean Orr and the rest of his cheerleaders mentioned throughout this article, they are anything but militant. The IBT is the most top-down structured union in North America with a history of purging militant unionists and a bureaucracy not matched by any other. With the exception of New York City and Chicago, the Teamsters membership is a very conservative and reactionary one. Much of it has to do in part to their quiet and elementary state of class-consciousness suppressed by the nation’s devotion to the two corporate parties of capital and empire that have remained intact since the postwar era. Such apparatus has been successful in pitting American workers against each other along the lines of the “conservative” and “liberal” consensus.  

According to Hoffa’s IBT statistics, during the 2016 presidential election over 51% of Teamster members voted for Donald Trump and 47% did so again during the 2020 election. These numbers speak volumes of the actual state of the union and its lack of militancy within their membership. UPS full-timers in majority vote Republican and view themselves as part of America’s upper middle-class. O’Brien’s marriage to the Joe Biden White House and the Democratic party is further evidence of the actual state of the union. Such apathy can also easily be observed within the full-time membership who in majority do not stand in solidarity with the part-timers’ plight or support their fight for a justifiable wage of $25.

In sum, O’Brien is a pro-business unionist in bed with Washington and a byproduct of the most rotten elements of the Teamsters old-guard who like his predecessors, will settle short on part-time wages and continue the IBT’s betrayal of the part-time workforce. It will be the duty of all part-time rank-and-file members who make-up the majority of the UPS membership to come together and reject anything that sells them short of $25—because one thing is for certain, O’Brien will not exhaust a poorly funded Teamsters strike fund. A fund that has lost 20% of its value over the past ten years and only has $346 million—enough to cover a two week strike and struggle to cover a third week.

Until the traitors in TDU are thrown out by principled, militant, and incorruptible workers, Teamsters for a Democratic Union will never recover from this betrayal!

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