Inside a Teamster Rebellion: This Is What Union Democracy Looks Like

In Des Moines, Iowa, the militant Local 90 is preparing for what could be the largest strike against a single company in US history.

This article is a joint publication of Workday Magazine and The Nation.

In the early morning of April 12, members of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 90 rallied in the parking lot of the United Parcel Service distribution hub in Des Moines, Iowa, to prepare for what could be the largest strike against a single company in US history later this summer. The sun was shining as the union distributed “hot dogs for breakfast” to a crowd that started small but quickly ballooned to over 100, workers said. People were standing on trucks giving speeches to their coworkers. “We had workers talking about working six days a week, talking about getting written up for calling in sick,” said Tanner Fischer, the 26-year-old president of the local, who has been working for UPS since he was 18.

Managers came outside to monitor the rally, Fischer said. “Some were standing 100 yards away, then moved to stand in the crowd and see what’s going on. They were making everyone uncomfortable.”

Surveillance is a common intimidation tactic used by management to make workers fearful about participating in protests. But instead of being cowed, Fischer fought back. “I filed an Unfair Labor Practice a few days later for them spying on our rally,” he told me with a smile, referring to a formal charge that an employer has violated the National Labor Relations Act. “It was easy. I did it myself. I wish I knew how to file a ULP when I was a steward.” (UPS corporate communications said of the incident, “We respect our employees’ rights to assemble and we comply with the NLRA.” The case is still ongoing.)

This episode illustrates the combative stance promised by Local 90’s new leadership, which hails from Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a movement within the union to build stronger democracy and militancy. That slate came to power in Local 90 at the beginning of this year, just in time to pick up the organizing for a nationwide UPS contract battle. The UPS contract with roughly 350,000 Teamsters is, according to the Teamsters, the biggest private-sector labor contract in North America, and it will expire on July 31. Negotiations are already underway. Beyond Des Moines, the new leadership of the international union came to power in March 2022 with the endorsement of the TDU, and has repeatedly declared, “we are not afraid” to strike.

Fischer doesn’t seem afraid either. We sat in the bar of a Hilton in downtown Chicago, where he had traveled for a regional grievance panel, part of the process for resolving deadlocked complaints that the employer violated the collective bargaining agreement. He looked young—he was carded when ordering a Bud Light—but he exuded confidence. Dressed in a gray Teamsters pullover, he had a trim beard and short, light-brown hair, and politely repeated himself when I had trouble hearing him over the chatter of the establishment. But that polite demeanor gave way to exuberance—and increased volume—once we got going on the subject of workplace organizing.

There was much to discuss; the UPS contract isn’t his only battle. Local 90, based mostly in the Des Moines metro area, has six more contracts to negotiate in 2023, said Fischer, including one with a Pepsi bottling and distribution center, the local’s second-largest shop. And union leadership, he told me, is working through a backlog of hundreds of grievances, dating back to 2018. But out of 1,100 members, around 600 work at UPS, which guarantees that fight will be a focal point in the months to come.

Iowa is a “right to work” state, which means that a worker can reap the benefits of a union contract without paying dues or being a member. While “right to work” status was designed to—and often does—obliterate union power, Local 90 has pushed back by aggressively organizing workers. According to Fischer, around 90 percent of UPS workers in the area are in the union.

Alano De La Rosa is the secretary-treasurer, the top office in Local 90, and also a member of TDU. He told me over the phone that he attributes the success of the recent organizing drive “in large part to the fact people are activated by the potential of a nationwide work stoppage. We’ve even picked up members who were long-time non- members.”

Chased by dogs, stuck in snow

In 2015, it was De La Rosa who first signed up Fischer, then a teenage UPS loader making $10.50 an hour, to be in the union. It helped that Fischer, who grew up in the Des Moines area, had some familiarity with the concept. “My uncle was in unions as a firefighter and an electrician, and I know he has done well with his life because he’s in a union,” Fischer said. But despite union protection, Fischer told me that at the beginning, “pay was very low. I always had to have another job while working there.”

In February 2018, before the current contract, Fischer became a full-time driver, which meant higher pay: $18.75 an hour, he said. But the switch also had its challenges: He recalled the terror of “qualifying” when, during the first 30 days, a driver is tested on their ability to deliver a truck load within rigid time standards. “That was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done,” he said. “On any given day you could be fired. It’s snowing, and I’m driving a truck, and I have to be done by 5:00.”

Like any UPS driver, Fischer has a trove of stories about misadventures and warm interactions with the public. “I’ve been chased by more dogs more times than I can count,” he said. “I’ve been stuck in snow and had the whole neighborhood dig me out. I had a customer buy me a portable air conditioner thing to keep me from overheating—probably the best customer gift I’ve ever gotten in my life.”

Jody Gelner, who has been working at UPS for 35 years and became a member of TDU around two years ago, serves on the executive board of Local 90. He said that he still “gets pretty emotional” about the interactions he has had with customers.

One holiday season, early in his role as a full-time driver in the early 2000s, he had to deliver a kid-sized jeep with power wheels, “the type of toy that you give a little kid to ride around in with a battery,” he said. Gelner knew what was in the box because there was a picture on the side.

He was delivering it to a house with a big window. “I got out the back door and grabbed this big box with the picture of the toy,” he said. “And as I’m coming up to the door, I can see the kid jumping up and down and yelling with excitement. He was maybe five years old. And here comes the mom saying you just ruined the surprise for my kid’s Christmas.”

“She was furious,” he remembered with a laugh. “She tore into me. Now I’ve kind of learned that if the picture is on them, you hide them a little bit.”

But Gelner said the job also has its nasty side. “For upper management, it’s all down to seconds. You have 19 seconds to stop the truck. You have 18 or 19 seconds to get a box and get out of the truck. It’s so micromanaged.”

“Back in the day, I could run like a gazelle,” Gelner, who is 60 years old, said. “But now my knees hurt. I’ve been doing it so long. It wears on you.”

UPS has multiple mechanisms to track workers’ progress throughout the day: The company knows when a worker opens their door, how long the door is open, when a package is scanned, and where a worker is driving. But it is the union’s position that workers are under no obligation to follow the company’s time parameters. “The company can have their standards of what they think we should do, but we as a union do not acknowledge their production standards,” Fischer said. “There’s nothing in our contract that says we have to work for their numbers.”

Tanner Fischer. (Photo by Sarah Lazare)

A forced contract, a coming fight

But there is plenty in the workers’ national contract that is distasteful. The 2018 contract that UPS employees are currently working under garnered a “no” vote of 54 percent. But the union’s leadership at the time—helmed by long-time President James Hoffa, whose father, Jimmy, led the union from 1957 to 1971—invoked a constitutional loophole that says union negotiators can impose a contract if fewer than half of the membership votes, unless that vote is two-thirds “no.”

That loophole had been vociferously opposed for years by TDU and other Teamsters, and in June 2021, delegates overturned it at the union’s national convention. And then, around five months later, the opposition slate headed by now-general president Sean O’Brien and general secretary-treasurer Fred Zuckerman won. Alexandra Bradbury wrote in Labor Notes about the election outcome, “It’s the first time in almost a quarter-century that a coalition backed by TDU has taken the driver’s seat in the international union.”

Now, under that leadership, Teamsters across the country are looking to overturn some of that contract’s biggest disappointments. Paramount is the 22.4 position, which was created in the 2018 contract. This designation creates a second—or lower—tier of drivers, justified by the fact that these positions “may include inside jobs.” But in reality, 22.4 workers often perform tasks that are nearly identical to that of regular full-time drivers, except they work on the weekend and receive lower pay. These 22.4 workers are also excluded from the already meager protections from excessive forced overtime that exist for regular full-time drivers. (Only 25 percent of drivers per center can be 22.4s, per the contract.)

The demand to eliminate the 22.4 position has emerged as a rallying call, and O’Brien and Zuckerman have both said they are willing to strike to scrap this designation. (O’Brien split with Hoffa over the 2018 contract and has since built an alliance with TDU.)

But life isn’t easy for regular full-time drivers either. Fischer said that these workers in Local 90 are frustrated with forced overtime and the lack of paid sick days. “[Regular] full-time drivers have overtime protections against working over 9.5 hours a day more than two days in a given week,” Fischer said. “But the company can violate it—they just have to pay a penalty.”

Regular full-time drivers in Local 90 frequently work six days a week and are often forced to power through sickness, Fischer said. They don’t, after all, get paid sick days, and the state of Iowa does not have a guarantee for these either. (Some regional supplementary agreements in other locations do include paid sick days, but the central region supplement—which is the largest supplement and includes Iowa—doesn’t.) Vacation days have to be scheduled at the beginning of the year, which means that these workers have few opportunities to get an urgently needed day off. While management’s flexibility on this requirement varies from shop to shop, Fischer described local bosses as punitive: “If you were to get sick or need the day off, you end up with attendance issues.”

“It’s a little bit like the rail workers,” Fischer said. Rail workers have been vocal about brutal work conditions created by precision scheduled railroading, in which they are denied time off to be at the bedside of dying family members, see their children born, or attend to urgent medical issues.

When asked about these conditions at Local 90, Matthew O’Connor from UPS corporate communications said, “We don’t want any of our employees to work six days in a row unless they want to.”

“In 2018, no one could have predicted the rapid increase in volume due to Covid-19 and changing customer demands for weekend service,” he continued. O’Connor stated that the 25 percent cap on 22.4 drivers has functioned to “prevent us from hiring enough Tuesday-Saturday drivers in some locations.”

But Fischer said that UPS can’t dodge responsibility. “If they didn’t want to have the six-day work week, they wouldn’t have it. They have the power to stop that immediately. It’s like driving a car and saying, ‘I don’t want to keep driving,’ but not pulling over and stopping. They’re the ones behind the wheel.”

UPS made record profits in 2022, bringing in $100 billion in revenue. But pay inequalities extend well beyond the 22.4 positions, something workers would like to rectify. The starting rate at UPS for both part-time and full-time jobs working inside—unloading, bagging, and sorting—is significantly lower than the rate for drivers. And then there is the issue of subcontracting—or, as Fischer put it, “giving away good union jobs.”

Workers want more full-time inside jobs, and they are fed up with the company’s efforts to impose monitoring systems, like cameras and sensors. This investment in surveillance is especially offensive, workers say, given the lack of measures to keep workers cool, as temperatures climb in a changing climate and, in some cases, place their lives in danger. Workers, too, are watching with concern as UPS pursues automation at some facilities.

Fischer’s mother, Adrianne Fischer, is a part-time air package driver; she picks up packages early in the morning from the airport and delivers them to customers. Her son encouraged her to get a job at UPS almost five years ago after her divorce. “I was working three jobs at the time, and had two little boys at home,” she said. “Health insurance is so expensive. He knew I needed benefits.”

She has complaints related to Article 40 of the national contract, which says that, unlike regular part-time workers, she doesn’t get extra pay if she works six days in a row when hours are beneath a certain threshold. She is also only guaranteed three hours a day. This is despite the fact that air package workers are often delivering and moving highly valuable products, or even medically urgent items, like corneas for transplant.

While the job gave her health insurance, Article 40 puts a cap on her quality of life, she said. “I’ve prepared myself financially for a potential strike. If this is what we need to do to have our voices heard, then we’ll do it.”

Organizing transformations

Fischer joined TDU around the forced passage of the 2018 contract. He said he remembers “being at a TDU conference in a room with people who were really pissed off. I was not totally understanding what was going on, but knowing we were getting screwed.”

Todd Hartsell, a senior steward in his building at the time, was the one who first pointed Fischer toward TDU, which was formed in 1976 to advance union democracy and root out corruption and mob influence (then an issue) from the union. Now a retired UPS worker, Hartsell has been a member of TDU for almost 40 years and was president of Local 90 in the mid-to-late ’90s. For three months, he said, he was on the national negotiating committee for the contract fight that resulted in the last nationwide UPS strike in 1997, which took place under the leadership of Ron Carey, who won the presidency with the support of TDU. The strike involved 185,000 workers and lasted for 15 days. As labor journalist Alex Press noted in Jacobin, “the United States has not seen a strike of that magnitude since.”

Hartsell said of Fischer, “Other people planted the seeds in me, the seeds of knowledge and information, and I shared it with him.”

During his presidential campaign, Fischer got married in September to Jacob Sales, who works as a server while going to school. They now live together in Bondurant, a suburb of Des Moines. “It’s stressful to plan a wedding and run for president at the same time,” said Fischer. “I would be doing 4:00 AM shifts at Pepsi talking to Teamsters, then sleeping in my car for maybe an hour, then going to work all day.” Luckily, Fischer says, his now-husband did “most of the wedding planning.”

A handful of Teamster coworkers came to their wedding, and now Fischer is a union leader alongside them, at a juncture with huge implications for the labor movement. As rank-and-file reform movements win power in the United Auto Workers and rise up in the United Food and Commercial Workers, major contract battles become an opportunity to showcase a more aggressive approach that—many hope—will result in stronger contracts and internal democracy, as well as new organizing campaigns. While union enthusiasm is resurging, density is low in relative historical terms.

There are signs, meanwhile, that UPS is feeling the heat from workers. On a January 31 UPS earnings call, Amit Mehrotra, an analyst for Deutsche Bank, expressed concern about the negative press attention the contract battle is generating: “It seems like every day we wake up, there’s a new big article about it.” On that same earnings call, UPS CEO Carol Tomé sought to assure investors that UPS and Teamsters are “not far apart on the issues.”

But Local 90 members are readying themselves for a fight. De La Rosa said, “There is a lot of positive buzz. They are asking how it’s going. We connect people with the Teamsters app. We try to be at the gates as much as possible, try to be at the building leafleting. People seem thirsty for information.”

Fischer isn’t sure when he’s going to get a break from organizing, and it doesn’t seem like he wants one. The national UPS contract says top officers get an unpaid leave from UPS during their tenure (Local 90 member dues pay their salaries), and can return with all of their seniority intact once their term is finished. When asked what he does in his free time, he told me, “This is it,” gesturing with his hands toward the conversation we are having. He does enjoy bike riding, he said, and Packers football, though he acknowledged he should not admit the latter too loudly in a Chicago bar. He’s been thinking a lot, he said, about how “servers are a marginalized group of workers, and making less than minimum wage is insane.”

“Maybe when I have some time, we can stir up some trouble at Jacob’s work.”

Sarah is the Editor for Workday Magazine.

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