Date: Thursday, August 10th, 2023
Source: Wall Street Journal
Surging demands on transportation workers are fueling labor standoffs at companies critical to U.S. supply chains.
he Teamsters, which represents drivers at trucking company Yellow, threatened a strike shortly before the company shut down July 30. FedEx FDX 0.75%increase; green up pointing triangle pilots recently rejected a new labor contract promising a roughly 30% raise. Port workers in Canada staged walkouts earlier this year and dockworkers at West Coast ports slowed work at container terminals.
The renewed activism comes on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic, when demands on train operators, package carriers, and truckers surged to handle a deluge of business.
Transportation workers said they are entitled to a larger share of the corporate profit generated during the pandemic and better pay and recognition for showing up through the health crisis when other staff was able to work remotely.
“We know what we’ve sacrificed to make certain that goods and services are provided,” Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien said at a rally in Atlanta on July 22, days before a tentative agreement with United Parcel Service was reached and amid the Yellow threats. “Now is our time to be rewarded.”
Employers say they are offering outsize wage increases and changing their operations to improve conditions for workers. UPS got rid of a lower-paid weekend driver role and agreed to ensure that delivery vehicles have adequate cooling equipment for drivers. Railroads are promising more predictable work schedules so workers can plan and attend family activities on their days off.
Recent labor standoffs have irked businesses and, in some cases, resulted in snafus in the movement of goods around the country. Souring relations between the Teamsters and Yellow prompted several companies to pull their business.
Some Yellow workers said they are frustrated with both the company and the union.
“I feel left in the dark,” said Tim Livesay, a dockworker in St. Louis. On Saturday night his supervisor called and told him there was no work on Sunday and not to come in.
“They never said if I was fired or laid off, just ‘don’t come to work,’” he said. “Do I need to find another job? How do I file for unemployment?”
At a Yellow terminal in Columbus, Ohio, drivers arriving to work Monday morning found entry gates barricaded. A note taped to a dolly was rolled out through the gate informing employees that operations ceased the day prior.
“Nobody called us, nothing,” said Chris Gordon, who had worked at Yellow for 17 years and had expected to retire from the company. “This is our livelihood. It puts a bad taste in your mouth.”
The slowdown of work at West Coast ports caused some ships to take a longer route to dock at ports along the East Coast instead. To prevent hazardous and other sensitive material from being left unattended in the event of a labor stoppage, railroad operators imposed restrictions on handling some commodities days before a strike deadline. Industry groups have warned about the damage that potential work stoppages could have on supply chains.
Lynn Kelley, a business consultant who recently published a book, said she was worried about a possible UPS strike affecting the book’s distribution, including large bulk shipments for some upcoming events.
“There might have been some delays,” said Kelley, adding that her book is on Amazon, which handles shipping. “My concern is even if Amazon does use an alternative to UPS, everything will be slow because there’s not a lot of extra capacity.”
Unions have been pushing companies to improve on-the-job conditions. After lobbying for it last year, major freight railroads have started offering short-term paid sick leave—in some cases for the first time—to union workers to ensure ample staffing and service levels.
“What we found over the pandemic—and I think you see this throughout all of society—is that those quality-of-life issues become more and more important to folks,” said Alan Shaw, chief executive officer of transportation company Norfolk Southern.
Teamsters representatives said that the labor pact with UPS included provisions that would stop the installation of driver-facing cameras. The changes were in response to concerns that their work is increasingly measured against a stopwatch and that drivers were being surveilled for minor infractions, union employees and officials said.
“Our focus is on safety, and not on surveillance or discipline,” a UPS spokesman said.
Some UPS vehicles have sensors inside the cab that provide an audible alert when distracted driving is suspected and the in-cab device doesn’t have audio or video capabilities activated, the company spokesman said.
After UPS and the Teamsters reached a labor agreement covering roughly 330,000 workers, President Biden spoke with UPS CEO Carol Tomé and the Teamsters president on the phone. The White House said the president congratulated both leaders, adding that their agreement is evidence that collective bargaining works.
Labor agreements don’t guarantee labor peace, however. Teamsters members voted down the last contract the union negotiated with UPS in 2018, but it was pushed through by Teamsters leadership saying turnout was too low to reject the contract. In a sign of possibly a bumpy ratification process this year, leadership of the local chapter in Louisville, Ky., where UPS’s largest air hub is located, voted against the newest agreement. It later changed its recommendation after determining that the deal wouldn’t harm some of its members’ earnings. More than 160 other locals have voted in favor. Rank-and-file workers will be voting this month.
Pilots at FedEx recently surprised industry observers by voting down a union-brokered deal that would have raised their wages about 30% by 2028. Some pilots said that they saw their counterparts at passenger airlines get higher wages in recent weeks, and that they were also worried about insufficient job protections.
FedEx said the voting results will have no impact on service levels. The Air Line Pilots Association, International, which represents FedEx pilots, and FedEx will return to the bargaining table with mediators from the National Mediation Board.
“Labor groups seem to find it more appealing to reject the first offer to get a better second offer,” said Helane Becker, an analyst at investment banking company TD Cowen. “Sometimes it doesn’t get better.”
Voting down the contract means that pilots will have to wait longer for higher pay. The last pay raise for the pilots was in November 2020. “It’s frustrating for all sides,” Becker added.
FedEx pilots will continue working under the terms of the existing contract, and aren’t allowed to strike under federal law until certain conditions are met. Workers in some railroad unions last year voted against a tentative labor deal, but Congress and President Biden stepped in to impose a settlement.
In an email to union members after they rejected the FedEx deal, union leader Christopher Norman defended the efforts of the negotiating representatives.
“While it fell short of membership’s expectations, the committee and staff never wavered from its mission of achieving an industry-leading contract for the FedEx pilots,” said Norman.
The ALPA didn’t respond to a request for comment.