Next step for US unions: major contracts for 700,000 workers

The deal, reached in the early hours of Thursday, kept more than 50,000 engineers and conductors on the job and won members changes to work rules demanded by their leaders. They also got an immediate increase of 14%, arrears dating back to 2020 and increases totaling 24% over the five-year life of the contracts.

In terms of large labor contracts in the United States, however, this is only the first act.

There are 700,000 more union members across the country in key industries who could get new labor deals, possibly after going on strike, next year.

Each of these unions is seeking not only lucrative contracts, but also significant changes in work rules and job security guarantees that could make it difficult to avoid work stoppages.

Here are some of the most crucial upcoming negotiations:

United Parcel Service

About 350,000 Teamsters at UPS are covered by a contract that expires at the end of July 2023. If the union goes on strike, it could be the largest strike ever at a single U.S. company.

A majority of Teamsters rejected their last UPS contract in 2018, but then-union president James Hoffa was able to accept the offer because there was not enough voting turnout to call a strike.

A the angry base then elected a Hoffa critic, Sean O’Brien, as the union’s new president earlier this year. O’Brien has made the UPS contract a key issue in his campaign for the job and pledged to ensure that UPS, which just reported record annual profit, pays more and improves working conditions for its members. .

O’Brien often talks about the $300 million strike fund the union has accumulated to pay members in the event of a work stoppage.

« Do our members wake up every day wanting to strike? I would say no. But are they fed up? Yes, they are fed up, » O’Brien told CNN Business earlier this month. « Whether there’s a strike or not is entirely up to the company. We’re going to use as much leverage as possible to ensure our members get the contract they deserve. »

UPS said it hoped the two sides would reach an agreement and avoid the company’s first nationwide strike since 1997. The shipping giant employs far more union members than any other US company. And it added employees – including 72,000 new union members – since the start of the pandemic, even as other unionized employers cut staff.

« We want a contract that provides benefits to our employees and provides UPS with the flexibility to stay competitive in a rapidly changing industry, » the company said in a statement this month. « We believe we will continue to find common ground with the Teamsters and reach an agreement that is good for everyone involved. »

If the union goes on strike, prepare for massive supply chain disruptions and a blow to the economy. UPS estimates that it transports about 6% of the gross domestic product of the United States, the broadest measure of economic activity in the country. With growing fears of a recession, there will be enormous pressure on the union and management to come to an agreement.

Teamster drivers and package sorters at UPS are covered by different labor laws than the railroads, so the government doesn’t have the same power to prevent a strike as railroad workers.

Airlines companies

Airlines are among the most unionized industries in the country, and these unions are among the strongest. Nearly 200,000 airline union members have gone months, and in some cases years, since their last raise.

As carriers again report strong revenues and profits, unions are eager to recoup some of that revenue. The carriers have all acknowledged in comments to investors that they expect to see salaries rise sharply.
And as with railroad unions, members are focusing on staffing shortages and scheduling issues that they say have brought many employees to breaking point.

Airlines are covered by the same employment law as railways, which means agreements do not expire at a specific time. They become « editable » when they reach the end of their term, and if no contract is concluded, the existing agreement remains in place for as long as it takes to conclude a new one.

It's not just money.  Unions fight for better hours, safety and working conditions

Members can strike, or management can lock them out, only after a 60-day cooling-off period once federal mediators declare an impasse in the talks. During this period, a presidential panel makes recommendations.

If a strike or lockout begins, it ends when both parties reach an agreement or Congress intervenes. Airlines negotiate with their own unions, so a strike would ground only one carrier, but even that would be a nightmare for the traveling public.

As a result, union leaders do not know when their members might get new contracts. Some have been waiting since 2019.

« Air travel is back… I think it’s the right time [for new contracts] », said Greg Regan, chairman of the AFL-CIO’s transportation trades department. « Workers are going to demand better wages and better working conditions. But it’s hard to say about the timing. »

It’s not just passenger airlines whose contracts could arrive next year. fedex (FDX) is mostly non-unionized, but its pilots are unionized and their contract became modifiable almost a year ago. And soon after the Teamsters contract for UPS ground workers expires, contracts for UPS pilots and aircraft mechanics become changeable.

Car manufacturers

Agreements are due to expire next year for about 150,000 United Auto Workers in General Engines (GM), Ford (F) and Stellantis, the company resulting from the merger of Fiat Chrysler and the PSA group of Peugot.
The latest round of contracts came after GM workers, angered by a number of plant closures, went on a six-week strike in September and October 2019, months before the pandemic hit.

There have been no plant closures since. In fact, automakers have invested tens of billions of dollars to build new factories or transform old traditional gasoline cars into electric vehicles.

But this switch to electric vehicles could make future discussions difficult.

It takes about 30% less labor to build an electric vehicle than a traditional car or truck, because it therefore takes fewer parts to build them.

This is a major concern for unions whose members build engines and transmissions. Earlier this month, more than 1,000 UAW workers at a Stellantis castings plant in Kokomo, Indiana, walked off the job for a weekend over « local issues, » which left them allowed to strike without causing a company-wide shutdown. Stellantis settled quickly because parts from these factories power its other factories.

Stellantis is the latest automaker to plan an expensive EV battery factory

But that settlement failed to address the looming question of what the switch to electric vehicles will mean for unionized workers in the future.

Much of the labor required to build an electric vehicle is spent on the large batteries that power these vehicles. Automakers are rushing to build electric vehicle battery factories, almost all of which are joint ventures with battery makers. In fact, Stellantis is building such a battery factory in Kokomo in a joint venture with Samsung. So far, none of these factories are guaranteed to have unionized workers.

It’s sure to be a major issue in upcoming labor negotiations, according to Bernard Swiecki, director of research at the Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan think tank. « The planned shift to electric vehicles is the big issue hanging around there, » he said.

Swiecki imagines the UAW will want to press the issue during this round of talks rather than waiting for the shift to electric vehicles to progress further.

« Sorting out the EV battery plant unionization makes this probably the most interesting round of negotiations since the bankruptcy era, » Swiecki said, referring to the 2009 reorganizations at GM and Chryser, and new deals that followed by all car manufacturers.

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