Teamsters Struggle to Unionize Amazon and FedEx Delivery Workers

Teamsters Struggle to Unionize Amazon and FedEx Delivery Workers

Last year, two unions representing workers at three major automakers and UPS negotiated new collective bargaining agreements that included big wage increases and other improvements. Union leaders – the United Automobile Workers and the Teamsters – hoped the wins would help them organize workers across their industry.

The UAW won a vote to unionize at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee last month, but lost a vote this month at two Mercedes-Benz plants in Alabama. The Teamsters have made even less progress at UPS's major nonunion competitors in the delivery business, Amazon and FedEx.

Polls show that public support for unions is at its highest level in decades. But labor market experts say structural factors are making it difficult for unions to increase their membership. As a proportion of the total workforce, unions are at their lowest level in decades. Unions also face fierce opposition from many employers and conservative politicians.

The Teamsters are an instructive case study. Many of the workers who deliver for Amazon and FedEx work for contractors, typically small and medium-sized companies that can be difficult to organize. And delivery workers employed directly by FedEx in the express business are subject to a labor law that requires unions to organize all of the company's comparable workers nationwide simultaneously—a stricter standard than that used to organize workers at automakers, UPS and other employers.

Some labor experts also said the Teamsters did not try as vigorously as the UAW to organize nonunion workers after signing a new contract with UPS.

“It lacked the energy that you saw in the UAW leadership,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist who studies labor issues at Washington University in St. Louis.

Teamsters officials said the UPS deal, which increases the average annual pay of a UPS driver including benefits from $145,000 to $170,000, is helping them recruit new members. DHL, a delivery service where the union has long had a strong presence, added 1,100 new members last year and is seeking to recruit 1,500 more. The Teamsters are also pursuing a lawsuit against Amazon that could give them a foothold with the company and its contractors.

“The mobilization was very helpful for us,” said Sean O'Brien, president of the Teamsters, in an interview, referring to the UPS contract. “We set the standard in the industry.”

But the union has also suffered losses. Yellow, a transportation company that employed 24,000 Teamsters, was forced to close and file for bankruptcy last year.

Amazon and FedEx said they were confident in their approach to managing and compensating their workers. Amazon said it had made investments that had improved wages and benefits at its suppliers. FedEx said its nonunion model allowed it to give quick pay increases, while UPS's union workers were locked into the terms of five-year contracts.

“Our culture, built and tested over 50 years, is based on the philosophy that when we take care of our employees, they deliver outstanding service to our customers, which in turn drives our company's business results,” said Tracy Brightman, FedEx's chief human resources officer, in a statement.

Around 310,000 UPS employees are Teamsters. Many of them see FedEx and Amazon drivers on their routes and talk about pay, benefits and working conditions.

“We make a lot more than anyone else in the industry,” says Essence Carlisle, a part-time package handler at the UPS hub in Louisville, Kentucky. “I definitely plan on making a career here.”

The UPS deal gave part-time workers, more than half of the company's unionized workforce, a 26 percent pay raise to at least $21 an hour. Carlisle makes nearly $24 an hour and works about 20 hours a week, which gives her time to run a bakery on the side, she says. Her friends who work full-time as Amazon drivers make about $19 an hour, she says.

As large as the pay increases at UPS were, they did not increase wages much more than inflation. The top pay immediately after the last deal was $44.25 an hour, 22 percent higher than it had been five years earlier. During the same period, consumer prices rose 21 percent.

And UPS typically hires new union members into part-time jobs that they keep for a few years. This can make some people reluctant to apply for jobs with the company.

Still, last year's Teamsters contract was widely discussed online, spawning memes depicting UPS drivers wearing designer clothes showing up at customers' doors.

“Whether joking or not, everyone said, 'Hey man, I need a job at UPS,'” said Juan Martinez, a UPS driver in Southern California.

With the new contract, Martinez is expected to earn $110,000 to $120,000 a year, depending on how much overtime he works, he said. His income will allow him to spend more on his children's education.

Under the Teamsters' contract with UPS, the highest hourly wage will rise to $49 by the end of the five-year contract. Amazon said in January that the average wage for workers in its delivery services in the US is $20.50. FedEx declined to disclose the average wage of its delivery workers.

Despite years of better pay at UPS, the Teamsters have had little success at FedEx or Amazon.

The high turnover among delivery and warehouse workers at Amazon and FedEx – where each part-time position was filled and vacated on average twice last year – makes their organization difficult.

Another challenge is that Amazon's delivery workers and the drivers who deliver for FedEx Ground are employed by contractors. Rosenfeld, labor law expert, said trying to organize a few dozen people at each contractor can be time-consuming and costly.

Last year, 84 workers at an Amazon contractor near Los Angeles joined the Teamsters. But a few days earlier, Amazon terminated its contract with the operator, Battle-Tested Strategies, the company said, partly because of a lack of compliance with safety precautions.

The Teamsters asked the National Labor Relations Board to determine that Amazon is a joint employer of the workers and to order the company to reinstate the contract. The board's decision is pending.

A positive ruling would be “a huge deal” and an “inspiration to thousands of other workers across the country,” said Randy Korgan, a Teamsters official.

Johnathon Ervin, the owner of Battle-Tested Strategies, said he believes Amazon terminated the contract, which resulted in job losses for all of its employees, because of the union effort. An Amazon spokeswoman, Mary Kate Paradis, denied this.

Mr. Ervin said the minimum wage for his workers under the Amazon contract is $19.75. “If you're going to ask people to have this career, you should provide better working conditions and pay the drivers more,” said Mr. Ervin, who has been in the Air Force for 26 years.

Amazon did not respond directly to the criticism. The company pointed out that its contractors, which it calls delivery service partners, have created 279,000 driver jobs over the past five years.

“It's important to us to help DSPs create a good overall work experience, which is why we've invested more than $8 billion in cutting-edge technology, safety features, rates, programs and services for Amazon DSPs and their drivers,” Ms. Paradis said in a statement.

Unions have had some successes at Amazon, including organizing workers at a Staten Island warehouse, but Amazon contested the election there and the union is embroiled in internal infighting.

At FedEx, there is another potential obstacle to unionization.

FedEx was founded as an airline, and employees of its express business are subject to the Railway Labor Act, which requires unions to organize nationwide and companywide. Union officials say it would be easier to hold individual votes at each of the company's locations, as allowed by the National Labor Relations Act, which applies to employees of UPS and automakers.

Still, some FedEx workers are unionized. Nearly 6,000 pilots at FedEx Express are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association. The Teamsters are trying to organize the mechanics who work on the company's planes.

FedEx said its delivery workers benefited from not being unionized because the company raised wages significantly during the home delivery boom in 2021 and 2022, while UPS workers' pay increases were set by an agreement reached before the pandemic. A FedEx spokeswoman noted that the company incurred $1.4 billion in additional labor costs in fiscal 2022.