The 1.2 million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one of the largest and most powerful unions in the U.S., with a vast marble headquarters and billions in pension fund assets. But there have been internal conflicts with the union, including over a controversial 2018 contract with UPS that was implemented despite the membership’s majority “no” vote. Now, in the lead-up to the November election to determine the next Teamsters president, that UPS contract is once again taking center stage.

While the two candidates vying for the presidency have pledged to remove a rule that allows union leadership to implement contracts in certain circumstances against the will of the membership, only one of the candidates, Boston Teamster leader Sean O’Brien, has the track record of opposing the 2018 UPS contract that is the case study for those seeking the rule change. The other candidate, Colorado Teamster leader Steve Vairma, is seen as more closely aligned with outgoing President James Hoffa and was notably silent as a majority of voting UPS members opposed the 2018 contract.

That UPS contract, which 54 percent of UPS Teamsters voted against, will loom large over the election. To successfully win union representation elections, unions need to show that they are able to provide more than the status quo. If the union’s largest contract in the country — in this case, UPS — has starting wages 13 percent below what its non-union rival Amazon offers, the union’s ability to convince Amazon workers that they need to unionize to improve their position diminishes. (Overall, though, UPS offers workers a much better deal.) And given that UPS Teamsters perform very similar work to many Amazon workers — sorting, tracking, and delivering packages — the union needs rank-and-file UPS Teamsters to get involved in the organizing campaign to have any possibility of success. If Teamster members at UPS are too angry at the union for implementing an agreement a majority didn’t want, they’re less likely to become involved in a new organizing campaign at Amazon.

“First and foremost, Amazon is our most formidable opponent, not just for the Teamsters but for organized labor in general,” said O’Brien, who, together with his running mate Fred Zuckerman, helped lead the opposition to the 2018 UPS contract that covered 250,000 Teamsters. “Amazon moving into this industry could destroy thousands and thousands of middle-class jobs and benefits. It’s unfortunate when a company like Amazon cares more about their balance sheets than their workers.”

President of Teamsters Local 25 Sean O'Brien speaks at the Greater Boston Labor Council Labor Day breakfast in Boston on Sept. 5, 2016.

President of Teamsters Local 25 Sean O’Brien speaks at the Greater Boston Labor Council Labor Day breakfast in Boston on Sept. 5, 2016.

Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Despite their gulf on the 2018 UPS contract, both Vairma and O’Brien have pledged to tackle both Amazon and FedEx, two huge nonunion employers, and both have pledged to get rid of the controversial rule, which allows the leadership of the Teamsters, under certain circumstances, to implement a contract that has been rejected by a majority of the membership, as was the case with UPS.

Amazon’s rapidly growing book of business has the potential to drive down labor standards across America, but particularly in logistics, where the company is rapidly expanding its dominance over the market. The 250,000-strong UPS contract and prospects for organizing Amazon are intertwined: To be able to organize Amazon, UPS members have to be engaged in the union through a contract that they support (across the labor movement, most union contracts are approved by large majorities), and in the long term, Amazon could use its expanding monopoly power to squeeze UPS’s bottom line, threatening the long-term viability of a company with one of the largest union memberships in the country.

O’Brien sees organizing Amazon as essential to the health of the union and criticized the current Hoffa administration for lacking an effective strategy to organize Amazon. “It should have been a target 10 years ago,” he said. He believes a successful organizing effort will require cross-union support. “It’s not just about the Teamsters processing packages, loading packages and delivering,” he said, adding that the organizing drive can’t be “old school”; instead, it should rely on alliances with unions and partnerships in the community and must utilize existing Teamster members at UPS and courier giant DHL to assist with organizing the megafirm.

“Do I think it’s attainable? Yes,” said O’Brien. “Will it happen tomorrow? No.”

Vairma spoke similarly about the need for a broader organizing effort. “It will take more than the Teamsters to organize at Amazon,” he said. “We need to build a campaign to engage the entire labor movement, aggressively elect more pro-labor elected officials, pursue a 50-state legislative strategy in Congress, and build support in the communities where our members live.”

Critically related, then, to the question of whether or not the Teamsters can organize Amazon, is whether or not the union has strong enough union contracts in existing industries that can showcase what a union would actually build, argued Ken Paff, the national organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the architect of a successful campaign to win the right to vote for Teamsters members in international elections. (Unions at the highest levels are often called “internationals” because they represent members in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, and very rarely in other countries.)

“If you had even 100 Teamsters committed to having coffee with Amazon workers next door, you’d have a hell of a lot better chance of organizing Amazon.”

To organize Amazon, Paff argued, you need a mobilized membership and “a union that looks like it’s going to win.” Take, for example, the UPS and Amazon hubs which neighbor one another and are both down the road from where Paff lives in California. “There are 1,600 Teamsters there,” he said. “If you had even 100 Teamsters committed to having coffee with Amazon workers next door, you’d have a hell of a lot better chance of organizing Amazon. You need a powerful national union in the logistics industry [to take on Amazon]. You need to show what you can do for UPS workers, that sort the packages and load the trucks.”

Paff harkened back to the victorious 1997 strike at UPS, where 185,000 Teamsters nationwide walked off the job to the slogan “A Part Time America Won’t Work.” “It was a signal victory in the labor movement,” Paff argued. “It was a decisive victory converting many thousands of low-paid, part-time jobs to union wage full-time jobs. At the time [AFL-CIO President] John Sweeney said that the strike has done more for organizing than any millions of dollars” spent by unions seeking to grow their memberships. Paff argued that a contract campaign and potential strike at UPS in the next two years could provide a similar shot in the arm to the Teamsters’ capacity to organize Amazon.

But to start, said Zuckerman, O’Brien’s running mate, the Teamsters need a strategy. “First we need to have a plan. Currently, we don’t have a plan. Everybody at the International is absent and has been for years.” Zuckerman says that, as president of a 15,000-member local, he spent years trying to organize Amazon. “We were not successful, but we did try,” he said. “The International hasn’t even tried.”

Vairma cast his opponents’ critiques of the Hoffa administration as sour grapes. “They have made their entire campaign about their personal feud with retiring President Hoffa,” he said. “It has done nothing but amplify the challenges our union faces going into the future.”