Biden faces prospect of UPS strike while consolidating union support

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Supporters cheer during President Joe Biden’s political rally at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Philadelphia, Saturday, June 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Joe Lamberti) Joe Lamberti/AP

Biden faces prospect of UPS strike while consolidating union support

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President Joe Biden loves to talk about unions, yet that relationship will be tested as he’s tasked with averting a union-led strike that could cripple the U.S. economy by the end of the summer.

On the same day Biden was endorsed historically early by a group of 17 unions, UPS workers voted by a 97% margin to authorize a strike.

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“If this multibillion-dollar corporation fails to deliver on the contract that our hardworking members deserve, UPS will be striking itself,” Teamsters President Sean O’Brien said in a statement. “The strongest leverage our members have is their labor, and they are prepared to withhold it to ensure UPS acts accordingly.”

The vote triggered a seven-week countdown until current contracts expire on July 31, meaning a strike could begin Aug. 1. Atlanta-based UPS is a massive shipping firm, and the strike would be the largest for a single employer in U.S. history. Roughly 6% of the country’s gross domestic product moves through the company, which is also the largest private unionized employer in the United States.

“This vote shows that hundreds of thousands of Teamsters are united and determined to get the best contract in our history at UPS,” O’Brien, whose union represents more than 340,000 workers, said.

Biden makes no bones about his strong union ties. He utters the phrase “good-paying union jobs” in nearly every speech, and union leaders often introduce him when he speaks on the road. Biden launched his 2020 presidential campaign at a Teamsters hall in Pittsburgh, with labor organizations ultimately contributing $27.5 million to back his White House bid.

“You know, there are a lot of politicians in this country who can’t say the word ‘union,'” Biden said during a Saturday night rally in Philadelphia with union leaders. “But you know I’m not one of them. I’m proud to say the word. I’m proud to be the most pro-union president in American history. I promised you I would be.”

He even alluded to strikes in the speech.

“If the investment bankers in this country went on strike tomorrow, no one would much notice in this room,” Biden said, drawing laughter. “But if this room didn’t show up for work tomorrow or Monday, the whole country would come to a grinding halt.”

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The political rally at the Philadelphia Convention Center was filled with union members from several different groups that offered Biden their support for 2024, including the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Despite Biden’s support, union membership has continued its decadeslong slide under his watch, falling from 35% in the 1950s to 20.1% in 1983 and to 10.1% in 2022. Private sector union membership is down to just 6%, though roughly one-third of government employees remain unionized.

The president depends financially and politically on the support of unions and voters who approve of them, so he may feel political pressure to intervene in the UPS standoff. The UPS workers say they want higher pay, more full-time jobs, an end to forced overtime, and better hazard protections.

A strike could severely hamper the U.S. economy, which in turn could shine Biden’s support for unions in a harsh light. His economic approval rating is just 37.6%, per the RealClearPolitics average, against 59% who disapprove.

But failing to be seen as adequately supporting the workers could threaten crucial blue-collar union support heading into what is expected to be a tight 2024 presidential election. Former President Donald Trump made unexpected gains with blue-collar workers in 2016, helping him flip the crucial Midwestern states that propelled him to victory.

Four years later, Biden narrowly flipped Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to take the White House, and he frequently visits and talks up those states with an eye toward 2024.

Biden has also rewarded unions when it comes to policy. Much of the legislation he’s signed into law dealing with infrastructure and climate includes big incentives or even requirements for companies to use unionized workers. Biden has also touted the passage of the Butch Lewis Act that was included in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, allowing the Treasury to assist failing pension plans financially.

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Previous spats indicate that smoothing things over won’t necessarily be easy despite the symbiotic relationship the president enjoys with unions. When Biden signed a bill averting a rail strike just before Christmas last year, for example, some union members said they felt insulted at the terms.

“It just seemed like a slap in the face to these guys,” Railroad Workers United member Jeff Kurtz told the Washington Examiner after Biden signed the rail legislation. “They’ve been dehumanized.”

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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