Teamsters boss Sean O’Brien takes on UPS this summer season. Up subsequent: Amazon?

Sean O’Brien, a fourth-generation trucker, is basic president of the Worldwide Brotherhood of Teamsters. (Pictures by Mark Peterson for The Washington Publish)

The Teamsters president has huge plans to cease your UPS deliveries in August. It’s a costume rehearsal for his not-so-secret dream to tackle Amazon.

As 8 a.m. introduced the top of the night time shift at a suburban UPS distribution middle, Sean O’Brien stood within the car parking zone and sized up two of the lads strolling out.

Black shorts, black T-shirts, black sneakers. These guys weren’t drivers; they labored contained in the warehouse.

An area union official with a graying handlebar mustache beckoned the 2 males. “How’s it going, guys? Meet Sean O’Brien — basic president of the Teamsters union. Come on over! Say hello.”

“How are ya, brotha?” O’Brien stated, shaking every hand, his Boston accent coloring each vowel. “You guys preloaders?”

“Sure, sir,” stated one.

“So that you gonna attempt to be drivers or not?”

The employee began to clarify — human assets had taken his utility however appeared to be jerking him round. O’Brien listened lengthy sufficient to get the gist. “Loads of that stuff is subcontracted out now. So simply go to your native union. Don’t imagine a f—in’ phrase these individuals are saying.” O’Brien paused to let this sink in. “There’s a giant pandemic goin’ on in there with administration,” he continued. “It’s known as f—in’ lie-abetes.” Now the employees had been grinning. “Ever heard of diabetes? … Effectively, they obtained lie-abetes.”

The employee requested for steering on some shift-scheduling issues. O’Brien suggested him to speak to native officers; a nationwide Teamsters chief couldn’t communicate to the specifics of every store. “However become involved with the union,” he urged.

The preloaders could not have acknowledged him, however the circumstances that introduced O’Brien to stake out their office — in a prelude to what may very well be an economy-rattling, history-making strike in opposition to UPS this summer season — replicate the labor motion’s greatest tradition shift in a long time.

In 2021, the veteran trucker triumphed in an rebel marketing campaign to turn into president of the Worldwide Brotherhood of Teamsters, an election marking the top of the Hoffa period. James P. Hoffa, that’s, the 82-year-old son of mid-century labor legend Jimmy Hoffa and a lawyer by coaching who, rivals like O’Brien believed, lacked his dad’s reference to the common employee and conceded an excessive amount of for the sake of remaining pleasant with employers.

Sizzling-tempered, profane and bold, the 51-year-old O’Brien ran a combative marketing campaign in opposition to Hoffa’s endorsed candidate. However he hasn’t stopped working, making an attempt to win hearts and minds in a nation the place union enrollment has been declining for many years.

His fast precedence is making an attempt to win extra concessions from UPS for its 340,000 Teamsters-represented employees — and he appears to relish the prospect of the largest-ever strike in opposition to a single U.S. enterprise. On Friday, UPS union members voted by 97 % to authorize the Teamsters to order a piece stoppage as quickly as Aug. 1 if contract negotiations haven’t culminated in a deal.

But even a UPS strike would function a mere testing floor for what may very well be organized labor’s defining battle of the brand new century. O’Brien needs to unionize Amazon’s 1 million-plus employees, earlier than the omni-retailer’s tradition of hyper-efficiency and gig work — which the Teamsters understand as a menace to labor aspirations for employee security, rights and residing requirements — takes maintain completely in North America.

Some see the fourth-generation Teamster as labor’s long-awaited savior — a Seventies-style scrapper uniquely able to bringing the motion into the twenty first century. O’Brien might not be the non secular reincarnation of Jimmy Hoffa, however Hoffa may by no means brag he went viral. Video clips of O’Brien insulting Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), who has owned a number of companies, in a March committee listening to had been seen greater than one million instances inside per week.

O’Brien: “We maintain grasping CEOs like your self accountable.”

Mullin: “You calling me a grasping CEO?”

O’Brien: “Oh yeah, you’re.”

However some see O’Brien’s old-school sensibilities as a legal responsibility. He’s in search of to prepare a youthful era of employees that chafes at Twentieth-century managerial techniques, whereas the Teamsters are nonetheless making an attempt to rehabilitate a popularity clouded by the venality and criminality of its mob-linked heyday. Smaller, nimbler unions are competing to prepare Amazon’s huge community of provide facilities. And O’Brien’s viral second occurred after Mullin attacked him over his $225,000 wage and popularity for “intimidation.”

The senator isn’t alone in that criticism. On the identical day O’Brien was sworn in final spring, greater than 70 workers — roughly 19 % of the workers — had been abruptly terminated through electronic mail, with no severance, and locked out of the Teamsters’ Capitol Hill headquarters. A partial work-from-home coverage was eradicated and a costume code enforced. Some workers say they discover the brand new setting stern, uptight and cautious.

“If you happen to open up the newspaper, as a Teamster,” stated one former worker, who spoke on the situation of anonymity to keep away from blowback from O’Brien, “and also you noticed an organization that instantly terminated people with no discover, no severance, no well being care, slicing off your electronic mail, you’d say, ‘Holy s—! What sort of an employer is that this? There needs to be a public outcry.’”

O’Brien’s group argues that they’d a mandate for sweeping change and that the workers cuts had been typical of any political turnover. Extra broadly, he says, he can’t tackle the nation’s strongest retailer with out an aggressive strategy.

“I’m a conscience, not a bully,” he stated. “That’s why they don’t like me.”

O’Brien grew up within the Teamsters the way in which some folks develop up in a church. His father drove vehicles, his grandfather drove vehicles, his great-grandfather drove vehicles. O’Brien may have had a glide path to a white-collar profession, due to a College of Massachusetts soccer scholarship, however he dropped out after one semester to haul heavy gear on building websites.

“I all the time needed to be a Teamstah,” he stated.

For O’Brien, union work represented job safety and glorious advantages to assist a household. “I needed to purchase a house by the point I used to be 20 years outdated,” he stated. “I purchased a house by the point I used to be 20 years outdated.” Inside two years, he’d turn into a store steward. “Right here I’m like 22 years outdated, and grown males with households are coming to me with their issues,” he stated. “I’m like, ‘That is nice. I can resolve issues.’ That was a coaching day for me.”

In 2006, getting ready to his thirty fourth birthday, he was elected because the principal officer of Boston’s Native 25 — the youngest particular person ever to run the biggest Teamsters chapter in New England. Veteran labor lawyer Michael Feinberg, who started representing O’Brien, was surprised by the younger man’s charisma and seriousness when he first noticed him communicate at a Native 25 assembly.

“He had the room,” Feinberg recalled. O’Brien had the “skill to specific in his phrases what the rank-and-file member was considering however may by no means formulate.”

For a century, the Teamsters had helped employees leverage their numbers into wages and advantages that ushered their households into the center class. However the tentacles of organized crime had snaked their approach into the union by the Fifties. Even after years of investigations and prosecutions, the mob nonetheless polluted the Teamsters picture, if not its very tradition. Native 25 was related to Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang properly into the Eighties, when O’Brien was a young person with goals of trucking. Within the ’90s, when he first joined, some members had been running a crime ring, robbing banks and armored vehicles; one other member was convicted in a scheme to take bribes from an FBI agent posing as a movie producer.

O’Brien acknowledges the Teamsters’ checkered previous however bristles when the topic comes up. He argued that politicians and the media exaggerate the union’s misdeeds to undermine its power.

“There have been points like each different group,” he stated. “I got here into this group involved about one factor. That was sustaining a profession and offering a chance for myself and my future household.”

When he took over, O’Brien acknowledged that a picture rehab was so as. Native 25 raised $5 million for charity over the subsequent decade, a lot of that via an annual fundraising gala for Autism Speaks New England.

However he didn’t obtain his speedy ascent past Boston — by 2011, changing into the Teamsters’ jap area vp — totally via appeal. O’Brien had a popularity because the man who would do no matter it took to get his approach.

5 of O’Brien’s union associates had been indicted for allegedly making an attempt to extort a nonunion manufacturing firm for “Prime Chef: Boston” with techniques equivalent to tire-slashing and bullying conduct. (4 had been acquitted; Native 25’s secretary-treasurer pleaded responsible to tried extortion.) O’Brien himself was suspended for kind of threatening a rival faction of the union, in a speech the place he declared that Teamsters for a Democratic Union wanted to be “punished” for supposedly making an attempt to “tear down” a Rhode Island native. (He later known as it “a poor selection of phrases.”)

Nonetheless, when James P. Hoffa wanted a proper hand in 2017 to supervise the union’s Bundle Division as they ready for contract negotiations with UPS on behalf of the Teamsters’ largest bloc of employees, an aggressive popularity was hardly going to be disqualifying. He tapped the pugnacious younger chief from Boston.

5 years later, the Teamsters are gearing up for one more negotiation, however this time Hoffa is gone. Now it’s O’Brien’s present.

“If we don’t f—in’ win this marketing campaign,” the brand new president was telling his workers on an August day in Washington, “we don’t have to fret about ever having a dialog with one another once more, as a result of we gained’t be right here in 5 years.”

O’Brien now occupies the identical mahogany-paneled workplace as soon as claimed by Hoffa father and son within the Teamsters’ fortresslike headquarters, overlooking the U.S. Senate advanced. Legend has it that within the Fifties, an formidable younger workers lawyer on the Senate’s so-called Rackets Committee named Bobby Kennedy appeared out his workplace window within the evenings to see whether or not Jimmy Hoffa’s gentle was nonetheless on: He didn’t need to be outworked by his nemesis. Hoffa began holding the sunshine on in a single day.

The 2018 UPS contract negotiations have the whole lot to do with why O’Brien is sitting right here now — and the way he’s determined to wage the marketing campaign this time.

O’Brien by no means actually clicked with the youthful Hoffa, he says. However the partnership ruptured for good when O’Brien proposed including Fred Zuckerman, who had challenged Hoffa for the Teamsters presidency the 12 months earlier than, to the negotiating committee. (Hoffa declined to remark for this story.)

O’Brien says now that he was making an attempt to make peace with the administration’s critics and broaden a base of assist. However Hoffa’s camp noticed O’Brien’s outreach as pure betrayal — and in hindsight, they regard it as a political finish run. Simply months after entrusting O’Brien with the negotiations, Hoffa fired him.

With O’Brien sidelined, the Hoffa administration’s strategy to the united statesnegotiations backfired spectacularly. In October 2018, employees voted by 54 % to reject a contract that created a tier of lower-paid, part-time drivers; Teamsters HQ determined to push it via anyway, invoking a little-used constitutional provision that required a two-thirds majority if lower than half the membership voted. Amid the rank-and-file uproar that adopted, O’Brien — already campaigning for Hoffa’s job, with Zuckerman as his working mate — noticed alternative. Promising a greater contract subsequent time, they defeated Hoffa’s candidate with 67 % of the vote.

Now, O’Brien is taking nothing as a right. He is aware of he must get this subsequent contract proper if he needs to maintain his job — and develop the Teamsters’ attain.

It’s the spark for the combative spirit that permeates Teamsters headquarters, the place a whiteboard charts a long-term battle plan on a timeline — “follow picketing,” “CAT trainings” (for “contract motion groups”), “establish strike groups” … and at last, on the July 31 spot that marks the top of the present contract: “STRIKE.”

Why strike now? As O’Brien himself acknowledged in his Senate testimony, UPS already provides probably the most plum jobs within the logistics business, with driver salaries beginning at $93,000.

However O’Brien argues that the pandemic gave UPS employees the best leverage they’ve had in a long time. In 2020, union members risked their well being to maintain packages transferring. UPS’s earnings surged and have remained excessive, with prospects nonetheless hooked on the net purchasing habits they adopted throughout the lockdowns. “Our members are fed up” and stay satisfied, he stated, that “the one concern that was being addressed was UPS’s backside line and their steadiness sheet.”

No higher time, O’Brien causes, for employees to go to the mat to demand wages starting at $20 an hour, tighter security provisions and an finish to the two-tier employment system ushered in by the final contract.

A UPS spokesman, Glenn Zaccara, stated the corporate is making “significant progress” within the contract negotiations: “UPS has labored collaboratively with the Teamsters for almost 100 years, and this 12 months is not any completely different. We respect this step within the course of and stay dedicated to creating progress on the bargaining desk.”

On a grander scale, O’Brien believes organized labor has a once-in-a-generation alternative to push again in opposition to the gig-ification of the American workforce — and he hopes to make this contract into a robust exhibit of what conventional unions can nonetheless supply.

Howard Schultz’s struggle to cease a Starbucks barista rebellion

All of this explains O’Brien’s parking-lot appeal offensive, the place he’s been coaxing members throughout the nation to get extra invested in union actions with a pleasant show of his workingman bona fides. (“That is the way you drive a f—in’ truck, proper there,” he advised a Teamster in Atlanta, pulling out his cellphone to point out off a latest video of himself working a tractor-trailer.)

Again at headquarters, O’Brien peppered workers with technique concepts gleaned from his tour. When he discovered that many UPS drivers detest the cameras the corporate is putting in on some automobiles, he advised that native officers ought to emphasize the problem at upcoming rallies. (An organization spokesman stated that the majority cameras face outward, not on the motive force.) There’s no element too small for O’Brien, who was particularly happy by a brand new smartphone app for UPS employees, full with a built-in “strike financial savings calculator,” to point out how a lot they should financial institution earlier than strolling off the job.

He and Zuckerman plan to maintain hitting the street each week till August to personally rally the employees.

“We’re not taking holidays,” he stated. “I already advised my household, ‘I’ll see you round Eastah.’”

‘Strike! Strike! Strike!’

The mantra stuffed the ballroom as O’Brien took the stage in Chicago final summer season earlier than a crowd of greater than 2,000.

Even the emcee on the Labor Notes Convention — a millennial-heavy gathering that goals to strengthen grass-roots ties throughout disparate unions — appeared stunned. She had simply launched their subsequent speaker as the person who “pledged that 300,000 Teamsters will strike UPS” when the room erupted in a standing ovation. (She hastened to make clear {that a} strike would come solely in the event that they don’t attain a passable contract.)

“Thanks very a lot!” O’Brien stated. “That is my first time right here, and wow — is that this an unbelievable crowd!”

He appeared genuinely touched and shocked: A 12 months out, and already his model because the Man (Possibly) Placing UPS had caught on with a brand new era.

However as he continued his battle cry (“We’re gonna put that firm on its knees if it must occur!”), it was not UPS CEO Carol B. Tomé’s title that he invoked. He launched right into a tirade in regards to the “three stooges”: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Howard Schultz, the CEOs of Amazon, Tesla, and Starbucks, respectively. “They’re white-collar criminals,” he claimed, hyperbolically, that needs to be “held accountable” for “the way in which they deal with their employees.”

The group booed furiously.

All three billionaires are dependable boogeymen in rooms like these. (Amazon founder Bezos owns The Washington Publish. Interim chief government Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.) However Tesla and Starbucks are any person else’s labor struggle. O’Brien has made no secret of his starvation to tackle Bezos, and Amazon.

With greater than 1 million employees, many in modestly paid, extremely bodily jobs, Amazon is seen as ripe for group by many in labor. Employees say they’ve been anticipated to course of as many as 350 gadgets an hour, with necessary 60-hour weeks throughout some busy seasons — circumstances that some workers say have led to orthopedic accidents or urinary tract infections as a result of they don’t have time for toilet breaks. (Amazon spokesperson Mary Kate Paradis stated the harm charge throughout Amazon warehouses has dropped greater than 23 % since 2019. “We’re pleased with the progress made by our group and we’ll proceed working arduous collectively to maintain getting higher every single day,” she stated.)

But the roles include little safety as Amazon more and more shifts towards gig employment. Hundreds of Amazon drivers really work for third-party firms, topic to being reduce with out clarification.

However whose place is it to unionize Amazon? In Chicago, O’Brien shared a stage with a youthful man with some declare on that turf.

He was Chris Smalls, a New Jersey native and former rapper in his early 30s who had spent 5 years working in Amazon warehouses. Whereas O’Brien turned out in a conventional navy blazer, Smalls wore darkish sun shades, a clutch of gold chains and a multicolored jacket with EAT THE RICH stitched in yellow thread on the again.

O’Brien has a compelling narrative about coming of age on the identical huge rigs as his grandfather, however Smalls has what may very well be the quintessential origin story for the subsequent era of labor leaders. In March 2020, he led a walkout at a Staten Island warehouse over what he maintained had been inadequate covid security protocols. Terminated that very same day, he joined forces with three different Black employees to attempt to manage the ability.

It was the scrappiest of campaigns, with a bus cease as the bottom of operations and Smalls residing close by in a tent. Amazon confiscated union fliers and mounted a high-powered anti-union PR blitz. However in March 2022, employees on the facility voted 2,654 to 2,131 to affix the fledgling Amazon Labor Union. (An Amazon spokesperson stated its workers “have the selection of whether or not or to not be part of a union” and that “as an organization, we don’t assume unions are one of the best reply for our workers.”)

O’Brien has been fast to reward the ALU. “You may’t take away something they’ve achieved,” he advised The Publish. “As a result of they’ve been extra profitable than … anyone, proper?” The Teamsters offered assembly area and steering for the ALU. It was a no brainer, as O’Brien explains it — after all the Teamsters need each union within the logistics business to succeed, to pressure all employers to maintain office requirements as excessive as attainable.

And but, the dynamics are difficult. As a result of O’Brien certain would like to see loads of these 1 million Amazon employees sporting Teamsters jackets in the future.

Even whereas lending the ALU a hand, the Teamsters have been launching their very own efforts to prepare Amazon employees in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Canada; final month, they negotiated a contract for California drivers and dispatchers employed by a third-party Amazon contractor. And, sure, O’Brien realizes that successful a robust new contract with UPS would make a wonderful commercial for the Teamsters as they woo potential members.

Onstage in Chicago, he spoke philosophically in regards to the marketing campaign at hand.

“A victory — whether or not it’s an election, or when you win an organizing drive — it doesn’t finish there,” O’Brien advised the viewers. “As a result of in an election, you make loads of guarantees. You make loads of commitments. And it’s important to ship on these guarantees and people commitments.”

He was speaking about the united statesbattle; however for understanding ears within the room, it additionally appeared like a subtweet. The ALU’s momentum has slowed; an organizing effort at a second Staten Island warehouse failed. With Amazon’s legal professionals throwing up challenges to the preliminary victory, the ALU could also be months or years away from even beginning contract negotiations. Smalls’s superstar — he and fellow ALU chief Derrick Palmer made Time’s “most influential” record of 2022 — has provoked some backlash inside the ranks, and workers at different warehouses complain about emails going unanswered once they search ALU assist organizing their very own items.

Chris Smalls’s Amazon rebellion and the struggle for a second warehouse

Offstage, O’Brien has been extra bluntly skeptical in regards to the ALU’s prospects.

“You may win any f—in’ election, whether or not it’s a global election, a neighborhood election, an organizing drive,” he advised The Publish. “However you gotta f—in’ ship on the finish of the day. It doesn’t imply s— in the event that they don’t get a contract.”

The Teamsters, in the meantime, try to struggle Amazon on a political degree that solely a million-member dues-paying group may afford — lobbying the White Home to finish its federal contracts and packing metropolis council conferences to dam building of recent Amazon amenities.

In an interview, Smalls expressed wariness of O’Brien’s intentions, complaining that the Teamsters’ strikes may stymie organizing efforts by leaving employees confused over which union to affix.

Why not simply channel these assets to the ALU, he requested. “The outdated, established unions don’t need to go the torch to new efforts,” he stated.

Publicly, O’Brien is taking part in the gracious diplomat. Different labor organizations are circling Amazon: The Retail, Wholesale, and Division Retailer Union aided makes an attempt to prepare an Alabama warehouse, and an unbiased group known as Amazonians United organized warehouses in Sacramento, Chicago and New York. The AFL-CIO says it needs to accomplice with the Teamsters on its Amazon campaign. Onstage at Labor Notes, O’Brien spoke of unity and collaboration. He saved a few of his warmest phrases for “my man, Chris ‘Huge Balls’ Smalls!” and drew huge cheers.

When Smalls took the stage, his personal requires solidarity whipped the gang into much more of a frenzy. “We gotta keep collectively,” he stated. “The labor motion. It’s not simply the Amazon Labor Union. It’s not simply Chris Smalls and ‘what am I doing.’”

Then Smalls led the room in one in all his favourite chants: “F— Jeff Bezos!” O’Brien was sporting a face masks, but it surely appeared like he was becoming a member of in.

O’Brien advised The Publish that week he was prepared to assist the ALU with no matter it wanted: Smalls had his cell quantity, he stated. Smalls, although, nonetheless hasn’t known as. “We shouldn’t must ask,” Smalls stated. “It ought to simply be given.”

For all his shift-change bonhomie and diplomacy on the dais, O’Brien may be an abrasive pressure within the workplace.

“You realize, I’m simply sick of this,” he declared on the headquarters, half-chiding and half-commiserating along with his workers. “I hear all these f—in’ reviews about ‘a chance right here,’ ‘we’re doing this,’ ‘We’re doing that.’ It looks as if there’s no f—in’ execution. There’s loads of f—in’ stress on the Worldwide, and we’re going to do it, no questions requested.”

O’Brien’s drawback at that exact second: the Teamsters had been nearing an settlement that might make it simpler to unionize as many as 12,000 drivers for the third-largest faculty bus contractor in America — however with faculty about to start out, why wasn’t his workers placing the squeeze on administration now?

Quite a few veterans of the Hoffa administration — together with two who stored their jobs after the transition layoffs and others who’re in contact with present workers — say the workplace tradition is extra stifled and fewer collegial, with staffers afraid to talk out or cross anybody who’s near the brand new boss. In Might, the board that oversees Teamster elections chided the brand new administration over its dealing with of the layoffs, ruling that a minimum of three had been really retaliatory firings of supporters of O’Brien’s opponent.

However different staffers say they discover Teamsters headquarters extra energized. O’Brien, for his half, sees himself right here as he does generally — a person of the folks. Final summer season, he organized an workplace occasion on the rooftop terrace, the place many staffers not often ventured earlier than. “A few of them have been right here 20 years, and they hadn’t even seen the penthouse,” he stated.

Later within the assembly, O’Brien hammered his workers on what he noticed as a lagging marketing campaign to unionize auto-transport drivers. (“Do you see my frustration? … Am I flawed to have this dialog?”) By the point O’Brien had dictated detailed directions on whom to name and what to say, his nationwide director of organizing had stuffed two pocket book pages with blue ink.

“Simply maintain f—in’ following up with these f—in’ folks,” O’Brien concluded. “As a result of on the finish of the day? After I gotta blame somebody, I wanna be sure I’m blamin’ the suitable f—in’ particular person.”

That is the Teamsters in 2023. Within the Sean O’Brien period, nobody wants to go away their gentle on in a single day to faux they’re outworking the opposite man. With a pair of existential battles on the horizon, the white-collar workplace tradition is not any much less intense than the scene on any picket line.

“We’re not complaining,” stated Lindsay Dougherty, an L.A.-based former movie employee elected with O’Brien’s slate as Western area vp, who now finds herself touring relentlessly to rallies throughout 13 states. “We simply go — and ensure we have now loads of espresso in us.”

She added: “All of us have, like, the Sean O’Brien in us now.”


A earlier model of this text incorrectly described Fred Zuckerman as a member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. The article has been corrected.

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