Sean O’Brien, the new president of the Teamsters union, is nothing like his moderate predecessor. The pugnacious Boston native is warning UPS to expect tough negotiations. O'Brien also has his eyes on the giant prize of unionization: Amazon's drivers and warehouse workers.

There is nothing subtle about Sean O’Brien’s negotiating style.

O’Brien, the incoming leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, peppers his speech with words like “leverage” and “pressure” and “fight.” He wants the executives over at the United Parcel Service Inc. to understand he’s not going to play as nicely as his predecessor, James P. Hoffa. There are 16 months before the Teamsters’ collective contract is set to expire with UPS, and O’Brien is already talking general strike if his demands aren’t met.

“We’ll put them on the street,” O’Brien, 49 and a fourth-generation Teamster, said in an interview last week at the union’s Washington headquarters.

On Tuesday, O’Brien takes the reins of the 1.3-million-strong union from Hoffa. He trounced Hoffa’s handpicked candidate, a man who, like his patron, represents a more moderate wing of the Teamsters. But that conciliatory tack is out of favor at a moment when workers across America — from Starbucks baristas to Deere factory workers — are making big demands amid the pandemic and the acute labor shortages that have come with it.

Boston Teamster

O’Brien’s pugnacious style, which he honed over the past two decades at the Teamsters local in his native Boston, is fitting for the moment. O’Brien wants, among other things, $20-an-hour minimum pay for part-time workers and the removal of in-truck cameras. In his vision, resetting the Teamsters’ relationship with UPS is a crucial step toward a much more ambitious goal: unionizing Amazon Inc. It is a herculean task and one that has been turned back before, but if ever there were a moment for the cause, O’Brien figures, this is it.

“O’Brien has a historic opportunity,” said Steve Viscelli, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who studies labor markets. “There’s no better time in the last 50 years for unions to make the case that they should be a part of the American economy and make it fair for working people.”

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The game-planning takes place at a 25-foot conference table dotted with coffee cups and laptops. O’Brien and his transition team see opportunity after the pandemic-triggered labor shortage drove up wages. In January, there were 11.3 million unfilled jobs in the U.S., up from 7.2 million two years ago.

O’Brien plans to shake up the union that he says became complacent over more than two decades under Hoffa, who is 80. Hoffa didn’t use email and rarely worked from the Washington headquarters since the pandemic hit, according to employees. The union still uses faxes to disseminate information.

UPS Focus

He’s counting on negotiating a UPS contract that he can hold up as a model to persuade workers elsewhere to unionize, including Amazon warehouse employees. Amazon is No. 1 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000.

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Atlanta-based UPS faces its toughest negotiations since workers walked off the job in 1997, with O’Brien outlining at least four “strike issues” he said need to be resolved to avoid a walkout next year. In addition to raising pay for part-time workers by a third and removing inward-facing cameras in trucks, he wants to eliminate a new class of driver created by the 2018 contract and stop the use of non-union big-rig drivers.

Instead of starting talks more than a year out, O’Brien plans to begin negotiating only four or five months ahead of the Aug. 1, 2023, expiration of the current five-year agreement.

“There’s no need to start it early. They know what our issues are,” O’Brien said between bites of chicken Kiev from the headquarters cafeteria.

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O’Brien said UPS CEO Carol Tome called him March 10 for the first time since last year’s election and that the two had a 10- to 15-minute conversation. The 2023 round will be the first time Tome, who took the top job at UPS in June 2020 and was the long-time chief financial officer of Home Depot Inc., will negotiate a company-wide union labor contract. UPS declined to comment on the phone call.

“Our focus during negotiations will be to agree on a contract that provides the flexibility UPS needs to maintain its industry-leading track record of reliable service and continue to provide employees with strong pay and benefits,” the company’s press office said in a statement.

Contract Goals

The new class of UPS drivers, who earn less than regular drivers and can be asked to work inside the hub loading packages, was a heated issue in the last contract — a pact that a majority of voting members opposed but was approved by the union on a bylaw related to low turnout. That turnout threshold was eliminated during the Teamsters convention last year.

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O’Brien is pushing for big bump in part-timers’ pay, which under the last contract was initially $13 an hour and scaled up to $15 in 2021. One motivation is what it it will mean down the road for targeting Amazon.

“It’s got to be $20 an hour. No one can survive on $15 an hour,” he said. “If we don’t get close to $20 an hour for a starting rate of pay for part-timers, it’s not going to help us organize Amazon, where they’re paying their part timers $18 an hour.”

Eye on Amazon

O’Brien wants the Teamsters to be the only union that organizes workers at Amazon’s fulfillment centers and sorting hubs, as well as drivers, which are the jobs similar to what UPS does, he said. Right now, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, an affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers, has been battling the company to create a union presence at a facility in Bessemer, Alabama. The upstart Amazon Labor Union is attempting to organize workers at a warehouse on Staten Island.

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Amazon didn’t immediately return an emailed request for comment.

While Amazon’s starting pay rates have caught up with UPS for warehouse workers, the drivers at UPS are the highest paid in the parcel industry, making about $90,000 a year with overtime and not counting benefits.

To energize union members after turnout in the last few general elections has been below 20%, O’Brien plans to spend Mondays and Tuesdays on the road. In a taste of that effort, he visited a UPS facility in Maryland on March 18, greeting union members as he walked the narrow aisles where workers load packages into rows of trucks parked only inches apart.

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“We’ve got a big fight coming up in ’23 with the new contract,” O’Brien told drivers. “Make sure you’re involved.”

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