At the recent July general membership meeting of New York-based Teamsters local 804, rank-and-file UPS workers spoke out for justice. Angelique Dawkins of Local 804’s Women Committee took the mic and gave a moving speech decrying the attack on reproductive rights, noting that abortion restrictions will disproportionately harm working class people like her daughter. As the Women’s Committee statement noted:
“The consequences of this ruling, however, span far beyond women’s bodily autonomy alone. The Supreme Court cited the anti-union Janus decision to justify overturning past precedent, and has signaled the intention to further erode civil liberties like the right to contraception and same-sex marriage. We are fooling ourselves if we don’t think they will come for workers’ basic labor rights next.”
Dawkins, a UPS driver from the Foster Avenue building in Brooklyn noted, “an injury to one is an injury to all”. She urged Teamsters to “commit to mobilizing any interested members to defend our civil rights and democracy.” As the statement was read, many Women’s Committee members walked up to the mic to show their support, and the speech received a standing ovation from many of the 175 people present in the room.
Shortly after, Teamster militant Ben Douglass from the Metro Queens facility took the floor to support the Women’s Committee statement. He noted that it is high time for Local 804 and the entire Teamsters union to take a stand in defense of its own members and the broader working class who will be victimized by anti-abortion laws. “Trigger laws” have already gone into effect in at least 8 states, he pointed out, and that led to a 10-year old rape victim having to cross state lines to receive an abortion.
He urged Local 804 to follow the lead of Teamsters local 210, which represents 9,000 New Yorkers, in demanding reproductive healthcare be “safe, accessible and legal.” Rank and file workers also distributed a leaflet urging union members to join the fight for reproductive rights.
Teamsters Must Put Forward An Effective Fight For Reproductive Rights
This response from rank-and-filers to this attack on reproductive rights must be heard by the wider union leadership. Now is the time to mobilize for our abortion rights and to bring the discussion inside the union and inside our workplaces. Every day, drivers and warehouse workers are faced with long shifts, the inequalities of the two tier system, low wages in the case of part time workers, harassment from the bosses and the unsafe working conditions due to the heat wave in the summer and the terrible cold in the winter. Our women and queer coworkers have to deal with all those problems as well, all while they also suffer discrimination. Opening the conversation and organizing the struggle for abortion rights would allowed the union to strengthen itself, especially our must oppressed members, to raise their demands and fight for them.
The attack on reproductive rights is also an attack on our ability to work — that’s why reproductive rights are actually workers’ rights. The right to parenting is not only about deciding when to have a baby or not, but also about having working conditions that would allow us to enjoy parenthood and provide a childhood to our children that is worth living: without poverty, with all the services, education, recreation and opportunities they need and deserve. The fight for abortion rights is a way to connect across the Teamsters union, to unite across racial lines, across divisions of jobs, and to bring together drivers and warehouse workers.
It’s crucial for our union leaders to fully encourage and support initiatives that advance abortion rights. We need our leaders to broadcast them across their union media, for example, and provide spaces and meetings where workers can have open conversations about the oppression we face, and where we can decide together what is the best way to organize ourselves in order to defend our reproductive rights. But, even though Roe v. Wade was overturned, and almost every level of Teamster leadership has not yet reacted according to this historic attack — an attack that could directly impact the union’s female and trans workforce.
It is imperative that the voice of the members of the women’s committee and other rank and file members of our union be heard and that we mobilize in order to make the Teamster leadership as a whole take up the defense of our right to abortion.
Our Struggle Goes Beyond the Workplace
The Teamsters remain a major bastion of the working class. They have 1.2 million members, 35% of whom are women. At UPS alone, there are 350,000 members — in a workplace where the contract is set to expire in a year and workers are gearing up for what could be the largest U.S. strike in many decades.
After years of contract givebacks, we have a chance to put up a real fight against the UPS bosses, include rank-and-file members in bargaining, and reverse years of concessions. This will not be possible if the rank and file of our union, both drivers and warehouse workers, do not take this struggle into our own hands. We need the broadest democracy within our union and we need an empowered rank and file in order to succeed.
Now is an exciting time to be a Teamster, particularly at UPS. The rapidly expanding, increasingly multi-racial workforce brings workers from around the world into day-to-day contact and has the potential to infuse the U.S. labor movement with militant traditions from Latin America, the Caribbean and beyond. Many Black workers in New York and their families, for example, supported or were part of the Black Lives Matter Movement. UPS workers went through the pandemic as front-line workers, risking their lives while the bosses made billions, and developed class hatred.
It’s true that, nationally, around 50% of Teamsters who voted, voted for Trump. Yet, a growing percentage of the union are immigrants or the children of immigrants who are less receptive to xenophobic appeals and more open to discussions of social change, social justice and even socialism.
Many times, union leaders will use conservative sectors of the union as an excuse for not championing abortion access or broader questions of equality. It is true that any union with over a million members will reflect the social, political and cultural divisions in society. We need to stop hiding these divisions below the rug. Instead, we need to show the struggles are working class issues.
Many UPS workers will be forced to travel to have an abortion. What will be the response of our union in a situation like this? We must not let our union siblings solve this on their own, without support. We need to become an example for the organized and unorganized workers’ movement, showing how the working class should fight for our rights in and outside the workplace.
As socialists too, our goal must be to build the maximum fighting unity in the struggle against the boss, encouraging every worker to get involved, speak their mind, and prepare for a major class battle. The actually-existing divisions within the workforce only weaken our solidarity against the boss.
Class struggle on the economic sphere, like for a better contract, is important. And yet, fighting over bread-and-butter gains is always deeply limited in scope, and needs to be broadened to include issues of gender and racial oppression, for instance. Through these struggles, large numbers of currently apathetic union members could be drawn into political life, especially if our union took up a real fight against racism, sexism and xenophobia.
As Karl Marx said, class struggle is the driving force of history. If a third of a million UPS workers strike next year, our struggle will make its mark on the world. It’s a fight worth throwing ourselves into. And the fight for social equality — for women, LGBTQ people, Black and Brown workers and everyone else — is a key to uniting our forces and fighting for real, lasting change to society.