ABF’s long road to driver contract
Teamsters agree to meet some of LTL trucker’s new work conditions.
By Jon Ross
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and ABF in recent labor negotiations have gone through three, month-long contract extensions, the leak of a proposed takeover bid by YRC, and no small amount of hand-wringing and tense discussions on their way to a new, five-year contract.
As the long process came to a close last month, union members began voting on a proposed contract in early June with an eye toward sewing everything up by the end of the month. The biggest headline in the contract with ABF is an immediate, 7 percent wage reduction that is made up through 2 percent wage increases for the next three years and a 2.5 percent increase during the last year of the contract.
Employees will also lose one week of vacation, see the subcontracting of road work at ABF, weather a five-minute cut to coffee-break times, and deal with the elimination of local grievance panels. Pension contributions won’t be increased for the life of the contract, but there have been no cuts to health benefits.
A new section of the proposed contract allows ABF to use audio, video and other tracking surveillance to make sure employees are doing what they are supposed to be doing. If an employee is caught “stealing time,” they can now be fired without a warning letter or any type of corroboration.
Teamsters president James Hoffa said he worked hard to get union employees around the country on board with a contract that many weren’t thrilled about. In a union conference call on June 3, Hoffa, in a recorded message, explained this contract is simply the best to which both parties could agree. It took a long four months to get to this stage of the game, he said, calling ABF’s approach vicious and noting the carrier wanted many, many more concessions.
“They wanted every concession you could think of,” Hoffa said during the call. “They wanted to redo the way we’ve done freight for 40 years, and we wouldn’t put up with it.”
In the end, though, the drivers’ union saw ABF’s books, realized the carrier had been operating at an unsustainable level, and knew some tough choices had to be made. From their perspective, taking a bit of a bitter pill was better than losing the carrier altogether.
“The economy’s not back where it could be,” Hoffa said. “Freight companies aren’t making a lot of money right now. ABF is losing money right now, and I know we’ve got to do something to keep them alive.”
Tyson Johnson, director of the Teamsters’ freight division, echoed the union president’s sentiments.
“We have achieved what is the best for our members and for the survival of ABF,” he said on the call. “It’s not rocket science. All you have to do is look at their books for the last several years. They are the only employer under the MFA paying top rates, top health, top pensions. We do not need to lose ABF.”
Neither ABF nor the Teamsters were able to comment for this article due to the ongoing nature of the negotiations, but the carrier has posted regular updates on its Website ensuring customers that no services will be interrupted. The carrier also maintains concessions are the only way forward, but insists the help being asked for isn’t as severe as some might think.
“We have taken a balanced approach to the negotiations and have specifically avoided proposing the meat-axe wage and benefit cuts that our competitors have been forced to adopt,” according to a statement on ABF’s Website. “Our goal has been to achieve the bulk of the cost reductions through changes in work rules and flexibility, but there is more to do.”
Questions during the conference call were rather tame, but the Teamsters for a Democratic Union talked with workers who were less than thrilled about the new contract. The union’s Website outlined to drivers the impact of the wage cuts.
“They say we catch up over the life of the contract, but that just gets us back to where we stand now. With the cost of living rising over the next five years, we gain nothing,” Emmet Ramsay, a road driver out of Winston-Salem, commented to the Website. “I vote ‘Hell No’ on this contract.”
The comment section, populated by members and drivers from other companies, is more blunt.
“Why does a company think they need to take from the drivers? Drivers are what make the business run. I can’t believe that the union would even let this ‘giveback’ even come to a vote. This should have been a NO from the start,” posted one commenter.
A YRC employee commented on the site, warning union members about the flexible nature of some freight contracts.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have got a contract for the next five years. All you have is an agreement until they figure out they might be able to get more,” he wrote. “Eighteen months is how long our 5-year contract lasted. We will never get back what we lost.”
Teamsters for a Democratic Union also expressed some disgust with the recent disclosure that YRC proposed buying ABF earlier in the year. The news leaked out as negotiations were heating up, and union members said this could be viewed as a scare tactic.
After receiving the proposal, ABF officials told the other carrier “that considering a proposal was not appropriate at that time” due to ongoing labor negotiations, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
But YRC might not be giving up so easily. In a statement, the carrier’s chief executive officer, James Welch, left the door open for future overtures.
“Our board and management believed then and believes now that the combination of Arkansas Best and YRC would be in the best interests of all employees, customers, and shareholders of both companies,” Welch said.