How UPS workers' big contract win could impact Amazon

We explore the ripple effect of UPS's union activities and their potential impact on Amazon.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
UPS delivering Amazon boxes
Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Breaking news update: Teamsters win new UPS contract. When we wrote this article yesterday, the state of negotiations were unclear and a strike seemed to loom on the horizon. Now, that is not the case. Even so, the interdependencies between the various unions and companies are important to explore, so we're leaving the following article in its original form. That said, pay particular attention to the cross-union activities, because those acts of solidarity may turn into examples of precedence as union organization continues to be attempted at Amazon facilities. -- David

Negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters Union have resumed this week. The contract between UPS and workers expires on July 31, and 325,000 employees are on the brink of strike, possibly as soon as August 1. In this article, which is focused on how such a strike would impact Amazon deliveries, we'll provide a brief backgrounder and situation report, and explore the interdependencies between all the parties.

I'm purposely not going into the issues being debated in the disputes, because those are well documented elsewhere and in the numerous links in this article. Instead, I'm unpacking the moving parts: how unions might interact in the current burgeoning situation and what you need to know about it.

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Writing about labor disputes from a supply chain perspective is challenging. Making sure workers' needs are met (particularly health and safety needs) is absolutely essential. At the same time, millions of people rely on what those workers produce. Those people need to understand and plan for the possibility that the supply chains they rely on may suddenly shut down.

In this article, I'm going to present you with information to help you understand the situation. Even as I discuss the impact on the Amazon supply and delivery chains, please understand that I fully support the right of workers everywhere to fight for fair treatment.

When contacted for comment, Amazon's PR team responded, stating the following was "attributable as information provided by Amazon."

While we're watching what is happening, we don't expect a significant impact on customer deliveries.

We work with a large network of carriers and delivery service partners and most of our customer orders are delivered through our own last mile network.

Our focus remains on customers and ensuring we're providing low prices, vast selection, and fast delivery. We know how important fast delivery is to our customers, and it's why we've been working to streamline our network and increase delivery speeds – we expect Prime speeds to be faster than ever this year.

I also reached out to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters press team for comment. As of publication time, I have not yet received a response. As soon as I do, I will update this article accordingly.

How reliant is Amazon on UPS?

Unfortunately, Amazon declined to answer our specific questions on its shipping network capacity. But we can look to other sources to scope out what we know.

According to a Morgan Stanley transportation analysis, which was cited in a 2022 report from shipping data firm FreightWaves, Amazon accounted for 11% of UPS' annual revenue prior to 2022. Morgan Stanley estimated that at that time Amazon accounted for 35-40% of UPS' domestic shipping volume.

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In late 2021, CNBC reported that Amazon's pandemic supply chain growth resulted in enough capacity that it was selling package shipping services to business customers, in direct competition to UPS and FedEx.

In 2020, Amazon tweeted that its delivery network grew from 10,000 drivers in 2015 to "over 400,000" in 2020. CNBC reported that as of 2021, Amazon operated 40,000 semi-trucks, 30,000 vans, and more than 70 planes. At about the same time, ZDNET reported that the lease of 12 planes from Boeing upped the e-commerce company's fleet to 80 planes.

Amazon also built a $1.5 billion air hub in northern Kentucky, which it uses for package and logistical support. This activity isn't just domestic only. Amazon opened a 20,000 square-meter (about 215,000 square feet) regional air hub in Germany in 2020.

Even as far back as 2020, in the heart of the pandemic supply chain crisis, logistics service provider and analyst ShipMatrix estimated that Amazon increased capacity in order to deliver 66% of all of its packages directly.

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If that number holds into 2023, it means that Amazon directly controls at least two-thirds of its package delivery service, and the remaining third is split between UPS, FedEx, USPS, and smaller carriers.

So, while Amazon does actively use UPS, it also appears to have considerable capacity to keep packages flowing whether or not there is any work stoppage on the part of the big brown shipping company.

What is Amazon's status with regard to unions?

In two words: it's complicated.

Amazon has actively pushed back against unionization efforts. According to a publicly-filed 2022 US Department of Labor LM-10 Employer Report (and number-crunched by HuffPost), Amazon spent $14.2 million dollars on anti-union consultants in 2022 alone. That's up from $4.3 million spent in the prior year.

But that doesn't mean the company has been universally successful in squelching union activity.

In April 2022, workers at the Staten Island, New York warehouse JFK8 voted for unionization and formed a brand new union, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). The effort was led by a former warehouse worker who Amazon fired after he organized a protest outside the warehouse.

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As of publication time, the ALU has not responded to requests for comment. This article will be updated when comments are provided.

Another unionization effort took place at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. In this case, the results were considered too close to call… except a review by the National Labor Relations Board found misconduct on the part of Amazon, and called for another election.

The Teamsters have also been active at Amazon. In June, 80 Amazon delivery drivers and dispatchers (who were Teamsters members) walked out of an Amazon warehouse in Palmdale, CA. According to a Teamsters' press release, the union "extended their picket line to Amazon sortation centers in San Bernardino, Mira Loma and Newark, Calif.," also in June.

It does not appear that these warehouses are officially "unionized," in that a majority of workers have not voted for union representation. However, union activity at the warehouses can be disruptive and may influence Amazon to change its policies.

It's not clear whether Amazon directly employs its own pilots. According to the world's largest airline pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Air Transport International (ATI) is the largest Amazon air carrier. ATI's pilots, including those who fly for Amazon, are represented by ALPA. Earlier this month, ALPA expressed concerns over understaffing.

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"Last year, we had more than 500 pilots on staff for Prime Day. This year, we have fewer than 400 pilots flying the line," said Capt. Mike Sterling, chair of the ATI ALPA Master Executive Council. "It's a competitive hiring environment for professional pilots, and ATI has fallen far behind due to its outdated pilot contract with subpar pay and benefits. A market-based contract is the only solution to stem attrition and maintain our high levels of performance."

While Amazon has only one official union shop, the company is potentially vulnerable to strike and protest activity, both on the ground and in the air.

Can UPS's union activities influence Amazon?

As discussed earlier, Amazon said it does not expect a UPS strike to have a significant impact on deliveries. But the Teamsters union, which represents UPS workers, has invested substantial effort and resources into union organizing at Amazon.

UPS pilots are not on the brink of striking. However, Captain Robert Travis, president of the Independent Pilots Association (IPA), which represents the pilots who fly for UPS, stated in a July 3, 2023 letter to Sean O'Brien, head of the Teamsters, that IPA will support the Teamsters if the latter strikes Big Brown.

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Specifically, Travis cited a previous UPS strike in 1997, where 100% of the pilots in the IPA respected the picket line "by not 'turning an aircraft wheel' on behalf of [UPS]." He goes on to say that IPA is committed to honoring any potential Teamsters' strike and will "act in sympathy with our fellow workers at UPS by not working."

We can take from this that while the UPS pilots are not planning a strike on their own, but they will enact a work stoppage if the Teamsters do strike.

The question, then, is whether or not the ALPA pilots flying on behalf of Amazon will also support fellow pilot union members by not flying packages for Amazon. FedEx pilots are also represented by ALPA.

Cross-union solidarity is fairly common. For example, to show support for striking members of the Writers Guild of America, a multi-union rally was held in May that included:

  • SAG (Screen Actors Guild) AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists)
  • IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees)
  • IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters)
  • UNITE HERE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union)
  • UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles)
  • SEIU 721 (Service Employees International Union Local 721)
  • SEIU 1000 (Service Employees International Union Local 1000)
  • AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees)

Will there be a ripple effect?

Here's the bottom line. Warehouse and transportation workers are not exactly thrilled with Amazon's overall treatment, policies, and pay. While Amazon has put in a fairly herculean effort to squelch union organizing activities, the rumbles are being carried on the wind.

To be fair, Amazon is nothing if not logistically brilliant. If any company can route around disruption to get packages in the hands of consumers, it's Amazon.

But given the historical trend of cross-union solidarity, it's entirely possible that a large subset of Amazon workers (whether employees or somewhere in the subcontracting soup that performs services for Amazon), will conduct a work stoppage.

In that context, my conclusion is that Amazon's statement that "we don't expect a significant impact on customer deliveries," may be unsupportably optimistic.

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