Inside the Fight for a Union At XPO
It’s 6:45 a.m. and Jarrod Skelton, one of the lead organizers on the XPO freight campaign, drives out to the front lines in the sharp Chicago breeze armed with a large soda from Steak ‘n Shake and with Cinderella’s “Shake Me” blaring from the car speakers.
Skelton’s story is typical of a Teamster organizer. He comes from a union family and started his career as a Teamster at UPS. He volunteered on several campaigns and was active within his local union.
From there he worked his way up to being an International Organizer with the union’s Organizing Department, a position he has held for over seven years.
“Every campaign is unique,” Skelton said as he drove past an endless series of strip malls in suburban Chicago. “That’s what I love about this job. No two campaigns, no two days are alike. I wear a wide variety of hats in this position, but that’s what helps me learn.”
This particular campaign is the Teamsters’ effort in conjunction with European unions and the International Transport Workers’ Federation to organize XPO Logistics, one of the world’s biggest logistics companies. In the United States, the organizing effort targets freight, warehouse and port workers at XPO.
The campaign will help expose XPO’s misclassification and wage theft of owner-operators in the ports.
The Teamsters want to give hope and increase benefits and pay for warehouse workers currently making around $12 per hour so the workers can pay for insurance and earn a living wage. Giving freight drivers good affordable family health care and retirement security is another major priority: they currently have neither at XPO.
Ultimately, the Teamsters seek to give workers the knowhow to battle the company’s high-priced union busters and achieve the ultimate goal of a voice in their working lives with a strong Teamster contract.
As Skelton pulls up to the first XPO facility of the day, a small freight hub, he talks about “the worst kept secret in organizing.”
“Trust is the most important factor in successfully forming a union,” Skelton said as he grabs two handfuls of leaflets. “In the union, we can take it for granted that we’ve got each other’s backs. For workers who are coming together to form a union, you need to build that trust, not only between the Teamsters and the workers, but between the workers themselves. Once you get to that point where the group comes together, any number of positive outcomes can occur.”
Skelton is joined by two other Teamster organizers, Joel Wood and Mike Marvray, and two lost-time freight members assisting the campaign, Clint Gard from Local 554 and Karlan Bean from Local 120, who have braved a raw Illinois morning to engage workers on the morning shift at this particular XPO freight hub.
Bundled up in Teamster apparel, the organizers greet, converse with and hand out leaflets to drivers who are about to start their morning runs. Many drivers are receptive to the Teamster message.
A gate action like this is just one small piece of an organizing campaign.
Winning campaigns take much more than handing a worker a leaflet. The Teamsters Union’s true talent is to turn contact with workers into one-on-one conversations away from the workplace.
Workers have to be comfortable with their decision to seek unionization, get their questions answered and truly believe that something better for them and their family exists. An organizer spends lots of time identifying worker leaders, recruiting and training an organizing committee, and following up with workers to build individual relationships and educate about the Teamsters.
An organizer helps empower the workforce to successfully fend off the onslaught of union-busters and anti-union sentiment thrown at them during a campaign. This all sounds more serious than a gate action on a windy Chicago morning and is all part of an organizer’s day.
Two workers come out to talk to Skelton about the conditions they face as XPO drivers and the importance of their fight.
“This fight is for democratic principles, our rights and fairness,” said Alfredo Calero, a driver for XPO. “Right now, the company practices favoritism. We need seniority to ensure a fair bidding process for routes. The Teamsters will fight to deliver that for us and I’m not afraid to speak up for the union.”
“I’ve been in the freight industry for a long time,” said Jim Plimmer, an XPO driver. “I’ve seen so many different changes to our work over the years. I’ve also been a union driver before and it is a night-and-day difference when you come to work. Your pay, benefits and working conditions are way better when you’re union. That’s why I am talking to my co-workers about the importance of supporting the Teamsters’ efforts at our facilities.”
Another instrumental lost timer in the XPO campaign, Tony Seminary from Local 179, introduced Skelton to Brian Ruiz, an ABF Freight driver for over 11 years.
“I’m a member of Local 179 and I rest easy at night,” Ruiz said. “My wages and benefits are strong and I have job security and a fair bidding process at my station. I would say to my fellow drivers working for nonunion carriers that the first step on the road to obtaining similar working conditions is to form a union at your workplace.”
After talking to the XPO workers and ABF members, Skelton is working the phones to coordinate travel arrangements, get organizing expenses approved, set up meetings with local Teamster officials and develop strategy with the union’s senior organizing staff. He refers to his car as his mobile office.
“My number-one priority is to ensure that we build positive relationships,” said Skelton as he left the facility. “Relationships, one-on-one conversations, whether it’s co-workers talking to each other about the importance of forming a union or organizers talking to workers about the importance of forming a union, are the moments that make momentum and drive successful organizing campaigns.”
He heads to another location and sees the power of those relationships on display at the XPO facility in Aurora, Ill., where he met with several workers who were a part of the bargaining unit that organized there. In October 2016, over 70 drivers voted for Teamster representation at XPO Aurora, joining their co-workers at facilities in Florida, Texas, California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
“Nothing Comes Easy”
The sky was completely black and the wind was picking up by the time the workers joined Skelton to talk outside of the facility. But their personalities projected pure positivity and persistence as they expressed optimism about their future.
“The company didn’t want to give up their power, but the Teamsters helped us take some of it back,” said Ryan Janota, a driver for XPO in Aurora. “Now that we’ve come together to join the Teamsters, we’re already getting more respect in the workplace. We’re looking forward to continuing to help each other as co-workers and Teamsters as we move into the next phase of our fight.”
Jose Ramirez, an XPO driver at Aurora for over seven years and a former union member before joining the Teamsters with XPO, echoed that sentiment.
“We have come too far to turn back now,” Ramirez said. “In the 21st century, there is a war being waged against working people. We’re going to fight back person to person and win the rights and respect working people deserve. Nothing comes easy. You have to fight. You have to organize. You have to overcome the fear that our employer uses against us. We know the Teamsters and our co-workers who have already unionized in Europe will stand by our side as we take on XPO. It is our goal to one day make XPO, every piece of it, a union company. As Teamsters, we have the power, we are building the momentum and the sky is the limit.”