DHL Violates Neutrality, Freight Workers Join Teamsters Anyway
At the DHL Express superhub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, 1,100 workers who load and unload freight on aircraft voted to join Teamsters Local 100 in April in one of the biggest private-sector union wins this year.
Package giant DHL, a competitor of UPS and FedEx, is one of the world’s largest and most profitable logistics companies, and the Cincinnati-area hub is the company’s largest.
The tug and ramp workers organized because of low pay, safety concerns, and poor treatment from management. “The company mantra that they sell to customers—‘connecting people, improving lives’—doesn’t exist for their own workers,” said ramp lead Garrett Schwing.
The Teamsters already represent 6,000 DHL workers in the U.S., and the company has a neutrality agreement with the union, stipulating that “[DHL] shall remain neutral and not engage in, sponsor, or support any anti-union or ‘vote-no’ activities.”
However, this didn’t stop management from running a thorough anti-union campaign. The Teamsters filed 21 unfair labor practice charges against the company for interfering with the union drive, including by holding captive-audience meetings and surveilling workers. Schwing said a supervisor followed a crew from assignment to assignment, then into the break area, then the bathroom. Another worker reported being followed home.
Eventually Schwing and his co-workers marched on their general manager to protest the unfair treatment. “Confronting the boss forced him to acknowledge management’s illegal behavior and commit to educating supervisors on what rights workers have under protected concerted activity,” he said.
Schwing said shop-floor militancy was an important way to win co-workers over: “Direct actions show workers that with solidarity, you have more power than you might have previously realized.” He said a co-worker joined the campaign after the confrontation, and some who were worried they might suffer retaliation gained confidence.
In April, workers voted 505 to 287 in favor of joining the Teamsters.
SUPERVISOR SWITCHED SIDES
Ryan Doyen, a member of the campaign organizing committee, had just been promoted into management when the campaign launched in March 2022. “I found out about the union not long after I had become a supervisor,” he said.
But after overhearing two managers refer to hourly employees as “inmates,” he quit his supervisory role and returned to the ramp.
“It didn’t sit right with me,” said Doyen. “I was bullied in school, and I saw them as bullies who controlled our paycheck.”
His moral courage didn’t come without consequence. Upon returning to his previous station, Doyen says he faced constant harassment and was effectively demoted when management informed him he wouldn’t be able to lead a crew, as he had before becoming a supervisor.
Still, he was skeptical of the union because of negative experiences as a union member at a previous job. But he said he was convinced after he learned about the working conditions at an already-unionized DHL facility.
“I realized they had a pension, higher wages, and a lighter workload,” Doyen said. “Why shouldn’t we have that as well?”
After signing a pledge card, Doyen began organizing his co-workers. One had worked there for nearly 13 years and at first “didn’t see any benefit of a union,” he recalls. So Doyen explained the economic benefits: a pension, a raise, better benefits.
“That piqued his interest,” Doyen said, “and prompted him to raise concerns about issues he has had with management.” After a couple of weeks of talking, the co-worker signed a card—and then organized his whole second-shift ramp crew.
International freight ramp worker Brandi Dale is optimistic that the union will improve not only her wages and health care but also the day-to-day atmosphere for women.
“With the backing of the union, you get more support as a woman,” she said. “There’s a built-in solidarity that assures me other people have my back now.”
The hub is a male-dominated workplace. “There is an unspoken belief that women on the ramp are weaker and almost an inconvenience to your crew,” Dale said. “For example, I have learned to not speak out as much if I am feeling a bit of pain. I don’t want to be seen as fragile. I might not be stronger than some of my male counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not strong.”
The risk of injury is real for tug and ramp workers, who are responsible for parking and moving aircraft before loading and unloading the freight containers within. Sometimes workers are elevated 40 feet, unharnessed; the machinery can malfunction leading to serious injury or death.
Six months into her employment with DHL, Dale nearly fell off a K-loader, a mobile hydraulic elevator that moves large metal freight containers out of planes. She refused to get back on based on company safety policy which says that you can decline to work on a particular piece of machinery if you’re uncomfortable with its condition. Management responded by first pressuring her to continue to work, then ignoring her after she stood her ground.
Schwing said the solution to faulty equipment is being proactive, not reactive—even at the expense of productivity and profits. Currently, he said, equipment only gets fixed if a ramp crew complains loudly enough or it delays a shipment; policy at other DHL hubs, like Philadelphia, is to retire equipment after five or seven years.
Another priority is a better health care plan—DHL workers are currently charged a dollar an hour if they opt into the company plan.
“My wife and I both have chronic health conditions that require us to buy expensive medicines,” Dale told me. “More affordable health care and better pay is the difference between car troubles forcing me into homelessness [and not].”
‘THE ABILITY TO RETIRE’
As the election approached, the company filed a motion to include 1,800 sorters at the same hub in the union. The company’s attempt to expand the bargaining unit at the last minute was designed to defeat the union, which wouldn’t have time to reach those workers and counter the boss’s anti-union barrage.
Kentucky became a “right-to-work” state in 2017, meaning that employees can opt out of paying union dues while still enjoying the same union benefits as their dues-paying co-workers. The newly unionized DHL employees are sober about the challenge this poses for their upcoming contract campaign.
“It will be a challenge during negotiations when we need member support, just like it was a challenge during the organizing campaign,” said Doyen. “But being able to bargain for ourselves as a collective is going to be of huge benefit to us. This gives me a future, something to retire with, or even just the ability to retire.”
Peter Lucas is a writer based in New York City. He covers U.S. politics and the union movement.