What's on the Line in the UPS Strike?

— Martha Gruelle

IS THE TEAMSTERS strike at United Parcel Service—the largest strike in the United States in a quarter century—a part of the new militancy that John Sweeney promised when he took over the AFL-CIO? Not really: The Teamsters’ strike, rather, is made possible by a twenty-year movement, led by the caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

That movement happened to also boost Sweeney’s rise. But a strict interpretation of John Sweeney’s strategy might lead a union to organize, say, Federal Express before taking on the giant UPS in a head-on confrontation over part-time work. The Teamsters are on a different course (though they are organizing at Fedex, too).

So if you hear the company say that Teamster President Ron Carey got tough in negotiations because of union politics, say amen. Union politics are supposed to make the leaders do what the members want, and that’s finally begun to happen in the Teamsters.

UPS for its part is one of the smartest companies around in the hearts-and-minds contest. Thus while the strike is, yes, about the future of living-wage jobs in the United States, it’s also a test. How well has management done on winning the loyalty of its work force, and how well have the new democratized union and TDU counteracted "Brown Culture"?

UPS policies pre-date, and don’t bear the trappings of, the recent versions of "team concept" (though it has launched team concept programs in the last few years). But Big Brown makes its full-time workers part of the team in other less warm and fuzzy ways.

The crisp, uniformed image and "tightest ship" slogan influence both the public’s and workers’ view; the brown shirts carry status (and some say sex appeal), and evoke efficiency. UPS consistently uses internal promotions to capture the aspirations of workplace leaders—the current CEO was once a driver.

The cultural, some say cultish, atmosphere of reward for self sacrifice is combined with a constant scrutiny of workers’ pace that keeps many of them working through breaks. Meanwhile, decades of comfortable relations with Teamsters International leaders have led less sophisticated workers to think that management chose to pay drivers decent pay and benefits.

Until the early nineties, the union did zero or less on internal organizing while the bargaining unit grew to include more and more part-timers—younger, more exploited, for obvious reasons less trusting of the union, and now comprising about 60% of the unit.

At this point (week two) in the strike, the company seems to be betting they’ve won the hearts-and-minds thing—that there will be significant scabbing as the weeks wear on and they perhaps start hiring replacements.

So far, it looks good for them losing the bet. The union’s flagship issue—the demand to turn part-time into full-time jobs—turned out to be wonderfully unifying, as well as a cause for widespread public sympathy, a rarity in today’s industrial disputes.

UPS has expanded its overnight and two-day air delivery business over the last few years. Members were shocked to learn that of the 43,000 new jobs created in that expansion (since 1993), 35,000—over 80%—are part-time.

UPS started part-timing work in 1968, before there was a national contract. That year the company got Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa (Senior) to agree to part-time work in the midwest, while eastern locals including Ron Carey’s struck over the issue. By 1982 UPS used part-timers everywhere, there was a national UPS-Teamsters contract, and it wasn’t too hard to get International officers to agree to a second tier wage for part-timers.

UPS part-timers do the behind-the-scenes work of sorting packages and loading them on the little brown trucks for delivery. It’s intense, dangerous work, lifting and placing thousands of parcels of wildly varying size and weight. A high proportion of sorters and loaders only last a few days or weeks.

Those that stick it out, and avoid injury, may get trained to drive the delivery trucks ("package cars")—where they’re still pushed to run through the work-day. From there they have a chance at the less-draining inter-city tractor-trailer runs (called "feeders" in UPS parlance). But it’s a pyramid with a huge base relative to the number of full-time driver jobs.

The Teamsters are fighting to slow or reverse the sharp expansion at the bottom. Even though the UPS sorter and loader jobs are fairly good on the pitiful scale of part-time pay—around $9 an hour plus health benefits—the call for full-timing strikes a cord.

The union also wants good raises, including the first increase in the part-timer starting rate in 15 years. And limiting the contracting-out of feeder work, another job security issue, is important too.

The Teamsters successfully put their case for "decent full-time jobs" to a public that has been sensitized to the growing problem of part-time, contingent work. Every young worker and every parent of a twenty-something knows it’s hard to find full-time, decent-paying work that will last. Recent GM strikes have focused on turning contract work into regular jobs.

Meanwhile, the company grabbed a wedge issue in demanding control of UPS workers’ pensions from the Teamsters multi-employer benefit funds. The aim is to split off feeder drivers, who tend to be older and have sometimes organized for higher pensions. And handling the investment of several billions of the workers’ dollars would surely be a handy thing for management, even if they couldn’t keep all the dividends.

The question of pension administration is more than technical. The point of multi-employer pension funds is mutual protection. When the freight industry consolidated in the eighties, UPS and other companies’ negotiated pension contributions helped ensure retirement income for thousands whose companies closed and left a debt to the pension fund.

Now UPS asks its union employees to both turn their backs on other Teamsters, and bet that Big Brown will stay just as healthy over the next thirty years as over the last. Teamsters retort that UPS has had problems getting their paychecks right; why trust them with a pension fund?

Holding tight to their demand on pensions presaged UPS’ apparent willingness to take a strike longer than a few days. Over the second and succeeding weeks we’ll have a chance to see how deeply strike sentiment and union consciousness run among UPS Teamsters.

Fewer than 3% broke ranks in the first week. The danger of course is that many more could abandon the strike, while others (perhaps with urging of Carey’s old-guard rivals) may start pressuring the International to settle on the company’s terms. Additionally, of course, there’s the ever-present threat of government intervention, under corporate and right-wing pressure.

If strikers hold strong as they seem inclined to do, they will have widespread public support on their side, they will have shut down the company’s only profitable operation which it can’t possibly move overseas, and they’ll cost billions of dollars and significant market share to replace. We’ll see whether in America today that’s enough.

[This issue of Against the Current went to press just after the UPS strike settlement was announced but before its details were published. Based on press reports and speaking with knowledgeable observers, it seems clear that the union won its demands for 10,000 new full-time jobs and significant wage gains—although a huge gap remains between full-time and part-time hourly rates—and retains the crucially important Teamster-controlled multiemployer pension fund. The main concession on the union side appears to be signing a five-year contract instead of the normal three years.

[The extent of this victory can be appreciated by recalling that only ten years ago, in 1987, the Teamster leadership, then in the hands of the anti-reform Old Guard, imposed a rotten UPS contract on the members even though 52% vot The present victory demonstrates the power not only of the strike, but of union democracy—eds.]

ATC 70, September-October 1997