Stain and Pain at United Parcel

Against the Current, No. 49, March/April 1994

David Hyland

“LUGGING 150 POUND packages is deemed cause to defy a judge.” This is how New York Times reporter Peter Applebombe chose to describe the recent strike by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IWE) against United Parcel Service (UPS)—at one blow trivializing and dismissing an issue that could literally break the backs of thousands of UPS workers.

The issue is far from trivial to the 170,000 workers at UPS. Teamsters at UPS already work under some of the highest productivity standards in the trucking industry. “Lugging” hardly describes a system in which warehouse workers regularly handle up to 1200 packages per hour and delivery drivers make as many as 130 stops per day.

More than doubling package weight limits from 70 to 150 pounds, as UPS unilaterally ordered, would dramatically increase the already high rate of back and repetitive strain injuries. By boosting employee turnover, the higher limit would also undercut a major gain won in the last bargaining round: twenty-fiveyears-and-out pensions.

The Times’ spin on the story served yet another purpose: rewriting history by downplaying (entirely) UPS’s illegal act of refusing to bargain, while crying foul at the union’s willingness to oppose a court-ordered injunction. Nor were the media alone in their condemnation. Once IBT President Ron Carey made it clear that he would defy UPS’ unilateral imposition of the work rule change, battle lines were drawn sharply—UPS, the media and old-guard Teamster officials on one side; Carey, reform officers and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (FDU) on the other.

By the start of the strike on February 7, UPS had served thousands of injunctions on local unions and called all employees to warn them that they would be fired if they didn’t show up for work Worse yet was outright scabbing by officials opposed to union reform.

“1 can’t in good conscience take our people in the street and expose them to these kind of sanctions” old-guard official R.V. Durham, ever-concerned for the well-being of the membership, stated. Old-guard officers announced that their locals would refuse to walk and pressured fence-sitters to keep their members working.

Despite this onslaught, the strike was successful in many areas. In the East, UPS operations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia ground to a halt. Reform local unions (most headed by TDUers) played a critical role in making the strike national. Seattle, Watsonville, Wisconsin (a statewide local), Columbus, Atlanta and major cities in Florida were down

TDU activists played a critical role: informing, coordinating, dispelling lies, and leading the attack against old-guard scabbing. Some sixty locals, representing nearly 70,000 workers, struck If the strike had continued past one day, this number would have risen.

Most remarkable was that the strike ended in victory. UPS signed an agreement in which they agreed to negotiate any weight limit changes and waived any and all claims (except damages relating to the work stoppage) against officers and members. The company is pursuing, however, a $50 million lawsuit against the union.

Pending the outcome of bargaining, UPS agreed that no member would have to handle packages weighing over seventy-five pounds without help from another bargaining unit employee (an agreement they are now trying to renege on). Perhaps the biggest win of all was UPS’ willingness to settle so quickly–a victory in terms of solidarity, for the members who walked, but also in terms of future impact on bargaining (UPS is vulnerable to a strike, you can strike without losing your job, we can win).

Implications for the Union

In one sense, Carey had no choice but to strike. Still, his willingness to do so sets him apart from so many other union officials for whom concerns over corporate flexibility and union-management cooperation override membership needs. His opposition to the higher weight limit is in line with other stands he has taken, such as opposition to team concept.

Other positive outcomes are likely, but less easy to predict. Most important could be the impact on old-guard officials: not only did these officers scab, they scabbed on a strike that won.

Their less than favorable position is perhaps best evidenced by the new low reached by their rhetoric in an unsigned “UPS Contract Bulletin”: “Carey, who was nowhere to be seen on picket lines, came out of hiding behind Judy Scott’s [chief counsel of the IBTI skirt long enough to call off the collapsing strike in exchange for UPS promising not to fire workers or retaliate against the local unions…”

At the same time, TDU’s position should be strengthened. TDU’s key roles in leadership development, rank-and-file mobilization, local union reform, and old-guard opposition come to the forefront during critical struggles—particularly at UPS, where TDU has a well developed network of activists. In the short term, the struggle over imposition of the 150 pound weight limit will be a focus of activity for TDU activists. Old-guard officials stance on this issue, as on the walkout, is a visible reminder of the need for continued organizing from the bottom up, and therefore the need for TDU.

Dues Increase Battle

Less easy to gauge is what effect, if any, the UPS walkout will have on an upcoming membership vote on a dues increase. Carey has proposed the increase in order to deal with financial difficulties faced by the International Union. Massive waste under old-guard leadership, no increase in the per capita paid to the International since the early 1980’s, and a failure by delegates to the 1991 IBT convention to fund an increase in strike benefits are all factors contributing to the financial woes.

In January, the TDU International Steering Committee voted to support the increase. Old-guard officials are actively opposing the change. The largest obstacle faced, however, is the legacy of membership cynicism in the union. If members continue to feel they get little for their money from the local union, will they say yes to a dues increase to strengthen the international?

Regardless of the referendum’s outcome, the fact of the vote alone is significant. By going to the membership, Carey has once again circumvented business-as-usual, old-guard policies. At the same time, the old-guard is likely to pay a political price for its opposition.

The UPS walkout is a ray of hope in the dark tunnel labor finds itself in. Still, no union can go it alone. The changes underway in the Teamsters need to take hold elsewhere. When they do, the New York Times will really have something to worry about.

March/April 1994, ATC 49