The UPS Victory and Beyond

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

The Editors

THE TEAMSTERS UNION victory over United Parcel Service in August, 1997 represents the biggest strike and the most important labor union victory in the United States in the last twenty-five years.  The media’s subsequent attempts to downplay the UPS strike’s significance-and the uncertainty that now surrounds the Teamsters’ election rerun-cannot conceal its impact.

At the time, the strike was rightly called a “turning point” and a “watershed” for the U.S. labor movement.  The New York Times noted “It was labor’s biggest victory in years . . ..”  As the Minneapolis Star Tribune summed it up, “With the United Parcel settlement seen as a major triumph and an omen of future successes, union leaders, and many experts, say the labor movement is in its strongest position in nearly a generation and is poised to increase its membership after a two-decade decline.”

The UPS workers’ sixteen-day strike was seen by the public as a fight between ordinary working people and a gigantic multinational, multi-billion dollar company greedily demanding concessions from its workers—and so it was. Millions of ordinary people identified with the strikers—and it was partly because of that broad, if amorphous, support that the workers won.

After years of frustration and failures for the union movement, what an amazing change!  But let’s be clear: This didn’t happen purely spontaneously or by accident.  This strike was a rarity, by today’s standards, in one respect above all: The union, for once, was better prepared than the corporation, thanks to the vigorous leadership of the Ron Carey reform administration, and an active rank and file movement at the grassroots.

Rather than regarding its members’ commitment as a faucet to be turned off and on, the Carey leadership conducted a nine- month contract campaign to determine what issues the UPS workers considered most important.

Pre-strike rallies, a video for shop stewards, stickers proclaiming “It’s Our Contract.  We’ll Fight for It”; everything was done to unify and prepare the membership.  (See “Yearlong Effort Key to Success for Teamsters,” by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, August 25, 1997)

Then, when the strike occurred, the union did more than set up routine picket lines.  UPS drivers went out to customers to explain the critical strike issues to the customers they service every day. The level of public sympathy for the workers’ goals helped frustrate the company’s expectation that pressure would rapidly mount for the government to order the strike ended on the pretext of “national emergency.”

A Fight for All

The size and scope of this strike—185,000 workers on strike from coast to coast in virtually every town and city of the country—put the UPS workers and their union in the public eye. Building on the recent struggles and smaller victories of other workers—auto workers, farmworkers, university employees—the Teamsters victory at UPS created a new sense of momentum in the U.S. labor movement.

We’re not about to proclaim that this momentum will produce a new upsurge of struggle for social and economic justice, or a radical labor movement rebuilt around ideas like democracy and workers’ power in the workplace—because we simply don’t know if that will prove to be the case. But the UPS strike offers a glimpse into what such a movement, if it emerges, would look like, which is certainly a good reason to look closely at this strike and its implications.

This strike held the country’s attention, in part, because it dealt with some of today’s most important and vexing questions, posed by capitalism and its organization of work: the contracting out of services and part-time jobs. Our jobs seemed to be slipping through our fingers; now we see a way to get a grip on them again.  The public’s perception was that this was a strike for everybody, labor fighting for us all.

UPS workers not only went out for themselves, but—with their demand that the company create more full-time jobs for part-time workers—they also fought a battle that touched the hearts of millions of people.

Particularly important was the public exposure of UPS’s outrageous practice of having workers do two part-time jobs, adding up to full-time hours at half the full-time wage.

Studs Terkel, author and radio commentator, pointed out that “with the Teamsters’ astonishing victory against United Parcel Service, a word long considered quaint—solidarity—has found a new resonance among the great many, hitherto unconcerned.”

In addition to the issue of backbreaking part-time work, UPS’s attempt to pull out of the union’s multi-employer pension plan and set up one for UPS workers only was a central strike issue.  Management pushed hard to take control of the pension funds because, if they successfully invested the funds, they could have reduced the amount they were responsible to put into the account.  The lure management used was to promise it could pay higher pensions than the Teamsters’ plans currently do.

Clearly UPS expected to cash in on its corporate culture, that extreme combination of totalitarian workplace rules (even which hand drivers carry their keys in is rigidly controlled!) and paternalism that has come to be known as Big Brown.  UPS believed that these methods had created a degree of loyalty to the company that would override its workers’ solidarity with other Teamsters.

Instead the Teamsters won increased contributions to the multi-pension plan and have the possibility of creating higher benefits themselves.  The point of a multi-pension fund is mutual protection.

In the 1980s deregulation allowed for the freight industry’s restructuring.  Without a multi-pension system thousands of Teamsters would have no retirement income.

On this issue, then, UPS workers rejected management’s bait and refused to turn their backs on other Teamsters.  It’s important in this context to note that the Teamsters at UPS are among the very few major unions that have resisted, and rejected, the institution of “team concept” by a major industrial employer.

Who Won the Strike-and How?

The company for its part miscalculated three crucial factors: the loyalty of its workers, the public’s attitude, and the prospects of government intervention to end the strike.  United Parcel Service had adopted an aggressive stand in preparation for the Teamsters 1997 contract.  UPS was determined to continue its use of part-time workers as sorters and loaders and to extend the use of part-time workers as package car drivers as well.

Part-time wages averaged $8 an hour, while full-timers earned $19.95.  The UPS part-time workers’ salary had been in place since 1982, without a raise.  Since 1993 UPS had created 46,000 union jobs—but 38,000 of them were part-time.  And of the 180,000 part-timers hired in 1996, only 40,000 were still with the company by the time of the strike in 1997.

UPS also wanted to begin contracting out tractor-trailer driver jobs to cheaper non-union companies (or to companies with substandard union contracts), as well as taking complete control over the UPS workers’ pension funds.

U.S. vice-president Al Gore told workers at a Labor Day rally that the United States has a “new unionism.”  Gore linked the UPS workers’ victory to the recent increase in the minimum wage. The insinuation was that the Democrats had somehow made it all happen.  Such an interpretation keeps the union, the workers and the strike safely within a status quo based on the corporate domination of our society.

We offer another interpretation.  We believe that to understand this strike one has to look not at the top, but at the bottom.  The victory belongs not to Sweeney and the AFL-CIO leaders—although they helped—nor to Gore and the Democratic Party, but rather to the union’s rank-and-file members.  The Teamsters union and the UPS workers won in large measure because of the existence within their union of a rank-and-file movement.

For nearly a generation, rank-and-file Teamsters—led by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)—have been working at the grassroots, laying the basis for the rebuilding of their union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.  In doing so, they have also been laying the foundation for rebuilding the U.S. labor movement.

A grassroots movement like TDU has profoundly radical implications for the union, the workplace, and society.  The thrust of TDU’s work, over the long haul, is to place power in the hands of ordinary working people.  As a rank-and-file group, TDU fights for democracy so workers can make their own decisions in their union.  TDU fights both to make the ranks more powerful within the union, and the union more powerful within the workplace, and thus to make workers more powerful within society.

TDU and other such grassroots movements in other unions (as well as in communities) work to shift the balance of power toward working people and away from the corporations.  In a society where corporations dominate the government, shape our culture, and control our lives nothing is more radical than the demand for democracy, for people’s power in the workplace, society and politics.

The Teamsters victory thus illustrates the potential for a new U.S. social movement for economic and political change.  Were such a movement to emerge, the Teamsters victory could be considered the opening battle.  What are the stakes involved?  What would it take to make that possibility a reality?

The strike against UPS was not only about full-time jobs, pensions, subcontracting and wages.  Any strike today, but especially a strike with the size and scope of the UPS strike, questions the employer and, implicitly, the corporations’ domination of our lives.  Employers want top- down authority, hierarchy and insecurity among the workers to keep them hunkered down. Democracy, dignity and the idea of workers’ control over their jobs and lives challenge the entire social system we live in, a system which places profit as the ultimate value.

The UPS strike won about as much as a quick (two-week) strike could have achieved-yet even bigger battles remain to be fought.  The main concession on the union side was to accept a five-year contract (instead of the usual three years), which gives the company two additional years of labor “cost control” and, more important, time to recover its balance for the next contract war. Part-time work and the associated two-tier wage system remain entrenched, and the injury and attrition rate shows that UPS continues to be a dangerous and brutal workplace.

Bigger Battles Ahead

Organizing the rest of the parcel industry—beginning with the biggest non-union carrier Federal Express—is an obvious priority.  The momentum for this and other organizing is now in question, however, since Ron Carey’s reelection victory over the Old Guard candidate James Hoffa, Jr. was invalidated when illegal campaign financing schemes subsequently came to light.

We intended to include in this issue an analysis of prospects for the upcoming election rerun.  As we go to press, however, the court overseeing Teamster elections has not ruled on whether Ron Carey will be disqualified from the election.  No evidence has emerged that Carey knew of the criminal schemes that diverted funds to the election campaign (and which, apparently, mainly enriched the sleazy “consultants” hired to run it).  But a major right-wing witch-hunt is taking place, with Congressional committee hearings aiming to create political pressure to get Carey thrown off the ballot-with or without such technical details as evidence or due process.

We’ll cover these developments in our next issue, but it’s clear what’s at stake: the right of the membership of the Teamsters to vote for their leadership.  That right is the single most crucial victory won by twenty years of organizing and hard struggle by the rank-and-file movement, and is the “only” way that organized crime can be kept out of the union.  The attempt to throw Carey off the ballot means trying to take that right away.

The same rank-and-file struggle that won the right to vote has produced a union that can fight and win against a machine like United Parcel Service.  This strike has opened up possibilities that corporate America—its managers, its media, its political and financial establishments—have been telling us were long dead and buried.  In that, perhaps, lies its greatest importance.

Parts of this editorial are adapted from a new Solidarity pamphlet, The Fight at UPS: The Teamsters’ Victory and the Future of the New Labor Movement, by Dan La Botz.

ATC 71, November-December 1997