David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The UPS Strike - Unions Win When They Take The Offensive
by David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA (8/24/97) -- John Cortez, a warehouseman in the big United Parcel Service terminal on Pardee Road near the Oakland airport, has been surviving for five years on the same part-time job he got when he was young and single. He started loading packages there after hearing the same word thousands of students hear every year - if you can hook a job at UPS, you can work part-time on an off shift, earn a union wage, and get benefits.

But young people grow older. They get married and start families. Their needs change.

"I've been working 26-28 hours a week since I started," Cortez explained. "I have a wife and two kids, and it's just not enough hours to pay the bills. We both work, and we still need government support to help us out. It's gotten to be more than we can tolerate."

The waiting line to get a full-time job is still so long that until the recent strike, he had another five years to go. His oldest child will be in middle school by then. No wonder Cortez was willing to walk out. "I can't wait five more years. I need a change right now," he said.

Last spring, Teamsters Union strategists and members of its UPS bargaining committee took a look at the problem of part-timers like Cortez. Aware that a major confrontation with the company was in the works, they gambled that the part time issue would resonate with the public. Even more, they recognized that it affected so many Teamster members at UPS, and so seriously, that it would unite the union and keep members on the picketline as long as necessary.

It was a very good piece of strategic planning, enough so that after 15 days on the bricks, the union won almost all of the demands it had carefully crafted months before.

For two decades unions have been backed into almost every major strike in the country, strikes not of their own choosing. They've been defensive battles, planned months, and even years, in advance by the companies. In the Detroit newspaper strike, for instance, the newspaper agency went to the police department in Sterling Heights, where its printing plant is located. It promised to pay all the overtime costs of scabherding four months before the strike started. By contrast, the unions, hoping desperately to avoid a strike, did hardly any planning at all. That scenario, over and over again, has left the companies holding almost all the cards.

By contrast, the most important single factor distinguishing the UPS strike from most of its predecessors of the last 15 years, and one of the most important reasons why it succeeded, was that it was an offensive strike, not a defensive one. It was a struggle in which the union was prepared, fought over issues which it defined, and one which relied overwhelmingly on the efforts of the members themselves.

In an era in which unions have become afraid, for good reason, that strikes can lead to permanent replacement and destruction, the battle fought out at UPS shows that strikes can be successful. They are still workers' fundamental weapon to enforce their will on giant corporations.

The strike settlement made important progress on the dispute's central issue - creating full-time jobs for part timers. About 57% of UPS' 185,000 Teamster workers labor part time - in many terminals two-thirds, or even three-quarters of the employees. They make up eighty percent of new hires since 1993.

At the strike's start, the company offered to advance 10,000 part-time workers into full-time jobs as other full timers retired or quit, but would only agree to create 1,000 new full-time jobs. In the final agreement, 10,000 new full-time jobs will be created over five years. The company also agreed that five out of every six full-time openings will be filled by part-time UPS workers, instead of the previous contract's ratio of four out of five.

UPS originally demanded concessions which would have made the part-time problem worse. The company wanted to subcontract out the jobs of feeder drivers, who drive big-rigs between terminals. These are promotions for the delivery drivers in the familiar brown trucks, and are held by the most senior workers. If feeder driver jobs are contracted out, delivery drivers can't move up into them, creating openings for part-timers in the terminals.

The union defeated this demand. The final settlement says subcontracting can only be done with local union agreement. UPS drivers can even bid on some already-subcontracted work.

The economic pressure felt by John Cortez' family comes not only from reduced hours, but from the differential between his $11.00/hour wage (the average for part timers), and the full-time average rate of over $20. That pressure creates enormous turnover at UPS. In 1996, the company hired 182,000 part timers. By the end of the year, only 40,000 remained.

Reducing that differential was an important union goal. While the part-time hiring rate was only increased from $8.00 to $8.50, part-time workers will get increases totaling $4.10/hour over the contract's term, an annual average of 7%. The average part-time wage will rise from $11 to $15.10 in five years.

The 10,000 new full-time jobs will created by combining jobs which are currently part time, primarily loading packages inside the terminals and delivering air express parcels. Some part-time workers already do both of these jobs, back-to-back, but at a part-time wage rate. The new combined positions will have a $15/hour wage to start, rising to $17.50 in five years. A worker moving from an $11/hour job, at 25 hours ($275/week) to a full-time job at $15 ($600/week) would see their weekly income more than double.

Existing full-time employees will receive wage increases totaling $3.10 over five years, an increase of about 3%/year, to an average of $23.11. This is a traditional, bring-the-bottom-up bargaining strategy. It bucks the corporate trend of the last two decades, in which companies have instituted two-tier wage structures to push the bottom down, and then use the pressure to lower the higher-wage categories.

Full-time, high-seniority workers won something as important as wages - substantial increases in contributions to the pension plans, which will remain in union hands. When the strike started, UPS demanded the right to set up its own company pension plan, and leave the 21 multi-employer plans managed by the union. That would have made a big difference to retirees (and hurt pensioners from other companies who receive pensions from the same plans.)

Under a union-managed plan, benefits go up as employer contributions create a larger fund. In an employer-managed plan, companies lose their tax break for contributions in excess of the amount of money needed to pay existing pension obligations. They can, of course, increase pensions, as the union plans do. But usually, they simply reduce their contributions. If there is an excess of money in their pension funds, they're legally entitled to take it back instead of raising benefits. LTV Steel and Pacific Lumber are two notorious corporations who did exactly that.

Teamster members didn't buy the offer at UPS, even when the company offered to pay better pensions. Instead, they won increased contributions into the union pension funds.

UPS' has always had a reputation for dangerous conditions. Carolyn Robinson, a member of Martinez Local 315 and chair of the national IBT-UPS Safety and Health Negotiating Committee, describes many serious accidents due to overwork. "In Phoenix in June, two part-time workers caught their legs in a running belt," she says. UPS installed a cut-off switch in the area only after the accident. In Long Island, N.Y., during negotiations, a young girl lost a finger in belt, with no one at the cut-off switch to stop it. Last year in Oakland, a young man lost his hand in a belt.

"'Little nobodies' is the phrase UPS's top negotiator in the West used to describe UPS workers," she says.

After the last contract was signed, UPS began requiring workers to lift up to 150 pounds, instead of the previous limit of 70 pounds. The settlement now requires negotiations with the union over changes in weight limits, a proposal the company turned down before the strike.

All-in-all, although the union had to settle for a five-year agreement, it was a pretty complete victory.

The union's strike preparations involved more then simply identifying issues. In the new reformed administration under President Ron Carey, a negotiating committee including both elected local leaders and rank-and-filers worked out the bargaining program. Mailing after mailing went directly to members' homes, long before the strike, explaining the issues and urging them to take an active part in pressuring the company.

By the time the strike started, Teamster members were overwhelmingly aware of what they were fighting for, and had made preparations of their own. On the picketline, it wasn't uncommon to hear strikers explain that they had cut the personal expenses way down, and postponed major purchases. As a result, by the company's own count, only four or five thousand out of 185,000 members crossed the picketline.

The mobilization of the union's members to shut down the company's operation was the basic weapon which won the strike. Communications and corporate campaign specialists helped to win and maintain public support. They found other indirect avenues for pressuring the company. But these actions supplemented those of the workers themselves. It was their ability to cut package delivery from 12 million to 1 million a day that cost the company millions, and forced it to settle.

UPS on the other hand, was very poorly prepared. Some strikers said that managers in their terminals never expected the walkout to actually take place. Once it began, the company pursued three lines of defense. First, it tried to mobilize business pressure on the Clinton administration to intervene by declaring a national emergency under the Taft-Hartley Act. Secondly, it tried to undermine public support of the strikers by shifting attention away from the part-time issue. And finally, it tried to use the threat of layoffs, and then replacements, to scare the strikers into settling.

All three tactics failed.

A back-to-work order by President Clinton was clearly the biggest danger. Clinton ordered American Airline pilots to stop their strike last spring, and did the same with Amtrak workers just days after the UPS strike settled. These orders reflect the administration's emphasis on labor-management cooperation at almost all costs.

With the Teamsters, however, Clinton had a problem. Carey has been no friend of the administration. He and ILWU President Brian McWilliams were the only two votes in the AFL-CIO Executive Council last year against Clinton's reelection effort. Carey accused the president of betraying workers with NAFTA, welfare reform, and economic policies favoring business. At the Teamster convention, Carey scotched an attempt by his own political action department to engineer a Clinton endorsement.

Clinton would like to see Vice-President Al Gore clinch the Democratic nomination in 2000, since he is a coauthor of the party's shift to the right, which they've both advocated through the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. Gore, however, is very unpopular with many unions because of the administration's economic policies. Unions like the Teamsters and other industrial unions favor Rep. Richard Gephardt, a strong NAFTA critic. Had Clinton used Taft-Hartley to intervene at UPS, where there was clearly no threat to anything except the company's profits, would solidified labor opposition to Gore, and possibly cost him the nomination.

Instead, the president sent new labor secretary Alexis Herman to push for a mediated settlement. When UPS caved in, she announced the settlement as an administration achievement. Teamster negotiators, however, credited a solid strike rather than political machinations in producing agreement.

UPS tried to make an issue of the factional situation in the Teamsters, saying Carey had provoked the strike in order to bolster his personal stature. The company must have hoped for a repeat of the situation during the mid-contract strike called over safety issues two years ago. At that time, locals headed by opponents of Carey's reform slate ordered Teamster members at UPS to ignore the national union's call to stop work.

This time, however, both sides put politics on hold. Chuck Mack, the running mate of Jimmy Hoffa Jr., Carey's opponent in the close union election last fall, publicly declared that "I agree totally with stand Carey has taken. Politics is a luxury when we've got the future of our members at stake." Mack heads both Oakland's Local 70, with some 5,000 UPS members, and the San Francisco Bay Area's Joint Council 7.

While the strike might have offered some hope for the slow resolution of internal division, that hope was dashed by the decision of the trustee appointed by the Federal government to oversee the union to order a rerun of last year's national Teamster election. Administrator Barbara Zack Quindel held that there was evidence that some of Carey's supporters had participated in a scheme to bill the union for services never performed, and divert the money into Carey's reelection campaign.

So far, two people, paid consultant Martin Davis and telemarketer Michael Ansara, have been indicted for mail fraud. William Hamilton, the Teamsters' political action director, has resigned. Hamilton, who tried to orchestrate the union's support for Clinton, has been linked to meetings in which fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee discussed possible fundraising plans for Carey's campaign. Carey's campaign manager, Jerry Nash, apparently spent mornings working for Carey, and without telling the union, afternoons working for Clinton/Gore.

Except for the Midwest region where Hoffa supporters won and Canada, new balloting, not just for president but for all members of the executive board, will take place again by mail, probably in December. Carey won reelection last winter by the slim margin of 51.7-48.3%. While his popularity will increase because of the strike, the outcome of the rerun is extremely uncertain. Barbara Zack Quindel herself admitted in the press that her report and invalidation of the last election was delayed while the UPS strike was in progress.

Finally, UPS announced early in the strike that it would layoff several thousand workers due to lost business after any settlement. It tried to promote the organization of loyal workers, who mounted tiny picketlines in two places, urging a vote on the company's final offer. The move had a negligible effect.

As the pressure to settle mounted at the strike's end, the company also announced that it was considering the use of replacements. That move, however, would have led to a total war with the union and the striking workers. Other companies have been willing to take that risk. When they've done so, however, it's almost always been a product of a corporate plan made well in advance to bust the union. Strikebreakers and security thugs are lined up before the conflict starts, with a plan for breaking the lines, and maintaining normal operations.

UPS had none of those things in place when the strike started. Still, it could have moved in that direction. But the strike was already costing the company $60 million a week, and a replacement strategy for 185,000 people would have multiplied it many times. And even with such a strategy, there was no guarantee that the company would survive. Eastern Airlines, Continental Airlines and Greyhound all disappeared or went broke as a result of the turmoil caused by attempted replacement.

In the end, the company blinked.

It certainly helped to convince them that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney got international union to donate millions to replace the Teamster's exhausted strike fund. While the $55/week benefits it paid for were incapable of actually paying the strikers' living expenses, Sweeney's move did have a profound effect. It told the company that the union didn't stand alone, and that the federation was ready to support it in staying on strike as long as necessary.

The UPS strike will have a profound impact on UPS workers. In the familiar brown trucks and the package terminals, union members have acquired a new understanding of their own power. After all, they had the largest private shipping company in the country shut down for two weeks.

The lesson that workers can turn production on and off is one that employers dread they learn. It gives workers confidence and power for continuing to make changes. No contract really ensures labor peace. An awake and active union membership at UPS is in a much better position to fight the daily battles workers undertake to survive and create a more human workplace.

Strikes and organizing drives wake people up. They have important lessons to teach about the reality of class power. They can raise workers' expectations for social and economic justice, and help them find allies to pursue those goals. But it's not automatic that UPS strikers, any more than strikers anywhere, will have the chance to sit down and discuss their experiences, learning these lessons and advancing their social consciousness.

Whether that happens or not depends on their union. A politically progressive leadership can make a big difference in helping to educate members. It can promote a radical political vision that goes beyond the immediate concessions won as a result of the strike.

An active and aware rank-and-file makes a stronger union, but it can also threaten entrenched leadership with a history of business unionism. The fight for reform in the Teamsters Union will not only be affected by the UPS strike. Democracy's progress will also determine whether the strike's euphoria is consolidated in permanent gains - the creation of new leaders, and the education and organization of the union's members.

The Teamsters Union is already deeply involved in organizing other delivery companies. Its campaign at Overnite Express has won union recognition at terminal after terminal. Both the Teamsters and the Auto Workers have organizing drives at Federal Express in different states. All of those efforts will be strengthened by the strike, as workers see that the union has the power to change conditions endemic in the industry. Hopefully, the union will be able to use the enthusiasm of UPS workers themselves to play a larger role in those campaigns.

Beyond other trucking companies, the strike's resonance with the public helps to raise the expectations of the millions of part-time, low-wage workers throughout the unorganized workforce. In their eyes, the strike showed that there really is a labor movement interested in their welfare, willing to fight for their needs for more hours, better jobs, and higher pay.

Coming after four decades of business unionism, which ignored the concerns generally of workers at the bottom, that's a new realization.

Representing only 14% of the workforce, unions have to organize to survive and win back their political and economic power. But just to maintain the same percentage of organized workers in the workforce as a whole, unions today have to organize 400,000 new members each year. To raise the percentage by one point, they need to organize between 800,000 and 1 million workers.

"We will never have nearly enough professional organizers to organize the number of workers we need to," warns AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger. "And if you look at history, that's not how the labor movement organized in the first place. We need more staff, and unions need to hire more organizers. But unless the fight is owned by the membership, it won't succeed."

During the times when the labor movement did organize millions of workers, it did so as a social movement. It fought militantly for the demands of all workers, and advocated a vision of social justice which inspired millions of people. As a result, rank-and-file workers participated and organized themselves.

The UPS strike, because of the demands it fought for, and its success, is an important step in winning the loyalty and enthusiasm of unorganized workers. It's a step critical to the survival of the labor movement.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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