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When Big Brown was shut down

August 3, 2007 | Page 7

SHAUN HARKIN, a former UPS worker who took part in the strike 10 years ago, explains the importance of a struggle that spoke to the grievances of millions of working Americans

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ON AUGUST 4, 1997, 185,000 United Parcel Service (UPS) workers, members of the Teamsters union, shut down "Big Brown" in the first nationwide strike in the U.S. in decades.

The strike stayed solid, with 95 percent of workers honoring picket lines. After two weeks--with the company losing $40 million a day--UPS management was forced to retreat and concede on most of the union's demands.

The walkout delivered the labor movement's first decisive victory in decades, and pointed a different way forward for unions suffering through an employers' offensive that sapped their strength.

Unfortunately, the potential revealed by the UPS strike wasn't realized, and Corporate America was successful in a counterattack that removed Teamsters President Ron Carey--the chief national symbol of the strike, who gave voice to the discontent of working Americans that motivated UPS strikers--from office on trumped-up corruption charges.

What else to read

The International Socialist Review carries regular coverage of labor struggles and debates in the union movement. See Lee Sustar's "State of emergency, signs of renewal." For the ISR's assessment of the strike back in 1997, read "The return of the two-sided class war."

Deepa Kumar's Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization and the UPS Strike is an in-depth study of how the media represented the struggle. Kumar has written an anniversary article "Ten years since the UPS strike: Globalization and inequalty," posted at ZNet.

For an excellent book on the hidden history of workers' resistance and the socialist tradition in the U.S., read SW columnist Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States.

 

Nevertheless, the importance of labor's victory at UPS can be seen in Business Week magazine's conclusions for its corporate readership:

More important than the union victory is the way the Teamsters' campaign captured what seems to be a new mood in America. For the first time in nearly two decades, the public sided with a union, even though its walkout caused major inconveniences. Polls showed the public supported the 185,000 striking workers by a 2-to-1 margin over management.

The message: After a six-year economic expansion that has created record corporate profits and vast wealth for investors, Americans are questioning why so many of their countrymen aren't getting a bigger slice of the pie.

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BUSINESS WEEK rightly recognized that one factor in the Teamsters victory was corporate overconfidence.

In 1996, UPS made over $1 billion in profits and had grown to deliver 80 percent of ground packages in the U.S. The company had never faced a nationwide strike--it had been able to rely on collaborative Teamsters leaders to help it push through concessions. Going into the strike, UPS had a $4.5 billion line of credit--compared to the Teamsters' net assets of $17 million.

In 1991, Ron Carey became the first democratically elected president in Teamster history in a vote overseen by the government as a result of its investigation into the union's corruption and ties to the mob. Carey's success was based on decades of organizing by members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and other reformers.

However, from UPS's perspective, despite Carey's victory and promises of a more combative strategy involving rank-and-file participation, there seemed little reason for concern.

When the company unilaterally increased its package weight limit from 70 to 150 pounds in 1994, Carey called a one-day national safety strike, the first ever. Many locals, dominated by the "old guard" and resentful of Carey and TDU, attempted to sabotage the walkout by refusing to participate or tell their members. As a result, only 40 percent of UPS workers struck.

In 1996, Carey narrowly defeated James Hoffa Jr., the unity candidate of the old guard, to remain in charge. To cement his victory, Carey had to make gains in the 1997 UPS contract. UPS workers were the largest constituency in the 1.4 million-member union, and one of Carey's main bases of support.

UPS workers had many grievances. Though UPS profits had more than doubled since 1992, real wages for its full-time workforce hadn't risen since 1987. By 1997, some 60 percent of UPS workers were part-time, with a starting base wage of $8 an hour still unchanged since 1982. Injury rates at UPS were more than double the industry average, and military-style discipline further drove workers' frustration.

The union's demands in negotiations were for 15,000 new full-time jobs over three years, significant wage increases for full-time and part-timers, better safety conditions, and increases in company health and pension contributions.

The Teamster leadership attempted to prepare members through a "contract campaign" that aimed to identify their demands, and educate and mobilize them to show UPS the union was serious about fighting.

The International organized days of action and produced regular leaflets, videos, bumper stickers and T-shirts with the slogan "It's our contract, we'll fight for it." Field organizers were dispatched around the country to help locals prepare members for a possible confrontation.

However, because of the obstructionism of the old guard and an entrenched business-unionism approach within the Teamsters, implementation of the campaign was uneven.

For example, in July, a field organizer came to my local and made a fantastic case for why we had to prepare for a strike. The next speaker was the local business agent, who argued that the contract wasn't about issues for part-timers, and there would be no strike.

The local leadership, which on paper supported Carey, refused to distribute any literature regarding the contract and tried to block union activists who did. Nevertheless, there was an overwhelming vote in favor of strike authorization.

The contract expired on July 31, 1997, and Carey called for a walkout on August 4. Despite the preparations, he did his best to avoid a strike. But the contract campaign had raised workers' expectations, and UPS's refusal to budge meant there were no options left.

Despite the obstacles, the contract campaign had broken through--because the vast majority of workers were receptive to it. Full-timers strongly identified with the plight of part-timers, and though part-timers were less integrated into the union, both full-time and part-time workers felt UPS's arrogance and lack of respect needed to be challenged.

In my hub, part-timers who had shown no interest in the union or the contract began to express their eagerness to strike against the company as much as for a full-time job. One co-worker who had never come to one of our parking lot meetings came to work on the night of the contract expiration with a T-shirt saying, "Ready to strike at midnight!"

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MANY WORKERS didn't believe the union, even under Carey's leadership, was willing to fight the company--but now it was happening.

UPS's strategy had banked on part-timers crossing the picket line. But management had totally miscalculated the depth of animosity toward the company and the willingness of workers to fight for a chance at full-time job.

The picket lines across the country varied widely. In Warwick, R.I., the first couple days of the strike were very intense. There was a real effort to stop the management scab trucks from leaving the facility. Picket lines in Boston erupted in confrontation as well. In an attempt to intimidate some of the more militant workers, UPS in Warwick sent out around 20 termination letters to full-timers and part-timers after the first day of the strike.

Initially, the media, in typical fashion, sided with UPS, but this changed quickly. By focusing on the plight of part-timers and making the case that this was fight for all workers against corporate greed, the Teamsters won the battle for hearts and minds. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that 55 percent of the public sympathized with the strikers, and only 27 percent with management.

The National Association of Manufacturers demanded that President Bill Clinton intervene, using the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act to declare that the strike was a threat to national safety.

Again, however, public opinion prevailed. A Gallup poll found that 75 percent of respondents said Clinton shouldn't intervene against the strike.

Solidarity from other unions was tremendously important. UPS pilots refused to fly, many union members refused to handle UPS goods delivered by management, and Teamsters were joined on the picket line all across the country.

UPS threw in the towel on August 18 in what was a clear victory for the union. More could have been won, but all of UPS's most important goals for concessions were defeated. The company agreed to create 10,000 new full-time jobs, and a 15 percent wage increase for full-timers and 37 percent increase for part-timers over the five-year life of the new contract. UPS's goal of pulling out of the Teamster pension fund was also stopped.

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THE 1990s witnessed a tremendous growth in anti-corporate sentiment and also a greater sense of working-class identity. The UPS strike crystallized the concerns of all U.S. workers--everyone could identify with what became the main slogan of the strike: "Part-time America doesn't work."

Ron Carey's argument on national television perfectly captured the mood and pointed in the direction of struggle:

What Americans want is hope. They want to look to the future. The want to have a decent full-time job, to be able to purchase a home. There are no part-time mortgages; there are no part-time car payments. That's what it's about. The country is moving more and more towards disposable jobs, towards throwaway jobs, and enough is enough.

The positive lessons of the strike were many. One of the most important was about the effectiveness of striking at all. The idea that strikes were no longer winnable because corporations had become too powerful ran throughout the labor movement. The UPS victory demonstrated that the opposite was true--and that unions could win more if they fought more.

Unfortunately, the lessons of the strike weren't carried forward for long. When the employers' backlash forced Carey out of office, UPS used the opportunity to renege on its commitments under the new contract. Labor leaders stood by while the employers took their revenge on Carey.

Carey had led the Teamsters in the labor movement's most important victory in 25 years, and within months, he had been forced out of office, with barely a protest from the labor movement.

Ten years later, the lessons of the Teamsters victory at UPS still need to be applied. But they hold out the hope for a future revival of the labor movement that fights for all workers against corporate greed.

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