Unrest at Big Brown

August 6, 2014

In the fifth article in an occasional series on the history of United Parcel Service and workers' resistance to Big Brown, Joe Allen describes how increasing bitterness toward management translated into rank-and-file protest directed at both UPS and the Teamsters union.

"The rank and file union revolts that have been developing in the industrial workplaces since the early 1950s are now plainly visible."
-- Stan Weir, "USA: The Labor Revolt," 1967

FROM THE late 1950s through 1970, UPS massively expanded its operations and workforce across the U.S.

Forbes magazine dubbed UPS the "Quiet Giant" of the shipping industry in 1970 because of the stealth-like manner that it captured a huge section of the "parcel post" market from it chief competitor, the United States Post Office. During this era, UPS came into view as the company we recognize today, with its massive fleet of distinctive dark brown trucks that are omnipresent in America's commercial districts and residential neighborhoods.

"Big Brown" was the popular nickname coined at the time for UPS. It captured the company's well-crafted image as a powerful, efficient and profit-driven machine.

However, inside hubs across the country and for its drivers on the streets, UPS"s aggressive management, relentless drive for higher productivity and peculiar, cult-like culture put enormous pressures on workers. Management's goal was nothing less than to become the world's biggest shipping company.

Former Teamsters President Ron Carey
Former Teamsters President Ron Carey

In this quest, UPS had an important ally--the bulk of the officials in the Teamsters union.

Until the late 1970s, there was no national contract between UPS and the Teamsters. ON a daily basis, UPS management dealt with local Teamster officials--whom they viewed as little more than low-level of supervisors, answerable only to them. The union was expected to police the rank and file, not fight for them. This set the stage for a huge rift between Teamster officers and members at UPS.

UNION ACTIVIST and historian Stan Weir, in his classic account of the developing rank-and-file rebellions of the 1960s, later published under the title "USA: The Labor Revolt," declared from the vantage point of 1967:

Like many of their compatriots, American workers are faced with paces, methods, and conditions of work that are increasingly intolerable. Their union leaders are not sensitive to these conditions. In thousands of industrial establishments across the nation, workers have developed informal underground unions...Led by natural on-the-job leaders, they conduct daily guerilla skirmishes with their employers and often against their official union representatives as well. These groups are the power base for the insurgencies from below that in the last three years [1964 to 1967] have ended or threatened official careers of longstanding.

Where did UPSers fit into this picture?

By the late 1950s, many rank-and-file Teamsters had grown increasingly dissatisfied with their union. Congressional investigations, federal prosecutions of Teamster officials--including the conviction of Teamster President Dave Beck--and media exposés of corruption and gangsterism in the union and sweetheart deals with the bosses shocked and angered rank-and-file members who spent their days, unlike many of their union officers, doing difficult and exhausting work.

In New York, the death of Teamster Local 804 President Leonard Geiger in August 1957 opened up a period of political rivalry and strike action within the local. Geiger, a former Macy's department store employee and militant strike leader in 1946, was elected president in 1949, and became extremely unpopular with his members during the course of the 1950s. Five months before his death from a heart attack, Local 804 members, after a rowdy debate, voted down a dues increase by 1,400-to-100 margin. A clear rift had opened up between rank-and-file members and their officers that would not be closed anytime soon.

In December 1957, Jack Mahoney was elected president of Local 804 and Thomas Simcox was elected vice president. Neither Mahoney nor Simcox could satisfy their members' desire for a cleaner, more militant union. Soon after his election to local president, Mahoney came under pressure to distance himself from the late Geiger during contract negotiations with UPS. Negotiations broke down, and Local 804 went on strike in the run-up to Christmas in 1958, UPS's busiest and most vulnerable time of the year.

A.H. Raskin, the New York Times' revered labor reporter, captured something of the stirrings going on in the local at the time, but he didn't see the big picture. Raskin was a New Deal liberal sympathetic to the labor movement, but the Christmas strike led him to bemoan the "cost of democracy" in the unions: "The United Parcel Service strike provides a reminder that increased union democracy can have its painful side for employers and the public." Unfortunately, for Raskin, Local 804 members had "taken to heart the maxim that the rank and file should be supreme in its own organization."

While Raskin decried the former president, Geiger, as "a virtual czar in the local union," he clearly wasn't happy with a change in the status quo:

Since [Geiger's] death, rival factions have been having a field day in the organization, and rank-and-file expression has become a watchword. In the last year, there have been 20 wildcat strikes. In negotiations with the United Parcel Service, 11 shop stewards were added to the union's executive board to assure more direct representation for the workers.

The demands of rank-and-filers--such as the right to have a veto power over where new UPS hubs were to be built--baffled Raskin, who complained that the "virtues [of union democracy] become somewhat cloudy when union officers and their rank-and-file watchdogs in collective bargaining indicate such fear of being accused of 'selling out' that their demands never drop out of the stratosphere of unattainability."

A new era of labor militancy was just beginning, but Raskin couldn't see it--not yet anyway. He was just annoyed that his packages weren't getting delivered.

JACK MAHONEY served one term as Local 804 president and was replaced by his vice president, Thomas Simcox. Simcox served two terms in office, but he was likewise unable to satisfy the demands of his militant and independent membership. The disputes between UPS and the Local 804 rank and file began to have national implications for the Teamsters and UPS.

In the early morning hours of May 13, 1962, Local 804 and several other New York area locals went on strike against UPS. According to the New York Times, "The decision followed the overwhelming rejection of a final company offer made to three of the four locals involved. The membership of Local 804, in secret balloting, turned it down by a vote of 2,273 to 93." The Times also reported that Local 804 President Thomas Simcox "had indicated opposition to the strike," and that the "strike decision represented a repudiation of James R. Hoffa, international union president."

Hoffa had sent his personal representative, Fleming Campbell, to a joint meeting of Locals 804 and 183, but received a hostile reception. "His plea to the members to accept the employer offer," according to Times reporter Stanley Levey, "was shouted down by most of the 1,500 men present."

The old contract had expired on March 31, but it was extended while negotiations continued. The younger workers in Local 804, drivers and package handlers alike, were eager to take on the company, and began to act independently of the local officials. They staged short-lived "wildcat" strikes in the week before May 13, but returned to work soon afterwards.

The strike lasted seven weeks into the beginning of July, and there were several attempts to bring it to an end, but it was the younger workers who led the way in voting down a company offer that would have permitted UPS to hire part-time evening workers, and that included a clause where the company could demand "reasonable performance."

Unfortunately, the younger workers couldn't over the intransigence of their president, Thomas Simcox, pressure from UPS and Hoffa, and the unwillingness of older workers to remain on the picket line. Ultimately, the membership of Local 804 "accepted terms they had twice previously rejected for settlement of the long walkout," according to the Times.

Though a new militancy was on display by the young workers of Local 804, the introduction of part-time work was an ominous development. Hoffa had negotiated a contract that same year that introduced part-time work into UPS hubs in Southern California. Though Local 804 had its own separate contract, Simcox had capitulated to the demands of Hoffa and UPS for the expansion of part-time work that would eventually destroy most full-time work inside UPS hubs over the next two decades.

Among the younger drivers and package handlers who participated in these events was Ron Carey--the future reform general president of the Teamsters, who at the time was a UPS driver and shop steward.

The Carey family's lineage at UPS was much longer than many UPS senior managers . Joseph Carey, Ron's father, retired in January 1976 after 45 years on the job as a driver in the Bronx--he began among the first generation of UPS drivers hired in New York after the company made the leap from the West Coast. Ron Carey was hired as a driver in 1955. Two years later, he was elected a shop steward, and soon after, enrolled in nighttime college classes on labor-management relations.

In 1963, the year following the defeat of the strike, Ron Carey was 28 years old and an eight-year veteran of UPS, who was "concerned about the way things were being handled" by the Simcox administration. He ran twice for business agent--a union representative who processes grievances against contract violations--and lost.

The third time proved to be the charm. In 1967, Carey challenged the Simcox administration with his "Security and Future" slate for the Local 804 executive board, with himself as candidate for president. He defeated Simcox, though not without a last-minute effort by UPS to knock Carey out of the race through a clumsy attempt at blackmail that Carey foiled by recording the meeting with a company supervisor with a tape recorder.

Carey's election proved to be a turning point in the history of Local 804, but it would have long-term consequences for the entire Teamsters union.

THE COMPANY'S clumsy attempt to knock Carey out the race for local union office wasn't the only effort to clamp down on militancy in the Teamsters.

In Philadelphia--long a stronghold of anti-Hoffa Teamsters--Locals 107 and 169 struck against UPS in May 1967, and stayed on the picket line for three months. Two months earlier, Hoffa had entered federal prison in Lewisburg, Penn., and the future of the union was very much up in the air. UPS used this window of opportunity to strike back at the Philadelphia Teamsters. It announced on July 12 that it was "discontinuing operations" in the Philadelphia area, and fired 15,000 employees. UPS returned to doing business in Philadelphia three years later in June 1970.

It is hard to imagine UPS doing such a thing today, given how integrated it is with the retail and industrial economy. Yet Big Brown used this and many other hardball tactics repeatedly through the years to keep the Teamster rank and file down.

But there were other places where the "natural on-the-job leaders" described by Stan Weir were conducting "daily guerilla skirmishes with their employers and often against their official union representatives as well."

In Louisville, Ky., Vince Meredith, the chief shop steward at UPS, built a virtual "union within a union" in Local 89, with a network of supporters across the state.

In Chicago, two young African American hub workers, Bennie Jackson and Freeman Wilson, organized and led a wildcat strike at the UPS hub located south of downtown on Jefferson Street--better known as "Jeff Street." The strike was notable for not only taking on Louie Peick, the mobbed-up leader of their Local 705, but going to the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to appeal for support from the campus' radical student movement--one of the first connections between student radicals and workplace militants at UPS.

Further Reading

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