An UPSurge at the package king

October 8, 2014

In the latest article in a series on the history of United Parcel Service and workers' resistance to Big Brown, Joe Allen describes how the rank-and-file militant group UPSurge was born--and the role leftists played in taking on UPS.

"Use the Union's Power"
-- UPSurge, a UPS workers newspaper

UPS WAS shaken by an unprecedented militancy of its workforce from 1968 through 1976, when local and regional strikes shut down the company for months on end. This era of workplace rebellion throughout the Teamsters--what historian Dan La Botz's calls "the tumultuous Teamsters of the 1970s"--produced one of the most dynamic, though short-lived, rank-and-file movements of its time: UPSurge.

UPSurge also offered up a refreshingly irreverent, if not out-right disdainful, attitude toward the notoriously uptight company. The very name UPSurge was a play on the company's, according to UPSurge editor and package driver Anne Mackie, inverting its meaning from robotic efficiency to in-your-face rebellion.

However, "Big Brown" (as UPS came to be known at the time) didn't idly sit by when faced with this new rank-and-file challenge. It struck back hard with lockouts, aggressive bargaining, and the surveillance, harassment and firing of activists. It also changed the nature of the workforce with the vast expansion of part-time work inside the hubs in an effort to weaken the union.

Women leaders of the UPSurge movement, including Anne Mackie (second from left)
Women leaders of the UPSurge movement, including Anne Mackie (second from left)

BY 1970, UPS was the single-largest Teamster employer in the United States. Despite this large and growing presence, UPSers were not considered "real Teamsters" by the mobbed-up officers that lorded over the membership of the union, or even by many older Teamster rank and filers. UPSers were mocked as "Buster Browns" (because of the color of their uniforms and shoes), or were considered "lightweights" because of the small packages they handled.

If the military-like dress uniforms for UPS drivers--brown shirt, brown pants, black or brown shining shoes, topped off with an uncomfortable bow tie--were a daily reminder of the arcane dress style of the company and a source of amusement to other Teamsters, they also produced one of the most significant battles at UPS in the late 1960s in Louisville, Ky., led by Vince Meredith.

In 1964, Meredith began working as a package car driver in Louisville. He was born in 1931 during the depth of the Great Depression. When he was 19 years old, he joined the newly formed U.S. Air Force. Meredith was stationed at one of the many bases that made up the archipelago of U.S. military bases across occupied Japan.

According to historian and former Teamster reform activist Dan La Botz:

He came to love the country, learned to speak the language, and fell in love with a Japanese woman named Chiyo, and he decided he wanted to marry her. The chaplain warned him against marrying a Japanese woman, telling him that they would never be accepted in the United States. He re-enlisted and went back to Japan. Finally, he overcame the obstacles. "It took me about thirty-eight months all together to get married: two tours."

Meredith's fights with such a powerful institution as the Air Force prepared him for his future battles with UPS.

When Meredith went to work at UPS, management eyed him for a supervisory position. But when he was offered the job, he turned it down. He told La Botz in an interview in the late 1980s that the reason was, "I'd seen too much"--that UPS didn't "show respect for a person." Meredith was elected a union steward within five months of being hired at UPS, and eventually, he rose to being chief steward.

Looking back at pictures of UPS drivers with their bow ties can bring a smile today, a kind of quaint reminder of bygone era. But at the time, they were a daily, daylong annoyance to anyone who had to wear them while doing physical labor. The bow tie had to go--but it would take the threat of a statewide strike to get rid of it. Meredith described the scene to La Botz:

That bow tie was the hardest thing to get out of that first contract I negotiated. They give us a dollar-an-hour raise, in three years, and didn't want to take the bow tie off. It was a strike issue, and we voted 99 percent across the state of Kentucky to strike if we didn't lose the bow tie. Finally, the division manager of the state of Kentucky came into the negotiations and said, "Take off the goddamned bow tie," and he walked out. And after that, in the next contract, across the whole United States, the bow tie was gone."

Meredith, like Ron Carey, was the kind of natural, on-the-job leaders that historian Stan Weir talked about. He refused an offer from the Local 89 president to become an appointed business agent after Meredith pointedly asked him, "Paul, if you ask me to do something that I consider morally wrong, would I have to do it?' And he said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Well, I don't need your job.'"

"We were the first ones in UPS to ever use the roving picket line," Meredith told La Botz. There were half-dozen wildcat strikes--unauthorized strikes by the local or international union--in Louisville, including one to return Meredith to work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not one union member lost their job, quite a stunning achievement. Meredith and his crew during this time created their own defense fund to make sure that no Teamster ever lost a day's pay if UPS unfairly disciplined them. It was funded by weekly contributions and administered by Meredith and his supporters.

It was an unusually well-organized workplace, one that Teamster activists across the country came to admire and tried to emulate. Meredith made several efforts to start a national network of UPS stewards and other activists, but "it just wouldn't jell." So when UPSurge came onto the scene, Meredith was elated. "I thought it was a godsend," he told La Botz, who wrote that "Vince Meredith brought to UPSurge what was probably the best organized, strongest and most militant group of workers in the country."

THERE WOULD never have been an UPSurge without the International Socialists (IS).

The IS emerged out of the radicalization of the 1960s, first as the Independent Socialist Club (ISC) at the University of California at Berkeley during the historic Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964. It later grew into a national organization and changed its name to the International Socialists. The IS established a national office in Detroit and started a weekly newspaper Workers Power.

The political inspiration for the IS was veteran revolutionary Hal Draper, the author of "The Two Souls of Socialism," which popularized the term "socialism from below" to capture the revolutionary democratic spirit of Karl Marx's belief that socialism could only be achieved through the "self-emancipation of the working class." The IS belief in "socialism from below" merged naturally with the actual rank-and-file rebellion spreading across the U.S. working class.

In 1973, the postwar economic boom--a period of unprecedented prosperity and rising incomes following the Second World War--came a screeching halt. The bosses responded to the economic crisis with a concerted offensive to drive down wages, increase productivity and weaken union organization. Discontent among the rank and file grew, and strikes spread across the country as rank-and-file workers fought back against the employer's offensive.

The Teamsters had become a major focus of IS trade union work. The Teamsters union was especially militant in the Detroit area. Many IS members got Teamster driving jobs or dock work in the freight industry, in preparation for the upcoming 1976 National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA) negotiations.

But women in the IS who wanted to be politically active in the Teamsters, like Anne Mackie, found it easier to get a driving job or hub job at UPS in the 1970s, rather than in freight, the traditional heartland of the Teamsters.

Mackie had begun her political life as an antiwar activist at the University of Washington, and later in the feminist movement in Seattle. She joined the IS in the early 1970s and moved to Portland, Ore., to be a public school teacher. Mackie left her teaching job and easily got a package car job. Then, when the IS decided to concentrate its members in the Midwest, she left Portland for Cleveland and got another package car job right away--something that would be virtually impossible to do today.

Mckie found a much more hostile atmosphere toward women in Cleveland. "I already knew the package car game, and no matter how much they wanted to get rid of me, they couldn't--because I was competent in how the system worked," she said. So UPS was stuck with Anne Mackie.

MACKIE, WITH a group of other mostly women ISers in Cleveland, founded UPSurge, a rank-and-file group, in 1975. The same year, IS members in freight launched Teamsters for a Decent Contract (TDC), which later became Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

For historian Cal Winslow, what made UPSurge different was that:

it was first of all organized to fight the company. Its initial focus was preparation for the 1976 Central States contract negotiations. It began in the central and was built on an informal shop stewards' network with roots in decades of militant activity. In the 1960s and '70s, there were continuous conflicts and strikes, official and unofficial, including traveling wildcat pickets in 1973 [at UPS].

The Teamsters had a regional contract at UPS, covering 13 Midwest states, due to expire on May 1, 1976. UPSurge wanted to organize a national campaign to put on the agenda much needed rank-and-file demands. Mackie remembered being overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, but she and other activists carried on. As she remembered later:

We socialists brought this passion, this desire to confront the company. To stand up for women's rights, Black rights and union rights on the job. To hand out the newspaper UPSurge. We even went through the NLRB lawsuit to hand out the newspaper. We were passionate. I was feeling passionate about messing with them, and it just took off.

UPSurge needed a way to reach beyond its initial base of support in Cleveland to UPS's rapidly expanding national workforce. A national newspaper was launched with the same name as the embryonic organization--UPSurge--and the slogan, "Use The Union's Power" emblazoned on its masthead.

"We printed 3,000 and stuffed them into the back of tractor-trailers in the Cleveland hub," Mackie recalled. UPSurge's first issue debuted in September 1975 with the headline "Driver Shafted--For 30 Bucks," along with a host of local UPS news from across the country, how a speed-up in San Francisco was stopped, and a major story on part-timers. The front page also included a statement from the editorial board of UPSurge: "You have a right to read and distribute this newspaper!"

The most important part of the first issue was on the inside pages. "Our Big Idea" was both a play on UPS's venerated company newsletter and an eight-point program to launch UPSurge as a national organization in preparation for the upcoming 1976 contract battles. Mackie declared, "They had a magazine called The Big Idea. So we put out a list called 'Our Big Idea.'" UPSurge eventually produced 27 editions, mainly on a monthly basis.

SOON AFTER the first edition of UPSurge began making its way across the country, demand for it exploded. By the second issue, the circulation had jumped to 6,000, and after four months, the UPSurge office in Cleveland was printing 10,000 copies. Circulation eventually climbed to 15,000.

When the first edition reached Vince Meredith in Louisville, and he quickly contacted UPSurge. As a retiree in 1997, Meredith told reporter Lee Sustar, "I had been in contact with other stewards around the country. But the UPSurge newspaper gave us the backbone to fight UPS--and the union, too."

Some members in Meredith's Louisville hub raised the concern that socialists were the backbone of UPSurge. Meredith's response: "I always told people if there were socialists and communists in UPSurge, it was because they were fighting for the things that UPS workers needed."

UPSurge formed an organizing committee, with Vince Meredith playing a prominent role in it. The focus in the Midwest was on the big Central States UPS contract that covered 13 states. UPSurge and TDC called for a Midwest Contract Conference to be held in Indianapolis in late January 1976. They wanted, according to Mackie, to "create momentum around "Our Big Idea."

UPS rank and filers poured into Indianapolis--the conference surpassed all expectations. Looking back three decades later, historian Cal Winslow wrote: "Six hundred and fifty UPSers gathered in a Holiday Inn in the western suburbs of the city. The meeting was part business, part protest rally, part celebration--it was certainly unparalleled in UPS history."

Anne Mackie expected 250 people to attend the conference at most, based on existing contacts and the subscription list for the UPSurge newspaper. The paper later reported that participants came from as far away as Portland, Ore., and Boston. Every major city in Ohio had a representative. Detroit had so many people coming that they chartered a bus, to go with a car caravan. Over 150 UPSers turned out from Indianapolis, quite an accomplishment in itself--and Vince Meredith and his Louisville crew "brought half of the full-time employees and all seven stewards."

UPSurge had clearly tapped into something larger than they were aware of. Mackie later wrote that the conference "was one of the largest rank-and-file Teamster meetings since the founding of this union."

In his welcoming speech, Vince Meredith captured the sentiment of the gathering, openly mocking UPS's arrogance: "Can't you imagine what UPS would have said a few months ago if they were told we were planning a national convention? They would have treated it like a joke. Well do you think they're laughing tonight?"

UPSurge made no economic demands at the conference. It took the lead from Meredith, who declared, "Vote the first [offer] down; the second one is always better."

Instead, the conference focused on demands first articulated in "Our Big Idea": Full-time wages and benefits for part-timers; an innocent-until-proven-guilty grievance procedure; an end to military-style dress and appearance; a national contract with rank-and-file control of bargaining; elected business agents and stewards; no discrimination against racial minorities and women, among other demands. These demands were directed at the Teamsters as much as they were at UPS, and were designed to strengthen the union in the workplace.

Meredith warned the Teamsters and UPS: "We have no intention of ratifying a lousy contract. We're going to negotiate this one on the picket line." Anne Mackie told the crowd: "This will be a Teamsters union that knows the only way to get anything out of the companies is to use the union's power. This means a Teamsters union that recognizes that confrontation not collaboration and no back room deals is the way to win for the membership."

EVERYONE LEFT the conference in high spirits. UPSurge felt more like a crusade or a social movement. Activists pledged to organize campaign meetings in their home cities and popularized the slogan "Ready to Strike" to show their determination to win.

Meredith's threat "to negotiate on the picket line" was no idle threat. In no small part due to UPSurge's pressure on the Teamsters, the union called a strike in the Central States that lasted two weeks, and a strike later in the summer on the East Coast that lasted 13 weeks. After the Teamsters ordered strikers back to work in the Central States, UPSurge led wildcats in several cities in the Midwest, including Cleveland.

UPSurge continued to exist for another two years, but it didn't reach the influence it had at the very beginning of its existence. It was the last great rank-and-file movement of the 1970s--after 1978, life became much more difficult for rank-and-file activists. This was particularly true at UPS, where the company pioneered a host of workplace policies that would transform the wider economy and weaken the labor movement.

The legacy of UPSurge, however, lasted long after the demise of the paper and organization. Many UPS-based union reformers continued as members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and played critical roles in Ron Carey's election as the first reform leader of the Teamsters in 1991, and later in the historic 1997 UPS national strike.

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