UPS and the “outlaw” strike of 1946

June 3, 2014

In the third article in an occasional series on the history of United Parcel Service and workers' resistance to Big Brown, Joe Allen recounts how the post-Second World War labor upsurge produced the longest Teamsters strike at UPS until the mid-1970s.

The atomic bomb of industrial disputes.
-- Joseph M. Proskauer, lawyer for New York City's department stores, 1946

UPS MADE an early leap into New York City's retail delivery business.

With its dominance established on the West Coast, in 1930, it set up its delivery operations in Manhattan and aspired to become the premiere delivery service for all of New York's leading and popular department stores and specialty shops. By the end of the decade, it had largely succeeded--it was the delivery service for over 350 of the city's leading retail businesses. It continued to expand during the war years, and one year after the end of the Second World War, UPS got the jewel in the crown of New York's retail trade--Macy's, the city's oldest and most venerated department store.

This seemingly innocuous takeover of Macy's delivery service, however, set off a chain reaction of events that shut down UPS for 51 days in the fall of 1946 and overturned the leadership of the local Teamsters union.

NEW YORK beckoned UPS for many years before 1930. It was the largest U.S. city and retail market, and the financial and corporate capital of the country. For James Casey and the company's top management, if they aspired to be a national company, they would have to be in New York.

Truckers block off a New York City street during a 1938 strike
Truckers block off a New York City street during a 1938 strike

The timing of the jump to New York City turned out to be inauspicious with the onset of the Great Depression following the stock market crash of 1929, but there was an opportunity in the crisis for companies like UPS. Many of New York's department and specialty stores had their own in-house delivery services. But faced with declining business, many chose to sell them off to cut costs. Buying these burdensome in-house department store delivery operations was one important way by which UPS grew during its first decade and a half in New York.

Along with leaping into New York's crowded retail industry, Casey moved the national headquarters of UPS to New York, where it was located above the UPS hub at 331 E. 38th St. for many years to come. UPS was now a New York-based company; it was no longer a provincial business.

Casey also brought to New York his strangely austere and obsessive personality, which became increasingly out of sync with his bulging personal wealth. He moved into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue--at the time the most luxurious and famous hotel in the U.S. He shared a floor with the visiting Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the future King and Queen of England.

Casey biographer Greg Niemann emphasizes on many occasions in his book Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS that Casey was somewhat embarrassed by his growing wealth, and concerned that the Waldforf-Astoria was too "snooty" a place for him. He polled his management staff, according to Niemann, and asked about the propriety of him living at the Waldorf-Astoria. Guess what? No one told the boss he was being a snob!

While at work, Casey maintained the "frugal" and "thrifty" image that Niemann portrays in his description of Casey's New York office as "a small stark room, occupied only by a green metal desk, several chairs, and a coat tree. Except for the few papers he was working on and a metal model of a UPS package car, the desk was always bare." This faux modesty is still a prominent feature of UPS management on the hub side of daily operations.

After UPS began hiring drivers and package handlers, the company signed a contract with International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 804, which copied the pattern of cooperation between the company and union officials pioneered on the West Coast and closely identified with Seattle Teamster leader Dave Beck.

The Teamsters had granted a local union charter that created Local 804 in the 1930s. It wasn't chartered to exclusively represent UPS workers, however, but by the end of the decade, there were over 1,800 New York UPSers in the local. During the next several decades, the absolute number and proportion of UPSers grew in Local 804, making it the overwhelmingly UPS local it is today.

DURING THIS decade, the Teamsters union as a whole was going through a fundamental transformation of its membership and structure. The U.S. working class in the 1930s engaged in history-changing struggles that created the first stable mass industrial unions. The Teamsters weren't immune to this change, but the impetus certainly didn't come from the crusty leadership circle around President Dan Tobin, It was pioneered by the revolutionary socialist leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters. Farrell Dobbs, one of their key leaders and strategists, documented this era in his four volume history published in the 1970s.

Greg Niemann's fanciful depiction is that UPS "weathered" the 1930s--"a time of great labor unrest in the United States"--"because of a corporate culture based on family-like relationships." The reality is very different.

Relations between Local 804 members and the New York management of UPS have always been stormy. One of the first Local 804 strikes I found searching the archives of the New York Times was in November 1939--Local 804 members walked off the job "to protest against the suspension of John Fargos, a 20-year-old belt boy, employed to sort merchandize."

From the one-sided, pro-company account, UPS appeared to have violated the grievance procedure in disciplining a union member, and in response, union members--despite the-no strike agreement in their contract--walked out over the weekend. They went went back to work on Monday morning with the disciplinary case slated for arbitration. This incident is indicative of what many UPS Teamsters would recognize to this day--the day-to-day battle between union members and management over workplace rights.

During the Second World War--as inflation ate away at the living standards of working class people across the country--the leaders of the two large union federations, then stell not united, the AFL and the CIO, pledged not to strike for the duration of the war effort. This signaled to Corporate America that most union leaders would not to take action to defend the hard-won gains of previous years.

In spite of the no-strike pledge, Local 804 members struck UPS for two-and-a-half weeks in June 1942, stopping the deliveries of 100,000 packages at 375 stores in the New York metropolitan area. The strike began at the beginning of the month of June, according to The New York Times, "following the suspension of 315 drivers for refusal to do overtime." Very quickly, several other issues, including wage increases that kept up with wartime inflation and jurisdictional disputes with other local unions, came to the forefront.

On May 16, 1945, a week after the end of the Second World War in Europe, 1,400 Teamsters struck UPS, throughout New York City, Long Island, Westchester and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut.

Teamsters had been working without a new contract. The key issues were wage increases, better working conditions and medical benefits and the suspension of 65 workers from working overtime. The strike ended with the suspended workers compensated for lost time, and the issue of excessive overtime subject to contract negotiations.

THESE SKIRMISHES between UPS and Local 804 were part of a larger emerging battle between capital and labor to shape the post-Second World War world--and 1946 was the year that the battle exploded into literal open warfare. As Sharon Smith wrote in her book Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States:

The end of the war brought with it an explosion of class struggle...Workers who had risked their lives fighting in the war returned home to a recession economy and, in many cases, to find that they'd lost their jobs. Those who still had jobs faced sharply lower wages. During the war years, productivity had risen 11 percent, but average hourly raises had totaled only 0.6 percent. In addition, 4 million women workers who had landed industrial jobs during the war years were thrown out of work immediately afterwards.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics called the first six months of 1946 "the most concentrated period of labor-management strife in the country's history." The big battalions of militant unionized workers in steel, auto, packinghouse and electrical industries were all on strike, and they were joined by thousands of striking New York Teamsters and waterfront workers who shut down much of the city's grocery stores and manufacturing businesses.

New and longstanding grievances at UPS exploded into public view, starting at Macy's, which sold its delivery service to UPS to cut costs in June 1946--workers angry with being shifted into the Teamsters without consultation went on strike. Historian Dan Opler, author of For All White-Collar Workers, describes what happened next:

The strike quickly became a bitter and violent one, with frequent battles outside Macy's warehouses as police tried to escort UPS trucks past picket lines. On at least one occasion, the UPS truck drivers got to the Macy's warehouse by ramming through a line of picketers, landing two strikers in the hospital. On other occasions, mounted police rode into the crowds outside the store with horses, scattering strikers so that the UPS trucks could get through the line.

Bitter though it was, the strike was also brief. Within two weeks, Macy's managers backed down and agreed to pay the delivery workers any difference between what the workers had made working for Macy's and what UPS paid its employees.

THIS WAS only the tip of the iceberg. A temporary truce may have been worked out between the new members of Local 804 and Macy's--largely without, it appears, the involvement of the executive board of the local union, which seemed oblivious to the rage building around them.

On September 13, according to the New York Times, a walkout shut down deliveries of 375 large retail stores "when 1,000 of the 1,700 drivers and helpers of the United Parcel Service staged an outlaw strike in a dispute over payment for time lost because of the general truckmen's strike." The executive board of Local 804 attacked its own members as "foolish and futile," and followed up this verbal assault with a letter sent to 3,000 members of the local ordering them to return to work.

According to the Times, "A rank and file committee, which claimed to represent the 800 former Macy drivers and helpers, called on [UPS officials]...and demanded to be paid, asserting that the service and the former employer had made a separate commitment to the former Macy employees." The Local 804 executive board spurned a meeting with the rebel rank and file committee, even though many of the grievances of the strikers were directly related a recently concluded agreement between the local union and UPS.

In the days that followed, the rebel rank and file committee spread the "outlaw strike" to more than 2,000 UPS drivers and package handlers. Leonard Geiger, a former Macy's worker and official of the previous union to represent the delivery workers, led this rebellion inside Local 804. Along with the continuing citywide Teamster strike, this was the biggest display of Teamster power in many years in New York City.

The tenacity and determination of the UPS strikers impressed the reporters of the Times:

Three hundred and seventy-five of the leading retail stores of the area, which previously had escaped the more serious effects of the Teamsters' strike, faced a week of curtailed businesses as the outlaw strike among United Parcel Service employees spread to 2,000 employees and moved into the status of a protracted union rebellion...

The metropolitan area retail stores, including the major department stores in the city and suburbs, were drawn ever deeper into the strike picture when more than 2,000 shouting, stamping employees of the United Parcel Service, members of Local 804 of the Teamsters Union, refused to go back to work and voted to press their demands against the service through an insurgent 'rank and file' committee.

Local 804 President Edward Conway proved helpless in the face of the revolt of most of his membership, and refused to meet with the insurgent rank-and-file committee. Despite the intervention of Teamster President Dan Tobin, who ordered the strikers back to work--or the hysterical attacks in court by department store attorney Joseph Proskauer, who called the strike "the atomic bomb of industrial disputes," the strikers remained firm.

IN EARLY November, a settlement was reached. The rebel strikers, according to the Times, won "a 33-and-a-half cent hourly wage increase, a forty-four work week, night differentials and arbitration of differences concerning retroactive pay, new wages for inside works and the date of a future wage reopening, if any." However, "On the subject of voluntary--one of the most difficult issues in the dispute--the company retained considerable latitude." It was the longest strike against UPS until 1976.

Following the end of the strike, Leonard Geiger was appointed an organizer for Local 804, and in 1949, he was elected president. Geiger quickly accommodated himself to the most backward forces in the union. He became an ally of Dave Beck and then Jimmy Hoffa.

In March 1957, the U.S. Senate's "Rackets Committee" put lurid revelations of corruption and gangsterism in the Teamsters on national television radio broadcasts, and splashed them across all of the major newspapers of the country. At the same time, Geiger attempted to push through a $1 per month dues increase for all members of Local 804. Inflamed by the revelations and their own officer's "outlandish living," over 1,500 Local 804 members attended a meeting with Geiger, who had led a rank-and-file rebellion a decade earlier, but now faced a rebellion of his own.

It was rowdy meeting. Geiger tried to delay the vote, but was shouted down the membership. "Vote, vote, vote!" they shouted until a vote was called. The dues increase was defeated 1,400 to 100. The members of Local 804 were proving to be as independent-minded and militant as ever. Geiger would be dead from a heart attack within five months.

Among the newly hired drivers at UPS in the final years of the Geiger administration was Ron Carey, a young ex-Marine, whose father Joe was a veteran UPS driver. He was hired in Queens in 1956--in 1958, he became a union steward. Carey would be elected president of Local 804 in 1967--and eventually the first reformer general president of the Teamsters.

Further Reading

From the archives