Changing shape or shaping change?

September 11, 2014

In the latest article in an occasional series on the history of United Parcel Service and workers' resistance to Big Brown, Joe Allen looks at how UPS management reacted to the social tumult of the 1960s--and how that unrest effected the Teamster rank and file.

"Hiring a few minorities at entry-level positions, as UPS and many other companies had begun doing, was not going to pass muster."
--Greg Niemann, Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS

UPS LIKES to portray itself as a company committed to social responsibility--a commitment to the welfare of its workers, their families and the community at large that reflected the character and values of its founder and long-serving CEO James E. Casey. Former UPS manager and company historian Greg Niemann, in his slavishly devotional book Big Brown: The Untold Story, boasts that once top management was made aware of a problem, it "sagaciously" responded to it.

So how did UPS respond to the social movements of the 1960s? And in turn, how did these movements impact the simmering rank-and-file revolt inside UPS?

REBELLION HAD been brewing for years in New York's Teamsters Local 804 against the complacent pro-company leadership of President Thomas Simcox. In the 1967 Local 804 election, a former UPS driver and union steward Ron Carey defeated Simcox, and took office in early 1968. Carey was one of those "natural on-the-job leaders" identified by socialist activist and labor historian Stan Weir, who were leading insurgencies across the U.S. labor movement in the mid 1960s, which "ended or threatened careers of longstanding officials."

Ron Carey
Ron Carey

In Local 804, Carey found himself not only in a contract fight with UPS, but facing a hostile Teamster officialdom that conspired to undermine him from his first days in office. Just to make sure everyone understood where the power brokers in the Teamsters stood, General President Frank Fitzsimmons appointed Carey's defeated opponent, Simcox, to a new job with the Teamsters Joint Council 16 in New York City.

Journalist Steve Brill wrote that this "did not sit well with the members who had voted him out or with the insurgents who had replaced him." But there was little they could do about it. The Teamsters constitution drafted by Jimmy Hoffa during the late 1950s gave the general president extraordinary powers, and what he could not do "constitutionally," his Mafia friends would accomplish by other means.

Brill, in his 1978 book The Teamsters, captures this transition period in Carey's life with all its excitement, uncertainty and looming difficulties as he confronted the Teamster old guard. As Brill recounted:

[Carey] had come to the UPS talks that day in 1968 a 33-year-old package driver who had hardly had time to get used to not wearing brown all day. He was eager to deliver on the campaign promises his 'Security and Future' ticket had made for tough but reasonable negotiating that would produce better wages and benefits with fewer strikes.

Carey was especially determined to win a "25-and-out" retirement clause in the contract that would allow UPS workers to retire with a full pension after 25 years of service. Many UPS contracts had a 30-and-out deal. Yet when Carey appeared at negotiations, he found that the nefarious Fleming Campbell and another staffer had been appointed by the mobbed-up New York Joint Council to "help" him, according to Brill.

"Help," of course, meant undermine Carey. After suffering their annoying presence and pathetic attempts to force him to accept an inferior contract for several meetings, Carey stuck to his demands, and the Joint Council representatives stormed out of negotiations, calling the Local 804 president a "psycho."

Despite his effort to win better benefits with fewer strikes, Carey called a walkout on May 2, 1968, and 4,000 UPS workers hit the picket line. Along with the demand for a 25-and-out retirement clause, Carey was also resisting the further introduction of part-timers, whether in sheer numbers or proportion. The strike lasted nine weeks.

Several weeks into this strike, Frank Fitzsimmons made a last-ditch effort to derail Carey and ordered a vote in Local 804 on UPS's last proposal. Fitzsimmons was calculating that the weeks on strike had made strikers weary, and that they were eager to get back to work. He was wrong. Carey told his members that the contract vote wasn't his idea, and that he was opposed to the company's offer. The membership overwhelmingly rejected the deal, and UPS soon afterwards capitulated to the union's demands. Carey won a big victory.

DURING THE same time that Carey took office and led his first strike against UPS, the U.S. was being transformed by a series of interconnected and powerful social movements. The civil rights and Black Power movements, followed by the mass anti-Vietnam War movement and women's movements, were revolutionizing the politics and culture of the U.S., with profound changes at the level of workplaces, like everywhere else.

These movements coincided with a massive increase of women into the workforce, especially into industrial jobs in auto, steel and transportation. Returning Vietnam-era veterans had had their fill of the petty tyranny of military life, and weren't willing to put up with it on the job. And at the same time, many radicals who had cut their political teeth in the Vietnam antiwar movement shifted their activism into industrial workplaces like UPS.

Ron Carey was no radical. In fact, he told Steve Brill that he considered himself a "political conservative." He voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 and Gerald Ford in 1976. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein has argued that the political ferment of the era gave "a radical edge to many shop floor struggles, especially after 1967." No one--including Carey, who wanted to lead a clean, fighting local union against the machinations of the mafia and UPS--could be unaffected by it.

Thus, the "political conservative" Carey ended up in the unlikely position of leading a strike over a radical political issue.

In 1970, Richard Nixon tried to whip up public support for his policies in Vietnam while simultaneously demonizing the antiwar movement by asking the so-called "silent majority" to wear American flags to display their patriotism. UPS drivers in Carey's local began to wear flag pins or buttons on their uniforms during work hours. In response, many Black UPS drivers began wearing Black liberations buttons on their uniforms.

Management, at first, ignored both kinds of pins and buttons--until customer began to complain. It then fired 20 workers for wearing various kinds of buttons on their uniforms. A wildcat strike began on July 28, 1970 in support of the fired drivers, and soon after, Carey made the strike official.

The strike lasted 11 days. The courts came down hard on the local union and its top officers, including Carey, who were heavily fined for violating the no-strike clause of the local contract. Carey and the striking workers rallied at New York's City Hall, where he told the crowd, "We are fighting for the American flag and the pride of a man in his country or his race."

In the settlement that followed, UPS rehired the fired workers and allowed American flag buttons to be worn, but the question of other buttons was submitted to arbitration. Carey ended up paying only a $500 fine.

In reality, the "political edge" to workplace struggles that Lichtenstein talked about was primarily due to the increasing presence and radicalism of Black workers in industrial workplaces. By 1970, Carey's local was 35 percent Black. Carey admitted to Steve Brill that he followed the lead of a Black shop steward on the button fight. The steward, Carey said, "had told the men they could wear the Black Power emblem, and I felt I couldn't afford not to back him."

Even though Carey expressed regret about the "button strike," it was an important fight for free speech in the workplace, and probably saved him from being seen as another racist Teamsters official, as many were.

IN A funny twist of fate, while Black workers in the late 1960s and 1970s were the most militant force in workplace struggles, UPS was under enormous pressure to hire Black workers (and later women) to positions they were previous denied because of past racist and sexist hiring practices. Even the slavish company historian Niemann pulls no punches when writing about UPS's racist policies: "By a longstanding tradition, many companies did not hire minorities, and UPS was one of them. UPS found it easier to go along with the majority of white America, and its managers indulged in stereotyping minorities, rather than hiring them."

The first phase of the civil rights movement had won significant legal victories for African Americans and women, though these victories went unrealized in many workplaces. Also, civil rights activists began to focus on major corporations who refused to hire Blacks, including UPS--which, since it was was largely based in urban areas, was conspicuous for its absence of Black drivers in cities with large and growing Black populations.

Niemann does try his best to explain the company's changing policies as "responding sagaciously to change, and shaping change." "Shaping change" can mean a lot of things, including undermining any real transformation, or muting its effects.

Aside from activists pounding on their doors to demand the hiring of Blacks and women, another big motivating factor in changing UPS's hiring policies was the fear of lawsuits.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), led by its chair William H. Brown, a well-known African American attorney from Philadelphia, won a landmark case against telecommunications goliath AT&T. "The case was settled in early 1973," according to Niemann, "with a very expensive consent decree. It was a wake-up call to American industry."

How expensive? AT&T was required to distribute $15 million to 13,000 women and 2,000 minority men, according to the EEOC, along with "$30 million in immediate pay increases for 36,000 women and minorities whose advancement in the Bell system had been hampered by discrimination." Companies like UPS were not interested in suffering the same fate as AT&T, and their hiring policies changed accordingly.

To facilitate these changes, UPS put up a more "progressive" face. In 1972, James P. McLaughlin--a man Niemann describes as a "liberal"--was promoted from chief operation officer to UPS president. Walter Hooke, a liberal labor relations expert who UPS had brought in from outside the company and eventually made national personal manager in 1968, was given greater support for needed changes in hiring policies.

William H. Brown, the feared EEOC chair, returned to private practice in 1973, joining the Philadelphia law firm of Schnader, Harrison, Segal and Lewis--which happened to be UPS's long-standing legal counsel. Bernie Segal, a senior partner at the firm, had served on the UPS Boards of Directors for many years.

Segal himself could boast impeccable liberal and civil libertarian credentials. He worked with the Kennedy administration to initiate the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to support civil rights activists in the Jim Crow South. He also chaired an advisory committee formed by President Lyndon Johnson to help expand legal services for the poor. As a young lawyer in Philadelphia in 1953, he was part of a legal team that defended Communist Party members indicted under the repressive Smith Act.

BUT THERE were strike limits to the liberalism of Bernie Segal and UPS in this era. Philadelphia was the same city where, in 1967, UPS tried to smash the militant Teamsters Local 107 by pulling operations out of the city and refusing to do business there for nearly three years. Bernie Segal at one point barked that he hoped Local 107 "will have control of its members the way other Teamster Unions do throughout the country."

That is quite a revealing statement. It is one thing to support civil rights outside the workplace, but quite another for workers to have power inside the workplace--and if you have to use gangsters to keep the militants in line, then so be it.

After Brown was hired by Segal's firm, UPS "had Brown assigned as counsel, developed a strong relationship, and in 1982, invited him to serve on the UPS Board of Directors," Niemann wrote, in applauding the "shrewd" move. "Mr. Brown was the first minority to do so." In effect, UPS bought the coach of the competing team and put him to work for their side.

During this same era, UPS also began cultivating relationships with conservative, if not outright reactionary, institutions in the Black community to mute the impact of more pro-union or radical influences. As early as 1962 Walter Hooke, UPS's labor relations expert, had established a relationship with the Urban League, one of the oldest and most pro-corporate organizations in the Black community. Greg Niemann also worked as a UPS consultant with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in Harlem during the early 1970s.

CORE had been a heroic group during the early years of the civil rights movement, but after 1968, it saw its membership disintegrate and--under the leadership of the corrupt Roy Innis--turned sharply to the right politically. CORE became known for selling its name for all sorts of corrupt corporate activities. Innis, meanwhile, notoriously supported the infamous racist "subway gunman" Bernard Goetz, who in 1984 shot four young Black men for supposedly harassing him on a New York City subway train.

UPS tried desperately to "shape change" in its own interest in this era. Despite their best efforts, though, the inclusion of more African Americans and women actually helped spur greater militancy inside UPS hubs across the country, as we'll discuss in upcoming articles in this series.

Thanks to Tom Alter for comments on this article.

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