UPS’s war on worker safety

November 13, 2014

In the latest article in an occasional series on the history of United Parcel Service (UPS) and workers' resistance to the shipping corporation, Joe Allen recounts the efforts by UPS to increase productivity by shredding workplace safety regulations with heaps of cash lavished on pro-industry politicians.

"Most employers would describe OSHA as the Gestapo of the federal government."
--Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), 1995

DURING THE 1990s, UPS became a major political force in Washington, D.C. It was the single-largest campaign contributor to federal candidates, it launched or financially supported major lobbying efforts, and, according to USA Today, it "multiplie[d] its clout by maintaining [a] private town house to host fundraisers and hold quiet talks with those it is seeking to influence."

UPS supported the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 that brought Newt Gingrich to power as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as a host of right-wing cranks committed to wiping out two generations of laws protecting U.S. workers. After the malevolent Gingrich and his supporters took office in January 1995, UPS poured ever-greater amounts of cash into Washington to press forward its destructive agenda.

What did UPS want from this new Congress?

"Big Brown," as the company was popularly known, had a wide-ranging agenda, but it had one specific goal in mind. It wanted to turn the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) into a toothless agency that would serve in a mere "advisory role" to industries known for their dangerous and deadly working conditions.

Inside a UPS hub
Inside a UPS hub

BY THE early 1990s, UPS was one of the largest private-sector employers in the country and one of the most dangerous to work for. "Since 1972, UPS has been cited for 2,786 OSHA violations and has paid $4.6 million in fines, receiving more worker complaints than any other company," Aaron Freeman wrote in the Multinational Monitor, a small circulation, investigative magazine devoted to the misdeeds of large corporations.

Larger mainstream media outlets also began to focus on working conditions at UPS hubs around the country. The New York Times ran a major exposé entitled "In the Productivity Push, How Much Is Too Much?" that highlighted the growing number of physically devastating injuries resulting from the company's unilateral decision in February 1994 to raise its weight limits for packages from 70 to 150 pounds.

"On the very day that change went into effect, Mr. Gallet felt a sharp pain while pushing a 126-pound box of flour-shifting screens onto his truck," according to Times reporter Christopher Drew. "His doctors had to use screws and clamps to fuse a slipped vertebra back into place." At the time, Henry Gallet was an 11-year veteran driver at UPS based in Kansas City, Kan.

Time magazine highlighted the story of Karen Dawson, another veteran driver, who "felt her back pop as she tried to lift a package in August 1994 from the top shelf of her United Parcel Service truck in Atlanta." It was an 85-pound box that wouldn't have been there six months earlier except that UPS raised the weight limit beyond safe handling limits, Time reported. She underwent surgery for a ruptured disk and was disabled when Time magazine published its exposé in January 1996.

Respected newspapers in Atlanta, where UPS moved its global headquarters in 1991, picked up the story. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a special investigative report in 1996 on UPS's campaign contributions called "Delivering the Bucks," which revealed that 1,300 of those 2,786 citations occurred since 1990, and that the company spent $176.5 million on workers' compensation claims in 1994 alone. More than one-third of the citations were designated "serious," which OSHA defines as carrying the potential for serious physical harm or even death.

Several months earlier, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported:

Since 1984, UPS has averaged one on-the-job fatality per year. The fatalities do not include vehicular accidents, which are reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation. All but one death reported to OSHA occurred at a UPS facility. Workers have been run over by vehicles driven by co-workers, squeezed between machinery and struck in the head by falling packages.

The Chronicle highlighted the case of Ken Martin, a veteran tractor-trailer driver with 16 years of experience, who was crushed to death against a loading dock at UPS's hub in Pleasantdale, Georgia. Martin had planned to go to his son's Little League game the night of his death on August 22, 1994, but was called in to work at the last moment. A coworker driving a yard shifter, which is used to move trailers, couldn't see Martin and killed him when he was backing up. OSHA had cited UPS for this defect in the vehicles.

Looking at these numbers, it's not hard to see that there was a direct correlation between UPS's push for greater productivity and the resulting increase in workplace injuries, which began in the mid-1970s and skyrocketed after 1990. UPS promoted itself during the 1990s as "the tightest ship in the shipping business"--something that had a different meaning to its workers than its customers. By the early 1990s, UPS was paying out $1 million per day in workers' compensation for injuries suffered on the job.

OSHA AND UPS reached a Corporate-wide Settlement Agreement (CSA) in November 1993 regarding the handling of hazardous materials and worker training. OSHA had cited UPS over these issues in Lexena, Kan., and at other hubs around the country. But while UPS was willing to sign an agreement on this issue, it was not willing to agree to a similar corporate-wide settlement agreement on ergonomics--designing a safe workplace--despite its atrocious track record.

According to the Teamsters Communication Department:

While the Haz-Mat CSA had a major impact on UPS, an ergonomic CSA would profoundly alter the entire UPS work process. Faced with this possible threat, UPS decided to mobilize an all-out effort to challenge OSHA--and in particular, ergonomic standards. This became even more important after UPS secretly decided to go to over-70 pound packages sometime in mid-1993. Undoubtedly, they knew that with over-70s, lifting injuries would skyrocket.

Meanwhile, there had been a growing demand from the labor movement for action on ergonomic standards during the late 1980s and early 1990s. "In 1990, 35 unions petitioned OSHA to issue emergency temporary ergonomic standards to curb workplace repetitive stress injuries," wrote journalist Aaron Freeman. "These standards, one of the agency's most ambitious worker safety initiatives in recent years, were designed to reduce cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs)...Specific types of CTDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and lower back pain."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that CTDs accounted for 60 percent of all worker occupational injuries in 1991 and one-third of workers' compensation claims in 1988. In 1993, on the eve of the Republican Revolution, there were 302,000 work-related CTD cases reported in industrial workplaces, affecting 8 percent of all autoworkers and more than 13 percent of meatpackers. Keith Mestrich of the AFL-CIO's Department of Occupational Safety and Health correctly described CTD's as an "epidemic problem in the workplace."

In response, OSHA had begun citing and fining companies for ergonomic violations. "By 1990," according to Washington Post reporters Michael Weisskopf and David Maraniss, "800 ergonomic violations were imposed by OSHA--one quarter of its general duty clause cases--costing employers more than $3 million in fines. Four UPS facilities were among those cited for package sorting and loading practices, facing $140,000 in fines." This was the tip of the iceberg at UPS. The Teamsters reported that "UPS workers suffered 10,555 lifting and lowering injuries that required more than first aid in 1992."

UPS, instead of using its world-class engineering department to design or redesign its workplaces or package cars to be friendlier to the human body, went in the opposite direction. It expected its workers to lift, sort and deliver heavier and heavier packages without any change in the design of the workplace or delivery vehicles. When UPS made the move from the 70- to 150-pound weight limit for packages, the Teamsters, under three-year-old reform leadership of former UPS driver Ron Carey, called a one-day strike in protest.

WHILE THE Teamsters were able to wrangle some important concessions on the handling of these packages, the increased weight limit was not rescinded. UPS then set its sights on OSHA. UPS had a historic opportunity to weaken OSHA with the Republican resurgence after Bill Clinton's first two years as president.

Clinton had won the presidency from the hapless George H. W. Bush by promising to create jobs in the recession-bound economy, pass health care reform and push for a striker-replacement bill that would ban companies from permanently hiring scabs during strikes or lockouts.

Clinton failed to deliver on any of these campaign pledges, disillusioning the Democratic Party's most active supporters across the country, while the promises he did keep--such as signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)--had a similar impact. The Republicans, led by northern-born Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, were emboldened by Clinton's string of political failures and captured control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

"UPS poured $2.6 million into House and Senate campaigns in 1993 and 1994," Time magazine reported. UPS's Political Action Committee (UPS PAC) was the biggest PAC overall and the largest corporate PAC in the country. While UPS hedged its bets and roughly split its money between Democrats and Republicans in the 1994 election, it moved quickly to bond with the new Republican leadership.

Time magazine reported that UPS and the newly established (and intentionally misnamed) Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), of which UPS was the biggest financial contributor, "lavished $3.6 million on members of the House Representatives."

The top five recipients were Republican leaders of the new Congress: Tom DeLay, the new House Majority Whip, received $64,750; Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House, received $44,774; Bob Livingston, the new chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, received $34,500; Dick Armey, the new House Majority leader, received $31,000; and David McIntosh, the new chair of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee, received $30,137.

Gingrich rushed to implement the campaign pledges outlined in his "Contract with America" by putting the House under his firm control. He tapped Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) to chair the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections that had legislative oversight over OSHA.

OSHA had been subject to a slander campaign for many years by industry trade groups, lobbyists and their right-wing hit men in Congress. One of Gingrich's most loyal lieutenants was Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who famously declared, "Most employers would describe OSHA as the Gestapo of the federal government." Of course, lost in the hyperbolic attacks and outright lies spread about the OSHA was the fact that the agency had been created during the Nixon administration and was an outgrowth of renewed worker militancy around workplace safety in the late 1960s.

THE LIBERALS in Congress and the labor movement saw OSHA differently. For them, the agency was understaffed and underfunded. The woeful state of OSHA was dramatically demonstrated by the Imperial Food Products fire of September 1991 in Hamlet, N.C., which killed 25 workers and injured 54 more. During its entire existence, not one safety inspection was conducted at the plant. The Imperial Foods' fire was a massacre, and the factory's owner was later sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Though the Imperial Foods' fire was located in Ballenger's home state of North Carolina, it didn't appear to stir his conscience nor the conscience of the "tightest ship in the shipping business." Ballenger was UPS's point man for the attack on OSHA. He was an old-fashioned Southern bigot, replete with a statute of a Black jockey on his front lawn, who had first been elected to Congress in 1986. To say he hated OSHA was an understatement. During the 1994 election, Post reporters Weisskopf and Maraniss reported:

Wherever Ballenger spoke, checkbooks opened at the mention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a regulatory agency that had emerged as a symbol of everything the business world disliked about the federal government. His vision of a House of Representatives controlled by Republicans, as Ballenger later described it, went like this:

"I'd say, 'Guess who might be chairman of the committee who'd be in charge of OSHA?' And they'd say, 'Who?' And I'd say, 'Me!' And I'd say, 'I need some money.' And--whoosh!--I got it. This was my sales pitch: 'Businessmen wouldn't you like to have a friend overseeing OSHA?'"

Ballenger was open for business, and business was good. UPS was especially generous to him. From 1989 through 2004, UPS contributed $45,000 to his campaigns and was the top campaign contributor during his entire tenure in office.

Soon after taking control of the committee chair, Ballenger openly revealed what he had planned. "OSHA's mission has become misdirected into simply finding violations of regulations and issuing penalties, " he declared. His alternative? "We believe that a more effective workplace safety and health program would rely primarily on non-enforcement efforts," Ballenger said. Non-enforcement efforts? U.S. workers faced a dangerous future if thinking like this prevailed.

BUT UPS would need more than an eager committee chairman to get what it wanted. UPS made its biggest financial contribution during the early 1995 formation of the above-mentioned Coalition on Occupational Health and Safety (COSH), which was made up of 100 of the Republican Party's most politically powerful allies in the corporate world. The conveyors of the conference, according to Weisskopf and Maraniss, believed that "their time was at hand."

To complete its team of OSHA assassins, UPS hired Dorothy "Dotty" Strunk as its chief Washington lobbyist on health and safety issues. Strunk, the former acting Director of OSHA under Bush the First, was hired to work closely with Cass Ballenger in order to rewrite the laws governing OSHA's mandate. After leaving the first Bush administration, she worked as a legal advisor to several mining companies also seeking to weaken OSHA. At the time, UPS spokesperson Bob Kenney remarked that Strunk's "experience in health and safety is certainly a reason we brought [her] in."

"Dotty's draft," as the first version of the 628-page revision of first version OSHA draft legislation was known, was triumphantly dubbed by Strunk herself "Ergo Light." But not willing to taking any chance that OSHA might issue new ergonomic standards before she and Ballenger could pass Dotty's draft into law, Strunk "successfully lobbied House appropriators to cut off funds for issuing ergonomic standards."

According to Aaron Freeman, the proposed legislation:

promote[d] across-the-board deregulation [with] special favors for certain industries. The chemicals industry, for example, would achieve its objective of preventing state regulators from exceeding federal OSHA standards. The steel industry, for its part, would be freed of the requirement that employers keep records on work-related illnesses that do not require medical treatment. OSHA uses these records to identify which industries it should target for inspections.

UPS and Ballenger's destructive agenda for workplace safety did not go unopposed. The labor movement mobilized its lobbying resources against Ballenger. And the scrutiny given to the OSHA violators and their campaign contributions caused a stir.

Ballenger proposed two bills to gut OSHA, but he was forced to withdraw them--but not before UPS secured one big victory. As Time magazine reported in January 1996:

Last month [December 1995], the company joined a coalition of 250 business and trade groups that stifled OSHA's attempts to develop a standard aimed at reducing the incidence of conditions like carpel-tunnel syndrome, an inflammatory wrist ailment triggered by repetitive motion. The victory was won even before the agency had a chance to issue the proposed standards for discussion.

"It's special-interest lobbying at its worst," said Joseph Dear, who was then Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Health and Safety. "I think it's incredibly overreaching to say that an agency can't collect data about one of the largest injury problems in the workplace today." OSHA remained underfunded and understaffed, and enforcement dropped significantly during the Clinton years. "During the Clinton era, the number of OSHA workplace inspections sunk to a new low," wrote Lance Selfa, author The Democrats: A Critical History."

The Clinton White House and its Labor Secretary Robert Reich were more than willing to make concessions to the Gingrich Republicans and industry lobbyists. Clinton and Reich, for example, had their own corporate-friendly plans for OSHA--"Re-inventing OSHA," as they called it.

They did keep ergonomics research alive, however. "He [Clinton] ordered the Department of Labor to continue work ergonomics rules that would protect the American worker from strained backs, torn tendons, carpal tunnel injuries, associated with repetitive motion, and a broad range of workplace MSDs or musculoskeletal disorders," wrote journalists Lou Dubose and Jan Reid.

In the waning hours of the Clinton administration, Clinton had his officials in the Department post new ergonomic rules--only to have them opposed by a coalition of business groups, including UPS. Soon after the inauguration of Bush the Second, Tom DeLay led the effort to overturn these rules, using an obscure congressional parliamentary manuver. Feeling smug and victorious, DeLay boasted to the Washington Times: "I can't get this grin off my face. I go to sleep and wake up with it."

Many UPSers, however, go to bed and wake up with chronic pain and disabilities.

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