When we beat the bosses

August 4, 2017

On the 20th anniversary of the UPS strike, Lee Sustar looks back on the Teamsters' tremendous victory and its continuing significance for unions today.

IT WAS a risky strike that was bound to lose. That, at least, was the opinion of the bosses--and more than a few top union officials.

But when some 185,000 Teamsters union members took to the picket lines at United Parcel Service (UPS) on August 4, 1997, Corporate America was stunned, anti-union politicians were caught flat-footed, and working-class people across the U.S. embraced the struggle as their own.

"This isn't just about money," Mike, a part-time worker in Chicago, told Socialist Worker in an interview at a picket-line rally two days into the strike. "This is about taking care of your family, yourself, and making a better life for yourself and your family, and sending a message to these corporations that you cannot treat workers in America--and around the world--like this."

A panicky management scabbing operation fizzled as determined strikers organized flying pickets to shut down deliveries in Chicago and other cities. Hundreds of strikers and supporters faced down strikebreaking police in Warwick, Rhode Island, and Somerville, Massachusetts, when off-duty cops on the UPS payroll arrested nine strikers and a supporter, shackling them when taking them to court hours later.

UPS workers on the picket line during their 1997 strike
UPS workers on the picket line during their 1997 strike

Picket lines at UPS hubs often turned into impromptu rallies, with workers and supporters supplementing union placards with handmade signs of their own. In midtown Manhattan, hundreds of New York City telephone workers marched to join a Teamster rally in the opening days of the strike.

When a UPS striker tried to thank them, a telephone worker replied, "No, thank you. You're fighting for all of us."

Members of the Independent Pilots Association (IPA) honored picket lines, grounding UPS's air fleet. The pilots stood in solidarity with other UPS workers they'd never met, making common cause with truck drivers and young part-time warehouse workers, many of them people of color.

"It is more a rebellion than a strike," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, calling it "a revolt against the ruthless treatment of workers by even the most powerful corporations."

Solidarity committees in several cities swung into action, beefing up picket lines, raising support funds and holding electrifying solidarity meetings packed with labor activists and supporters.

Two weeks later, organized labor had scored its biggest victory since the 1970s after UPS caved on its demands to grab workers' pensions and conceded what it had vowed never to do--the creation of a path to full-time jobs for the tens of thousands of poorly paid part-timers who loaded trucks.

CLOSE TO two decades before anger at social inequality and an anti-working-class political system crystallized in different forms such as the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, the UPS strike popularized the slogan "Part-Time America Doesn't Work"--and workers showed they had the muscle to do something about it.

In the aftermath of the strike, Teamsters President Ron Carey linked the UPS strike to a wider political challenge facing working people.

"Some politicians ought to wear the logos of their corporate sponsors on their suits, just like athletes wear them on their uniforms," he said in a nationally broadcast speech. "If Abraham Lincoln were giving the Gettysburg Address here today, he would have to say that we have a government 'of the corporations, by big business, and for the special interests.'"

Some two decades later, in the Trump era, Carey's words ring truer than ever. But just a few months after the strike,

Carey would be ousted as Teamsters president by government overseers on corruption charges, even though he was ultimately cleared in court. James Hoffa Jr., the candidate of the Teamster old guard, won a subsequent union election for president and still holds office today, presiding over a union that has steadily retreated at UPS and other employers since then.

Nevertheless, the UPS strike remains as fresh as today's struggles.

The determination of young part-time UPSers in 1997 resonates in the Fight for 15 campaigns of low-wage workers now. The militancy and creativity of UPS roving pickets had an echo in the Verizon strike of 2016, when workers picketed scabs who tried to hide in company-funded hotel rooms. The discovery of the power of workers' collective action that captured the popular imagination two decades ago was seen again in the excitement of first-time strikers at AT&T Mobility stores earlier this year.

That's why it's so important to take stock of the UPS strike--and learn its lessons for the tough labor battles ahead.

THE UPS strike was also a victory for those who had long fought a difficult and often dangerous struggle to reform and democratize the Teamsters, which had been dominated by a corrupt, mob-tied old guard for decades.

A union that had helped usher in two-tier wage systems by agreeing to pay cuts for UPS part-timers in the 1980s was, by 1997, led by Carey, a former New York City local union leader and onetime UPS package delivery driver himself.

Carey was first elected in 1991 in elections overseen by a federal judge as the result of a racketeering case against former union leaders. The reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), founded in the mid-1970s, was key component in the Carey coalition.

While Carey at times sought to reach an understanding with more moderate elements of the old guard, he nevertheless oversaw sweeping changes to the union, including the removal of dozens of corrupt union officials and the creation of a national field staff focused on increasing union activism.

The revived Teamsters showed they were ready to fight at UPS in 1994, when Carey called a national safety strike after UPS management unilaterally raised the limit on the weight that package car drivers were expected to lift without assistance.

In its first contract negotiated with the Carey leadership, UPS was forced to back off demands for deep concessions, but didn't budge on the union's demands for raises and the creation of full-time jobs for part-timers.

It soon became clear that a confrontation between the Teamsters and UPS was coming. A booming economy and dropping unemployment rate had given organized labor its best leverage in decades--an opportunity to reverse the trend of shattering defeats in mid-1990s strikes and lockouts at Caterpillar, food processor A.E. Staley and Bridgestone/Firestone.

And the highly profitable UPS--which moved freight equivalent to 6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product--could easily afford to meet the Teamsters' demands.

The leadership change in the Teamsters helped set the stage for a shift in the AFL-CIO leadership in 1995. Factions behind the liberal John Sweeney pushed aside a conservative establishment. Sweeney's "New Voices" group didn't break from the traditional labor-management partnership model of U.S. labor leaders, but he did promise to challenge "unfair" corporations.

A year later, Carey was re-elected president of the Teamsters just seven months before the expiration of the UPS Teamsters contract. Standing up to Big Brown, as the company was known, had been a key part of Carey's re-election effort.

But UPS CEO Jim Kelly was just as determined to prevail over the union. As Joe Allen points out in his book The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service, UPS was transforming itself from a privately owned, low-profile freight operation into a public corporation and global logistics giant. The upstart Teamsters leadership had to be taught a lesson.

A confrontation was inevitable.

LABOR ACTIVISTS and the left understood that the looming battle at UPS carried huge implications for the entire labor movement. It would be a test of whether the more militant rhetoric of the U.S. labor leadership could be turned into action. Whatever the actual intentions of the new union leadership, their change in tone reflected a shift in consciousness in the union rank and file.

The union leaders' tilt to the left made it easier for the Teamsters to mount a contract campaign at UPS. The effort was initiated by the union's field staff of experienced militants, who often worked with non-Teamster labor activists and socialists who organized alongside shop-floor activists to prepare for a strike, even when local union leaders failed to do so.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO)--which was considerably smaller than it is today--threw itself into that effort.

For the ISO, organizing at UPS was, in fact, a revival of work begun two decades earlier with the formation of UPSurge, a network of hundreds of rank-and-file militants at UPS that was the driving force behind two regional strikes over contracts, as well as several wildcat actions.

That work didn't survive the difficult years of labor's retreat in the 1980s. But as the 1997 contract approached, ISO members sold Socialist Worker outside UPS hubs in cities across the U.S. The paper featured analysis of the company and its greed, interviews with UPS workers, and exposure of the crimes--literally--of the Teamsters' old guard officials.

A special supplement on the UPS contract fight included interviews with veteran militants like Vince Meredith, a retired Louisville, Kentucky, driver who had been a central figure in UPSurge. Pete Camarata, a longtime leader of TDU and former ISO member, shared his analysis of Teamster politics in that issue.

Debates about contract demands were reflected in the pages of SW--particularly the issues facing part-timers, who represented 60 percent of Teamsters UPS members, but who were often neglected, even in reform locals.

The August 1, 1997 issue of Socialist Worker reported on the huge votes to authorize a strike--95 percent overall, including 1,000 to 10 in a Minnesota local.

An SW contributor in Seattle sent in a quote from a Teamsters Local 174 business agent, Tom Bernard, that captured the mood: "This company is totally out of control. It's capitalism gone berserk. We're tired of being marginalized, minimized and just insulted. They will bargain with us or face the consequences of our collective power."

The August 15 issue of SW--when the outcome was far from certain--carried an editorial arguing for mass pickets and other militant tactics to turn widespread support for the strike into action:

For the first time in a generation, a national strike has won support and sympathy from people all over the U.S. Suddenly, newspaper stories about the 'miracle economy' have given way to front-page articles about the plight of low-wage, part-time workers...

Beating UPS will require mobilization of mass pickets. Moreover, it will require picket lines that are not symbolic but which aim to prevent scab trucks from moving.

Workers gain decisive leverage over a company when they can shut down its operations completely. Beating UPS will require the willingness of workers to defy injunctions and face arrest, if necessary, to win the strike.

THE MASS pickets never came to pass, other than the brief but bitter battles in Warwick and Somerville. It's reasonable to assume that UPS management concluded that angry, organized workers in a popular national strike made a big strikebreaking effort untenable.

The company also blundered by trying to both grab control of pensions--a treasure chest for the Teamsters old guard--while angering young militant part-timers by refusing to create new jobs. Rather than dividing and conquering the Teamsters, UPS's ham-fisted tactics compelled the old guard to stand with Carey and the reform wing.

So after two weeks, a titan of Corporate America threw in the towel, soundly beaten by underpaid part-timers, veteran drivers defending their dignity and an astonishing show of solidarity across organized labor and far beyond.

Joe, a 15-year driver in Providence, Rhode Island, described his first day back on the job after the strike. "I must have had 200 people pat me on the back and shake my hand today," he told Socialist Worker. "When I delivered to City Hall, the workers were yelling, "Go UPS!"

The headline of the SW editorial in the August 29 issue summed it up: "One for our side." "The employers have had it their own way for so long that they couldn't believe workers could win one," the editorial said.

The editorial also pointed out that, according to the Wall Street Journal, UPS expected President Bill Clinton to invoke the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act to order the Teamsters back to work. Clinton, for his own political reasons, chose not to do so--but did use his power to ban a rail strike a few weeks later.

"Had the Teamsters been faced with a [Clinton] back-to-work order, it would have dramatically upped the stakes in the strike," the editorial stated, adding, "it would be a grave mistake for any union to think that UPS or other companies won't try to run scabs in future labor confrontations."

Indeed, since the UPS strike, the employers' willingness to run mobilize scabbing has intimidated unions into all but abandoning the strike as a weapon--with the result that labor's decline has continued.

On top of the relentless attacks on labor by private-sector employers have come attacks on public-sector bargaining rights, including passage of right-to-work legislation in states that were once union strongholds. Union membership today is as low as it has been in a century.

The outcome of the strike was a major step forward on the Teamsters' most important demands, especially a pledge from the company to create 10,000 new full-time jobs. Wages went up significantly during the five-year life of the contract, but for part-timers, they remained relatively low considering the rigors of the job. And there have been major concessions from these gains by the union ever since.

But the 1997 strike hasn't been forgotten. The experience was formative for the reform forces that have continued to challenge the old guard, including a strong showing in this year's elections that very nearly unseated Hoffa as general president and won some executive board seats for reformers. The energy from that battle will now flow into the upcoming contract campaign at UPS.

AS THE Trump administration prepares a new assault on unions, academic commentators and mainstream journalists will use the occasion of the UPS strike anniversary to proclaim the end of labor's relevance.

Don't believe it.

In the past two decades, the working-class spirit and solidarity that animated the UPS strike has surfaced again and again--in the Wisconsin labor uprising of February 2011, the mass labor marches to support Occupy Wall Street a few months later, and the victorious Chicago Teachers Union strike the following year that linked teachers' pay and working conditions with the needs of Chicago students.

The low level of strikes doesn't mean that no class struggle is taking place. Labor activists who galvanize their unions to take a stand for Black Lives Matter protesters, support the Women's March and defend immigrants from deportation are taking a stand for dignity and justice.

Sooner or later, that fight will find expression in a direct battle with the bosses, just as it did in the UPS strike of 1997--to the astonishment of Corporate America, which thought it could never happen.

Back then, many militant strikers saw their fight as part of much wider struggle. "We all won, not just Teamsters," said Eddie, a driver in Warwick, the scene one of the strike's biggest confrontations. "The whole working class won."

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