Z Magazine

September, 1997

 

 

The UPS Strike

 

By Michael Albert

 

 

Having completed this article about how the rest of us might contribute to winning the Teamsters Strike, I awoke this morning to find labor had won. There was no government intervention. UPS wasn’t going to fight a long war of attrition. The Teamster pension plan is intact and enlarged. UPS wages are up, more for part-time than full-time employees. Sub-contracting is limited. Safety protection is enacted. The ethos of using part-time employment to lower wages and reduce benefits is shattered.

 

The key questions to be answered by this strike

were:

 

Can labor conduct a national strike without interference from the government?

 

Can the Teamsters reverse trends toward part time employment that reduce salaries and benefits and cripple solidarity?

 

And can the UPS workers demonstrate that solidarity can win improved wages, conditions, and rights?

 

The answers would appear to be yes, yes, and yes.

 

What Happened

 

Capital has been trouncing labor since the 1981 PATCO strike breaking by Reagan. The already rich have climbed a 20-year ladder of redistribution to an even more fantastic centralization of wealth and power. At the top of their game, challenged by the Teamsters in what capital would have to consider merely a last ditch, desperation labor action, why didn’t UPS hold out? Why couldn’t capital, in such a dominant position, hold off Carey and Co.?

 

Every victory for justice, for equity, for diversity, for democracy, for anything that fulfills anyone other than elites, and which costs elites power and profit, is accomplished in one way. A situation is created in which changes must be made or the costs to elites will rise even higher.

 

I think the answer to why UPS caved in is: (1) The power of labor is in solidarity which can grow at a rate that far exceeds the slow assault on labor that capital is always waging; (2) The Teamsters preparations and issues were such that there was a very good likelihood that labor’s organizational, ideological, and material gains would accelerate the longer the strike lasted; and (3) capital saw this possibility very clearly, and feared it, not wanting to make any missteps that could contribute to such an outcome.

 

UPS and all capitalist institutions take strength in capital mobility, union busting, aggravating race and gender divisions, unemployment threats made real by manufactured high unemployment, residual fear based on prior experiences of loss, labor fragmentation, technological and organizational investments designed to weaken labor, government spending that reduces social supports while protecting profits, media manipulation and monopolization, and government intervention via restrictive labor laws. Labor, in contrast, takes strength in collective mutual aid, solidarity, and growing hope and consciousness—that is, in numbers and organization.

 

In this context, the Teamsters prepared to wage a battle not only in front of each plant, with the workers unified and clear in their commitment, but also on TV and in every venue of contact with the public. The Teamsters had their facts down and their presentation planned. They had lined up their support mechanisms. They not only threatened to fight long and hard, they were prepared to do so, with widespread support that could easily grow and diversify in its demands and commitment. The workers had unity and clarity, plus a plan that promised more of both if the battle lasted. UPS was outgunned. The facts were irrefutable:

 

Part timers at UPS earned about $11 an hour – full timers about $20 per hour. 46,300 new jobs had been added since 1993, but 38,500 of them were part-time. UPS had over 60 percent part-timers—up 18 points in ten years.

 

In Chicago the percentage of UPS part-timers had risen to 70 percent, in New York 61 percent, in Boston 67 percent, in Dallas 68 percent, in Los Angeles 72 percent, in San Francisco 76 percent, in Louisville 90 percent.  In 1996, UPS recruited and trained 182,000 people for part-time jobs, only 40,000 of whom were still with the company at year’s

end.  Three of every four part-timers who left the company cited lack of full-time opportunities as a factor in their decision.

 

With facts like these widely available, how was UPS to stem the energy of labor before it could become something truly threatening to capital—workers, across job designations, across firms, and even across industries, aligning and becoming active? UPS tried a few spins to try to divide and weaken.

 

They argued that the Teamster leadership was in it for their own narrow gains and that the strike was a power play smokescreen.

 

But the response was increased unity and clarity. People were forced to realize the obvious: that 185,000 workers strike only when they are angry at management and have goals they wish to fight for. It became clear that the strike had a broader meaning—that the 20-year trampling on labor’s rights and the redistribution of wealth and power upward were now over. The strike threatened the unification of a new labor culture.

 

Recently, much worker anger has been misplaced into right wing anti-conspiracy movements, sexism, and racism. Now, finally, a visible effort coalesced this anger against the true enemy and with proper solidarity. More, it was an effort that people all over the country could relate to and become part of at any UPS parking lot. We should take heart in the outcome. It was vital that capital defeat this effort, yet UPS’s final calculation was simple. The Teamsters were not likely to be beaten. Capital had more to lose by fighting than by giving in. Our lesson is just as simple. Solidarity and organization plus preparation can win.

 

Another line of argument UPS tried to pursue was the pension fund, even subtly playing the corruption card. But the Teamsters wanting to control their workers’ pension funds and to do it in a collective manner that helps those who work at smaller firms, was exemplary. Highlighting this only pushed workers into more explicit awareness of the value of pension funds and of controlling them, and especially of creating collective structures that equalize rewards and benefits among more and less advantaged workers. For the Teamsters to give in on pensions would have reduced pension portability for members, reduced union and workers' control over the pension, and opened the door to UPS in future bargaining threatening to reduce contributions to the fund.

 

There was one other card to play: the democracy angle. UPS tried to attack the Teamsters for not calling a vote on the company’s offer. They claimed that the union was undemocratic and didn’t care about the workers, and that a culture of fear prevented members from rebelling.

 

But this approach could only reveal that while it was still far from the participatory democratic ideal its own best members seek, the Teamsters are one of the more democratic institutions in the country. Even worse, this line of attack would compel the union and its rank and file and the public to think about issues of participation and democracy in the economy. It would illuminate the obvious truth that capital needs hidden. Every day capital functions from atop an economic structure that is dictatorial and bolstered by threat and fear. When Federal Express delivered a package yesterday afternoon to my door, I joked with the driver, "Hey, if the Teamsters win, you guys can go out next, after joining up." He said he’d love it, but if they tried to unionize and walk, Fed Ex would fire them in a second. That is fear at work, fear which this strike, if successful, may help uproot.

 

My letter carrier just dropped off our mail. To my queries, he said he would like to do a support action for the strike and that it felt like we were in the 1890s with robber barons the way wealth was sliding upward. But he also said he was afraid that if the Postal workers acted they would suffer repression. That is fear holding back insight. Give him a vote on hiring and firing, wages, and conditions, and see the changes that follow.

 

Democracy? Voting? In capitalist workplaces there is no right for workers to vote about anything whatever: not salaries, not conditions, not hours, not structure, not investment, nothing. Corporations are dictatorships. And suddenly management expressed interest in voting. This only evidenced how venal they are. To argue for votes on every contract offer is not a workable approach for capital against a workforce big and visible enough to get its answer heard. It risks people asking why UPS (and capital) don’t offer a contract package that says there will be worker votes on all policy and wages henceforth, to see how Carey replies to that.

 

In short, UPS had no path to follow that didn’t threaten to enlarge their losses. The odds were good that UPS would, by fighting on, merely enlarge the solidarity and power of not only their own workforce and the Teamsters, but of labor more broadly as well.

 

Build Movement Unionism

 

Where does labor go next? How does it reverse the drastic decline in union membership, from 30 percent in 1955 to just under half that now? And how does it increase the power of members in winning valuable gains?

 

First, take a look at the summer issue of Monthly Review. It is a collection organized under the title: "Rising from the Ashes? Labor in the Age of Global Capitalism." There are many excellent contributions arguing the need for a tremendous increase in union attention to organizing the unorganized. There is considerable focus on how to develop a new labor culture emphasizing internal participation and democracy. And there are refutations of the misinterpretations of technological unemployment and internationalization of capital now commonly believed by many progressives. But amidst all this good stuff, I found one piece especially refreshing. It was by a Canadian, Sam Gindin, titled "Notes on Labor at the End of the Century: Starting Over?"

 

Gindin’s focus presumes a need to expand the organizing aims of unions relative to the service component, and moves on to argue for what he calls "movement unionism." It is a very aggressive stance built around worker solidarity not only across types of workers within firms and across firms within an industry, but also across industries in communities, regions, and the country as a whole. Gindin argues, very persuasively, that succumbing to the rhetoric of competitiveness, wherein the workers in a plant are told that their fate and management’s are together opposed to the fate of workers in other plants and industries, is a disaster. And Gindin argues as well, also persuasively, that there is a very big difference between organizing that emphasizes preserving the union’s internal hierarchy and only developing viewpoints and agendas sanctioned at the top, and organizing, instead, that empowers the base of workers. Gindin seeks a unionism "that is workplace-based, community rooted, democratic, ideological [meaning driven by larger visions and aims], and committed to building the kind of movement that is a precondition for any sustained resistance and fundamental change."

 

Gindin wants unions in which local committees "are open to workers’ spouses and teenage sons and daughters" and which address the quality of life of members and members’ families in the workplace, but also at home and in schools. Without rehashing his whole argument, Gindin’s discussion of what he calls Job Development Boards innovatively addresses job training and placement in a manner conceived to create solidarity and movement infrastructure while also meeting pressing needs and even presaging possible institutions of a better future. These are things worth thinking about, and then acting upon, as we all struggle to enlarge the gains of the Teamsters and to build movement unionism.


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