The Human Face
of Labor Wins

The return of Stan, our hard-working UPS driver in Storm Lake, was welcome, but the Teamsters scored an important victory for all workers when it forced United Parcel Service to concede on the issue of part-time workers. Although the corporate spinmasters tried to play down the impact of the union win, it shocked Wall Street and it undeniably boosted labor's morale after a generation of setbacks. After 20 years of corporate union-busting, stagnant if not falling wages and the rise of the attitude that corporations owe workers nothing more than their paycheck, the Teamsters' two-week strike at UPS showed a new generation what a strong union can accomplish.

It was a reformed Teamsters that fought to bring the struggling young part-time workers at UPS up to full-time employment. After all, in the bad old days, the Teamsters' old guard supported the Republicans who broke the air traffic controllers, neutered the National Labor Relations Board and winked as the corporations ran the unions out of meat-packing plants, factories and shops in the 1980s and early '90s.

That changed with the election of Ron Carey as president of the Teamsters in 1991 and John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995. When Carey was narrowly re-elected last year, preparations for the UPS negotiations already had been underway for several months. When those talks reached an impasse Sweeney and the AFL-CIO were there to back up the 185,000 striking Teamsters with financial as well as moral support, pledging $10 million a week in loans for strike benefits. "The UPS strike is our strike. Their struggle is our struggle," Sweeney declared. Global unions in solidarity threatened to shut down UPS operations outside the United States.

UPS was unprepared for the union solidarity. The Teamsters also were buoyed by the support of the public, which is accustomed to sneering at unions as well as corporations. This time America sided with this union by a two-to-one margin because the Teamsters, in a rather sophisticated public relations effort, managed to focus on the workaday stresses that individual Teamsters face, and America identified with those human faces and their problems. We sympathized with UPS workers who were trying to support families but were unable to get on full-time after working years of short hours.

We also rejected UPS' claim that the company was intent on providing a better pension plan for its workers, having seen corporations raid their own pension plans. And the small businesses that were strapped by the breakdown of the nation's dominant freight service just wanted UPS to come to terms with their drivers and get their packages back on track.

Democracy played a key part in the success of the strike. Ken Paff, national organizer of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, noted that the victory was, in part, a culmination of two decades of Teamster reform. "Teamster members worked hard to get our union ready to fight and win on big issues like good, full-time jobs," he said. "A decade ago our International officers were orchestrating secret deals with UPS management, and were forcing UPS Teamsters to accept contracts that were rejected in a vote by the majority. They were making deals to allow unlimited part-time labor. That's now in the past. Now we have a union leadership and membership that can win a major victory for all of labor."

The UPS victory should help Carey as he goes into a court-ordered rematch this fall with James Hoffa Jr. The new election was ordered by the federal government because of complaints about financing in last year's election campaign, but Hoffa represents the old guard that got the Teamsters into the fix. This is no time for the rank and file to give up those hard-fought democratic reforms.

Organized labor must sustain the fight for job security at living wages and health care for all. Part-time employment has grown from 13 percent of the workforce in 1957 to 18 percent today. Temporary worker services, which supply workers to corporations at low pay and little or no benefits, are a growth industry, and the welfare repeal last year ensures an increasing labor pool to hold down wages.

"Downsizing, outsourcing, subcontracting, and privatization have pulled the rug out from formerly steady, well-paid jobs. Almost all jobs, whether or not they bear the label 'temporary,' have become less secure," wrote Chris Tilly, an economist, in the Boston Globe.

Tilly also noted that only one in five part-time workers are forced to work short hours. Of those who choose short hours, some have to care for children, others are students, are disabled or seeking partial retirement. But because they choose not to work 40 hours a week they are treated as second-class citizens. They may be paid at half the rates of full-time workers and in many cases they are not afforded health insurance. "Part-time jobs need not be lousy jobs," Tilly said. "What today's work force needs, then, is both more full-time jobs and better part-time jobs."

The Teamsters, for their part, got UPS to agree not only to create 10,000 new full-time positions, but also to increase the wage for part-timers.

Unions have been pushed back to the point that they represent only 10 percent of private industry jobs. They face a level of hostility from employers that they haven't seen since before the 1930s and they must fight cynicism of workers, fed by corporate propaganda. But both Carey and Sweeney are committed to organizing not only in the factories, but also in the strawberry fields, apple orchards and the retail and service industries, where wages are lower and employees are more easily intimidated by anti-union efforts.

Union organizers still face hurdles. For example, a new law forces Teamsters seeking to organize Fed Ex nationally, which is much more difficult than organizing local shops. Even when the NLRB rules in favor of a union, as it did this summer in finding that the Detroit newspaper agency engaged in unfair labor practices against its unions, the corporations can appeal those decisions interminably while they go on with scab "replacement" workers, starving out striking workers. And a Republican bill in Congress would make it easier for corporations to reclassify workers as "independent contractors," making them ineligible for benefits as well as union representation.

Eventually American workers must realize that strong, democratic unions will do more to preserve good paying jobs and benefits than occasional INS sweeps to round up undocumented immigrants who are competing for minimum-wage jobs. The public support of the Teamsters in the UPS strike was a step in the right direction.

-- Jim Cullen

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