The Human Face
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.
of Labor Wins
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
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
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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