Fed Up: Is the UPS Strike Just the Beginning?

UPS workers have delivered the strike the labor movement has been waiting for: It had an immediate effect on the entire country, centered on economic ills familiar to the middle class, and involved an industry that can't be outsourced to Mexico. It was a battle that workers needed to win, and last week labor-relations specialist Herb Ratner of SUNY-Stonybrook predicted that they would. "UPS is dead," Ratner said. "They've got a labor force that can't be replaced very easily. It's an elite work force shaped by UPS management. They can't replace them all just by putting an ad in the paper." UPS, said Ratner, has a rigid, precise management style and very high standards for productivity. Drivers are the very embodiment of the UPS corporate image: Their uniforms must be crisp and impeccably clean, their hair is neat and trimmed to company specifications, and the work they do is hard. "Ever seen a fat UPS man?" Ratner asked. "You won't, because they have to hustle. These drivers have the advantage we call 'specificity of labor.' A lot of guys just can't do the job. If UPS tries to replace them all, people are going to drop dead trying to do the work those drivers do." By its very nature, the UPS strike forced the press to pay more attention to labor than it has in years. The media have been conditioned to cover labor almost exclusively through strikes, as though it were the only activity unions engage in. Most strikes in the last few years have been regionally limited, and their economic impact too remote to capture the press's attention for very long -- even though the issues involved were often of national importance. Striking UAW workers can't make cars disappear from the streets right away; it takes time before the absence of auto workers is felt by the public. Striking newspaper workers did make a dent in the circulation of the Detroit dailies, but consumers in that region could always turn to USA Today or the New York Times if they wanted something to read over breakfast. The rest of the country, of course, felt not a twinge. The UPS strike, however, affected businesses and consumers everywhere -- and immediately. Better yet, August is a slow news month, so reporters were all over the story, looking for something to cover. When the inconvenience-to-businesses-and-customers angle was milked dry, editors needed other stories to fill their pages and time slots. At last, the press was reduced to looking at some of the labor issues involved. With all that media attention, it was fortuitous that the UPS strike was called by service workers. Here was an opportunity to rectify one of the biggest mistakes organized labor has made in the last 30 years. In the '60s and '70s, unions overfocused on preserving the pensions, jobs, and salaries of their longtime members in manufacturing -- and in the process, failed to organize the low-paid but growing service sector. By the time the phrase "global economy" became a household word, unions were lagging behind the economic trends affecting the majority of American workers. The Teamsters' victory could very well encourage other service workers to seek out union organizers. By bringing service workers into their ranks, the labor movement will get a surge of energy from the increased number of women, minorities, and immigrants it brings under its tent. If the numbers are convincing enough, unions could even dispel their redneck public image. Service workers are more likely to engender sympathy than airline pilots asking for $120,000 a year. Never mind that pilots have every right to demand what the market will bear for their work, and that their job entails a tremendous amount of responsibility, skill, and very specialized experience; the American public prefers unions that fit the Norma Rae profile more closely. There's evidence that the public did get a better sense of the issues at stake from the media this time. In an August 14 nationwide poll conducted for CNN and USA Today, 55 percent of those questioned supported the strikers, only 27 percent UPS. People who earn their living observing the labor movement were surprised. While labor coverage on the UPS strike was better than usual, there were still substantial gaps. Readers and viewers who paid close enough attention to the news could learn that the Teamsters' demand to turn part-time jobs into full-time ones was not an attempt at featherbedding. The union never proposed that all part-time jobs be eliminated. Some jobs at UPS require only one four-hour shift at a time, at specific hours of the day; those are not the jobs the Teamsters wanted reclassified as full-time. The union was concerned about 10,000 drivers in particular; although they work just under 40 hours a week, they're considered part-time workers, and they are paid half what the full-time drivers get. The union insisted that anyone who does 39 hours of back-breaking work all day, for example, deserves full-time pay and full-time benefits. The second issue in the strike was the UPS desire to set up its own pension fund for UPS workers, rather than paying into the Teamsters' multi-employer fund. UPS stood to save a considerable amount of money if the fund earned a surplus, because the company could have reduced its contributions to the fund. "Think about it," says Frank Posato, president of Teamsters Local 118 in Rochester. "The Teamsters control $40 billion in pension money. "UPS is shaking in its boots, saying, 'How can we get our hands on this money? Let's spend $300 million on a strike. That's not a lot of money when you're looking at [the earnings on] $40 billion.'" Before the UPS strike, reform-minded activists in the labor community welcomed AFL-CIO president John Sweeney's call for "a new unionism," but many wondered privately if he really had the juice to achieve it. When Sweeney promised to give the Teamsters the backing of the AFL-CIO in the UPS strike, a lot of younger, more progressive union activists started to feel some real optimism. Some labor activists believe the timing is finally right. Workers, they hope, are beginning to understand that talk of "global competitiveness" and the "entrepreneurial spirit" is doublespeak for "we don't have to share our record-breaking profits with you." The bottom-line, profits-at-any-cost attitude may even have become repugnant enough to offset the notorious history of the Teamsters and the public's perception of them as unrepentant thugs. (That Ron Carey, not Jimmy Hoffa Jr., won the last election for Teamster president certainly helps.) Ratner says the Teamsters should now move in and start organizing workers at UPS competitors. In fact, he says, the entire AFL-CIO should "think of this as the beginning of the big organizing drive for all of labor." This time, Ratner says, the public may be ready for it, because "people are finally getting fed up with greedy corporations."

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