The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

10 years ago:
UPS strike against concessions

Aug 6, 2007

On August 4, 1997, 185,000 workers from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) struck UPS. Several thousand workers from other locals joined the strike.

The traditional picket lines were accompanied by a number of rallies at different sites around the country, including the UPS headquarters in Atlanta. On Thursday, August 21, rallies were scheduled for at least 30 cities. On two Fridays, Teamsters brought family members out to the picket lines, creating a festive atmosphere.

When UPS began to step up its rhetoric against the strikers, John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, announced that other unions would contribute ten million dollars a week to the IBT to pay strike benefits until the strike was over. This translated to only $55 a week for each striking Teamster, but it nonetheless demonstrated that other unions gave some support to this strike.

The main issue of the strike – the growing proportion of part-time, lower-paid workers in the work force – touched not only UPS workers, but workers in practically every industry in the U.S.

The IBT had first agreed to let UPS hire part-time workers regularly in 1962, when Jimmy Hoffa Sr. was at the helm. The bulk of the part-timers were college students or others who wanted part-time work, so there was little effect on the full-time workers.

The big change in the weight of the part-timers in the UPS system started in 1982 when the IBT agreed to let UPS freeze wages paid to part-timers. That left a gap of about $3.50 an hour between the part-timers and full-timers. With each new contract at UPS, part-time wages remained frozen, and the gap continued to widen.

UPS jumped to take advantage of this gap. By 1986, the proportion of part-timers had jumped to 42% of the UPS workforce; by 1991, part-timers had become the majority of the work force.

“Part-time”? At the time of the strike, over 10,000 UPS “part-timers” worked at least 35 hours a week; some, as many as 45 hours. In other cases, the same worker held two “part-time” jobs: working four hours in the morning for UPS, then working four hours in the afternoon at a different job, but both at UPS.

UPS forced the strike. It proposed to withdraw from contributing to the IBT pension funds. And it refused to budge from its position on part-timers.

UPS was not forced into this confrontation by a weak financial picture. The company was at that time the dominant carrier in the package delivery industry, replacing the Post Office, and doing so at a profit. In 1997 it controlled 80% of ground parcel shipping, and was moving into the air freight and overseas shipping business. Its 19% rate of profit was significantly higher than that of any other company in its industry. In the six years before the strike, UPS had accumulated almost five and a half billion dollars in profit.

UPS acted, in the early days of the strike, like a company intent on pushing a confrontation to its limit. One week after the strike began, UPS chairman James Kelley broke off negotiations, saying the Teamsters were “unrealistic.”

In the second week of the strike, Kelley declared that if the strike went longer than two weeks, there would be 15,000 fewer jobs to come back to. At the end of the second week, Kelley openly threatened to hire scabs.

The Teamsters stuck it out, showing a readiness to take on one of the major corporations in a nationwide strike. A strike like this had not been seen in this country for almost two decades.

From the beginning, the Teamsters said they were making a fight that touched every worker in this country, in one way or another. Teamster president Ron Carey insisted that the strike was “about the future, not just the Teamsters' future, but about good, full-time jobs for all American working people.”

After two weeks of a strike that was threatening to spread to other workers, the capitalist class of this country had had enough. UPS was pressured to back off on its threats and it transformed a small section of part-timers to full time.

When UPS workers returned to work, they did so with the sense they had accomplished something important. It was the first such victory by a major U.S. union confronting a national corporation in 20 years.

Two decades before, it wouldn’t have seemed like much of a victory. But the situation had changed. Even after six years of “economic expansion” and record high profits for the corporations, concessions were still the norm. In 1997, the UPS settlement reversed a trend going back 15 years regarding the use of a part-time, lower-paid workforce.

With TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union) providing many of the troops, the Teamsters, under Carey, organized a different kind of strike at UPS. They had prepared for the strike well in advance, organizing a series of meetings and demonstrations; Carey asked other unions for support; they tried to raise with other workers the issues of their strike which were issues confronting the whole working class; toward the end, they asked other workers to make the same fight, and Carey called on other workers to join a common, work-day demonstration in cities throughout the country. Other workers paid attention to the strike, and to the issues the Teamsters raised.

Business Week wrote: “For the first time in nearly two decades, the public sided with a union, even though its walkout caused major inconveniences. Polls showed the public supported the UPS workers by a 2-to-1 margin. The message: After a six-year economic expansion that has created record corporate profits and vast wealth for investors, Americans are questioning why so many of their countrymen aren't getting a bigger piece of the pie.”

At the time, it seemed as though the UPS strike might encourage other workers to fight over their own issues.

Instead the government went on the offensive, removing from office the IBT president who had had the effrontery to lead a strike and tying up Carey in a bogus prosecution. When other unions didn’t jump to Carey’s defense, a big opportunity was lost.

But the UPS workers did not lose because they struck. Other workers lost because they didn’t join them and didn’t defend them.

This issue will be raised again when workers break into a fight.