MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 2

International Socialist Review, Fall 1997


Notes of the Quarter

The return of the two-sided class war


From International Socialist Review, Issue 2, Fall 1997.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


The business press was desperate to deny it, but the victorious strike by 185,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents a major milestone for organized labor. For the first time in twenty years, a national strike held the line on concessions and won significant gains.

Stunned by the outpouring of support for the Teamsters – a CNN poll found that 55 percent backed the strike – the employers quickly assigned their spin doctors to do damage control. Typical was Bruce Steinberg, chief economist for the Wall Street firm Merrill Lynch: “I think the strike is probably a public relations victory for the Teamsters,” he told the New York Times. Michael Baroody, a senior vice president for the National Association of Manufacturers, which lobbied Clinton to intervene in the strike, added, “I think the UPS-Teamsters situation as an event is an interesting one, but not necessarily precedent-setting for other labor agreements.”

Yet, the deal is a crucial precedent because UPS combines the two major employment trends among large companies: With 60 percent part-timers, UPS blazed the trail which has shifted about 25 percent of all employment to part-time and contingent (temporary, contracted, and leased) workers. At the same time, UPS package-car drivers typically work 10- or 12-hour days. This parallels manufacturing, where factory overtime is at its highest since records were first kept in 1956. Such conditions – and a staffing shortage – provoked four strikes by the United Auto Workers at General Motors this year.

Thus, the UPS settlement shook up bosses far beyond UPS executive offices. The 25 percent, five-year raise for full-timers, while not keeping far ahead of inflation, tops almost every other major union contract. And although the 35 percent raise for current part-timers over the same period doesn’t undo the damage of the two-tier pay scale in effect for the last 15 years, it is a reversal of the corporate trend towards cutting part-time pay. The promised 20,000 new full-time jobs for part-timers – half through attrition, half through new positions – will exclude 80 percent of part-timers. But it is a big departure from the downsizing trend of the last several years. Moreover, the Teamsters’ successful defense of union-controlled pension funds contrasts sharply with Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, where the United Steelworkers had to fight a 10-month strike to reverse cuts in pension benefits made a decade ago.

The other precedent of the UPS strike was the display of workers’ power and solidarity. The Independent Pilots Association’s decision to honor picket lines shut down UPS’s most profitable business. If the International Association of Machinists had honored the picket lines of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981, the nation’s airlines would have been grounded. President Ronald Reagan would have been unable to fire the 11,000 traffic controllers – and labor’s worst defeat of the post-World War II period would have been a major victory instead.

After more than a decade of defeats, UPS workers have scored a major victory for all workers. As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told the New York Times, “It ends the PATCO syndrome. A 16-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization is over.”

Teamsters President Ron Carey’s stature increased greatly as the press gave credit to the Teamsters’ “media-savvy” operation in leading the strike. In reality, Carey hesitated before the battle. The months-long contract campaign created an image of activism, but there were never any serious preparations for a strike as Carey negotiated through the original contract deadline. But because Carey was facing the possible rerun of the Teamsters election, he needed to shore up his base with UPS workers by delivering a decent contract. UPS’s hard-line stance gave him no choice but to strike.

Since labor leaders had settled for bad contracts to avoid national strikes at General Motors and General Electric over the past year, UPS saw a chance to test to the “new” labor movement. But once the strike began, Carey shifted to the left, becoming steadily more aggressive as he adapted to the workers’ solidarity and mass support for the strike. And the political and economic impact of the strike forced AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to finally make good his promise of a “new” labor movement by providing financial support to the strike. It was an object lesson in the role of the trade union bureaucracy, which vacillates to the left and right depending on the amount of pressure from above and below.

UPS had counted on winning a strike through mass scabbing by part-timers and/or presidential intervention through the anti-union Taft-Hartley act. But even by management’s own estimates, over 90 percent of workers honored picket lines. And the sympathy of millions of workers for the strike and the backing of the AFL-CIO made it politically impossible for Clinton to use his legal authority to end the strike, as he did at American Airlines earlier this year and at Amtrak just days after the UPS settlement. And confrontations between militant workers and police in Somerville, Mass. and Warwick, R.I. made it clear to UPS that an all-out scabbing operation risked provoking mass pickets.

All of this gave the Teamsters tremendous leverage – much of which was wasted. The union could have pressed for three times as many new jobs. There are also backward steps, such as the introduction of sleeper teams for over-the-road “feeder” drivers and greater flexibility for managers in making job assignments. Such setbacks were completely unnecessary. The success of the strike had UPS management reeling.

These weaknesses flow directly from the way in which negotiations and the strike were conducted. Local officials sought to keep picket lines as small and non-confrontational as possible, giving a free pass to management scabs. Indeed, Carey waited a week before telling workers to “dig in.” This conservatism courted disaster. Employers like the Detroit News and Free Press, Caterpillar, Bridgestone-Firestone and Staley have broken strikes or lockouts with mass scabbing operations. UPS was different only because management was overconfident and unprepared.

Strike activists who held picket lines together throughout the strike will need to remain organized to keep the company from going back on its promises. This requires organization – and the Teamsters election campaign can provide the basis for such an effort.

The victory at UPS makes it far more likely that Carey will hold on to office in the Teamsters election rerun – if he is allowed to run. While he remains preferable to the “old guard” backers of Jimmy Hoffa Jr., Carey’s top-down leadership of the UPS strike was perfectly in keeping with business unionism.

Keeping pressure on UPS will require an active, organized rank and file to fight over grievances – and that will require changes in the union. Teamsters at UPS and other companies should demand that their locals institute elected shop stewards and contract-negotiating committees, regular union meetings, and votes on contracts before returning to work.

It is here that the relevance of socialist politics in the labor movement becomes clear. Socialists are committed to building shop-floor, rank-and-file organizations that can push the fight forward when union leaders fail to represent workers’ needs. The unrealized potential of the UPS strike points to the necessity of such an approach. What is more, the openness of many UPS workers to socialist politics and the role of socialists in initiating solidarity meetings in cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Providence, R.I. marked a modest but important step towards legitimizing the socialist voice in the labor movement still deeply scarred by McCarthyism.

More generally, the massive support for the UPS strike shows that U.S. workers are no different than their brothers and sisters in South Korea or France, who have stood up against the employers’ offensive. After months of mind-numbing media happy talk about the economy, the strike made it clear that exploitation and class struggle are inescapable facts of life in the U.S. And this underscores the urgency of not just building the unions to take advantage of the momentum of the UPS strike, but of putting forward a socialist alternative.

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