Nathan Newman. "Why the Victory at UPS Matters." 
Center for Community Economic Research.  August 1997.

 

With last night's labor contract deal between UPS and the Teamsters agreed to, it appears that the Teamsters have scored a massive win against corporate America.  Along with keeping control of their pension fund and winning increases for retirees, the Teamsters have won what appears to be a nearly 40% increase in wages for the average part-time worker and the creation of over 10,000 new full-time positions.  In a time when many unions have had to fight to the death for modest gains or to just hold onto what they already have, this unprecendented gain for UPS workers is an inspiring win for UPS workers.

But it is more than that.  It was won with massive public support and the full backing of the AFL-CIO and, in its meaning for the future of labor and the progressive movement, it will likely be remembered as a crucial turning point for an upswing in activism and success.

Why is the win at UPS so important?

Start with the settlement itself.  In a time when pensions are disappearing or companies are turning pensions into corporate piggybanks, the Teamsters have reaffirmed the principle of strong, worker-controlled pensions that are portable between jobs within an industry.  In a time when part-time work is a tool for disempowering workers, the Teamsters have struck the first successful collective assault against corporation's abusive use of part-time work.  In a time when average wages have fallen for twenty years,  the Teamsters have won an unprecedented increase in wages.

In all of this, they have signalled that lowered wages and benefits are not an "inevitable" aspect of the global economy but a result, at least partly, of corporate power and that such corporate power can be resisted and even defeated through collective action backed by a unified labor and community alliance.  In a world where the message has been that the only way to avoid being screwed was to cut your own deal, scam your own individual training, fight for your own raise as others fell behind, the UPS deal is now there as a shining example that a whole workforce can rise together and see improvement in working conditions achieved through their own collective strength.

Let's be clear.  Everyone loves a winner and labor in now a winner through this action.  The credibility of labor struggle as a method to fighting corporate power has been relegitimized.  The fact that this struggle served lower-income and part-time workers has also relegitimized labor as a champion not just of elite manufacturing workers, pilots and baseball players (a recent media image) but of ordinary workers who everyone can easily identify with.  The faces of the strikers were often mothers deciding whether they could afford Fruit Loops on their strike pay and everyone will be cheering that that mother or other struggling families will now have a pay increase and a shot at converting two or three part-time jobs into a solid full-time job at UPS.

It is an image of labor that can be taken to workplaces and communities across the country by organizers saying, you could be that mother or that father improving your lot if you will only stand up with your fellow workers and form a union.  You can win and you can gain.  That is a message we have needed, especially after years of failed strikes in Deacateur, Detroit and earlier Hormel and PATCO.  The UPS win is the new meaning of a revitalzed labor movement that will fight together for victory,  With 55% of the population siding with the UPS strikers, it signals a new opportunity for labor to marshall public support and sympathy not just as the underdogs but as effective champions to challenge corporate power.

Which is where the strike win gets its other significance, which is in the internal meaning for Labor.

Start with Carey as leader of the Teamsters.  As a rank-and-file leader, Carey had fought for decades against a corrupt Teamster leadership that signed go-along contracts that created the two-tier wage and part-time labor system at UPS in the first place.  It was only the struggle for rank-and-file democracy within the Teamsters (led by left activists in Teamsters for a Democratic Union) that eventually catapulted Carey into leadership when the opportunity came in 1991.  Against the odds and against internal corruption and the mob, Ron Carey and his TDU allies wrested back control of the largest private sector union in the country.

With the federal government overseers draining money from the union as a terrific rate, Carey had to expend other resources cleaning up corrupt locals and dealing with the vestigal resistance of old-line locals living off the fat of members dues.  Carey sold off the private jets and slashed his own salary but out of the struggle to reform the union, the Teamsters had emerged seemingly hobbled with an empty bank account.  With the election for Teamster President held last year, Carey faced the son of the legendary Jimmy Hoffa who attacked Carey for weaknesses in the union created by Hoffa Junior's own allies, but the attack was almost enough to win a majority.  That would have been a tragedy of incredible proportions as the old-line hacks and corrupt deals would have reasserted themselves across the union.  Carey emerged the winner but he also emerged tarred as allies and consultants desperately cut corners with a few large, embarassing illegal campaign contributions to the Carey effort undermining the legitimacy of his win.  The contributions were returned but the damage to Carey's standing as an honest reformer had been done.

So this is the situation Carey faced in this strike: an empty strike fund, his own leadership under a cloud, and facing one of the largest employers in the country backed by flush bank accounts and a $1 billion in profits the year before.  Before the strike started, there were a number of pundit analyses that the Teamsters were doomed if they went on strike since their internal collapse or financial exhaustion of their strike fund would quickly kill them off.

But Carey defied the odds or, rather, the rank-and-file did as they voted overwhelmingly to strike and when they did, a microscopic number would cross the picket lines.  With the stakes so high, Carey's opponents could not afford to be seen as soft or helping management, so support for the strike was loud and vociferous from all quarters of the union.  But the key was rank-and-file resolve, a decision after two decades of corporate attacks to just say "no."  And the result was yesterday's victory and a victory for militant reform elements not just in the Teamsters but across the union movement.

Carey has proven that honest leadership committed to militant united union action can win for workers what old-line "business unionists" could not-- a decent contract and a shot at the American Dream for average workers. And by winning this strike, Carey himself has assured that his own leadership position will remain solid and he can further clean up the union and expand organizing.

But Carey could not have won alone.  A crucial part of the the win against UPS was the annoucement by AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney that, since the Teamsters strike fund was empty, other AFL-CIO unions would loan the Teamsters whatever funds were needed for however long it took.  Sweeney's declaration that "The UPS strike is our strike. Their struggle is our struggle" was a message to UPS management that they were not fighting 180,000 UPS workers but the combined will of millions of AFL-CIO unionists who would use every tool necessary to support the UPS strikers.

This UPS strike was really the first big challenge of Sweeney's Presidency of the AFL-CIO.  After narrowly being elected to head the AFL-CIO in 1995 by union leaders at the 1995 AFL-CIO convention, he had focused initially on reorienting the finances of the labor federation towards organizing and had launched the federation's 1996 electoral campaign, one that sought to raise the issues of low pay and falling standards of living for workers. Partly due to that campaign, an increase in the minimum wage and the Kennedy-Kassebaum health care bill were passed.

But on the labor front, Sweeney had generated a lot of noise and fanfare but, while a new energy surged through the ranks of labor, the concrete results had not been large.  A major strike at Boeing had been won and the UAW had made some inroads with the auto companies, but this seemed to have little direct connection to Sweeney.  The new AFL-CIO leadership made token mobilizations around inherited struggles in Decateur and the Detroit Newspaper strike, but seemed unable or unwilling to meet the expectations of rank-and-file activists to create a united response in support of such key labor struggles.

In that sense, the UPS strike was the first big challenge that Sweeney would face where he could blame no one else, where the responsibility for full labor support was with him from day one.

And in his support of the UPS strike, in his bringing together of labor heads to back the Teamsters with the full resources of the labor movement, Sweeney showed what a radical change had been made from the previous legacy of Lane Kirland who had left unions to fend for themselves, had sat back and watched PATCO crushed and strike after strike that followed defeated in their isolation.  Instead, we had the message that a united labor movement would support strikes by any of their members.

For doubting unions that needed resolve (or pressure) to shift internal union budgets away from do-nothing labor bureaucrats to Sweeney's priorities of organizing, organizing and organizing, this strike has strengthened both Sweeney's prestige and the prestige of the ideas and ideals that forced the historic election of Sweeney and his leadership team in 1995.

And the link between Sweeney and Carey go further.  When Sweeney was elected in 1995, Carey's Teamsters were the deciding votes.  Without question, if Carey had not been elected head of the Teamsters in 1991, Sweeney would not have been elected head of the AFL-CIO in 1995.  And without both elections, the victory at UPS would have been impossible since the rank-and-file wouldn't have even been given the chance to fight together for this victory.  This is important not so much because Carey and Sweeney as individuals mattered but because they represented the aspirations and struggles of rank-and-file unionists and activists who had struggled for decades to revitalize the labor movement.  And these individual leaders became the vehicles for bring that change.

If the UPS strike is the turning point for labor, it is a thin, fragile line that led from defeat to revival - a thread that easily could have been broken and the destruction of the modern labor movement a real possibility.

That possibility still exists, of course.  The UPS strike was just one victory and unions today represent just over 10% of private sector employees, down from nearly 35% of employees in the 1950s.  That low level of representation rivals the depths reached in the early part of the Depression before the CIO began its massive organizing drive.

If the UPS strike is to represent a turning point, it will have to be followed by massive organizing wins, from the Strawberry workers of California to the Apple pickers of Washington State to the textile workers of the South to hospital workers in the Northeast.

The lesson of the UPS strike, however, is that none of those strikes are isolated, that each struggle is our struggle, that militancy and determination can overcome corporate power if workers are united, if they mobilize community support, and if they link the interests of unionized workers to the aspirations of the 90% of workers who are not in a union but might like to be if they see union gains as gains for all working people.

Much internal reform is still needed in both the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, but the victory at UPS shows how far we have come.