The Fight for Control at UPS

                           Forty Years of Struggle

It is forty years ago, in November, since striking United Parcel (UPS) workers, roving pickets, crossed from Pennsylvania into Ohio, closing UPS hubs as they went, including the company’s big Northern Ohio center, Cleveland. It was an extraordinary episode, thinking back on it. Still, this event was in some ways not really so unusual; wildcat strikes were endemic in Ohio in 1973; in Cleveland, just three years earlier, truck drivers shut down the city’s then massive industrial center, “the flats.” The New York Times reported that the governor had responded by ordering 4,000 guardsmen (the145th infantry, redeployed soon after to Kent State University) to “combat” what he called “open warfare” on the state’s highways.

Just south, in the Ohio coalfields, miners were in open rebellion, the corrupt, cruel Tony Boyle regime having just been removed in 1972 by Miners for Democracy (MFD), the best known of the 1970s rank-and-file movements. That same year, to the east of Cleveland, half-way along the Interstate to Pittsburgh, young autoworkers, many with long hair, often unshaven, shut down General Motor’s gigantic new assembly plant at Lordstown, then home to the fastest assembly lines in the world. Gary Bryner, twenty-nine, the president of United Auto Workers local 1112 in 1972, told Studs Terkel that this rebellion represented “the Woodstock of the working man.” The average age of the Lordstown worker was 24.

I think, however, that the roving pickets from UPS still stand out – as does the reception they received in Cleveland that November morning; not a package moved, not one, this despite the threats of a small army of UPS supervisors, not to mention several carloads of baseball bat carrying officials from the union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Cleveland local 407. I’m not alone in this. Indeed these strikers remain quite properly commemorated in the late David Montgomery’s popular collection of essays, Workers Control in America (1979): “A 1973 strike of drivers and warehousemen of United Parcel Service in a dozen Pennsylvania and Ohio communities was well-coordinated by a council of delegates from the struck shipping centers, in open defiance of the threats and sanctions of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The strikers even forced the IBT to pay them strike benefits, by petitioning the NLRB for a decertification election – in a petition that was withdrawn when the union paid.” (173) He argued, moreover, that , in engaging in this conflict, these workers (as did so many others) sought alternatives both to the UPS regime and to its junior partners who managed the IBT and in doing so, they “cut away at the very roots of their employers power over them.”

Montgomery concluded that “American workers have never in the past fit into the mold which the captains of industry have cast over them,”  looking to the day they will “regain mastery over collective and socialized production.” Too hopeful? Yes, one supposes; in the end the battles of the seventies were for the most part lost, at least in the most immediate sense. The “captains of industry” regrouped, then repulsed these rebellions, first under the compliant watch of the Carter administration, then, of course, with Reagan at the helm of state, and the crushing defeat of the air traffic controllers -clearing the path for a far from finished war on America’s working people.

Since, then, UPS has grown, and prospered, to say the least. It boasts, today, that it is the world’s largest shipping company; it delivers daily fifteen million packages to six million customers in 220 countries. UPS owns a chain of stores, an airline, and a freight division… among other things. It employs nearly 400,000 people, 250,000 of whom are members of the U.S. Teamsters union, the parcel division the largest single bargaining unit in the country.

UPS remains best known to the public for its fleets of brown trucks, on-time deliveries and hustling, courteous drivers. It is not, however, so well known, not to the public anyway, for its relentless pursuit of control, for its militaristic regime, and its punitive work rules and its armies of bullying supervisors.  Nor that it is this pursuit that stands behind its constant innovations and its continuous introduction of new technologies. UPS has led the way in creating a part-time workforce (half its workers today), also for creating air freight and global operations.  Just as important is its obsessive use of the stop watch, now  the computer, GPS and other surveillance technologies, all for control of the labor process, and control of the workers – for its Taylorism, that is the system of industrial relations that is so commonplace today that it’s difficult to image there was ever anything else.  UPS leads the industry in this, a “scientific management” that takes control of every detail of work, producing in the late Harry Braverman’s words “the disassociation of the labor process from the skill of the worker.”  And, it seems, it’s all paid off. $4.5 billion in profits last year. Its assets – $34 billion this year.  Its CEO, Scott Davis, receives a salary of $3.27 million, but the Associated Press tells us, “Most of his compensation comes in the form of stock options” – nearly $10 million.

Yes, success, an American success story. But not without a fight, and a fight that in fact continues. There are two sides to every story.

As I write, tens of thousands of UPS workers, members of the IBT, are contesting provisions of this year’s contract, just negotiated by UPS and their union. Their master (national) contract has been passed, just barely, 53% in favor. But in this industry, regional and local supplements (riders covering local conditions, agreements, etc.) can be just as important as national agreements. And here, in response to these agreements, 140,000 workers in eighteen regions have voted “No!” There was much to contest – UPS’s plans to cut full-time jobs, its institutionalized harassment and its forced overtime. But, you guessed it, it’s healthcare costs that have broken the deal. UPS workers for the most part retain very good benefits, the legacy of bye-gone days plus a history of fierce defense of these benefits. The Teamsters International had promised no increases in health care costs, yet, sure enough, there they are, put into the supplements. The result, the largest union contract in the United States is now on hold, thanks to the tenacity of these workers; thanks also to the “Vote No” movement organized by dissident workers including those in the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the rank-and-file-opposition movement itself nearly 40 years running now. (A separate national contract covering 15,000 TEAMSTERS AT UPS Freight was rejected by more than 2 to 1.) These contracts must be renegotiated, and then approved (voted on) by the members – before the national agreement can go into effect. TDU is now campaigning, “We’ll keep Voting No Until UPS Gets it Right!” with meetings, rallies and petition campaigns right across the country, a campaign aimed at getting the Teamsters back to the table, forcing them to negotiate a better contract.

One example is worth telling here. IBT local 89 in Louisville, KY, represents 10,000 UPS workers, the majority part-timers, and large numbers of whom work in the (very) early morning hours in the UPS air freight hub, most often at near minimum wage jobs. These workers, nevertheless, help account for the astonishing volume and speed with which UPS operates. Moreover, they occupy a strategic, highly sensitive position in this nation’s commerce, a vital link in the chains of distribution that promise on-time delivery. No wonder UPS offered these workers a $1000 bonus for a “yes” vote (no small deal for part-time wage workers); no wonder the International colluded in this campaign. (I’m told UPS management went so far as to phone the parents of these workers, many of who are students). The result? They rejected their local rider by an 8-1 margin. In the meantime, local 89 has let it be known that it is prepared to strike if a better contract is not on offer.

Where has this come from?  Defiance in the face of this trucking behemoth? It’s a bit surprising, given today’s grim circumstances, all the more in a union with a record of docility in the face of aggressive employers.

Here’s some of the answer. The fact is that UPS workers have a long history of fighting; and Louisville has a long been a center of rank-and-file rebellion. It is, and has been a stronghold of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

This history is worth repeating, even if space allows for an outline at best. It can be illustrated in two movements, these from the seventies. In 1976, Frank Fitzsimmons, then IBT president, under intense pressure from the rank and file, including the new organization, Teamsters for a Decent Contract (TDC, later TDU), called an official, nationwide strike of truckers in freight. The same spring, the IBT struck UPS in the Central States, this time pressured by UPSurge, the organization of the UPS rank and file, affiliated with TDC. The union’s settlement in freight was met with a wildcat strike in Detroit; the settlement at UPS by wildcat strikes in eight Midwestern cities. In the Teamsters, then, still the largest union in the country, against all the odds, these workers launched national rank-and-file movements within the union, from the bottom up. In an extraordinary moment, they set out to challenge the leadership of this deeply corrupt, often brutal union with close ties to organized crime.

UPSurge and TDU grew into a movements of thousands; in 1979 UPSurge merged with TDU, becoming in essence a division of the by then larger organization. TDU has since campaigned for better contracts, promoted solidarity in strikes and among jurisdictions, sponsored bye laws reforms and exposed corruption and criminality. Its greatest achievements came in the 1991 when it played a key role in the victory of Ron Carey, the New York UPS workers’ leader, in his contest for the union’s presidency. This in turn led to a successful challenge to the AFL-CIO old guard leadership in 1995.

TDU then was instrumental in the 1997 national strike at UPS. It spearheaded a grassroots movement, reminiscent of UPSurge, with many months of intensive education, discussion, and internal communication, all within the union’s newly-created “member-to-member networks.” The movement built a broad consensus about union’s bargaining goals and how best to articulate them.

The victory was unparalleled, the single most important strike of the last decades of the twentieth century. Carey called the victory an “historic turning point” saying that “American workers have shown they can stand up to corporate greed.” The union’s victory not only beat back the UPS’s demands for concessions, but also opened the way for the creation of more full-time jobs. It became a rallying point for everyone concerned about the impact of part-timing, and its accompanying erosion of workplace-based benefits. The strike also demonstrated how much broader the appeal of unions can be when they are seen to be fighting for the interests of all workers.  AFL-CIO President John Sweeney observed soon after the settlement: “You could make a million house calls, run a thousand television commercials, stage a hundred strawberry rallies (for the United Farm Workers), and still not come close to doing what the UPS strike did for organizing.”

UPSurge, founded in Cleveland, also in 1975, was best known for its audacity in defiance of the company. Its initial focus was the 1976 central states contract negotiations. It began in Ohio but was built with roots in decades of militant activity. In the sixties and seventies there were continuous conflicts, strike, official and unofficial, including the traveling Pennsylvania wildcat pickets in 1973.  In 1970, New York, in the midst of a strike wave, for example, UPS workers struck, in a curious challenge to the dress code, demanding that package drivers be allowed to wear American flag badges on their uniforms. The wildcat strike ended with the ban on flags overturned and 20 fired drivers reinstated. But before it was settled, Ron Carey, then president of the New York local, was forced to add another issue to arbitration – the demand of black drivers to wear black liberation badges. The New York City United Parcel workforce was about 35% black at that time. United Parcel led the trucking industry in hiring blacks and minorities, then women. Its workers were younger and more diverse than average in trucking.

The founding “convention” of UPSurge was held in Indianapolis on January 31, 1976; it was astonishing. 650 UPSers gathered in a Holiday Inn in the eastern suburbs of the city. The meeting was part business, part protest rally, part celebration – it was certainly unparalleled in UPS history. Workers came from as far as Portland, Oregon and Boston, Massachusetts, though overwhelmingly they came from the central states. The meeting elected a steering committee with representatives from eleven cities. Ten contract demands were chosen; they focused on the following areas: part-timers (same pay rates, first bid on openings); appearance standards (uniform but no further restrictions); supervisors working (none); grievance procedure (innocent until proven guilty); overtime (voluntary and at double time); health, welfare and maternity leave (length of leave set by doctor, not company); unsafe equipment (right to refuse to operate); sick days (12 days per year); holidays (day after Thanksgiving) and radios (no restrictions on CB’s and personal equipment). All these, directly and/or indirectly challenged management control. UPSurge made no economic demands but endorsed the appeal of Vince Meredith, the Louisville chief steward: “Vote the first (offer) down; the second one is always better!”

The conflict at UPS in 1975-1976 revealed the depth of rank-and-file unrest, this time in a powerful, national, highly profitable company. The UPSurge steering committee was in essence a central states’ shop stewards movement, that is, nearly every member was a working, elected, recallable, shop-floor leader. These were the everyday leaders, their work not so romantic, their role often invisible. UPSurge joined these leaders into an organization of activists, representing dozens of workplaces spread across thousands of miles – but from the bottom up, independent of the union’s leadership – in a remarkable display of workers’ democracy. The UPSurge campaign emphasized the inhumanity of the working conditions at UPS and exposed the company’s reliance on coercion in its drive for profits.

I saw much of this first-hand. I was called down to the 1973 picket line that morning by my friend Anne Mackie, then a package driver, one of the first women to wear the UPS brown.  She (a former student, a feminist) became, in the years that followed, the charismatic leader of the UPS rebellion, symbolizing, in her person, the impact on workers of the sixties rebellions, including the vast enlargement these created in the fields of the possible. She was joined in leading UPSurge by Vince  Meredith, the Louisville chief steward, blue-collar personified, a veteran of the Korean War; the fiery  Meredith embodied the militant of an earlier generation – the steward as fighter, organizer, on the first line in the worker’s defense.

I knew them both fairly well, covering the campaign as a reporter and following them in meetings and rallies across the Midwest. Neither “fit into the mold which the captains of industry cast for them” (Montgomery again). Not at all. And neither do the dissenters of today.

Certainly, the struggle at UPS has had its ups and downs in these forty years; if it has not always lived up to its promises. What/who has?  Still, these struggles remain of great interest and not just because of this or that victory. Rather they point to the inherent strength of workers, their capacity to organize, and the potential for democracy in their movements, that is, of a real, “participatory” democracy – in contrast to the passive, formal, cash democracy of our times. They emphasize the importance of the workplace – the heart of corporate capitalism – and the struggle there for control.  More, it is important to stress, despite it all, that there have been victories, victories, we should add, in the face of political/corporate ruthlessness rarely rivaled in the industrial countries.

What, then, of the demand for “workers’ control”, the ownership and control of industry and its democratic management by the workers in the interest of all the people and the movements? It remains, partially, illusively, most often just below the surface. The fight today, indeed the ongoing struggle at UPS is illustrative of this. And it is just one link in that much longer chain of resistance, so eloquently recalled by David Montgomery. The fundamentals of this tradition, including the innovations of the seventies, ought not be erased, for they include (and these can be seen again and again in the demands thrown up by workers): the persistence of direct action, the assault on racism in the workplace, and the smashing down of barriers to women, the demand for dignity (“human rights”) on the job. They include the right of the rank and file to dissent, to challenge the leadership, to organize independently. They include the revival of workers’ councils and roving pickets. The shop steward, all too often reduced to the policeman on the beat, redefined as fighter, organizer and leader. The tradition of popular participation in the most basic of institutions, industry and the unions, is here. Also, I might add, the lived experience, however limited, of autonomy, self-government, and the taste of workers’ control. Is this of any significance? This can now seem utterly utopian. The fight for democratic unions, for unions capable of withstanding the corporate offensive, this too may seem utopian. Yet if this indeed the case, it is just as much a measure of the conservatism of our times time, and our capacity to silence the past, as it is a “realism.”

Back to the contract. Ken Paff is the Organizer of TDU. He too has roots in this history. Paff was a founder of TDU, one of that handful of Teamsters in 1976 who met at Kent State University. He’s another man who “does not fit the mold.” His take on today’s movement?

“Across the country, from LA to Ohio to New Jersey, UPS Teamsters are standing up to management greed and fighting to defend good family health benefits. The union leadership gave the corporation health care cuts… the members continue to fight back. They’re also demanding more full-time jobs, they want to combine low-wage part-time jobs, and an end to the forced overtime that is killing UPS drivers.

“They’re a good example to those who say workers won’t fight back in today’s political environment. TDU is providing members with the network and the tools.  The workers themselves are leading the struggle.”

Much has changed today, but much remains the same. The work process, continuously revolutionized – in our shops, offices, hospitals, schools on the docks, in the fields –  remains contested terrain. The struggle continues.