Lessons of the 1997 Teamster Strike at UPS

Bill Leumer
“After decades of corruption among the top ranks of the Teamsters’ union, the U.S. government stepped in and presented these union officials, who were alleged to have violated federal anti-racketeering laws, an offer they could not refuse. The government allowed them to sign a “consent decree” which would exempt them from prosecution, but with the […]

Bill Leumer

Part I

In 1997, Ron Carey, President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), led the union to a smashing victory against United Parcel Service (UPS) by waging a militant strike, wrenching at least $1 billion in concessions from the company for the duration of the 5-year contract.The Teamsters estimated the real value of the gains, won entirely at the expense of UPS profits, ranged as high as $5 billion. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that this monumental achievement was waged in the context of a series of devastating labor defeats on a national level, including one concessionary contract after another, where workers lost ground so that corporations could raise their profits. And it was waged at a time when most of the high-ranking labor officials had signed off on the notion that “strikes don’t work anymore.”

This article, which will appear in two parts, analyzes the key components that were crucial to the Teamsters’ success. This first installment will provide the reader with some necessary information about background events leading up to the 1997 strike. The second installment, by focusing exclusively on the dynamics of the strike itself, will bring to light the rich lessons that can be learned for today’s struggles. As we shall see, one is led to the unmistakable conclusion that well led strikes are still workers’ most effective weapon in their efforts to defend and improve their standard of living in the face of relentless corporate attempts to lower it.

After decades of corruption among the top ranks of the Teamsters’ union, the U.S. government stepped in and presented these union officials, who were alleged to have violated federal anti-racketeering laws, an offer they could not refuse. The government allowed them to sign a “consent decree” which would exempt them from prosecution, but with the condition that the Teamster membership be granted, for the first time in the union’s history, the right to directly elect the highest officials of the union. This agreement was viewed by many, including the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), as a step toward cleaning up the union of criminal and corrupt elements by opening the door to the members as a whole, in effect, to control the union. (TDU is a reform caucus within the union that for decades has promoted the case for union democracy).

As a result of the consent decree, elections were held in 1991. Ron Carey, the elected chief executive officer of Local 804 and a former UPS employee, ran for president of the Teamsters on a slate endorsed by TDU, even though Carey was not himself a member of TDU. Carey ran against two “old guard” candidates, as the supporters of the previous corrupt regime were called by union militants. Despite the corruption, or perhaps because of it, these “old guard” candidates were backed by most of the local union officials from around the country, as well as the trucking industry employers with whom they collaborated. Carey and his slate won the election with a plurality.

Not only did Carey campaign for a corruption-free, democratic union, but most importantly, he opposed concessionary contracts, thereby rejecting the previous long-standing Teamster officials’ practice of restricting workers’ demands to what the employers said they could afford. As Carey would often say, he wanted the union, “to be a fighting force for workers,” and thus union democracy was viewed as a means to that end, not as an abstract question of morality.

This policy was a clear indication that Carey rejected the notion that the union and the corporations were somehow partners, as if they have a community of shared interests. And it sent a message to the ranks that, if elected, Carey would mobilize the membership to take on the corporations and reverse the trend. None of this was surprising, given Carey’s record as the head of his local where he bucked the partnership policy of the bureaucracy and led four strikes against UPS, winning significant gains for the members. He also advocated honoring the picket lines of all unions, a rarity as much then as it is now. Carey was convinced that this approach was the only way the members could achieve further gains, and it won him the affection and loyalty of the 7,000 members of his New York Teamsters local.

The First UPS Strike

Carey was soon to deliver on his promises. In 1994, several months after a contract with UPS had been agreed upon, UPS unilaterally announced, in violation of the contract it had just signed, that it wanted to raise the weight of packages workers were required to lift from 70 pounds to 150 pounds. In response, the Teamsters indicated they wanted to discuss this proposed change, but UPS refused. As soon as the Teamsters learned that workers were being required to adopt this weight change, Carey called for a nationwide strike against the company.

UPS immediately went running to the courts – which as a general rule favor employers over workers – and succeeded in securing an injunction against the strike. Despite the strike’s illegality, Carey persisted, and UPS workers refused to return to work. Such defiance in the face of the capitalist legal system had not been seen in the labor movement since 1978 when the United Mine Workers defied a court injunction. The strike against UPS lasted less than 24 hours. The company capitulated and signed an agreement with the union whereby it retracted its intention to raise the weight limit.

This strike was conducted, it should be noted, amidst extreme adversity. Most of the Teamster local officials, because of their alliance with the “old guard,” ordered their members to go to work in defiance of Carey. A typical example of this treachery came from William A. Moore, the top official of IBT Local 696, who issued the following instructions to the members: “I’m telling you in no uncertain terms that you and this local must not, under any circumstances, violate this court order.” Out of 165,000 UPS workers, 70,000 went on strike, which was just enough to make UPS back down.

Moreover, the top AFL-CIO officials did not lift one finger to indicate they supported the strike. Their silence, however, announced loud and clear that they were not about to break their long-standing orientation of a so-called partnership with the corporations, although this partnership was forged entirely at the expense of their members.

The strike stopped the company dead in its tracks when it tried to violate the contract. By breaking with the partnership policy and making recourse to the strike, Carey demonstrated to all those involved that strikes are still the most effective weapon in the workers’ arsenal. Those who peddle the notion that strikes don’t work anymore do so because they are more concerned about the profits of their corporate partners than the welfare of their own members.

The 1994 Freight Strike

The second major challenge that confronted Carey prior to 1997 involved the nation’s leading trucking companies, who collectively negotiate a single contract.

The company owners judged that the situation was ripe for them to act. When the U.S. government imposed the consent decree on the Teamsters, it required that the union finance the elections as well as the government’s monitoring of the union, and the $40 million price tag resulted in the depletion of the union strike fund. The owners also believed that they could count on the enduring support of many of the “old guard” local union officials, as happened in the one-day UPS strike. This kind of loyalty in the past had translated into a 21 percent decline in wages for freight drivers between 1977 and 1994. Consequently, the trucking company owners confidently demanded a sharp reduction in full-time workers and corresponding rise in part-timers, with half the pay and fewer or no benefits. Had the companies succeeded, the union would have been, in effect, busted.

The Teamster drivers rejected this proposal and 70,000 went out on strike. They set up pickets at all the major trucking companies across the country, to the surprise of the owners who had grown accustomed to the token strikes of the “old guard.” When the freight companies attempted to break the strike in Boston and Southern California by using riot police to escort scab trucks through picket lines, determined strikers and their allies successfully defeated riot police and kept the scabs out.

At this point, the trucking companies must have realized that this was not the usual labor bureaucratic dog and pony show. And they knew full well that when unions are used as an instrument of struggle, militant strikers have the potential to attract massive support, unlike the fake strikes conducted by the phony union bureaucrats. The Carey administration instituted a daily strike bulletin in order to be in intimate and constant contact with the strikers. But the administration soon realized that the old guard was not distributing the bulletin to the strikers and was even urging the strikers to accept the companies’ offer. Carey then called for the creation of rank and file networks that were composed not of just strikers, but other Teamsters from the union as a whole. These networks insured that the bulletin was properly distributed and acted as ad hoc strike committees, organizing solidarity actions in the form of mass meetings and demonstrations with other unions and community organizations across the country. This tactic was crucial to the effectiveness of the strike since it enabled the strikers to obtain picket line reinforcements from these allies. Accordingly, Carey out-flanked the corrupt local union officials by appealing to the rank and file, thereby turning the tide of the strike from defeat to victory.

For the first time in recent memory, the Teamsters were able to confront the freight companies and come out with a partial victory. They defeated the main demand of replacing full-timers with part-timers and gained job security language. They won some and lost some on the grievance language, but they lost on the question of diverting some freight to the railroads. Overall, and most noteworthy, the union emerged from the strike stronger than before. The membership was inspired and grew more self-confident. In an article titled, “The Workers Are Starting to Win a Few,” here is how The New York Times put it: “But a funny thing happened when the nation’s unionized trucking companies decided to save money – and better compete with nonunion companies – by replacing full-time workers with part-timers. The Teamsters’ union struck, and won a partial victory.”

Part II

The 1997 Teamster strike against UPS was not simply a victory, but a smashing victory for the US working class and therefore offers many valuable lessons for today’s labor militants, both with respect to the strategic orientation and the day-to-day tactics. UPS is a “Fortune 500” company, meaning it is one of the most profitable in the nation, boasting of a $1.15 billion profit margin prior to the strike. In 1992, the workforce was evenly divided between full-time and part-time workers, but by 1996, part-timers had increased to 61 percent and were only paid between $8 and $9 per hour.

The company approached contract negotiations in 1996 brimming with confidence. It had grown accustomed to dealing with cooperative union officials, and even though the recently reelected Teamster President, Ron Carey, was a known labor militant, UPS knew that it had allies on the local level among the “Old Guard.” Also, UPS was aware that the Teamster treasury was down, in part because Carey had already led several strikes and in part because the expenses involving the Consent Decree, allowing the U.S. government oversight over the union, was financed out of the Teamster treasury. UPS believed the Teamsters could very well encounter difficulties trying to pay strike benefits of $55 per week to striking UPS workers.

With these factors taken into consideration, UPS representatives entered contract negotiations prepared to play hardball. They demanded a 7-year contract and “general flexibility,” a euphemism for never-ending concessions regarding work rules. They wanted to convert more full-time positions into part-time work, reduce vacation days, holidays and personal days, and eliminate union jobs by making highway drivers self-employed subcontractors.

Preparing for the strike

But the Teamsters were ready for a game of hardball. In fact, they had begun to take the necessary steps to prepare for contract negotiations a year in advance, which any serious confrontation requires. For example, they surveyed the membership, asking them which issues ranked highest with them. When the overwhelming majority responded that an increase in full-time positions was their number one concern, the Teamsters raised this as their foremost demand.

The Teamsters also created a Contract Campaign Committee, consisting of 16 staff members, many of whom were former or current UPS workers. Volunteer organizers were also solicited. During the 5 months prior to the termination of the contract, this committee reached out to other unions and community groups for support, using the battle cry: “Our fight is the fight of all American workers.” This cry resonated throughout the working class because so many workers across the country have been recently converted into part-timers and have watched their standard of living drop accordingly. The Teamsters made a point of saying, “If we win this fight, we can help others win their fight.”

As a further step in preparation, a special national meeting of all UPS Teamster local officials was held to discuss and then vote on the national bargaining strategy. And most importantly, the Teamsters began to mobilize and unify the membership by keeping everyone informed of all developments and by encouraging the active participation of the rank and file, for example, through the creation of job membership networks. By employing these tactics the leadership and membership were able to advance in unison.

The strike

In response to UPS’s regressive demands, the Teamsters countered, among other things, by insisting on an increase in full-time work along with a large raise in the wages of part-timers. UPS then offered a $3,060 bonus to all full-timers and a $1,530 bonus to all part-timers if they accepted the company’s final offer, which was almost identical to their original demands. In July, the Teamsters took a strike authorization vote, and 95 percent gave their authorization for a strike, if necessary. UPS then turned to Carey and asked him to grant the company an extension to the contract. Carey refused. UPS proceeded to request a 10-day notification period before striking. This was also rejected.

On midnight of August 3 the Teamsters struck. Their careful preparations resulted in 1,700 picket lines immediately appearing across the country in all 50 states, bringing the UPS trucks to a halt. These picket lines were militantly maintained by the membership with the support of their allies from other sectors of the working class because they knew that success rested on keeping the trucks from moving. And the union made it clear that it would not let government picketing injunctions stop them. The union distributed fliers on a regular basis to keep the entire membership informed of exactly what was happening, both on the picket lines and in continuing negotiations.

At this point members of the “Old Guard,” who still occupied official positions on the local level, tried to sabotage the strike by refusing to distribute union fliers, hold membership meetings, or organize rallies. They wanted to make Carey look bad in order to enhance their own reelection prospects in future elections. And they feared that if the membership were activated, mobilized, and informed, it would quickly remove them from office because it would become transparent that the “Old Guard”, following in the footsteps of the capitalists, were exclusively operating in their own interests, not those of the union membership. Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., current Teamster President and leader of the “Old Guard” faction, actually declared the strike “unnecessary” and claimed that it was only being called to divert attention from his unsupported accusation that Carey improperly diverted Teamster money to his 1996 election campaign.

But Carey did not waiver in the face of this treachery. He announced that if local officials failed to implement the policies that had been democratically adopted, their locals would be placed in trusteeship. In doing this, Carey let UPS know that he would not allow a “Fifth Column” within the union to continue to operate in the company’s interests.

The strike, which included almost 100 percent of the Teamster UPS workers, lasted only 15 days, at which point UPS capitulated. The Wall Street Journal interviewed UPS executives and concluded that, “UPS executives misjudged the strength of rank-and-file allegiance to Mr. Carey and the union…” The Teamsters accordingly won virtually all their demands. The part-timers emerged as the biggest winners, with UPS agreeing to create 10,000 new full-time jobs by combining part-time positions. The pension was significantly improved, limits were placed on subcontracting, full-timers received $3.10 per hour raise and part-timers got $4.10. There were other gains as well.

What was at stake in the strike

The Teamster strike was not just a case of defending workers’ standard of living. Rather, the union went on the offensive and wrenched huge gains from a company that was intent on raising its profit margin. By prioritizing the cause of part-timers — those who are most exploited — the Teamsters revived the foundational principle of all unions: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” For this reason, the strike had the potential of opening the floodgates by inspiring workers across the country, just as victories during the 1930s and 40s succeeded in doing. It had the potential of realigning the relation of forces between the working class and the capitalist class since it demonstrated a winning strategy not only against UPS, but against UPS with government backing and the support of the corporate media. This strike served as a beacon of light for the entire working class because everything that was done ran directly counter to the business-as-usual conduct of bureaucratic labor officials who have grown adept at negotiating concessionary contracts that contain two and three-tier wage rates and benefits. Unfortunately there was no labor upsurge inspired by the Teamster strike. The reasons for this failure are specific and will be addressed in a future article.

Lessons of the strike

One of the crucial ingredients of the victory was the organic relation established between the leadership and the rank and file. Capitalists derive their power from their ownership of the big businesses, from the support they receive from the government, and from their control of the media . We workers derive our collective power from the fact that we constitute the vast majority of the population (so a truly democratic society would operate in our interests), and we do all the work that makes this country run. Without our labor, everything comes to an abrupt halt. But we are not able to exercise our power unless we are organized, unified, and act in solidarity. Then, we are unstoppable.

The Teamsters focused on unifying the membership by letting the members themselves determine which issues to fight for. Moreover, it aimed at reducing the disunity within its ranks – represented by the division between part-timers and full-timers – by raising the level of part-timers first and foremost. The membership was kept informed throughout the conflict and was encouraged to play an active role. At the same time, the leadership made it clear to the members that it was prepared to truly lead. It took the initiative in mobilizing the membership and in preparing well in advance for a battle. At one point Carey called off negotiations with UPS until the company removed “the garbage off the table.”

Moreover, the Teamsters made use of workers’ most powerful weapon — the strike. Today’s labor bureaucrats, accustomed to waging phony strikes with porous picket lines, suffer huge losses and then nevertheless shamelessly declare victory. The Teamster strike was a real strike, intent on bringing the operations of the company to a complete halt by organizing militant picket lines that did not let trucks through, thereby reducing the company’s ability to make profits to zero, which put the company in a stranglehold. Furthermore, because a strike is in essence an act of war waged against a formidable enemy, it cannot be initiated without thorough preparations, which the Teamsters took great pains to do well in advance of the strike itself.

Also, the Teamsters made a concerted appeal to the public, which is overwhelmingly working class, in their campaign. By highlighting and advertising the plight of part-time workers, the Teamsters won the sympathy and support of working people everywhere, which is essential in terms of raising the morale of the striking workers. Knowing that you are not alone when on strike is invaluable. And morale is a crucial element in determining who soars to victory and who sinks to defeat in any conflict.

Conclusion

For decades workers have been told by their bureaucratic union officials that strikes don’t work any more, that they must establish a partnership with the company, and that workers must pray that the Democratic Party will come to their aid. These same officials fail to mention that such a strategy has only succeeded in delivering a continually declining standard of living to the workers.

The Teamster UPS strike definitively demonstrated that a properly led strike can score dramatic victories for workers. The relation between workers and their employers is a relation of power. Consequently, workers can only succeed by exercising the tremendous power at their disposal — a power that flows directly from the fact that absolutely no profits can be made when workers close down a business with a strike.

These lessons must be adopted by a new union leadership which will inevitably arise once workers are no longer prepared to tolerate a further decline in their wages and benefits. This leadership, which will constitute a new class struggle left-wing in the union movement, must be prepared to wage a battle independent of the Republicans and the Democrats since both parties prostrate themselves and grovel before the capitalists in order to secure financing for their elections. Such a union leadership will provide the foundation for a new political party — a labor party — that can truly champion the interests of the majority of society’s members, the working class. And then we will see the dawning of a new age in this country’s labor history.

 

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About the Author: Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.), former member of IBT Local 216 and was a pro-Carey TDU member. He is a writer for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.