Letter from the US: Teamsters point the way forward


Loose cannons

Teamsters point the way forward

By Barry Sheppard

At a news conference announcing victory in the 15-day strike against the United Parcel Service, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' president, Ron Carey, hailed the settlement as "a victory for all workers".

And it was. By focusing on the issue of the two-tier wage gap between full-time and part-time workers, the need to reverse UPS's trend of hiring more part-time workers, and against contracting out work to lower-paying, non-union companies, the teamsters struck a chord in the working class.

Involving the largest number of workers in a national strike in two decades, the victory will inspire workers in other industries because it showed that if workers stand together they can fight and win.

Carey also announced that the teamsters were joining the United Farm Workers in a drive to organise the 40,000 fruit pickers and 15,000 warehouse workers who are the backbone of the $1 billion annual apple crop in Washington state. He also said that, building on the UPS victory, the union will now try to organise the workers at FedEx, a UPS competitor.

UPS management thought it could wear down its workers. The union's strike fund was depleted and the union leadership was sharply divided between reformers around Carey and the corrupt old guard.

But management miscalculated. The Carey leadership had prepared the workers well. They understood the issues involved and the importance of the full-time workers sticking by the lower-paid part-timers. Very few crossed the picket lines.

UPS pilots, who fly UPS cargo to major sorting centres, also honoured the picket lines and helped with leafleting. The pilots have been working without a contract since 1995 and expect to reach an agreement with UPS by December, or they too will strike. The teamsters will honour the pilots' picket lines.

The AFL-CIO pledged to loan the union $10 million a week to help it keep up its payments of $55 a week to each striker, and in a shift in the mood of the US working class, public sympathy was with the strikers: polls showed more than 2:1 public support. Rallies in every major US city were being organised for August 21, when the settlement was reached early on August 18.

All this kept morale high among the strikers, and management found itself isolated, while losing $300 million a week.

The solidity of the strike, the support of the rest of the union movement, and the public support also stayed President Clinton's hand in using the reactionary Taft-Hartley law to order the strikers back to work, despite UPS begging him to do so.

While the union made some concessions for the deal — the most important being agreeing to a five-year, rather than three or four-year contract — it was clearly the victor.

UPS had wanted to limit conversion of part-time to full-time jobs to 200 a year, for a total of 1000 over five years. The union wanted conversion of 2500 part-time jobs to full-time per year, for a total of 10,000 over four years. What the union won was the conversion of 2000 jobs a year over the five years, for a total of 10,000.

On wages, UPS wanted to keep the part-time starting rate at $8 an hour, the level since 1982. It proposed wage increases totalling $2.50 an hour for part-timers by the end of the five years. Full-time workers would get $1 an hour more at the end of five years.

The union wanted increases totalling $3.60 an hour for part-time workers and $2.60 for full-timers, over four years. What it got was increases over five years of about $4.10 an hour for part-timers, and $3.10 for full-timers. Starting wages for part-timers will be increased to $8.50 an hour.

The two-tier wage system and the use of part-time workers remain, but the union succeeded in narrowing the gap. By making gains on both issues, this contract will help others feel they too can fight and win on these fronts.

UPS also wanted to pull out of the multi-employer pension plan it was in. The plan helps guarantee workers benefits should any of the companies go bankrupt. As the plan's investments increase, participating companies' donations remain the same, but the benefits go up. By setting up its own plan, UPS would be able to cut its donations when investments go up, and the benefits would remain the same. UPS was forced to drop this demand.

UPS also wanted to increase subcontracting work. The union wanted no subcontracting except during peak holiday periods. What the union got was agreement to phase out subcontracting over six months, except for holiday periods.

UPS was also forced to drop its demand that UPS drivers lose their right not to cross other unions' picket lines.

As union officials across the country hail the teamster victory, "experts" — usually unnamed — are trying to downplay it, fearing the boost to workers' morale it has already generated. Clinton issued a statement that this was not a win for "big labour" but a win for "both sides".

We have witnessed a series of major union battles in the 1980s and '90s that were defeated. Many of these were local struggles sabotaged by the leaderships of the Internationals. In this battle, the International leadership under Carey was not only supportive, but gave real leadership. This was made possible by the two-decades-long struggle inside the teamsters to democratise the union and bring union power to bear on the side of the workers.

This struggle was initiated by Teamsters for a Democratic Union and joined by other forces like Ron Carey, who rose from the ranks as a UPS driver to become a local leader at UPS in New York.

Without the democratisation of the union, this strike would not have been as solid and well organised as it was. The rank and file were mobilised to take action on their own behalf. As Carey said, this strike was won on the picket lines and in the communities, not at the bargaining table.

The UPS workers proved that union democracy mobilises union power. The myth that the teamsters of old got results by relying on thugs has been dealt a blow. Those within the teamsters who are continuing to fight for a more democratic and militant union have made a major step forward that will have repercussions throughout the workers' movement.