Teamster Strike UPS 1997

Lessons of the 1997 Teamster Strike at UPS –(Part 1)

Read part two of this article here.

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.
Ron Carey UPS Teamsters

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.
UPS Freight Truck
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.”

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