Friday Jul 19

EXCERPT - Labor Nationalism, Ron Carey, and the Teamsters UPS Strike in 1997

Excerpt From

Ron Carey and the Teamsters:  How a UPS Driver Became the Greatest Union Reformer of the Twentieth Century by Putting Members First - by Ken Reiman


On Sunday, August 3, both sides met at Wells’s office again to try to avert a strike. “We were at the mediator’s office all day,” remembered Wilson. “There was some optimism to reach a deal. Then it just didn’t come together. UPS wanted some concessions, but Ron was not in a concessionary mood.”

Two hours before the deadline, Ron walked out of the talks and met with his staff. He once again asked, “Are we ready? OK. Then we are going!” Ron announced around 10 p.m. that “we went the extra mile from Thursday to Sunday. We have exhausted every possible approach to try to resolve the problem. At this point, it’s just a waste of time.” At 12:01, Monday, August 4, the Teamsters struck UPS. It was on!

Thousands walked off the job that night joining the pickets that went up at every UPS facility nationwide. Union officials passed out signs reading: “United We Stand, Divided We Beg,” “Full-Time Jobs Not Full-Page Lies,” “Part-Time America Won’t Work,” “On Strike Against Unfair Labor Practices!” Regular members who never went to a union meeting, never submitted a grievance, became radicalized overnight…

For Ron Carey, this was a strike for which he had been preparing for the last thirty years. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, he took on UPS, an “ancient enemy,” at the local level to gain stronger pensions, higher wages, and fewer part-timers. Now Ron was using that experience to fight on a larger scale. He was ready and his membership was ready due to his hard work and planning.

Commentators and intellectuals believed this was a make-or-break moment for the labor movement. “If the Teamsters win,” commented Stanley Aronowitz, professor of sociology and labor scholar, “it will send a signal to restart the labor movement. It will say you can succeed fighting for better wages and part-time workers.”

There had not been a nationwide strike in the United States since the PATCO strike in 1981. This strike was capturing the interest of both the media and the public. It was about full-time jobs and how companies purposefully break up a full-time shift into three-hour increments. It was about companies, in general, abandoning their commitment to their workers and creating these “throwaway” jobs, as Ron described them.

Ron had forcefully drawn a line in the sand over the part-time issue. He knew that, as Professor of Industrial Studies Harley Shaiken said, “Part-time work is a way of life at UPS. It is a hidden downsizing” method of maximizing profit over people. Ron not only went toe-to-toe with UPS but with the beast that was Corporate America.

The strike was very popular with the American people. Many Americans had their sons and daughters working part-time shifts or their brothers and friends as UPS drivers. They were regular faces on America’s Main Streets, in businesses, diners, and coffee shops. Polling showed the public siding with the Teamster workers 55 to 27 percent. During the PATCO strike, Americans supported the government by 52 to 29 percent over the workers. People, strangers, dropped off food and drinks at picket sites. They drove past the picket lines and demonstrated their support of the union cause by beeping their horns in solidarity...

“We didn’t want the local leadership in the press conferences,” stated Eckstein. “Maybe just in the background. We wanted the members to speak, and we prepared them and schooled them on how to speak and basically what to say to the media. Though many spoke of their own experiences and really didn’t need us.”

By not invoking Taft-Hartley, Clinton indirectly legitimized the strike in many people’s minds. It was a delicate balancing act, but by the very act of not acting was a big win for the union’s right to strike. He wanted both sides to settle the strike on their own. Meanwhile, Speaker Newt Gingrich was urging Clinton to force the Teamsters to put the “last, best and final” offer to a vote of the members. Ron angrily responded that Congress should keep out of the strike, while insisting that it was management that needed to come to the bargaining table and to end their “diversionary tactics” and their “misleading information.”

Instead, Clinton called in his newly confirmed secretary of labor, Alexis Herman, to mediate the talks. “We were told UPS and the Teamsters knew each other. We didn’t believe it would come to a strike,” said Secretary Herman. Even Clinton’s senior adviser on economic policy, Gene Sperling, who was keeping an eye on the talks in June and July, was shocked. The Secretary was in Chicago giving a speech when she got the call to come back to Washington. They monitored the situation. At first, she just “let it play out a bit.” On August 6, at Ron’s request, secretary Herman called UPS president Kelly, asking him to resume talks. Both sides agreed to meeting again on Friday, August 8.

On August 5, Ron was at a rally at a UPS facility in Burtonsville, Maryland. He told the massive collection of Teamsters: “The fact of the matter is this company is shut down!”—insinuating that it was too early to even start talking about going back to the table. The Reverend Jesse Jackson joined Ron and the Teamsters at the rally. He led chants on the picket line: “We’ll march one day longer! We will not surrender!”

On the following day, Ron attended a huge rally in Chicago. He insisted that UPS should be “negotiating, not dictating, not intimidating or threatening” as they spoke about using replacement workers. Ron rallied the troops as only Ron Carey could: “We are really fighting for America’s future! Working people have been taking it on the chin long enough. It’s a crime that they have forced our members into a strike!” He continued:

It’s about corporate greed, a company that has made $1 billion in profit. A company that has over 10,000 part-time workers who work 35 hours a week on part-time, low wages. That’s wrong. This is really a fight about good jobs. This is not just a fight about Teamsters and their families, it is about working people in this country. You have big companies shifting to part-time, low-wage, throwaway disposable jobs, subcontracting the work out. Enough is enough! Where is America going? 

It’s about American families. And about what’s right in this country? It’s about decency. . . . There are no part-time mortgages, no part-time car payments. . . . We need to stand up to corporate greed…workers are on the move again!

This was some radical stuff for a onetime Nixon Republican. It was rhetoric like this that once again put the fear of God into Corporate America and Wall Street. Rick Gilberg, who worked with Ron for years as his Local 804 lawyer, called Ron a “labor nationalist.” According to Deepa Kumar, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers and author of Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike, Ron’s anti-corporate rhetoric was very much in the realm of “labor nationalism” because “it inverts the logic of corporate nationalism by making labor the most important member of the nation.” Furthermore, Kumar explained, “The key arguments of labor nationalism are presenting the progress of workers as essential for national progress and demonstrating that the interests of labor are really the interests of the nation.” With Ron denouncing “greedy corporations,” he was stating that “the strike against UPS was for all workers, redefining Americans as workers rather than as consumers.” That was a radical idea for 1997...

Once again, Kelly warned of 15,000 layoffs. “I don’t think it is accurate that they are losing business permanently,” Ron replied. “The Post Office and other companies can’t manage the volume. They shouldn’t be dictating. They should be negotiating. What they are doing is intimidation. It is threats. That won’t get the job done That is a mistake.”

On Wednesday, Secretary Herman called the leaders of both sides and convinced them to return to the bargaining table. Proving how committed she was to a settlement; she cancelled her trip home to Alabama to attend “Alexis Herman Day” in her hometown of Mobile.

She also recommended a change in venue. Wells offered that, since the mediator’s offices couldn’t handle everyone, they needed to move to a larger venue that provided separate bargaining tables and rooms. He added, “Plus the media was always watching who was going in or coming out of my office. It was very distracting, so we decided to go off site.” The talks were now to continue bargaining at the Washington Hyatt on Capitol Hill, not too far from Teamster headquarters.

Ron issued a statement affirming that “while there is no reason for optimism at this point, we will be there, ready to negotiate a reasonable agreement.” UPS continued to push that the workers vote on their “last, best, and final” offer. They had seen polls showing that even though the American people sided over two to one with the Teamsters, another poll showed that nearly two-thirds agreed with the company that the striking workers should vote on that latest offer.

The markets had not reacted positively to the ongoing strike. On Friday, the Dow Jones dropped 3.1 percent. It was down 4.37 percent for the week. This labor unrest, this “labor nationalism,” was unsettling the status quo. Powerful people were starting to notice and point fingers.

Both sides negotiated from 9 a.m. Thursday until 3 a.m. Friday morning. They got a few hours’ sleep and were back at it at 8 a.m., continuing until 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning. Then all day Saturday into Sunday morning. Ron hadn’t slept but a handful of hours since the talks began. Secretary Herman was seen going from room to room relentlessly helping each side focus on the issues. “It was brutal,” recalled Wells. “Some people didn’t sleep at all.”

The New York Times reported, “The rooms in the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Washington Hotel where each side gathered started to look lived in, with used coffee cups, newspapers, and half eaten club sandwiches strewn across the table.”

Ron decided to turn the heat up on UPS. He affirmed that his Teamsters would be having over two-dozen rallies across the country the next Thursday called an “Action Day for Good Jobs,” with similar events in Europe. He was asking for Americans who supported the strike to wear Teamster blue ribbons. “We are fighting not just for Teamsters but for every working family in America.”

Federal mediator Wells conveyed to the media how he had compared both parties to the United States and Soviet Union and how they both could have blown up the world. He actually borrowed Robert Oppenheimer’s famous term for the nuclear superpowers: “two scorpions in a bottle.” Fortunately, it seemed things had begun to thaw a bit. Secretary Herman updated the president on where they stood. She told him she felt some progress. On Sunday, August 17, Ken Hall announced a breakthrough when UPS suggested it might withdraw its pension demand. On Meet the Press, Ron told the panel, “There has been some movement.”

Clinton decided to take a tactical change in direction. He recommended both parties do a rhetorical push since he heard that they were now 95 percent in agreement on the outstanding issues. He told reporters, “It’s my gut feeling they’ll settle. It’s a good deal. It will set a precedent for unions. They’re that close.” He was right.

By early Monday afternoon, an overall package had emerged. It was a “wholesale swapping of demands.” UPS dropped its pension demand and accepted the Teamsters’ demand to create 10,000 new full-time jobs. Late that night, an agreement was reached. But it almost didn’t happen. It was delayed for about two hours because the settlement almost fell apart at the last minute.

But it did get settled. At 12:30 a.m. Monday night/Tuesday morning, Secretary Herman held a press conference to announce the tentative agreement. The Teamsters Union got a commitment from UPS of 10,000 new full-time jobs over the life of the contract, not the 200 to 1,000 full-time jobs UPS was offering. Starting pay for part-timers was to be raised by 50 cents an hour, making it the first increase in part-time pay since 1982. Full-time pay would go up by $3.10 and part-timers by $4.10 over the life of the agreement. Full-time pension control would remain as before in both hands. There would be no more subcontracting unless it was approved by the Local. The only real concession by the union was the length of the contract. It went from three years to five years, giving the company five years of labor peace.

The media reported as a concession the fact that the union agreed that full-time workers would handle more packages that were presently being handled by supervisors. They were clueless that Teamsters wanted to stop supervisors from working: “It’s our work.” Hence it was not a concession but another win.

Ron praised the agreement as a “historic turning point for working people in this country. American workers have shown they can stand up to corporate greed!” UPS lead negotiator Murray solemnly commented, “We believe it’s an agreement that we’ll be able to remain competitive with.” President Clinton thanked both sides, saying that he was “pleased the parties negotiated in good faith.”

It was agreed that all workers would be able to return to work on Wednesday, August 20, after two Teamster committees approved the agreement. The first committee consisted of the fifty-member bargaining committee itself. They easily gave their approval. The second group was a committee of the two top officers of each UPS Local, about four hundred people. When Ron entered the room, the group gave him a standing ovation. They too voted unanimously for the agreement. The agreement was then to be mailed and voted on by the rank and file, but the strike was over.

“Tonight, the elected leaders of the local unions unanimously approved the agreement with UPS,” Ron said Tuesday evening. “They were united and extremely enthusiastic about the breakthroughs that we had won. Our members will be going back to work as soon as the company calls them back.” As usual, Ron spread the credit around. He thanked the strikers “for making it happen, staying united, going into the communities.” He announced, “This victory would never have been achieved without the support of working families all across America.” He then thanked the American people and the customers for supporting the strike. He was right: the strikers had won the strike.

Ron ended the press conference with a warning: “Non-union workers will be talking about how this victory has inspired them for fighting for their futures.” He mentioned how FedEx workers walked picket lines with UPS Teamsters in several localities. He proclaimed, “FedEx, here we come!” There was that “momentum” again.

It proved the new direction that Ron had brought to the Teamsters was working. Unlike his predecessors, Ron did not see the company as a partner. He showed that when unions are on the offensive and dictate the narrative, they win. When union leadership methodically plans a strategy for taking on the company, unions win. When union leadership educates and mobilizes its rank and file, the rank-and-file win. When the union leadership includes the rank and file in the actual bargaining, the rank-and-file win.

The successful strike added leverage to the 2,000 unionized UPS pilots who were still negotiating with the company. They supported the strike wholeheartedly, joining the Teamsters on the picket lines. Moreover, while the strike was still ongoing, fifty workers at RDS, a package delivery company in Indiana, voted to join the Teamsters Union. Good things were starting to happen.

There were important lessons learned from this strike. As labor historian Professor Nelson Liechtenstein assessed after the settlement, “It ends the PATCO Syndrome, a 16-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization is over.” It demonstrated how workers can turn production on and off if provoked. Employers fear that. It gave workers, and the union movement, in particular, the confidence and power to create positive change in the workplace. It pointed to a resurgence in the labor movement. It highlighted sympathetic workers who were experiencing economic insecurity, worried about losing their full-time jobs to part-time workers.

“With the Teamsters’ astonishing victory against UPS,” commented Pulitzer Prize–winning author Studs Terkel, “a word long considered quaint—solidarity—has found a new resonance among the great many hitherto unconcerned.”

By legitimizing mobilization and militancy, the strike awakened a sleeping union movement that was dead in the water since the 1982 PATCO fiasco. According to Cornell’s Professor of Labor Studies Richard Hurd, “The UPS strike resonates with a segment of our society that is concerned that corporations had reduced their commitments to their workers.” He continued that corporations “are doing too much downsizing and using too much contingent labor and temp agencies.”

These points were not ignored by the powers that be and its corporate press. In the wake of the strike, Business Week wrote, “It was a wakeup call for Big Business. The Teamsters’ win means that workers can no longer be taken for granted. For the first time in two decades, the public sided with the union, even though its walkout caused major inconveniences.”103 It was the perfect storm for the labor movement: with the perfect villain, UPS, and the perfect leader, Ron Carey! This was not the Ron Carey from Brill’s book. The country had changed, the economy had changed, and Ron had changed.

Years later, in an interview with author Deepa Kumar, Ron looked back on the 1997 strike against UPS:

The company gave us what they claimed was a final offer. I felt that their strategy was to keep us confused and fearful and I was not going to let that happen. They were playing the bluff game.

I knew the strike was inevitable but I didn’t want it to be on their terms. They miscalculated. We anticipated their strategy and we had 6 moves already planned. Whatever they brought up, I made sure we had the ammunition, the research, the communication already there.

Yes, the strike was over, but Corporate America would not let it go. They needed to get Ron Carey and make him pay for their defeat. It seems that in America you have the theoretical right to strike as long as you don’t win.

Ron recalled, in that same interview with Kumar, “I remember the last day, right after the negotiations were settled, I was in the room with Secretary of Labor Herman and the company. The company’s top negotiator, Dave Murray, got up and said, ‘You will be sorry till the day you die.’ I said, “Are you threatening me?’ I turned to the Secretary and said, ‘Did you hear that?’ She said, ‘I didn’t hear a thing.’ I knew my demise was in the works.”

Federal mediator John Calhoun Wells, when asked about this particular incident, said that he “never heard that.” He went on that “they were all pretty professional,” but conceded that it might have happened “behind the scenes.” During an interview, Secretary Herman told me she too did not hear any threats. Or maybe they didn’t want to hear any threats. They just wanted to move on. But without a doubt, the backlash was beginning….


Ken Reiman worked for UPS for thirty-three years.  He was a member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union and was elected as a business agent for IBT Local 804 on a reform slate.  He produced the newsletter “The Local Agitator.”  The book is available at www.monthlyreview.org.