Up Against UPS: Striking Back at Two-Tier Inequality

Revolutionary Worker #919, Aug. 17, 1997

On August 4, 185,000 workers went out on strike against United Parcel Service. This country-wide walkout involves more workers than any other strike in this decade.

This is a strike against a company that symbolizes the "restructuring" taking place throughout the U.S. economy. UPS management has ruthlessly applied techniques for intensifying work, reducing its labor costs and eating up their competition. UPS methods have spread throughout the mail industry. The competition has produced such high pressure for workers, including at the government Post Office, that the expression "going postal" is now part of the English language. Last year UPS made a profit of $1 billion on revenues of $22.4 billion.

Fortune (the magazine for people with fortunes) listed UPS as one of the top five "most admired corporations." But different classes have different standards.

In the bulk mail centers, among the workers, UPS admirers are harder to find. There UPS forced thousands and thousands of mail sorters and loaders to work through the nights at a feverish pace--to prepare the packages for UPS' trucks. This is dangerous, dirty and difficult work--made worse by the constant push-push-push of the UPS supervisors and stopwatches. The billion dollars of UPS profit is built on slipped disks and exhaustion.

Loaders are reportedly being pushed to handle 2,000 packages an hour when they unload trucks. Out on the road, new computerized tracking technologies push the drivers. In UPS training, the drivers are told how to step out of their trucks, how to fold their money, even how to hold their truck keys... all to get the most deliveries out of each day.

Most infuriating of all for the workers is the extreme inequalities of UPS's two-tier wage system. Sixty percent of UPS workers--100,000 of the strikers--are considered "part-timers" and are concentrated in the difficult jobs of sorting and loading. They typically make $8 to $11 an hour--basically half as much as the "full-timers" who make around $20 an hour.

All across the country last week, UPS part-timers were saying things like, "We don't have part-time lives or part-time kids. We can't make it on part-time work."

The full-timers of UPS see the dangers of two tiers too--they have watched the company spread the use of under-paid workers into job categories and departments once reserved for higher-paid workers. The company has been hiring for two or three part-time jobs instead of one full-time job. The existence of extreme wage inequality is a drag on the income and future of everybody.

When the strike vote came up last July 15, 95 percent of these Teamster workers at UPS voted to authorize a walkout for July 31 when their contract with UPS ran out. The strikers of UPS--full-timers and part-timers together--are demanding major raises for the part-time workers, and are demanding that thousands of the part-timers be given full-time jobs.

This strike hits against the two-tier wage structures that have been imposed on many workers over the last decade. It has the power of 185,000 workers standing together to disrupt a crucial transportation link in the U.S. economy.

The workers at UPS have dared to struggle. This is a welcome development. A victory for them would affect all workers in the U.S. Workers and progressive people need to understand the issues of this fight and find the ways to support these UPS workers.

The UPS Style of Exploitation

"If we weren't operating with part-timers and paying them the wages that we are paying today, we would be out of business."--UPS spokesman Kenneth Sternad

UPS made their success story dividing up the workers into "tiers." Starting decades ago, company managers organized the production process of their commercial mail distribution so that they could have a "core" of skilled full-time workers, while working a larger "pool" of temporary and part-time workers. This allowed UPS to hire lots of people in rush times like Christmas, and lay them off whenever things got slow--or fire them more easily if they didn't go along with the program.

Among some folks--especially college students--UPS got a reputation as a good holiday or summer job. At least until they got introduced into the killer pace of work. UPS strikers report that people are often told in hiring interviews that the loading jobs at UPS must be part-time "because a person couldn't sustain that pace for more than five hours." UPS intends to get an exhausting full day of work out of its loaders--while only paying for five hours of work. Part-timers only get one ten-minute break per shift.

A big leap in this two-tier system happened in 1982, when the company demanded the right to have two tiers in wages and the leadership of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union agreed. Similar arrangements were demanded in several industries during the 1980s--where capitalists promised they wouldn't lower the standards of their current workers--but demanded the right to hire new workers at significantly lower rates and benefits.

As soon as this contract allowed UPS to pay part-time workers less, a major pay gap opened up. Part-timers were hired at $8 to $9 an hour--$4 less than full-timers.

Over the years since 1982, the wages of UPS full-timers stagnated. Full-timers got lousy raises that barely kept up with changes in the cost-of-living. But meanwhile, part-timers at UPS got no raises at all. Part-timers haven't had a wage increase in 15 years! This meant a steady pay cut in the real wages of part-timers--once you calculate for rising prices. Their wages today (adjusted for inflation) are about a third of what they were fifteen years ago. Today the part-timers still average only a little more than $9 an hour, while most full-time drivers make almost $20 an hour.

In 1986, 42 percent of the unionized workers at UPS were part-time, now 60 percent are.

It is an arrangement completely set up for the convenience, stability and profit of the company. It holds thousands of people in the grip of constant insecurity, poverty and the whims of corporate profits.

Many UPS part-timers are officially classified as part of the 10 million "working poor" in the U.S.--who have jobs but don't make enough to cover the basics, food and rent. Many part-timers could make it when they were single--but suddenly found themselves suffering when they had kids. The government estimates the rock-bottom basics (the official "poverty line") at $8,000 a year for a single person and $15,580 for a family of four.

Ten thousand UPS workers work over 35 hours a week--but are still paid part-timer rates because they are officially working at two separate UPS jobs. Angela Schenburn, 38, described her situation to a trade union newspaper: She has been working for three years at the big UPS center in Madison Heights, Michigan. She starts inside at 3:40 a.m. as a "preloader," packing boxes into the brown trucks. Then, for her second "job," she puts on the UPS uniform to deliver "Next Day Air" packages. She usually logs 40 to 50 hours each week. But because she's working two different "part-time" jobs, she makes only $10 and $10.50 an hour.

The Fight Is On

The shutting down of UPS is too big for the U.S. ruling class to ignore. The high-tech integration of production between companies has meant that the need for overnight transportation has become quite an Achilles heel. The shutting down of parcel service has had an immediate impact throughout the economy--starting with small retailers. This strike has the potential to impact on the whole economy.

UPS competitors are too small to take over the shipment of most of the UPS orders. UPS itself is trying to continue to ship out of its mail centers using its supervisors working double shifts--but it is reporting that only 10 percent of normal orders are filled, which may be an exaggeration. The UPS workforce is so large that the capitalists will have trouble hiring strike-breakers in any numbers that come close to replacing the usual UPS workforce.

From the first day of the strike, UPS management has called on the White House to order the strikers back to work using a Taft-Hartley injunction. UPS is publicly claiming that the issue in this strike is not mainly about part-timers, but about removing the pensions of UPS union workers from Teamster control. This is a not-so-subtle attempt to remind the public and the striking workers of the Teamsters' history of gangster corruption with pension funds.

The national media has started a daily anti-strike campaign about how the work stoppage is affecting small businesses, medical supplies etc. People are constantly being told to focus on how the strike "inconveniences" them. These are cynical attempts by capitalist interests to portray the strikers as opposed to "the interests of the ordinary consumer."

We are coming out of a period of time where there have not been many large strikes in the U.S.--and many people among the masses, especially the youth, don't know much about why it is important to support striking workers. From a communist standpoint, the situation at UPS is a clear example of how the capitalist system of wage slavery rips people off and why this system is outmoded and should be overthrown. When workers strike against this exploitation they deserve support.

The working class people are not "consumers" of this-or-that bullshit product. We are, millions of us, proletarians and working people--worldwide. When someone rises in struggle, we need to have their back. And the millions of people who are middle class also have an interest in fighting the downsizing of this whole society.

The UPS strikers are fighting some BASIC injustices here. And it is fine and correct for these strikers to disrupt "business as usual" in America until they get some justice. Working people make everything--and working people have a right to withhold their labor to fight for change.

All kinds of class forces are watching, for now, to see how this strike unfolds. The White House has not yet ordered an end to the strike--but government attempts at strike-breaking will become more likely if the strike goes on long. As we go to press, negotiations have just broken down again. Publicly the union and company officials give the impression of little common ground. The Teamsters have a reputation among the masses as "tough" negotiators--and many of the UPS workers have high hopes that the new Teamster president Ron Carey intends to support them in their demands. However, it is unclear at this point exactly what the plans and the intentions of the Teamster union officials are. The Teamster union has announced that its national strike fund is too broke to provide more than $55 a week for strikers.

Meanwhile the first week of the strike was marked with unity and enthusiasm on picket lines. Very few union workers have crossed picket lines to work as strikebreakers (even though the media has given publicity to those who did). Even the highly skilled and highly paid pilots of UPS are out on strike--after they failed to reach their separate agreement with UPS in 20 months of negotiation without a contract.

Striking workers in Somerville, Massachusetts made repeated attempts to stop UPS supervisors from driving scab trucks out of the mail centers--and apparently over a dozen workers were arrested in repeated scuffles with police. In Ohio, at least one scab UPS truck was reportedly shot up on the highway. And there were scattered reports of picket confrontations around the country. There have been some initial solidarity rallies where other workers, activists and progressive people have started to organize support for this important strike.


This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)