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Forty Years of Struggle


It is forty years ago, in November, since striking United Parcel (UPS) workers, roving pickets, crossed from Pennsylvania into Ohio, closing UPS hubs as they went, including the company’s big Northern Ohio center, Cleveland. It was an extraordinary episode, thinking back on it. Still, this event was in some ways not really so unusual; wildcat strikes were endemic in Ohio in 1973; in Cleveland, just three years earlier, truck drivers shut down the city’s then massive industrial center, “the flats.” The New York Times reported that the governor had responded by ordering 4,000 guardsmen (the145th infantry, redeployed soon after to Kent State University) to “combat” what he called “open warfare” on the state’s highways.

Just south, in the Ohio coalfields, miners were in open rebellion, the corrupt, cruel Tony Boyle regime having just been removed in 1972 by Miners for Democracy (MFD), the best known of the 1970s rank-and-file movements. That same year, to the east of Cleveland, half-way along the Interstate to Pittsburgh, young autoworkers, many with long hair, often unshaven, shut down General Motor’s gigantic new assembly plant at Lordstown, then home to the fastest assembly lines in the world. Gary Bryner, twenty-nine, the president of United Auto Workers local 1112 in 1972, told Studs Terkel that this rebellion represented “the Woodstock of the working man.” The average age of the Lordstown worker was 24.

I think, however, that the roving pickets from UPS still stand out – as does the reception they received in Cleveland that November morning; not a package moved, not one, this despite the threats of a small army of UPS supervisors, not to mention several carloads of baseball bat carrying officials from the union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Cleveland local 407. I’m not alone in this. Indeed these strikers remain quite properly commemorated in the late David Montgomery’s popular collection of essays, Workers Control in America (1979): “A 1973 strike of drivers and warehousemen of United Parcel Service in a dozen Pennsylvania and Ohio communities was well-coordinated by a council of delegates from the struck shipping centers, in open defiance of the threats and sanctions of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The strikers even forced the IBT to pay them strike benefits, by petitioning the NLRB for a decertification election – in a petition that was withdrawn when the union paid.” (173) He argued, moreover, that , in engaging in this conflict, these workers (as did so many others) sought alternatives both to the UPS regime and to its junior partners who managed the IBT and in doing so, they “cut away at the very roots of their employers power over them.”

Montgomery concluded that “American workers have never in the past fit into the mold which the captains of industry have cast over them,” looking to the day they will “regain mastery over collective and socialized production.” Too hopeful? Yes, one supposes; in the end the battles of the seventies were for the most part lost, at least in the most immediate sense. The “captains of industry” regrouped, then repulsed these rebellions, first under the compliant watch of the Carter administration, then, of course, with Reagan at the helm of state, and the crushing defeat of the air traffic controllers – clearing the path for a far from finished war on America’s working people.

Since, then, UPS has grown, and prospered, to say the least. It boasts, today, that it is the world’s largest shipping company; it delivers daily fifteen million packages to six million customers in 220 countries. UPS owns a chain of stores, an airline, and a freight division… among other things. It employs nearly 400,000 people, 250,000 of whom are members of the U.S. Teamsters union, the parcel division the largest single bargaining unit in the country.

UPS remains best known to the public for its fleets of brown trucks, on-time deliveries and hustling, courteous drivers. It is not, however, so well known, not to the public anyway, for its relentless pursuit of control, for its militaristic regime, and its punitive work rules and its armies of bullying supervisors. Nor that it is this pursuit that stands behind its constant innovations and its continuous introduction of new technologies. UPS has led the way in creating a part-time workforce (half its workers today), also for creating air freight and global operations. Just as important is its obsessive use of the stop watch, now the computer, GPS and other surveillance technologies, all for control of the labor process, and control of the workers – for its Taylorism, that is the system of industrial relations that is so commonplace today that it’s difficult to image there was ever anything else. UPS leads the industry in this, a “scientific management” that takes control of every detail of work, producing in the late Harry Braverman’s words “the disassociation of the labor process from the skill of the worker.” And, it seems, it’s all paid off. $4.5 billion in profits last year. Its assets – $34 billion this year. Its CEO, Scott Davis, receives a salary of $3.27 million, but the Associated Press tells us, “Most of his compensation comes in the form of stock options” – nearly $10 million.

Yes, success, an American success story. But not without a fight, and a fight that in fact continues. There are two sides to every story.

up to its promises. What/who has? Still, these struggles remain of great interest and not just because of this or that victory. Rather they point to the inherent strength of workers, their capacity to organize, and the potential for democracy in their movements, that is, of a real, “participatory” democracy – in contrast to the passive, formal, cash democracy of our times. They emphasize the importance of the workplace – the heart of corporate capitalism – and the struggle there for control. More, it is important to stress, despite it all, that there have been victories, victories, we should add, in the face of political/corporate ruthlessness rarely rivaled in the industrial countries. 

What, then, of the demand for “workers’ control”, the ownership and control of industry and its democratic management by the workers in the interest of all the people and the movements? It remains, partially, illusively, most often just below the surface. The fight today, indeed the ongoing struggle at UPS is illustrative of this. And it is just one link in that much longer chain of resistance, so eloquently recalled by David Montgomery. The fundamentals of this tradition, including the innovations of the seventies, ought not be erased, for they include (and these can be seen again and again in the demands thrown up by workers): the persistence of direct action, the assault on racism in the workplace, and the smashing down of barriers to women, the demand for dignity (“human rights”) on the job. They include the right of the rank and file to dissent, to challenge the leadership, to organize independently. They include the revival of workers’ councils and roving pickets. The shop steward, all too often reduced to the policeman on the beat, redefined as fighter, organizer and leader. The tradition of popular participation in the most basic of institutions, industry and the unions, is here. Also, I might add, the lived experience, however limited, of autonomy, self-government, and the taste of workers’ control. Is this of any significance? This can now seem utterly utopian. The fight for democratic unions, for unions capable of withstanding the corporate offensive, this too may seem utopian. Yet if this indeed the case, it is just as much a measure of the conservatism of our times time, and our capacity to silence the past, as it is a “realism.” 

Back to the contract. Ken Paff is the Organizer of TDU. He too has roots in this history. Paff was a founder of TDU, one of that handful of Teamsters in 1976 who met at Kent State University. He’s another man who “does not fit the mold.” His take on today’s movement?

“Across the country, from LA to Ohio to New Jersey, UPS Teamsters are standing up to management greed and fighting to defend good family health benefits. The union leadership gave the corporation health care cuts… the members continue to fight back. They're also demanding more full-time jobs, they want to combine low-wage part-time jobs, and an end to the forced overtime that is killing UPS drivers.

“They're a good example to those who say workers won't fight back in today's political environment. TDU is providing members with the network and the tools. The workers themselves are leading the struggle.” 

Much has changed today, but much remains the same. The work process, continuously revolutionized – in our shops, offices, hospitals, schools on the docks, in the fields – remains contested terrain. The struggle continues.

(Readers can follow this story at www.tdu.org)