Opposing Capitalist Globalization Before Seattle:


Most US residents probably remember the 1997 strike by United Parcel Service (UPS) workers against the company. It was, after all, one of the larger strikes in the past twenty-five years and, even more importantly, it was successful. Given the weakness of labor in the neoliberal economy, that in itself makes it memorable. Deepa Kumar’s new book on the strike, Outside the Box, is an examination of the strike via the lens of the media; a media, she reminds us, whose ownership clearly sides with the CEOs and their PR teams when it comes to matters concerning the expansion of global capitalism. Using this a background, Outside the Box dissects the meaning of the strike in terms of the so-called Washington Consensus–an often used term that more accurately describes the true beneficiary of capitalist globalization–and its possibilities for a potentially resurgent labor movement.

I remember joining UPS workers’ picket lines in solidarity back in 1997 at the Williston, Vermont distribution center. It was usually after I got off of work around 3:00 PM that I would catch a ride out there to spend an hour or two carrying a sign, yelling at the managers driving the trucks, talking and joking with some of the UPS workers, and just hanging out. The part of the picket line I found most interesting was the conversation. There was lots of talk about the progress of the negotiations, of course, but there was also a good amount of conversation about the fact that even if this strike did win, the labor movement was still screwed because the corporate leadership of the United States was better-financed, had government on its side, and could do whatever the hell it wanted. At the time, I was involved in a campaign to unionize the non-faculty workforce at the University of Vermont where I worked. The UPS workers were quite aware of our campaign and would comment-in an understanding that acknowledged the heartlessness of management– that the best thing our two campaigns had going for them was that management could not move our jobs elsewhere. They could, however, outsource them. Indeed, ending outsourcing was one of the demands of the UPS workers and one of the reasons the UVM workers were organizing.

 

Although the local media was a bit more sympathetic than the national media in the strike’s early going, Kumar notes that this was primarily because it was local news. The local media heads knew UPS workers and counted on them for their package and overnight deliveries. National media, on the other hand, began their coverage according to their owners’ interests. in other words, the early coverage was mostly favorable to UPS management. In fact, as Kumar points out, the concessions demanded by UPS management at the beginning of negotiations were presented sympathetically, while the worker’s demands were portrayed as excessive if not downright unreasonable. The methods used in the media portrayals were methods that isolated the union’s demands from the context they developed from. To explain how this occurs, Kumar goes beyond the standard media critic’s take that relies primarily on the ownership of said media and addresses the nature of professional journalism’s description of objective news sources being those with governmental and other types of authority. From there she discusses the nature of newsgathering. Establishment media relies heavily on the aforementioned authority figures and very little on sources outside of corporate boardrooms and government offices. When they do ask an “average” person, it is usually only to add some color to their story–an action that does little to change the story’s slant toward the status quo. Using examples from television advertising and news programs, and the newspapers USA Today, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, Kumar makes a convincing case that the status quo these mediums wish to maintain is one that assumes corporations not only have won the battle over their workers (and the world), but will never lose that supremacy.

 

Yet, argues Kumar, the UPS strike challenged that and, by doing so, forced the media, with only a few exceptions, to present a view that struck at the status quo. To explain how this happened, Kumar presents a paradigm she calls the dominance/resistance model. This model exploits the contradictions inherent in mass media that allow the stories of the opposition to be portrayed positively–something that occasionally happens when a media outlet runs a story or series that attempts to examine how an economic phenomenon, war, or natural catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina affects an underrepresented segment of society but only has an effect on the general perception of media consumers when the stories are precipitated by collective struggle. In other words, Kumar presents evidence that the coverage of the UPS strike began to favor the position of the workers only when it became clear to the editors that the majority of US residents sympathized with the workers. This allowed them to be covered positively. This coverage was presented within the context of the national interest. In something of a reversal of the earlier coverage that was sympathetic to the ownership–coverage that presented the corporation as one of “us” and the workers as “them.” I say something of a reversal only because the corporation was not presented as one of “them”, but the workers did suddenly become one of “us.” This in itself is unusual in that the corporate media acknowledged that Americans are producers, not consumers. That definition is important when it comes to how we define ourselves, not only in terms of the workplace but in everyday life. Consumers can only stop buying something while producers can stop making it. The latter action has considerably more effect.

 

Which brings me to a point made by Kumar in her discussion of the strike’s aftermath. There was, for a short time, a renewed discussion of the labor movement in US media. In fact, some dhows even presented unions in a favorable light and Jeopardy! had a week of contests that featured union members as contestants and included the AFL-CIO logo as part of its credits. Strikes that took place in the years immediately following the UPS workers’ victory were also successful. At the University of Vermont, the maintenance workers, bookstore workers, housekeepers, and craftspeople held a successful union election and formed UE Local 267. Then, in November 1999, thousands of union members, supporters and others shut down the World trade Organization Ministerial meetings in Seattle, Washington. As the strike faded into memory, however, union bureaucracies became less enthusiastic about striking and reverted back to a tactic known as the “corporate campaign.” In essence, this type of tactic involves pressuring a large corporation to treat its workers fairly. The idea is that the corporation will be shamed into doing the right thing if enough advertising and consumer pressure is brought upon the leadership. Wal Mart faced such a campaign in 2004 and 2005. Unfortunately, this type of campaign assumes that the corporation has a conscience. Given that the pursuit of profit knows no morals, the only way this type of campaign might be effective, state Kumar, would be in conjunction with a strike by the workers. For those who believe a corporation can be shamed into doing what’s right for its workers, let me point you to Exhibit A. On March 28, 2007, Circuit City fired 3400 of its best workers without warning because they made too much money. As the Washington Post put it: “The firings had nothing to do with performance but were part of a larger effort to improve the bottom line.” Crocodile tears were shed by upper management while they checked their accounts balance.

 

 

 

 

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