Outside The Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike
By Deepa Kumar
In the late 1990s, it looked, for a while, like organized labor was making a comeback, particularly as a voice for contingent workers. As Deepa Kumar recounts in Outside The Box, 185,000 Teamsters went into battle against United Parcel Service (UPS) in 1997, under recently re-elected reform leadership. The result was a successful ten-day strike that protested mistreatment of part-timers not only at UPS but throughout the
Last September, nearly a decade after the Alliance successfully challenged then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, TWA members again stopped work, producing what the N.Y. Times called "frustrating waits on corners, long lines at airports, and angry exchanges" over whether cabs should have GPS devices and credit card machines. Drivers contended that the latter device would penalize them financially, but were unable to stop the introduction of either form of "new technology." Other unions rallied behind the TWA, which has become the first "workers’ center" of its type to affiliate with a big city central labor council. In nearly twenty other cities, cabbies similarly lacking in coverage under the National Labor Relations Act have formed TWAs modeled on the
Notwithstanding the different post-scripts to their books, Kumar and Mathew have both produced case studies of lasting value. The workers involved represent two ends of the spectrum of working class life and organization in the U.S. Unusual among "workers centers, the
In contrast, UPS Teamsters, both male and female, are employees of an $80 billion company, with
The historical trajectory of upward and downward mobility among Teamsters and taxi drivers seems to intersect.
In short order, the demographics of NYC cab driving changed dramatically and Local 3036 was out of business. "Prior to the advent of leasing, under the commission system, more than 50 percent of the drivers were European or African-American. Only a few were
Today, owner-operators—the only true "independent contractors" in the industry–represent just 12 to 15 percent of the workforce. The remaining 22,000 or more active drivers "slave under the conditions of ‘horse hiring’ "—Mathew’s term for the "primitive practice" of daily leasing. According to TWA director Bhairavi Desai, this makes taxi driving "one of the few professions in the world where not only are you not guaranteed an income, but you might end a long twelve-hour workday losing the money you started with."
As Kumar explains in Outside The Box, contingent labor at UPS has been used–just as in the taxi industry– to reduce labor costs, enhance management flexibility, divide the bargaining unit, and, whenever possible, weaken the union. Since part-time jobs were first implemented at UPS in 1962—in a deal negotiated by Jimmy Hoffa—the workforce has become 60 percent part-time. More than 80 percent of all new jobs created prior to the union’s 1996-7 contract fight were part-time–with such slim opportunities for moving to full-time employment that turn-over was huge and many new hires never even qualified for benefits. With an emphasis on how the media covered the walk-out ten years ago, Outside The Box reminds readers of what it took to reverse, at least temporarily within one company, the societal trend toward part-timing.
Unlike his benighted predecessors (or his not much better successor) then-Teamster President Ron Carey refused to treat the second-largest contract talks in the country–only GM bargaining was bigger at the time–like a special interest game, played out of sight from UPS members, their families, and the public. Carey’s election in 1991 enabled the rank-and-file activity long promoted by TDU, within UPS, to become part of the union’s official bargaining strategy. Scores of TDU members were finally able to mobilize their co-workers with national headquarters support, even if their own local union leaders remained in bed with the company. Many months of intensive education, discussion, and internal communication within the IBT’s newly-created "member-to-member networks" built a broad consensus about UPS bargaining goals–and how best to articulate them.
The IBT’s main goal was to convert more jobs from part-time to full-time, thus thwarting management’s plan to further expand its part-time workforce. A second Teamster priority was keeping UPS as a lucrative participant in its multi-employer retirement funds–at a time when management was already pushing the idea of coverage via a separate, less solidaristic company plan. As Kumar concludes, proper "framing" of the first issue proved to be a critical factor in generating unusual public sympathy for the strikers and an outpouring of picket-line support from other unions.
In all its innumerable pre-strike research reports, press releases, and Ron Carey interviews, the union insisted that "Part-Time
Kumar is clearly a Carey fan, as evidenced by a rare interview with him appended to the book, which describes his personal jousting with the "Big Brown Machine" when he was a UPS worker himself. Like many others on the left, she laments Carey’s post-strike ouster in a Teamster election fundraising scandal that dealt a major blow to TDU. Yet, at one point, this Rutgers Professor of Media Studies turns post-modern Marxist, faulting the now-retired "militant union leader" for his administration’s use of a "nationalist narrative" in organizing the 1997 strike. She notes that strike publicity repeatedly invoked the "American dream" and denounced "big business for frustrating national aspirations for ‘good, full-time jobs.’" According to Kumar, "labor nationalism is based on a reformist ideology that claims that workers can fully realize their interests under capitalism or, more specifically, within a particular type of nation that ensures the fair treatment of its workers." In Outside The Box, a widely-acclaimed PR campaign—orchestrated by Matt Witt, Rand Wilson, Craig Merrilees, and others–is deemed deficient because, among UPSers, "an international class-based identity was not counter-posed to a national identity."
Kumar does not suggest alternative rhetorical devices that might have elevated the union’s discourse to a more politically correct level. (Perhaps the slogan "A Part-Time World Won’t Work?") And her book overlooks the fact, under Carey, the IBT did try to build links with UPS unions in
In the meantime, a more familiar obstacle to the forward march of labor at UPS has interjected itself—in the form of James Hoffa, son of the IBT negotiator who first opened the door for part-timing. Thanks to the current Hoffa Administration, UPS management was indeed able to do things "differently" in the latest round of bargaining. During "early negotiations" in 2007 (on an agreement not scheduled to expire until this summer), the Teamsters dispensed with contract campaigning altogether—leaving future analysts like Kumar with much more to criticize than a flawed "narrative" about "nationalism." The IBT bargained away language, won ten years ago, that turned 40,000 part-time jobs into 20,000 full-time ones. As Labor Notes reported last December, this deal will "end conversion of part-time into full-time jobs" and "widen the gap between full-time and part-time standards, freezing part-timers starting pay [at $8.50 an hour for five years] and forcing new ones to work for a year before they are eligible for health coverage." In addition, the settlement moved "44,000 Teamsters out of the union’s multi-employer Central States pension plan" and put them into a company plan with "benefits frozen at levels negotiated during the 1997 contract and accrual rates lower than those in other IBT funds."
Despite opposition in Carey’s home base in New York City (where rejection of the contract led to more favorable renegotiation of the Local 804 supplement to it), the results of the IBT’s 2007 bargaining were generally accepted elsewhere out of a sense of fatalism and futility. In 1997, as Kumar recounts, the full resources of the Teamsters were devoted to raising membership expectations and encouraging militancy, while elevating the consciousness of the general public as well. Ten years later, the propaganda machinery of the union was just put to work internally—and only after a tentative agreement was reached. UPS workers who had heard little or nothing about bargaining for months were suddenly bombarded with PR mailings and robo calls to their homes urging them to "Yote Yes" in a fast track ratification process.
With greater continuity in its core leadership and a more consistent rank-and-file approach, the TWA is—by necessity—still operating "outside the box." Mathew’s book delves deeply into the daily lives, workplace and community relationships, and immigration-related legal problems of TWA activists. Their compelling individual stories are very well told and reflect the author’s strong personal connection to
Taxi also lends itself more comfortably than Kumar’s book to explorations of "international class-based identity" formation and related media coverage. In addition to his occasional invocations of Fanon, Foucault, and Robert Fitch, Mathew includes many telling anecdotes like the following:
"The atmosphere at strike headquarters [in 1998] was electric as the media tried to fathom how immigrants of so many different ethnicities had united in the action. Many reporters found it difficult to understand how, just one week after India’s nuclear test, followed by Pakistan’s ominous promise to respond in kind, Indian and Pakistani drivers could be brothers on the streets of New York…."’Listen, man,’ said Ilyas Khan. "when a
First published by New Press in 2005, Taxi will now hopefully reach a wider audience via Cornell’s new paperback edition, which includes an updated introduction on recent TWA activities. My one disappointment with Mathew’s book is the absence of a full-fledged portrait of Bhairavi Desai. As Mathew notes, she has "led the organization with rare vision and brilliance for all of its years of its existence." Perhaps out of modesty on her part and/or the author’s deference to it, her role is downplayed in favor of a collective organizational portrait and personal details about rank-and-file members. While this is a refreshing change from the usual tendency to focus on charismatic leaders, female organizers of Desai’s caliber get too little, rather than too much, attention and recognition. I’m sure other readers will be equally curious about how a young woman, with radical politics and a degree from
Steve Early served for 27 years as an organizer and international union representative for the Communications Workers of