BY MARK CURTIS AND JAMES VINCENT
CHICAGO - Across the country 185,000 striking Teamsters at 2,400 distribution depots have shut down United Parcel Service (UPS), the nation's largest delivery company. This is the first nationwide strike against the company in its 90- year history. It is the largest strike against a U.S. corporation in many years.
After months of contract negotiations, the union rejected what the company described as its "last, best and final" offer at 12:01 a.m. August 4. In response, UPS workers set up picket lines throughout the United States.
The central issue in the strike is the fight for better pay and conditions for part-time workers, and the union's demand that UPS hire more workers full-time. Health, safety, and the company's attempt to force workers out of the Teamsters pension plans are also important questions.
Picketing the Pleasantdale UPS facility in Atlanta, where the shipping giant is based, Michael Martin, 32, commented on the stakes in the fight. "Some people say we're going to hurt the country," he said. "I say it will help. The underlying issue is this: I do tremendous amounts of work for UPS. But I am not an animal. I am a human being. A victory in this strike will mean more workers will say it's enough, when it's enough."
In the Chicago area, more than 15,000 UPS workers are on strike. While waving their signs and pumping their fists, strikers at the Jefferson plant in Chicago's South side yelled "Shut down Big Brown" and "We want more money."
UPS handles about 80 percent of the U.S. package delivery business and transports each day more than 5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. In 1996 UPS had revenues of $22.5 billion, earning $1 billion in profits. It has 200 aircraft plus an additional 300 chartered planes serving 400 airports in the United States and 200 overseas.
The strike has brought UPS to a virtual standstill. Few UPS workers have crossed picket lines and the 2,000 members of the Independent Pilot Association (IPA) who fly for UPS are honoring picket lines. Scurrying to continue operations, the parcel giant is using its 75,000 managers and nonunion employees to keep business moving. In addition, 138 pilots within UPS management were scheduled to fly international flights.
In response to the pilots' show of solidarity to the striking Teamsters, UPS management canceled their overseas hotel rooms. As of August 6, 293 UPS cargo pilots were stranded in 54 cities outside the United States. The pilots have been working without a contract for the last 20 months. The IPA is footing the bill for their hotel costs until UPS agrees to fly them home.
"Normally 300 trucks go out each day," said striker Don Cleamon, a driver from Teamster Local 705 in Chicago. "But so far today only 26 have gone out and most of them have been pretty empty. All the trucks have been driven by UPS managers."
UPS management has been campaigning for President William Clinton to intervene against the strike, as he did to halt a walkout by pilots at American Airlines last February. An August 4 letter sent from the company to its customers urged them to fax messages to the White House asking Clinton to invoke the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act and impose a mediation board. To do so, the president would have to declare that the strike posed a threat to national health and safety. Clinton said he won't do so at this time, saying, "I hope they'll go back to the table" and negotiate.
Part-time workers get half the wage
The biggest issue in the strike is the company's use of part-time workers, who account for 60 percent of the workforce and are paid about half the hourly rates of full- timers. Emma Love, a part-time worker in Chicago, said she earns about $120 a week. Echoing other strikers, she said she couldn't stand being an "underpaid slave" anymore.
Fiore Auriene, a 23-years-old UPS indoor bulk driver in Chicago, said the company attempted to separate the full- time and part-time workers by trying to establish separate cafeterias and bathrooms. Auriene said these were ignored by all the workers. "We just want full-time opportunities," he said, "there is no such thing as part-time families."
The union is demanding 10,000 more higher paying full- time jobs. UPS says it wants to create just 200 such jobs per year. Strikers on the picket lines report that the overwhelming majority of workers inside the distribution facilities - loaders, unloaders, and sorters - are part-time workers, while most truck drivers are full-time. Since 1993 some 83 percent of the 46,000 new jobs created at UPS have been part-time. According to the union, more than 10,000 UPS employees work 35 hours or more a week but are still paid part-time wages. Starting wages have been frozen for part- timers at $8 per hour since 1982. The average wage for full- time workers is $19.95. Part-time UPS workers get no dental, eye, and drug prescription benefits until three years with the company.
Bad working conditions and safety are also key issues in the strike. Most of the part-timers work odd hours in the middle of the night for three to five hour stints with few breaks. Scott Christoffel, who has worked as a driver at a Chicago-based UPS facility for 14 years, said, "People are getting hurt all the time - pulled muscles, strained backs, banged-up knees, and groin injuries. I was out for five weeks on workers compensation."
Mike Dibucci, a striker in New Stanton, Pennsylvania, commented, "If you get injured you are pressured not to fill out an accident report, or told the accident was your fault for `not using proper loading techniques.'"
According to a Teamster news release of April 23, the company's own figures show that last year there were 33.8 injuries for every 100 workers - an injury rate 2.5 times the national transportation average. Since 1990 UPS has been fined over $3.7 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the company pays approximately $1 million a day in workers compensation costs.
In 1994 the company raised the weight limit UPS workers must lift from 70 to 150 pounds. A one-day strike by workers outraged at this back-breaking demand forced the UPS bosses to back off for a while. However, it did not change the weight limit. The company is now demanding that it can increase the weight limit above 150 pounds at any time without the union's agreement.
"The company has a rule that every two steps should take 3 seconds. Try that with a 100 pound package," said Leonard Cornelius, a Chicago-based driver from Teamster Local 705. UPS has dozens of such rules that regiment workers' lives.
"There is a rule that you can request assistance for lifting packages over 70 pounds," said Chad Greenwalt in New Stanton. "But if you do it too much, you get hassled."
Other issues in the strike include UPS demands to expand outsourcing, eliminate family health coverage for all newly hired part timers, and expand the list of infractions called "cardinal sins" where innocent until proven guilty does not apply. The parcel giant is also demanding that it pull out of the Teamster-controlled multi-employer pension fund. "We don't want the company to have any control over our pension plan. The Teamsters have run it for 42 years and we don't want the company getting their hands on it," declared Brian Lovato, a UPS driver on strike in Los Angeles.
Chad Coffman, a 20-year-old striker in Willow Springs, Illinois, said he liked the atmosphere on the picket line, explaining that "in my department the strike has brought a lot of people closer." He said he started "to feel the power of the strike in the week before it happened. In my department the number of packages started to fall from 280,000 on Monday to 215,000 on Friday."
Solidarity from other workers
"We've already gotten lots of support from the community and other unions," said Adam Boothe, a package car driver and shop steward of Teamsters Local 402 in Huntsville, Alabama. Members of the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers of America, postal workers, teachers, and others have stopped by bringing donations of food and drink and offering solidarity, he said.
Boothe and Lisa D'Agostino, a part-time worker with 15 years at UPS, described how strikers there have organized rolling pickets to follow the few delivery trucks UPS management has been able to send out. Strikers in several other cities have carried out similar roving pickets.
In the Chicago area, six UPS strikers set up informational pickets at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe intermodal yard, which handles UPS shipments. The rail yard is the largest intermodal facility in the country.
In the Boston area, police attacked two UPS strikers with pepper spray and arrested four others the first day of the strike. Another 11 unionists were detained in Somerville, Massachusetts, August 6. Across the country cops have arrested dozens of strikers for alleged picket line infractions. In New Stanton, where 1,200 workers are on strike, police turned out August 6 to enforce an injunction limiting the number of pickets to 10 per gate.
No talks were scheduled for the first three days of the strike; negotiations were set to resume August 7.
Mark Curtis is a member of the Union of Needletrades,
Industrial and Textile Employees. Mike Italie in Atlanta;
Susan LaMont in Birmingham; Mary Nell Bockman in Boston;
Shelton McCrainey in Chicago; Tim Mailhot in Des Moines;
Mark Friedman in Los Angeles; Deborah Laitos in New York;
and Salm Kolis in Pittsburgh contributed to this article.
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