What will it take to shine a spotlight on the vast income gap between the very rich and everyone else in the US today, in the way that Michael Moore’s film Sicko exposes the injustices of privatized health care? Ten years ago, on August 4, 1997, when 185,000 UPS workers went out on strike, they made headline news. They forced a discussion of inequality onto the front pages of national newspapers, tapping into the economic anxiety of the vast majority of Americans, so that the public sided with the Teamsters against UPS by a 2-to-1 margin. The Teamsters then went on to win one of the best contracts ever from UPS, and they showed the power that unions have in taking on large, powerful, multinational corporations.
The business class quickly learnt the lessons of the strike. They knew that the strike had opened up all sorts of possibilities for working people to advance their interests. In an article titled “A Wake-up Call for Business: The Teamsters’ Win Means That Workers Can No Longer Be Taken for Granted,” Business Week drew out the lessons as follows:
More important than the union victory is the way the Teamsters’ campaign captured what seems to be a new mood in America. For the first time in nearly two decades, the public sided with a union, even though its walkout caused major inconveniences. Polls showed the public supported the 185,000 striking workers by a 2-to-1 margin over management. The message: After a six year economic expansion that has created record corporate profits and vast wealth for investors, Americans are questioning why so many of their countrymen aren’t getting a bigger piece of the pie.1
It went on to suggest that businesses could no longer take their workers for granted and had to address the sense of discontent that the UPS strike brought to the fore.
An editorial by a union economist in the New York Times argued: “[I]f what historians see when they look back on the early 21st century is a broadly shared prosperity and a more equitable society, they may be able to point to the teamsters’ strike at UPS as an event that defined the period.”2
This was the potential at the time, and it represented a huge opportunity to turn the tide against neoliberal globalization. Yet, today it seems like a distant memory. Ten years after the strike, conditions have only deteriorated for working people in the US. Strikes are at an all-time low, and the number of workers in unions continues to shrink.
Why is this the case? One reason is that the leadership of the labor movement, wedded to the concept of labor-management cooperation, squandered this opportunity. While UPS quickly absorbed the lessons, our side did not. For instance, UPS adopted various strategies to improve its public image, to better communicate with its workers, and so on. Most importantly, with the help of politicians that they fund, they got rid of Ron Carey, who lead the UPS strike. This sent a strong message to labor: do not dare to challenge corporate America.
What did our side do? The Hoffa camp joined the Carey witch hunt, while the rest of the labor movement watched from the sidelines. Things soon returned to “business as usual.” This was truly a historic blunder and a lost opportunity for the labor movement.
It is not too late, nevertheless, to remember this strike and its many lessons, two of which are, to my mind, salient. First, it showed that strikes work. It brought UPS to a standstill and stopped the delivery of 80% of all packages that are shipped by ground. UPS had not organized a scabbing operation and they were losing millions every day. By the end of the strike they lost $780 million in revenue. This meant that every day the pressure was on to go back to the negotiating table and reopen their “last, best, and final” offer. Had it not been for these losses, UPS could have held on for much longer.
What this shows is that, for strikes to be effective, production needs to come to a halt. This is the power that organized workers have over management. It also means that unions need to prepare for strikes well: among other things, they need to have sufficient strike funds (the Teamsters did not), scabs need to be kept out at all costs (they didn’t face this situation), and rank-and-file workers need to be the backbone of the strike.
Second, a majority of working people in the US have a positive attitude to unions, particularly when unions demonstrate their ability to effectively challenge corporations. The UPS strike showed that anti-union sentiment is no longer as intractable as it was during, say, the defeat of PATCO in the 1980s. On the contrary, the Teamsters won majority public support not only because UPS drivers have a very positive image in American society, but also, and more importantly, because working-class people identified with their message. The message that emerged from this strike, and that was very well articulated by Ron Carey and rank-and-file members, was that the strike was:
- about decent jobs for all Americans ( “Part-time America won’t work”), and
- against corporate greed (UPS had made $1 billion in profits the previous year).
By generalizing their struggle to include the interests and desires of all working people, the Teamsters tapped into the economic anxiety that is rarely given a hearing in the media, and they organized that sentiment in their favor. They also struck a blow against the logic of globalization, corporate greed, and the inequality that it has produced. Today, this economic insecurity persists and it can be organized if unions step forward in bold and militant ways.
Ten years on, the Democratic Party has finally understood this and is starting to push in a more populist direction. Nancy Pelosi, at a meeting on “globalization, outsourcing, and the American worker,” attended by party leaders and economists, kicked off the discussion by stating that the “American people want to know what we’re doing about economic security.”3
Various presidential contenders have also come out and denounced the growing gap between the “middle class” (of course, they refuse to refer to it as the working class) and the affluent elite. John Edwards routinely points out that in the last twenty years “about half of America’s economic growth has gone to the top one percent.” Hillary Clinton, distancing herself from her husband’s gung-ho neoliberalism, has said that she wants to focus on “rising inequality and rising pessimism in our work force today.”4
The new-found populism of the liberals in the Democratic Party is a reflection of the disgust felt by millions of working people towards the Bush administration’s shenanigans. Years of economic recovery have yielded nothing for ordinary Americans, while the corporate world is raking in profits like never before. At the same time, working-class kids are being sent off to fight and die in a war that shows no signs of ending. From New Orleans to Baghdad, the Republicans have left a trail of devastation, and millions of people feel like they’ve had enough of the neoconservative nonsense. Sensing the shift in public sentiment, albeit somewhat belatedly, key Democratic leaders are beginning to shift their “line” to tap into this discontent.
This too is indicative of a new mood that seems to be sweeping across the U.S. Expectations are rising, not falling, for the first time since 9/11; and the coming election season will be a turbulent one for the Republicans, to say the least. If the sorry state of John McCain’s presidential campaign is any indication, many of their leading lights could well face public humiliation and ridicule in the months to come; this will indeed be a pleasure to witness.
However, it would be naive to ignore the complicity of the Democrats in the neoliberal assault on workers’ living standards. Over the last thirty years the Democrats, who receive their funding from the same corporate sources as the Republicans, have been just as enthusiastic in pushing the neoliberal line. It was Carter, after all, who started the first wave of deregulation, years before Reagan came to power. And it was Clinton who pushed for NAFTA, before Bush could try his hand at the FTAA. To be sure, the Democrats will push for some reforms such as an increase in the minimum wage, and they might oppose particular bilateral free trade agreements, but they will not address the key issues of inequality unless forced to do so by struggle from below.
This is the main lesson of the UPS strike and, more generally, of the history of the labor movement in the US. All the gains that labor can take for granted today are the product of the initiative and creativity of ordinary working class people. As historian Howard Zinn reminds us, progressive changes in this country have come about due to movements organized by the exploited and oppressed and not through the “kindness” of politicians, whether Republican or Democrat.
Independent working-class initiatives alone have the power to put forward an alternative vision of the future: one that includes such demands as single-payer healthcare, job security, and decent wages and pensions. Over the last few years, the immigrant rights movement, which mobilized millions to celebrate May Day in 2006, has shown the way forward.
Organized labor needs to catch up.
2 Mark Levinson, “Turning Point for Labor?” New York Times, 17 August 1997:D15.
4 Ibid, p. 11.
Deepa Kumar is the author of Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike (University of Illinois Press, 2007). She will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the UPS strike with rank and file members of Teamsters Local 805 in their Long Island, New York office.