Broken Backs and Bottom Lines (August 13, 1997)

A week into the Teamster strike against UPS we visit the picket line put up by Local 70 outside the big UPS hub on Pardee, a mile or so from Oakland Airport. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and there are some fifteen to twenty pickets as we talk, mostly to Robert Alameda and Craig Gonsalves, full-time drivers who have put in 35 years between them with UPS.

Morale is good though these people are getting help from the union of only $65 a week. No scabs have thus far crossed this particular line, nor any other in the Bay Area. Nationally the figure being mentioned by union people is that the strike is about 95 per cent solid and the public, these pickets say, is sympathetic. This is a big card for the Teamsters. Here is no distant struggle by unknown folk in somewhere like Decator, Illinois. This one is, so to speak, in the family. Everyone knows those hard-working folks in brown.

At the Pardee hub 60 per cent of the work force is part-time, mostly earning anywhere from $8 to $12 an hour, taking home maybe $100 a week. James Wilson tells us he’s been with UPS for 17 years and is still denied full-time status even though he works 45 hours a week. this means UPS is paying into his pension only half what a full-timer would get. Wilson says he hurt his foot so badly in a piece of defective UPS machinery some years ago that he can’t make it as a full-time truck driver and UPS won’t bend and give him full-time status in his job accounts.

In this hub 95 per cent of the work force is male and about 70 per cent is white. There are some 280 full-time truck drivers earning about $20 an hour. At the UPS building closer to the airport, handling air freight, everyone is part-time.

Everyone on the Local 70 line is adamant about the outrageous nature of the package offered by UPS. They laugh at suggestions in the press that Ron Carey called the strike to bolster his personal position. There’s no way, they say, that Carey and the International could possibly have swallowed the contract. UPS wants to force workers into its own inferior health plan. It also wants to run its own pension plan. Teamsters could not carry their pensions into other jobs, and in a UPS-managed plan might not see their benefits raised a cent in a decade. After all, the starting UPS part-time wage base has stayed the same for 15 years.

Furthermore the company wants to increase subcontracting on the big feeder trucks that haul freight from one UPS building to another. Right now, this is the best full-time union job. If it goes to subcontracting, there will be even less opportunity for drivers to cross other union picket lines and to dump the old grievance procedure whereby a worker stays working until the grievance issue is settled.

The part-timers describe the work. There’s the twilight shift, 5pm-9pm, favored because it means workers can go to school during the day and get the extra hour. Then there’s the 11pm to 2am shift, with a higher turnover rate in part-timers — the majority of whom are around 19 and at least half of whom stay less than a year. Worst of all is the pre-loud shift, 3am to 6am, terrible hour to go 

a to work and particularly unpopular because there’s no chance of overtime. The turnover in part-timers is huge. For a driver an efficient pre-load makes all the difference, since the packages on a route with maybe 40 stops should be loaded in the right order. It takes pre-loaders anywhere from two days to a week to learn the route and street sequence for the three trucks each pre-loader handles, so the high turn-over, means that much of the time everything gets messed up, and drivers start early, loading themselves and staying late.

There’s much scorn about UPS’s claim that the company is offering more full-time jobs beyond replacing full-timers who are retiring. In fact, Gonsalves says, the company is demanding the right to use part-timers for the delivery of any package with a guaranteed time commitment, as is already the case with airborne packages, thus setting up a situation in which the full-time drivers could lose their last stronghold, delivery of ground packages.

Almost every striker we spoke to had been hurt on the job at some time or another. In 1996 the injury rate, according to UPS, was 33.8 per 100 workers. Not surprising when you reckon that a sorter might have to move six tons in a three-hour shift, for maybe $30. On an industrial rou a driver, Alameda said, might have to deal with three or four “packages” each weighing somewhere near 150 pounds, the new limit announced by UPS in February of 1994, having failed to mention the pending change during the contract talks of 1993. A one-day strike over the new limit called on February 7, 1994, by Ron Carey did force UPS to allow workers to refuse to lift the extra-heavy packages by themselves. They can supposedly ask for assistance. A female driver on the picket line snorted, telling us that if she requested help every time she was faced with something beyond her personal physical capacity — 70 pounds — she’d be fired. She has depended on help from the customers.

A company suddenly more than doubles its weight limits while simultaneously spraying Congress with money to undermine work-place safety laws, while holding base part-time pay at $8 an hour for the last fifteen years. Even before the weight raise, between 1990 and 1994 UPS profits went up 58 per cent, to $943.3 million. It’s not hard to figure the rights and wrongs of this one. If you have questions, find a picket line and ask those strikers. They’ll be happy to lay it all out for you.

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