The Rebellion of the Young and Part-time (Aug. 13, 1997)

Oakland, California — John Cortez isn’t a kid anymore. So why is he still trying to survive on the same part-time job that he got when he was young and single?

Because he works at United Parcel Service.

Cortez got a job at the main place thousands of young people think of first, especially when they’re going to school, and trying to earn a living at the same time. The word has been out for years — if you can hook a job at UPS, you can work part-time on an off shift, earn a union wage, and get benefits.

You can put yourself through school. With no dependents, you can live on that part-time wage.

But young people grow older. They get married and start families. They need a stable life and a paycheck which can pay the bills.

That’s the fuel behind the strike at UPS.

“I’ve been working 26-28 hours a week for five years,” Cortez explains. “It’s really hard now. I have a wife and two kids. It’s just not enough hours to pay the bills. My wife and I both work, and we still need government support to help us out. It’s gotten to be more than we can tolerate.”

Before the strike started, the waiting line to get a full-time job was still five years long. His oldest child will be in middle school before he gets there. No wonder Cortez is willing to strike to try to open up more real jobs, the kind he and others will families need. “I can’t wait five years. I need a change right now,” he says.

That full-time position would not only increase his hours. It would give him a substantial raise. Cortez makes $11.60/hour as a part-timer. A full-time driver can make over $20/hour.

Many part-timers at UPS, like Scott Biales, don’t really work part-time at all. Biales puts in a week which regularly runs from 48-50 hours. Sometimes he replaces a truck driver for a few hours, and gets a higher wage when he does. But mostly, he’s working the original part-time position in the terminal into which he was hired years ago. And at a part-time wage.

Part-time workers provide UPS with many advantages. “They’re usually young people, and they work them to death for those four hours. Then they just bring in more,” according to Chuck Mack, secretary-treasurer of Oakland’s Teamsters Local 70. The union tried to hold down the workload with a mid-contract strike two years ago, which sought to limit to 70 pounds the weight of packages workers were required to lift. Nevertheless, the present contract took the limit to 150 ponds, and now UPS wants the right to increase it even further at any time, with no negotiations.

“In a lot of terminals, two-thirds, or even three-quarters of the employees are part-timers,” Mack says. They make up 80% of new hires since 1993. The lower-tier wages the company pays them made a big contribution to the $1 billion profit UPS posted last year.

That gives the company a big reason for asking President Clinton to intervene to stop the strike, instead of sitting down with the union and making some compromises. UPS pooh-poohs the part-timers’ complaints. “The part-time issue is just a smokescreen,” according to Kristi Wolfgang, UPS’s spokesperson in Atlanta, who said the union was really after preventing changes in the benefit and pension plans.

UPS is asking for union concessions which would make the problem even worse, however. The company wants to subcontract out the jobs of feeder drivers, who drive between terminals. These jobs are promotions for the delivery drivers in the familiar brown trucks, and are held by the most senior workers. If feeder driver jobs are contracted out, delivery drivers won’t move up into them, creating openings for part-timers in the terminals. That would make the waiting line for workers like Cortez and Biales even longer.

It’s not surprising that UPS strikers show no signs that they’re willing to go back to work without the expectation of more full-time jobs.

185,000 Teamster members are on strike. On the picket lines, they seem energetic and confident, knowing they have the company shut down tight.

At the big UPS terminal near the Oakland airport, the largest hub in northern California, strikers break all the stereotypes about union members. Their average age is in the 20s. African-Americans rub shoulders with whites, Latinos and Asians. The loudest picketers are women.

Those who think unions are made up of middle-aged white men should take a second look at UPS. This isn’t the first strike where young people have been the backbone of the picket lines. Two years ago, when workers walked out of the Safeway stores, those picket lines too were young, multiracial and militant.

Conversations used to be common in union halls among older workers, bemoaning the apathy of the young. “They never went through what we did,” the old complaint would go. “They don’t understand why the union is important.”

You don’t hear that much anymore. The young strikers at UPS are giving the union a new breath of life.

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