The marquee issue in the Teamsters' strike against United Parcel Service is part-time employment. Specifically, the union charges that the company is opting for part-time jobs as a way to cut costs and deprive workers of a living wage.
The strikers say, correctly, that this is a nationwide phenomenon that deserves greater attention. Less correct is their implication that workers' interests are being steamrolled by management.
Extensive part-time employment in the US is hardly new. Some 17 percent of employed people today work part time. In 1979, another period of relatively low unemployment, the figure was 18 percent, according to Robert Lerman, an economist with the Urban Institute in Washington.
To a large extent, part-time employment is driven by a demand for such work by Americans. Many of the women who've entered the work force in recent years haven't wanted eight-hour days. Part-time work makes it easier to balance work demands with family and household duties. Others simply want to supplement regular incomes. Job-sharing is another factor. Some experts estimate that 75 percent of people who hold part-time jobs today prefer shorter hours.
A significant proportion of people, however, hold part-time jobs out of economic necessity, not choice. They may have been unable to find full-time work, or had their once full-time job reduced to part time because of slack demand for a company's product.
From an employer's perspective, part-timers can be a economical way to meet peak demands for labor. UPS hires thousands of sorters and packers for the early morning hours just before its planes take off. Retailers, a growing source of employment, may need people for the evening and weekend hours that have become prime shopping times. The same holds for food-preparation industries. A drawback for employers is that a lot of part-timers may cost them more in employment taxes than a smaller number of full-timers.
It's true that part-time workers typically get lower hourly wages and less generous benefits. The wage gap at UPS is reported to be $9 versus $19. But such wage levels are set, presumably, with the collaboration of unions like the Teamsters. Benefits, too, are usually arrived at with union input, and it's no surprise that both wages and pension benefits, for instance, are tilted toward the people who are most influential within the unions - full-time, longtime workers. It's hardly surprising that employers take advantage of the wage differential by creating more part-time jobs.
On the other hand, workers have a legitimate gripe if their "part time" hours are expanded through overtime to virtual full-time positions, yet wages and benefits lag - as some UPS strikers have asserted. Then more full-time jobs may well be in order.
The logical outcome of the UPS-Teamsters standoff might be some additional movement by the company toward increased full-time employment and a recognition by the union that part-time work is more than a management ploy. It's a persistent fact of American working life. Maybe it's time for the interests of part-timers to be better represented in wage and benefits bargaining.