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Labor Lauds Return of Brown Shirts

Customers exhale and labor cheers landmark victory as 15-day old UPS strike ends

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 1997



WASHINGTON

The settlement of the United Parcel Service strike could mark a significant shift in American employee/employer relations and the possible start of widespread worker demands for higher wages.

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If nothing else, the terms of the UPS deal seem to be a tremendous victory for unions in general and the Teamsters and their leader Ron Carey in particular. The strike's outstanding issues appear to have been settled largely on Teamster terms.

"For years we've been accustomed to unions giving in first," says Neil Bernstein, a labor law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's been a long time since a major employer was the one to make the concessions."

The challenge now facing UPS is to restore efficiency and teamwork in its familiar brown-suited work force, while winning back the loyalty of its customers.

The relatively quick end to the strike means UPS remains financially solid. Its vast route network and cheery service are still unchallenged by upstart competitors.

But the inconvenience of the work stoppage might mean many firms are now looking for ways to diversify their shipping.

"UPS may no longer be a near monopoly," says labor economist Audrey Freedman.

At time of writing the agreement to end the 15-day old UPS walkout was still tentative.

But all indications were that Teamsters Union officials would ratify the deal.

Union negotiators won big on their key issue: conversion of part-time jobs to full-time positions. UPS agreed to create 10,000 full-time jobs over the five-year life of the proposed contract.

UPS officials also agreed to significant raises in worker pay. Part-time workers would see their wage packets increase by $4.10 an hour over five years. Full-time workers - who already make substantially more than their part-time counterparts - would get a $3.10 increase.

Labor's only concession?

UPS did not win Teamster agreement to withdraw from the union multi-employer pension plan and set up a system solely for UPS workers. About the only aspect of the proposed agreement that seemed favorable to UPS was its length - five years, as opposed to the shorter pact union officials would have preferred.

The manner of the settlement reflected the relative public strength of the two sides, say labor law experts.

Polls showed that a majority of the US public supported the union and its contention that it was fighting for the rights of part-time workers in an economy prone to heartless downsizing. The UPS position - that it was a generous employer that needed worker flexibility to deal with today's tough business environment - generated less citizen sympathy.

In addition, the Clinton administration refused the request of many businesses to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act and order the strikers back to work for a cooling-off period. Teamster unity, which was in question at the strike's beginning, remained solid throughout two-week walkout.

Given that context, UPS officials may have simply decided to give in before an extended walkout depleted cash reserves and permanently alienated customers.