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Part-Time America & The UPS Strike

Just past the stroke of midnight in the Monday pre-morn of August 3, Ron Carey, Teamster president, called a strike against UPS. What we have here is a struggle over the basic tilt of the American economy. You can sort your way through the last-minute offers, the $3,000 cash bribes put up by UPS to wean the full-time drivers away from the strike, the $1,500 kindred bribe to the part-timers, but first step back for a moment and look at the larger picture.

Inch by inch and day by day America is becoming a nation of casual laborers, earning not enough to live on, with no job security, no benefits and no future. This array of part-timers is most familiar to us in agriculture, where for decades underpaid farm workers have survived only by combining their meager wage with food stamps and medical benefits from the government. But the army and its wounded are spread across the country, and for every person you see carrying one of those “Will work for food” signs there are a thousand others with that same sign tattoed on their souls.

As so often we’re talking about the invisibles: in agriculture it’s the line of pickers somewhere out in the middle distance as you speed along the highway. In shipping and freight it’s the casual workers getting up near midnight to trudge into a UPS hub for three or four hours work at a starting wage of $8 an hour, same as it’s been for the last 15 years.

UPS claims it runs the tightest ship in the whole shipping business, and every one knows the quality of those brown-uniformed men and women, the envy of other employers and the delight of those who use UPS. We are all accustomed to seeing the brown truck pull up and an intelligent, efficient driver hop out on the double with a good attitude and a can-do demeanor.

What we don’t see is that for every 100 full-time $20-an-hour drivers, there are 150 or more $8-an-hour employees working three hours each in the middle of the night, scrimping together a part-time life, with part-time food, part-time self-respect, no-time medical or vacation or retirement or future. And every day the ratchet clocks again as, with every extension of service, UPS swells its part-time component. On UPS’s own statistics 47 percent of the entire part-time work force turns over each year. The union says it’s even quicker. Out of those 120,000 part-timers some 10,000 get to work 35 hours a week, but because they’re held in part-time designation their pay goes only as high as $12 an hour.

What we don’t see with UPS, the famous “tightest ship,” is that tightness carries a price tag. UPS is the nation’s leading OSHA violator, cited two-and-a-half times more in a year than the norm in its industry. UPS is proud to tell you the company still has its old trucks maintained and running today. But as yet the commanders of that giant ship can’t be induced to spend the money to put those convex mirrors on their trucks, to reduce the risk of backing over you or your child stepping out on the street behind the truck.

Each year UPS carries 5 percent of the nation’s GNP. The UPS contract battled over this summer is the largest private labor contract in America. It is rivaled only the the General Motors contract, and covers some 200,000 workers. Only the US Post Office has more employees. But today only 80,000 of those workers are those full-time, $20-an-hour UPSers we see and know. The rest are that invisible army, working at night in the vast, cavernous air-hubs where $24 is all you get for three hours toil on the sorting belt. These workers aren’t handling mail or widgets, but a stream of packages that can weigh up to 150 pounds each. When UPS raised its weight limits it made no alterations in the sorting and delivery systems, it merely changed its “rules” and let the workers figure out how to deal with the new situation.

Want a sense of what it’s like to work on a UPS sorting belt? Here’s how Sal Owens, up in the state of Washington, describes it.

“I work on the night sort as a sorter at the Redmond hub here in Washington. I’ve been there almost three years. Last night was actually the first night that I ever wanted to be there and that was only because I thought I’d be walking out at midnight due to the strike. Is that sad or what? When people ask me how I like my job I simply reply that I hate it. You’re in this giant, dusty, loud warehouse that reminds you of Freddy Krueger’s house. There are literally hundreds of parcels just heading your direction on a transverse belt that you can’t even see because of the intensity of the volume. Your back, shoulders, knees are already hurting because of the previous tow years so, if you’re lucky, you should be used to the pain by now. As you’re sorting these packages about one every two to three seconds you’re hoping that the next package you pick up is not another seventy pounder. For about a minute you sort a special shipper of about fifty packages weighing only thirty pounds each and you say to yourself, ‘Thank you god for this break.’ Two hours go by and you’re thinking it’s almost time to go home but in actuality it’s time for your measly ten minute break! By this time you’re limping due to a heavy box falling on your foot. It wasn’t a serious injury so you say to yourself, ‘Oh well, just another day at the office.’ So you limp your way to a first aid kit and help yourself to an icepack, if there’s one there because they go pretty fast. Anyway, two more hours go by and you’re thinking of things like beer, weekend, wife, kids, anything to keep yourself from going crazy. It’s been only four or five hours and it feels like a full day’s work but you know it’s over and you’re happy because you’re leaving and not in an ambulance. I’m not kidding when I say this place is a hell hole and probably will always one. The least UPS could do is pay us a decent wage.”

Part-timers do get medical benefits. Why else would people put up with a job where the $8 an hour starting wage hasn’t changed for 15 years and which UPS wants to lock in place for another five? The part-timers who make it past the first six months are usually combining the job wi that of a partner on another minimum wage job. So the part-timers haul themselves out of their beds at least to get get the 60 hours a month — often all they can get — that’s them the $2.70 an hour medical benefit package.

How did this come about? When UPS began to build its air-hub system some 30 years ago it was using only college students for the part-time jobs, and indeed required these workers too provide proof they were still going to college. It was the thin end of a very long wedge. Today you can go to UPS’s Louisville hub, a converted military airfield, and see 5,000 part-timers and only a sprinkling of full-time employees. It’s the same story at Ontario, in San Bernandino County, California. 1,000 part-timers and only a handful of regular jobs. At the Denver hub the part-timers are guaranteed only an hour a night.

As recently as the late 1980s the ration of part-timers to full-timers was about 50-50. If this proportion was still in force there would be 20,000 more $20-an-hour jobs. The good jobs weren’t lost to NAFTA, or to more efficient Chinese drivers in Taiwan or Shanghai. They were lost to greed. UPS is a management-owned company with no public sales of stock, with the managers organized into a pyramid scheme that sucks most of the profits up and ever upward into the pockets at the top.

The last serious resistance to these trends was in the late 1970s, but back then the Teamsters Union was running its own pyramid scheme with the union dues siphoned up into the vast array of Hoffa hangers-on and parasites who had accumulated and inherited multiple salaries for do-nothing jobs. These days, though, Hoffa’s son, James Jr., is trying to get the family name back into the Teamster president’s office; there is a leadership trying to do the best by its members.

Why are those 80,000 full-time UPS drivers who have the good jobs willing to take such risks, to go on strike for their 120,000 fellow workers? They certainly see that they are losing ground in this booming domestic economy. These days business is feeling good. “Paradise Found: The Best of All Possible Economies,” crowed a recent Merrill Lynch report. In June, Fortune said the US economy is “stronger than it’s ever been.” But in large part it’s the strength derived from draining the strength of that invisible army and giving it little in return. That’s why the two most crucial issues in the present UPS contract are no more shrinkages of full-time jobs, no more subcontracting of these jobs out to other truckers. No more paeans to the golden monument of the American economy when often the best you can get is somewhere around $30 for working three hours in the dead hours of the night.

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