Salon Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Why the workers at UPS went on strike.

By David Bacon

Published August 12, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

OAKLAND, Calif. -- 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 same place thousands of young people think of, 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 put yourself through school, earn a union wage and get benefits. And 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 that can pay the bills.

That's the fuel behind the strike at UPS.

"I've been working 26 to 28 hours a week for 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. 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. Cortez's oldest child will be in middle school before he gets there. "I can't wait five years. I need a change right now," he explains when asked why he went out on strike.

That full-time position would not only increase his hours. It would give him a substantial raise. Cortez makes $11.60 per hour as a part-timer. The base wage for part-timers -- who constitute almost 60 percent of UPS's work force -- has stayed at $8 per hour for the past 15 years. A full-time driver can make over $20.

Many part-timers at UPS don't really work part time at all. Scott Biales puts in a week that regularly runs 48 to 50 hours. Sometimes he replaces a truck driver for a few hours, and he 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 still 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 pounds, and UPS now 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 percent of new hires since 1993. The lower-tier wages the company pays them helped generate a $1 billion profit for UPS 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 smoke screen," according to Kristi Wolfgang, UPS's spokeswoman in Atlanta, who said the real issue was the union's refusal to allow the company to switch to a new pension plan that isn't run by the Teamsters.

But union activists say UPS is asking for concessions that would make the problem of part-timers even worse. 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, so there won't be openings for part-timers in the terminals. That would make the waiting line for Cortez and Biales even longer.

Some 185,000 Teamster members are on strike, and the union, riven by internal discord over reforms, has closed ranks behind them. On the picket lines, strikers 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, they break all the stereotypes about union members. Picketers' average age is in the 20s. African-Americans rub shoulders with whites, Latinos with Asians. The loudest picketers are women.

Mack himself ran unsuccessfully against President Ron Carey's slate last year. Now, however, "I agree totally with the stand Carey has taken," he says. "Politics is a luxury when we've got the future of our members at stake."

David Bacon

David Bacon is an associate editor of Pacific News Service who writes on immigrant and labor issues.

MORE FROM David Bacon

Related Topics ------------------------------------------