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ISR Issue 55, November–December 2007

When Big Brown shut down
The UPS strike ten years on


The UPS strike is so weird it’s hard to know where to begin. Somehow we are supposed to believe that the mighty Teamsters has suddenly decided it must paralyze the nation’s parcel-distribution system to have it out over mostly voluntary part-timers and various pension arcana. These matters may be worth an argument, but Armageddon? What’s this weird, awful strike about anyway?
—Wall Street Journal1

ARMAGEDDON? WEIRD? Awful? The Wall Street Journal’s editorial expressed perfectly Corporate America’s hysterical response when the largest group of American workers in nearly a generation stood up and defeated one of the most powerful corporations in the world.

Ten years ago this summer, on August 4, 1997, more than 185,000 Teamster members went on strike against United Parcel Service (UPS), the country’s largest transportation company and popularly known as “Big Brown.” The UPS strike, led by reform Teamster general president Ron Carey, brought to the surface the enormous anger that had been building up among working-class people for many years. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote that the UPS strike “is best seen as the angry fist-waving response of the frustrated American worker, a revolt against the ruthless treatment of workers by so many powerful corporations.”2 It ended with the biggest labor victory in two decades. And the strike led many people to believe that, after so many disasters for so many years, the union movement was finally poised for a comeback. It turned out not to be so. In many ways the victory was short-lived. Soon Carey would be banned from the Teamsters in a government-led witch-hunt and UPS stonewalling delayed many of the contract victories for years.

Today, it is easy for some to look back at the 1997 strike and see it as an aberration, almost an historical accident. Some Teamster officials I know will tell you that you will never see a national strike at UPS again. For many veterans of the strike, it left a bad taste in their mouths. Among these veterans, there is a widespread feeling that: “We won, but we lost.” Nevertheless, it is important to remember that concrete gains were won, and that the 1997 strike was the most visible effort to date by American workers to turn back the three-decade assault on their wages, benefits, and working conditions.

The issues that produced the largest nationwide strike in a generation have not disappeared. On the contrary, grievances have deepened, waiting for another opportunity to express themselves. In many ways, the 1997 UPS strike still represents the struggle of the future.

Behind the brown wall

Our management style is a combination of the Marine Corps and the Quakers.
—attributed to “Oz” Nelson, the former CEO of UPS

UPS in the 1990s had a well-crafted public image of prompt, efficient, courteous service that made it the leader of the package-delivery industry. It was familiar to many people then (as it is today) by its enormous fleet of brown delivery trucks dotting America’s landscape. UPS proudly described itself as “the tightest ship in the shipping business.” Yet, behind this brown wall, UPS’s growing wealth and power was based on working conditions that looked more like those of the nineteenth century than its modern image would suggest. The bulk of the sorting and loading of packages was done by an army of part-timers (nearly two-thirds of UPS’s workforce), individually sorting close to 1,600 packages an hour (about twenty-seven per minute). Many of these workers were working full-timers’ hours but earning part-timers’ wages and benefits. UPS part-timers had their starting pay cut to $8.00 an hour in the early 1980s—a level at which it has roughly remained for a quarter of a century. Despite UPS propaganda that claimed that part-timers didn’t want full-time work, every Teamster survey revealed, “90 percent of part-timers at UPS ranked the creation of more full-time jobs with full-time pay as a top bargaining priority.”3 During the middle 1990s when UPS undertook a major expansion, it “hired an additional 46,300 workers, but more than 38,500 of them have been placed in part-time jobs. Therefore, 83 percent of the new jobs created at UPS have been part-time,”4 according to the Teamsters’ research department. This was quite a statement about the priorities at UPS.

Along with the increasing number and proportion of part-time jobs, the working conditions inside the “hubs” (UPS’s warehousing and distribution centers) became increasingly intolerable during the 1990s. UPS was long known to maintain a “totalitarian workplace” where supervisors relentlessly pushed and harassed their workers for greater productivity.5 “Oz” Nelson is said to have described the company’s management style as “a combination of the Marine Corps and the Quakers.” The inevitable result of this relentless pursuit of increased productivity was UPS’s rank among companies with the highest injury rates in the industry. In the early 1990s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued more than 1,300 citations for safety violations—more than one-third deemed serious. UPS was also fined $3 million, in one of the biggest OSHA cases of the decade, for its failure to protect workers from hazardous materials.6 In 1993 alone, UPS had nearly 14 injuries for every 100 full-time workers, compared to the industry average of 8 injuries for every 100 full-time workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. UPS paid out nearly a million dollars a day in workers’ compensation.7 Things got worse in 1994, after UPS, without negotiating with the union, unilaterally raised the weight limit on individual packages from 70 pounds to 150 pounds. The Teamsters called a short strike to protest this move in February 1994, but failed to push back the weight limit.

The working conditions for UPS package car drivers (93 percent of whom are men) significantly declined during the 1990s. Meanwhile, the company made a big effort promoting them as “sex symbols.” An embarrassing February 8, 1995, Wall Street Journal article headlined, “In the UPS man, some women find a complete package,” claimed among other things that UPS drivers “have become the sex objects of the service world.”8 The article could have only been written at the request of UPS. One of the major problems with promoting male drivers as “sex-on-legs” is that an increasing number of them were having difficulty just walking around. Paul Heiman, for example, a veteran package car driver in Kansas, had six operations by the end of 1995—three on his knees and three on his shoulders.9 This is not uncommon. Many package cars during the 1990s were crammed with extremely heavy packages that used to be delivered by freight companies on pallets with power jacks or forklifts. Now UPS drivers were being asked to deliver these by hand. On top of the increased weight of packages was the speed of work and pressure to complete anywhere from 150 to 200 stops and pickups a day. Not only were drivers’ bodies simply being worn out, but increasing stress levels were causing physical and mental illnesses among package car drivers. In 1992, the Great Lakes Center for Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health, affiliated with the University of Illinois, conducted a nationwide study involving 317 package car drivers at an “unnamed delivery company” that was obviously UPS. It concluded: “This study suggests that job stress is a psychological health hazard for these drivers.”10

The Teamsters: Reform and reaction

Our mission is to take the enormous resources of this union and give them new direction and new purpose, to win better contracts, to improve pensions, and to organize new workers, to pass national health insurance.
—Ron Carey, inaugural speech as Teamster general president, February 1, 1992 11

UPS hoped that the upcoming 1997 contract negotiations with the Teamsters would be a major turning point in its relationship with its workforce. Firming up its political influence in Washington and buying media and business consultants were parts of a plan to do some serious damage to the Teamsters’ presence at UPS. Ever since 1991, UPS looked with a wary eye at developments within the Teamsters and the labor movement as a whole. For decades, UPS got most of what it wanted from the “old guard” of the Teamsters, particularly, the unopposed massive expansion of part-time work and two-tier wage structures. But in 1991, the world turned upside down for UPS. Ron Carey, president of Local 804 in New York, a local mostly made up of UPS workers, won a stunning victory as general president in a three-way race against two other old-guard candidates.12 Carey was endorsed by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the long-standing reform group in the union made up of rank-and-file members. In fact, a majority of the new general executive board were TDU members. To say the least, this election was a political earthquake and certainly was not what the leaders of the old guard, the freight industry, UPS, the Wall Street Journal, and the Republican Party expected.13 It was an open secret that UPS (as well as other Teamster employers) were hoping for Carey’s defeat in the 1996 Teamster election at the hands of the old guard (the mobbed-up, corrupt leadership) candidate, James P. Hoffa, son of the notorious Jimmy Hoffa.14

The Teamsters union that Carey took over in 1992 was in terrible shape. Once the largest single union in the United States with nearly 2.2 million members in the mid-1970s, it had lost half its membership during the 1980s with the deregulation of the trucking industry, the rise of major non-union companies (like Overnite Transport), and the opening of non-union wings of unionized freight companies (a corporate practice known as “double-breasting”).15 Carey got rid of the worst extravagances of the union leadership, such as its private fleet of airplanes, the wasteful, do-nothing regional conferences, the chef at Teamster headquarters, and cleaning up corrupt, mob-dominated union locals.16 At the same time, Carey attempted to get the union out of its moribund state through new organizing and programs to get members involved in “contract campaigns.” Carey created a field services department to bypass the many backward and incompetent local Teamster officers. He hired talented organizers to begin reorganizing the freight industry that had once been the heart of the Teamsters.

There were frustrating limits to reforming the sprawling Teamsters union from Washington. The union’s two major contracts—the National Master Freight Agreement and the National Master UPS Agreement—would both be negotiated by Carey, the bulk of Teamster members were covered by local contracts negotiated by the old guard. Carey even made an effort at winning over some sections of the old guard with what Teamster activists called the “olive branch strategy.” In any event, what was most important about Carey’s first term—particularly after a series of reform victories in important union locals in Chicago, Seattle, and Atlanta—was that the union seemed to moving forward.

The sense that things were moving forward also produced a backlash against actions spearheaded by James P. Hoffa and the old guard that still controlled most of the local unions. Collaborating with some of the most reactionary political forces in the country, Hoffa led every effort to undermine, discredit, and derail the efforts of the Carey administration to reform the union. Soon after the 1991 election, a “get Carey” campaign was organized by these same forces to destroy Carey and to halt the reform of the union—Hoffa was the central figure in this effort. At every turn Carey found Hoffa and his allies playing an obstructionist role. All this came to a head in the 1996 election when Carey faced a united old guard led by Hoffa. The Hoffa slate was extremely well funded with fat checks from old-guard Teamster officers and staffers across the country. Hoffa was also helped in no small measure by trucking company supervisors, including UPS supervisors, who violated campaign rules by distributing Hoffa campaign material. Hoffa tried to project an image of toughness with campaign literature showing a smiling Hoffa shaking a clenched fist under the bold headline, “Restore Teamster power!” This image attempted to cover up his close connections to corrupt union officials, the mob, and Teamster employers.17 Most of the media coverage of the election implied that Hoffa was on the verge of an upset victory. The Wall Street Journal even ran an article called “Teamster watchers ponder a Hoffa win.”18 There was no need to ponder long because Hoffa lost. A groan could be heard emanating from Corporate America, especially from UPS.

Carey eked out a close victory with 52 percent of the vote. In the ensuing charges and countercharges concerning the funding of both campaigns and the effect it had on the vote, what was lost was the real source of Carey’s victory. The 1996 election occurred on the eve of the 1997 UPS contract on which Carey staked his record and personal reputation. Carey promised to win a significant number of new full-time jobs, pension protection, and wage increases. Hoffa’s allies were completely compromised by the Teamsters’ policies at UPS. They were the ones who agreed to huge pay cuts for part-time workers and the vast expansion of part-time work that has now become the norm in large parts of the U.S. economy. When Teamsters at UPS were asked during the campaign, “Who do you want negotiating your contract? Carey or Hoffa?” The answer was Carey—the son of and a former UPS package car driver himself—and this support pushed him over the top. Not willing to accept that the Teamster membership had rejected them, Hoffa and the old guard turned to their friends in the federal government for help in getting rid of Carey. Barbara Zack-Quindel, the federal government-appointed election officer, responding to election protests filed by the Hoffa slate, and refused to certify the election.19 Meanwhile, a coterie of anti-union fanatics in the House of Representatives led by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.) began a campaign to discredit and ultimately to drive Carey out of the Teamsters.

The American worker in the 1990s

Many problems that workers faced only in bad times have become fixtures in all times: Some wages are still falling, people must be ready to work 12-hour shifts and 6 days a week, and no job is for keeps.
New York Times, July 3, 199520

To understand why the first national strike against UPS took place when it did, and why it was so popular, one has to understand what was happening to the American worker in the 1990s. Recently, former president Bill Clinton was asked about his and Hillary’s political viability in the 2008 presidential contest: “Are you yesterday’s news?” a reporter asked. “Well, yesterday’s news was pretty good, that’s the first thing I want to say!” the former president cheerily retorted. After the disastrous Bush presidency, many people may look back fondly at the Clinton presidency as a period of peace, prosperity, and competence in high office. However, what’s been forgotten is that life in the 1990s was becoming increasingly difficult for working-class people in the United States.

Clinton, who was elected using the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!” promised health care reform and a series of other measures to help working-class people. He broke every major promise to the labor movement and regularly used his authority to prevent workers from striking. Robert Reich, Clinton’s first secretary of labor, later revealed: “We essentially have collaborated [with] and responded to the business community.”21 From 1993 to 1995, more than 8.5 million workers lost their jobs through downsizing or the wholesale closing or merging of companies, despite the “boom” in the economy.22 Fear and anxiety were widespread among American workers, particularly among older workers. The media began take notice. In March 1994, the New York Times published a four-part series called “Staying afloat” about the struggles of full-time, low-wage workers.23 The Times followed up with a special report called “Job insecurity: Even in good times, it’s hard times for workers,” in July 1995, which concluded that “many problems that workers faced only in bad times have become fixtures in all times: Some wages are still falling, people must be ready to work 12-hour shifts and 6 days a week, and no job is for keeps.”24 Newsweek magazine summed things up well with its cover story in February 1996, “Corporate killers: Wall Street loves layoffs. But the public is scared as hell.”25

Despite the changes in the Teamsters and the triumph of the reform “new voices” leadership in the AFL-CIO in 1995, Corporate America seemed more determined than ever to destroy the last bastions of organized labor, particularly in the manufacturing sector of the economy. Central Illinois became a major battleground. “Illinois is a war zone” was the slogan of the striking and locked-out workers in the greater Decatur, Illinois, region at a time when nearly one out of eight workers was affected by these struggles. Three large, multinational conglomerates—Caterpillar, Staley, and Firestone—led the attacks on their workers.26 Caterpillar, the largest earth-moving equipment manufacturer in the world, was particularly vicious, provoking three strikes in five years in an attempt to destroy the United Auto Workers (UAW).

The “war zone” struggles all showed a number of positive changes in American workers. First, they exhibited a willingness to experiment and to engage in more militant actions. Staley workers, especially, traveled the country as “road warriors” spreading the message of their struggle. A rank-and-file newsletter by Caterpillar workers—Kick the Cat—attempted to provide an alternative to the incompetent Detroit leadership of the UAW. There was also a new openness to socialist politics that was evident at all war zone events.27 The stifling anticommunism that suffocated the labor movement for two generations receded to the sidelines of the struggles. Yet, these and other battles like them (such as the strike at Detroit newspapers that occurred around the same time) went down to hard defeats because the workers had started from an already weakened position. Caterpillar, Firestone, and Staley were huge multinationals with many non-union plants and facilities around the world that could keep up production in spite of the strikes and lockouts. The impact of these struggles was primarily regional and had little impact on the economy or directly on other working-class people. UPS would be different.

Part-time America won’t work

These companies all have a formula. They don’t take you on full-time. They don’t pay benefits. Then their profits go through the roof.
—Laura Piscotti, striking Teamster, Chicago, August 6, 199728

This atmosphere of widespread working-class frustration with the economy, a renewed employers’ offensive, a new openness of workers to struggle, and the first tentative efforts at union reform, provides the immediate backdrop to the UPS-Teamster negotiations. UPS saw only what it wanted to see: a battered and weakened union movement in retreat, a divided Teamsters, a failed “safety strike” in 1994, and a contract campaign by the Teamsters that was a weak demonstration of union power. After a sparsely attended Teamster rally where Carey spoke in Atlanta at the end of May 1997, UPS officials were contemptuous. “They’re trying to stage a Broadway production of Les Miserables, and what we’re seeing is a high school production of Annie Get Your Gun,” said UPS spokesperson Mark Dickens.29 Carey’s campaign for more full-time jobs was dismissed by another UPS spokesperson: “It’s nothing more than posturing.”30

But UPS misjudged the willingness of its workers to go on strike. UPS “tried to define the fight,” according to former Teamster spokesperson Steve Trossman, “as whether UPS employees would be loyal to UPS or loyal to the union.”31 For a company where workers are either outright hostile or indifferent to their supervisors, this was an act of fantastic arrogance. It was with this in mind that UPS issued its “last, best, and final offer” at the end of negotiations. A true insult, this offer proposed a lower wage increase than the previous contract had, pledged to create only 200 new full-time jobs nationally, increased subcontracting of union work, and demanded to take total control of the full-time pension fund.32

What UPS didn’t see was an earthquake building under its feet. Its arrogance got the better of it: UPS committed the sin of believing its own propaganda. UPS management didn’t see the obvious. Ron Carey was reelected precisely because he promised a serious contract fight at UPS. Every union survey showed that the creation of full-time jobs was a top priority for union members. Every union local that conducted strike votes by UPS/Teamsters across the country, voted 90 percent–95 percent in favor of striking if the company did not grant the union’s major demands. Anger about the company was reaching a boiling point, particularly after UPS announced that it couldn’t afford to create large numbers of full-time jobs, even though it had record profits of $1 billion in 1996 and was on track for bigger profits in 1997. Yet, the biggest mistake that UPS made was not believing that Carey, the reform activists of TDU, and a substantial number of Teamsters were serious about making gains at UPS and that, for an even larger number, this was an important opportunity to hit back at a company that made their work lives miserable. The Teamsters contract campaign put some of the union’s best activists on the payroll as full-time organizers, to focus on part-timers. Unlike the workers at Staley, Caterpillar, or Firestone, the Teamsters represented the vast bulk of workers in the company across the country. So the potential power of the union was enormous. As the midnight deadline approached in Chicago, there was an excited atmosphere at the main gate of the Jefferson Street facility (UPS’s main hub in the city). Part-timers and feeder drives (UPS lingo for over-the-road drivers) milled around waiting till the last moment to go into work or to walk a picket line. One part-timer showed up with a handmade poster that read: “UPS means ‘Under-Paid Slaves!’” Carey postponed the strike for three days (over the weekend) and on Monday, August 4, the walkout began.

The UPS strike affected tens of millions across the United States. The biggest deliverer of parcel packages in the U.S. ground to a halt as 185,000 workers walked off the job and the familiar brown delivery trucks disappeared from the streets. The issues raised by the strike—corporate greed, low wages, part-time work, and job security—produced widespread support for the Teamsters. It was the lead story every night on the news for two weeks. I still remember watching a press conference the day before the strike began, when Carey announced that no agreement was reached and the strike would began at midnight. A baffled reporter asked, “What’s going to happen?” Carey looked at him with an incredulous look on his face and said, “We’re not working tomorrow.” It had been so long since a large group of workers could have such an impact that most people had forgotten what it was like.

Before the strike, UPS delivered 80 percent of the daily parcels shipped in the country. Immediately, UPS began to lose $40 million a day in business, while packages piled up in enormous mounds everywhere. Picket lines held up everywhere across the country—more than 90 percent of Teamsters honored the picket lines throughout the strike. UPS, never believing there was going to be a strike, was caught totally off guard. The company tried to replace strikers with management and small numbers of “labor agency”-provided scabs, but they simply could not quickly replace such an enormous number of workers who knew how to do the work. While the strike was relatively passive—most strikers’ activity consisted of standing at the hub gates holding a sign—there were actions that foreshadowed what would happen if UPS did try to seriously break the strike.

Flying pickets in Chicago shut down operations at skyscrapers such as the Sears Tower and the Amoco building, drawing out all the building’s janitors and other union workers until management refused to accept UPS packages from UPS scabs. Picket lines in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Warwick, Rhode Island, erupted into confrontations with the police, as hundreds of workers tried to stop trucks crossing the picket line.33

The strike’s impact on national politics was immediate. Until the strike began, the national debate in politics was dominated by attacks on affirmative action, attacks on immigrants, and tax cuts for the rich. Along came the UPS strike and it blew all this away. All of a sudden, the media coverage switched to talking to UPS part-timers about the problems of their lives and what could be done about them.34 New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called the strike “a crusade against low wages.”35 Even right-wing Chicago Sun-Times columnist Dennis Byrne was compelled to write: “Working men and women have paid dues enough; it’s time to pass around some of the prosperity.”36 Opinion polls during the strike revealed that the general public supported the Teamsters two to one over UPS. Even James Kelly, then CEO of UPS, revealingly admitted, “If you were to pit a large corporation against a friendly, courteous UPS driver, I’d vote for the UPS driver, also.”37 The main slogan of the strike—“Part-time America won’t work”—struck a deep chord with many people. While the Teamster spokespeople, led by Carey, were extremely articulate, they were more than matched by strikers on the picket lines.

The UPS strike, in effect, became a national referendum on the state of the economy for working-class people. The AFL-CIO publicly backed the strike and pledged $10 million in strike support. The Independent Pilots Association (IPA), which represented all UPS pilots, honored Teamster picket lines, effectively grounding UPS air operations. Not one UPS pilot, many of them veterans of the Gulf War, crossed the picket line during the strike.39 Union and non-union workers began visiting the picket lines across the country. In New York, a march of 1,000 Communication Workers of America (CWA) members joined a picket line, chanting: “Big Brown, shut it down!” One CWA member told striking Teamsters, “You’re fighting for all of us.”40 At a huge August 7 rally outside the UPS Jefferson Street hub, Carey, expressing the anger of the strikers, said,

We’re really fighting for America’s future. I know first-hand about UPS, I spent twelve years on a truck. One member of the UPS negotiating committee said publicly, “What are people complaining about? $16,000 a year is a lot of money.” All I have say is if that is great money, let’s pay them $16,000 and subcontract their jobs. Let’s take away their pension.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, declared, “The [Teamsters] have picked up the gauntlet for all American workers. Their struggle is our struggle.”41 He went on to pledge the support of 13 million union members, representing 40 million union households, until the Teamsters won.
UPS and its allies like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) put enormous pressure on the Clinton administration to halt the strike under powers given to him by the Taft-Hartley Act. Clinton refused. Partly this had to do with public support for the Teamsters, as well as opinion polls that revealed that 75 percent of respondents were opposed to presidential intervention.42 Another reason was that the already strained relations between organized labor and Clinton might have ruptured the alliance between the Democratic Party and labor if he intervened on the side of UPS. Feeling completely isolated, the rich and arrogant UPS management threw in the towel and agreed to the Teamsters’ main demands to create 10,000 full-time jobs, the largest wage increases in UPS history, and protection against subcontracting of union jobs. The company backed off its plan to hijack the full-timers’ pension fund. It was the biggest labor victory in a generation. Historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote that the strike ended “the PATCO syndrome. A 16-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization.”43 Many believed that the Teamster victory would propel organizing forward in some non-union areas of the economy. Many thought that Federal Express, UPS’s chief non-union rival, would be ripe for organizing. However, even in the atmosphere of celebration after the victory, one could see dark clouds on the horizon.

Aftermath and legacy

You’re dead, Carey, and you will pay for this, you s.o.b.
—Dave Murray, chief UPS negotiator44

What UPS couldn’t win on the picket line, it would try to win with its political influence. Carey wrote several years later:

I recall an incident, which occurred in the last hours of those strike negotiations that illustrates the level of animosity the corporate community felt for me: One of the negotiators for UPS said, in the presence of then-Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, “Okay Carey, we agree on the union’s outstanding issues,” and he proceeded to leave the conference room. As he was leaving, he leaned over the conference table and said to me, “You’re dead, Carey, and you will pay for this, you s.o.b.” I looked at Ms. Herman, and asked, “Did you hear that?” She responded, “I heard nothing.”45

UPS mobilized all of its political muscle along with other transportation companies, the reactionary anti-Carey Teamsters officers, and congressional Republicans. This “get Carey” alliance brought enormous pressure on the U.S. Department of Justice, which monitors the elections in the Teamsters union, to overturn the 1996 election in which Carey defeated Hoffa in a very close race. Carey and his advisers were charged with violating campaign fundraising rules. The justice department overturned the 1996 election and ordered a rerun. Carey was disqualified from running for reelection and was subsequently expelled from the union. Carey was vindicated in federal court in the fall of 2001, but remained barred from the Teamsters. Taking advantage of chaos in the union caused by the government’s assault, UPS nullified the full-time jobs provision of the contract in the late spring of 1998—despite its record profits.

Why did things unravel so easily? One of the most important reasons was the difficulty of trying to reform the Teamsters from Washington. Carey was elected in 1991 in a three-way race and narrowly defeated Hoffa in 1996, but the vast majority of union locals remained in the hands of the old guard despite important reform victories in local elections, and most members (who are not covered by national contracts and have little connection to the international union) weren’t touched by reform initiatives from Teamster headquarters in Washington. This weakness fueled Carey’s pursuit of the olive branch strategy, which meant trying to convince members of the old guard to support his leadership. In his 1996 reelection, Carey put a number of members of the old guard on his slate for the General Executive Board of the union, including George Cashman of Boston, Carroll Haynes of New York, and Johnny Morris of Philadelphia. When the attack on Carey came down after the UPS strike, these very dubious supporters of reform deserted him and quickly ran for cover.46 These people, and many like them across the country, eventually supported Hoffa in his successful run for office in 1998. This list eventually included Gerry Zero, secretary-treasurer of Local 705 in Chicago, who had been one of Carey’s most prominent supporters with a left-wing reputation. Zero, whose local in the late 1990s was one of the largest for UPS and the Teamsters in the country, would go on to campaign for Hoffa in the 2001 election.47

Another important reason why the reform movement unraveled so quickly was that Carey and his closets allies in TDU never called for a campaign to defend him from the federal government’s witch-hunt. This would have raised deeper questions about the strategy of the reform movement, particularly, the federal government’s oversight of the Teamsters that reformers are still not prepared to challenge. Despite moving the Teamsters in a more activist direction (eventually culminating in the 1997 confrontation with UPS), Carey was, in many ways, still a fairly conventional union official. He had been a lifelong Republican until the late 1980s, and his olive branch strategy revealed a more top-down, conservative side to his vision of reforming the union. It just doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind that he could have mobilized the rank and file of the Teamsters against the government’s actions, as he did during the UPS strike.

Why didn’t TDU try to convince Carey that such a campaign could have been organized or instead act independently of him? They would have been the natural initiators of a “defend Carey, defend our union” campaign. Yet following Carey’s persecution, leading TDUers referred to him as “our fallen general,” or would say things like, “The reform movement is bigger than one man.” This missed the obvious point—which congressional Republicans and UPS management understood very well—that at that moment the reform movement depended on the fate of the leader of the most important strike in a generation. To challenge Carey’s disqualification from running for reelection would have meant challenging the whole apparatus set up to monitor the union—from election officers to the draconian Independent Review Board (IRB), a legacy of the 1989 consent decree between the Teamsters and the justice department.48 William Webster, the former director of the FBI and CIA—institutions not known to be sympathetic to militant trade unionists—chaired the IRB that banned Carey from the union. TDU made the historic blunder of choosing the consent decree over Carey. In the end, there was simply no rank-and-file organization capable of acting independently to defend Carey.When he went down, the reform movement was tarnished, and widespread demoralization and cynicism set in.

Despite this incredible reversal of fortunes for American workers, the UPS strike stands as one of the most important struggles in the last twenty-five years. Although UPS nullified the full-time jobs provision in the contract, it later lost this in arbitration and was forced to create the jobs it had promised. Among the many things that the UPS strike taught us was that workers are willing to fight back in large numbers when the opportunity arises. It showed that bosses are not unbeatable, especially when they overplay their hands. But at the same time, the aftermath of the strike demonstrates that sustaining the struggle in the face of a political attack by employers and the federal government on the leadership of their union, and workers can find themselves nearly paralyzed. This raises the need for a deeper set of politics to inform the struggle and organization of American workers.

Ten years ago, the ISR wrote that the UPS strike demonstrated the relevance of socialist politics in the labor movement: “Socialists are committed to building shop-floor, rank-and-file organization that can push the fight forward when union leaders fail to represent workers’ needs. The unrealized potential of the UPS strike points to the necessity of such an approach.”49 Such an alternative still must be built.

Joe Allen is a former member of Teamsters Local 705 and Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He is a frequent contributor to the ISR. He can be reached at [email protected]

1 “Ron Carey’s Weird Strike,” Wall Street Journal, August 1997.
2 Bob Herbert, “Workers’ rebellion,” New York Times, August 7, 1997.
3 “Half a job is not enough: How the shift to more part-time employment undermines good jobs at UPS,” International Brotherhood of Teamsters research department, June 1997, ii.
4 Ibid., 3.
5 Dan La Botz, Rank and File Rebellion, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (London/New York: Verso, 1990), see chap. 15, “UPS: The totalitarian workplace.”
6 Christopher Drew, “In the productivity push, how much is too much?” New York Times, December 17, 1995.
7 Ibid.
8 “In the UPS man, some women find a complete package,” Wall Street Journal, February 8, 1995.
9 Drew.
10 P. Orris, D. E. Hartman, P. Strauss, et al., “Stress among package truck drivers,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 1997, 31 (2) 202–210.
11 Quoted in Ken Crowe, Collision: How the Rank and File Took Back the Teamsters (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 262.
12 For an account of Carey’s years as a local Teamster officer, see Steven Brill, Teamsters (New York: Pocket Books, 1978), Chapter 5.
13 For a complete account of the background of Carey’s election victory, see Crowe.
14 For an account of Hoffa’s corrupt ties to Teamster employers, see Chris Bohner, “Hoffa junior: His record of ties to employers,” Labor–Community Research Consulting, commissioned on behalf of the Ron Carey 1996 Teamster campaign.
15 For a complete account of the changes in the freight industry, see Michael Belzer, Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
16 “Cleaning up our union, building Teamster clout, a three-year progress report,” International Brotherhood of Teamsters, February 1995.
17 Bohner.
18 “Teamster watchers ponder a Hoffa win,” Wall Street Journal, December 6, 1996.
19 For a more in-depth discussion of the charges against Carey and his advisers, see Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 280–81.
20 Peter Kilborn, “Job insecurity,” New York Times, July 3, 1995.
21 Smith, 269.
22 Ibid.
23 “Staying afloat,” New York Times, March 10–14, 1994.
24 Kilborn.
25 “Corporate killers: Wall Street loves layoffs. But the public is scared as hell,” Newsweek, February 26, 1996.
26 For a complete account of the “war zone” struggles, see Stephen Franklin, Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (New York: Guilford Press, 2001).
27 Smith, 272–77.
28 “Angry voices of pickets reflect sense of concern,” New York Times, August 6, 1997.
29 “UPS’s early missteps in assessing Teamsters help explain how union won gains in fight,” Wall Street Journal, August 21, 1997.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.
32 See “America’s victory: The 1997 UPS strike,” a video documentary made by the Teamsters following the strike, which can be viewed on the TDU site,
33 Smith, 280. Chicago Teamsters also shut down McCormick Place, the incredibly profitable convention center, prompting Mayor Daley to call and demand that Teamsters 705 secretary-treasurer Gerry Zero remove pickets from there. Zero refused.
34 For a complete account of the media coverage of the strike, see Deepa Kumar, Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006).
35 New York Times, August 7, 1997.
36 Dennis Byrne, “Little guy still waiting for his due,” Sun-Times, August 5, 1997.
37 Kumar, 76.
38 “Angry voices of pickets,” New York Times, August 6, 1997.
39 Judy Budenaers, UPS pilot/IPA member speaking at a UPS solidarity rally, August 9, 1997.
40 Quoted in Smith, 280.
41 Carey and Sweeney quotes from the Chicago rally are from Chicago UPS-Teamster Strike ’97, Labor Beat, produced by William Jenkins.
42 Shaun Harkin, “When Big Brown was shut down,” Socialist Worker, August 3, 2007.
43 Editorial, “The return of the two-sided class struggle,” International Socialist Review 2, fall 1997.
44 Quoted in “Labor won’t be silenced by Ron Carey,” Verdict, the magazine of the National Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals, January 2003.
45 Ibid. Carey also recounts this story in Kumar.
46 Ken Crowe, “The vindication of Ron Carey,” Verdict, January 2003.
47 Cashman, for example, later went to prison for extortion. Morris was later removed from local office by Hoffa after it was revealed (among other things) that he spent $700,000 of the local’s money on weapons and ammunition. See Adam Zagorin, “Teamsters new fight targets old enemies,” Time, December 6, 1999.
48 Zero was a prominent supporter of the Labor Party advocates and played an important role in founding U.S. Labor Against the War.
49 Crowe.

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