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ISR Issue 58, MarchApril 2008
The big idea: Exploitation
Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS
256 pages $25
Review by JOE ALLEN
There seem to be three “great” experiences that are offered to young people in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. One is the military; the second is prison; and the third is working at United Parcel Service (UPS). It might be hard to tell the difference between the three with one’s eyes closed—to judge where one is by the constant abuse that is screamed heaped upon those involved. UPS, popularly known as “Big Brown,” is one of the largest and most profitable corporations in the U.S., employing literally an army of part-timers to unload, load, and sort the millions of packages that go through its package-delivery system each day. It’s miserable, demeaning, and back-breaking work. I worked at UPS for a total of eight years and I never knew anybody who “liked” working there.
Yet, UPS has bought a lot of great PR over the years. It is rarely criticized in the mainstream press. In fact, it almost always receives rave reviews, particularly during Christmas time. UPS regularly wins awards for its “corporate citizenship” from organizations it gives donations to. The last time that UPS came under any serious public scrutiny was a decade ago during the 1997 national Teamsters strike, when UPS’s dirty laundry was hung out for the whole world to see. So when I saw an ad for Greg Niemann’s book Big Brown: The Untold Story, I looked forward to reading it, thinking that it would be a long overdue exposé of UPS’s rotten history, especially its notorious labor policies and right-wing political connections. Man, was I wrong.
Niemann, the former editor of UPS’s regional newsletter the Southern California Big Idea, has written a fawning, if not downright embarrassing, book. Nevertheless, despite the brown fog that Niemann tries to throw up around UPS’s history and practices, some things come through that reveal the thinking behind the policies that have made the American workplace a living hell.
UPS has long been known as a totalitarian workplace for union activists. Former UPS CEO “Oz” Nelson supposedly once described the UPS management style as “a combination of the Marine Corps and the Quakers.” This Borg-like description leaves most of us sick, but Niemann sees it as a great thing. “UPSers turn out better than machines,” he gushes after describing the company’s fanatical determination to control every second of the workday. Not content just to control their bodies, UPS wants to also control their employees’ thinking. The process by which this is done, according to Niemann, is
a kind of boot camp, indoctrinating employees with UPS’s unique corporate culture and expectations.… By the time employees have moved mountains of cardboard-clad merchandise, they have either caught the UPS commitment or they haven’t. If they have, that seed of UPS perseverance will spread through their systems until they “bleed brown blood.” It’s no wonder that there is such a high injury and turnover rate at UPS.
If “bleeding brown blood” sounds a little cult-like to you, you’re not alone. When UPS tried to export this “Big Idea” to the rest of the world, it suffered what Niemann calls a “rude awakening.” In the mid-1970s, UPS opened up its delivery operations in West Germany:
The work ethic in 1970s Germany was not the fine-tuned Swiss watch the UPS pioneers anticipated. The country’s labor climate was institutionalized by German laws that called for extended vacations, much time off, liberal unlimited sick day policies, short work hours and weeks, and other inflexibilities. The hourly employees listened to the stress and pressure to get the job done as if it were Greek. According to Gale Davis, member of the initial start-up team and later German region personnel manager, “Most Germans felt that a better way to handle excessive work loads was to hire more and more people.” Like most Europeans, the German population didn’t even consider the concept of “living to work”; they worked only to live and strived to work as little as possible. You can imagine how this lassitude and lack of commitment struck UPS managers who lived and breathed “brown.”You can’t make up stuff like this. Most Americans too don’t like “living to work” and wish they had many of the benefits that workers have in major European countries do. One of the reasons they don’t is the politically backward nature of the American trade unions, particularly the Teamsters, which represents the vast bulk of UPS drivers and production workers across the country.
As early as 1916, Jim Casey, the founder of UPS, approached the Teamsters about representing his workforce when it was still a bicycle messenger service based in Seattle. Niemann recognized that Seattle was “a haven for left-wing politics” where activists called “for the emancipation of the working class from the ‘slave bondage of capitalism.’” Niemann believes Casey’s willingness to allow his workforce to be represented by the conservative Teamsters came out of his “family” approach to business. But isn’t the obvious answer that Casey hoped to preempt his workforce from joining more radical unions or unions with more militant leaderships? In the 1930s, Casey cut a deal with West Coast Teamster leader Dave Beck to represent UPS drivers and warehouse workers. Beck was a firm believer in “business unionism” and hostile to rank-and-file control of the unions. “Unions are big business,” Beck once declared. “Why should truck drivers and bottle washers be allowed to make big decisions affecting union policy? Would any corporation allow it?” Casey would have agreed.
“Over the last eighty-eight years, the Teamster-UPS relationship has been mostly positive, with some exceptions,” according to Niemann. The positive side of things for UPS has been the pioneering of part-time work with Teamsters’ approval. Today, over two-thirds of UPS’s 210,000 unionized workers are part-time with starting pay remaining the same as it has—$8.00 or $8.50 an hour—since the early 1980s. The UPS empire has been built on the destruction of full-time jobs. The exception to this cozy relationship was during the years under the Teamsters reform leader Ron Carey, a former UPS driver, described by Niemann as a “disenchanted former UPS driver” who had “taken over the Teamsters union in the nineties and vowed ‘to get’ UPS.” Niemann conveniently forgets that Carey was the first Teamster general president ever elected by the rank-and-file of the union, unlike other UPS-friendly Teamsters leaders. The 1997 strike against UPS, called by Carey and supported by the vast majority of UPS Teamsters, was precisely so popular because people were tired of simply “living to work” and wanted a better life.
We can thank Greg Niemann for writing down and publishing the inner thoughts of UPS management that so rarely make it into the public domain. The Big Idea behind UPS is the rapacious exploitation of its workforce, which has produced billions in profits during the last century. The real untold story of UPS still needs to be written.