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Unions' own prospects riding on UPS picket lines


An essay by CNN Interactive writer Emily Looney

(CNN) -- Ron Carey has found a clever way to connect you to his labor union's cause. But the Teamsters president, whether or not he realizes it, is risking the unions' future by getting your attention.

Here's his strategy. First, he's not letting you get packages through the nation's largest shipping company, United Parcel Service. Then, he's linking that with the broader issue of part-time work.

For every package that sits undelivered by UPS, a sender and a receiver think about the striking workers and their demand for more full-time jobs. Measured by the typical UPS package count, that's 12 million thoughts a day, times two, sent their way. The ripple effect sends millions more.


If UPS agrees to create more full-time jobs, Carey, a veteran of successful battles against the company, wins his highly visible gamble on two counts.

First, he will be able to say he brightened the prospects of the thousands of UPS workers normally sweating through part-time overnight shifts.

And, with prominent backing from the AFL-CIO, Carey will have demonstrated to the more than four in five workers not in unions that organized labor can be relevant in our high-tech, highly competitive service economy, embodied by the likes of the nimble and profitable UPS.

At least some nonunion workers, such as those at Wal-Mart now rejecting union representation, will then start to wonder what they may be missing.

But if Carey and his crowd fail, they will have blown what may be their last best chance to recapture public support. The strike will then prove to be only a public relations disaster from which the unions may not recover.

Think strike, but forget baseball's -- please

The stakes in this strike didn't get so high in just the few days since August 4, when some 185,000 UPS sorters, loaders and drivers walked off their jobs in one of the biggest work stoppages in more than 20 years.

Unions have been increasingly unfashionable at least since 1981, when President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers. Union membership has fallen from 20.1 percent of the work force in 1983 to 14.5 percent in 1996, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


By 1994, not even beloved baseball players could strike without a groundswell of public disgust over their perceived selfishness and greed. Gone were the days when unions were seen as champions of labor rights such as shorter hours and better working conditions.

Critics suggest the strike is a convenient distraction for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which is struggling internally. There are allegations Carey's campaign took questionable contributions in last year's elections. And Carey's opponent, James Hoffa Jr. (son of the Teamsters' legend), has challenged his victory.

But unions, realizing what this strike can mean, are coming together behind the Teamsters -- AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and his several dozen member unions are lending $10 million a week to cover strike benefits.

Part-time work a full-time worry?

Part-time status, as Carey and Sweeney know, is a hot-button issue to push.

It reflects worker insecurity amid corporate restructuring and downsizing, and mirrors individual frustration as real earnings remain flat while profits rise and executive salaries soar.

But there's a little confusion here. The percentage of part-time workers in the work force (now 18.3 percent) has not changed much over the past 15 years, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist. And when bureau surveys asked part-timers if they want more hours, only about 14 percent said yes.

It's a different story with temporary jobs, where workers really are insecure. The number of people in temporary work has swelled more than five-fold since 1982.

All that aside, part-time job ranks have grown disproportionately at UPS, accounting for 38,000 of the 46,000 union jobs created there since 1993. UPS classifies about three in five employees as part-time; each package is typically handled by three full-time and six part-time employees. And the Teamsters don't like it that part-time workers make about half the $20 an hour that full-time workers earn.

But UPS, whose business rises and falls with the economy and cannot be moved into cheaper labor markets abroad, argues that to remain competitive it needs the flexibility that part-time workers afford.

Whether the unions win or lose this fight fundamentally is not up to Carey or even the striking workers. As they've defined the strike, it's up to you -- and how long you can or will afford them their gamble.

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