On August 4, 1997, the Teamsters went on strike against United Parcel Service in one of the few major labor victories of the 1990s.
In the 1960s, thanks in part to Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa giving the OK to it, UPS decided to start replacing full time drivers with part time workers. Over time, this had a seriously deleterious impact on the Teamsters. Now, it took drivers, or at least the part-time drivers, five years for their pensions to vest. But it was very hard for part-time drivers to keep going for five years. After all, they weren’t getting steady work. Most ended up leaving for other jobs. What this eventually did was play into the hands of both UPS and the Teamsters. See, the Teamsters were relying on the unvested pensions from part-time workers to fill up the fund for the full-time workers. Well, the relationship between UPS and the Teamsters had gotten worse during the 1990s. In 1994, the Teamsters struck against UPS for the first time and no only did they lose, but they lost millions of dollars in damages from lawsuits instigated by UPS for their actions.
Meanwhile, a long-needed leadership change came to the Teamsters in Ron Carey. A longtime Teamster drive and member of the union since 1956, Carey rose by supporting union democracy and he became president of the union in 1991. He was a successful organizer and a good negotiator of contracts. He gave Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the democratic caucus in the union, access to power in the organization and they wanted to fight UPS as the contract came up for negotiation in 1997. Carey agreed. UPS decided it had the advantage over the union. It had won that ’94 strike. Moreover, it sought to use the pension issue as a wedge against the union. It wanted to destroy the vested pension. Believing that the part-time workers weren’t mostly really that committed to the union since few would ever vest, it believed it could cleave them from the union by raising wages, placing pensions in a UPS-controlled plan that would be pretty bogus, and then forcing the union to heel. For the Teamsters, this was an existential crisis.
This all went down at a pretty grim moment for American labor. While the total percentage of the American workforce in unions continues to very slowly tick down today, any total losses are overall usually pretty small year over year. But in 1997. the union movement had just cratered, being crushed since the real heyday of the 1950s and the relative heyday of the 1970s. Globalization and union-busting had decimated the American labor movement. Time after time since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981, the labor movement had not just taken a punch on the chin, it had taken a shot to the brain. The Teamsters remained one of organized labor’s strongest unions, but if UPS rolled over the union in this contract, what would become of the labor movement generally? What this meant was that even though the Teamsters were often far from the most beloved union by the rest of the labor movement, for outside commenters, both within organized labor and in the larger labor intellectual and supporter communities, this strike took on a larger meaning. Remember that Bill Clinton had just betrayed the labor movement by signing NAFTA over labor’s objections, so it felt that even Democrats did not support the movement any longer. Did organized labor have a future in America at all at this point? That felt like an open question in 1997.
Now, UPS had really pushed their part-timer advantage too far. Probably 2/3 of the drivers were part time by 1997 and while this meant many wouldn’t stick around, plenty certainly wanted to. But what they wanted was full time status. That was what the new Teamsters leadership wanted too. Beginning about a year before the strike, for the first time, the Teamsters really built up solidarity in the ranks, preparing workers for direct action to stand up for their jobs. This was a pretty different method for this union that had for so long relied on deals made at the top. It hired member activists to work full-time for the union. When some old-guard Teamsters officials at the local level showed no interest in doing their jobs, the union went around them and spoke directly to the workers. Carey simply refused to put the lame offer from UPS to a vote. It wasn’t that he wanted a strike. It’s that he wanted a fair package for the workers and that’s not what UPS wanted.
So on August 4, 1997, the Teamsters struck and the attention of the nation was riveted. UPS was such a major American corporation and the nation relied on it for moving packages around. So this really was an important strike. With over 100,000 workers on strike, it was the largest strike in American history in terms of total number of workers. UPS got creamed, losing $600 million. In fact, UPS never did fully recover from this, as some people permanently shifted to Federal Express.
On August 19, UPS mostly caved and the two sides came to a deal. Starting pay went up and thousands of part time jobs were converted to full time by combining them. Both full and part time drives got significant raises, and notably, the part timers raises were higher. Most importantly, the Teamsters won entirely on the pension issue. UPS also agreed to negotiate future weight limit increases with the union, which helped protect the workers from unreasonable increases in what they have to lift. It also agreed to stop additional subcontracting, keeping the jobs within the union structure. UPS claimed it would have to layoff some workers to pay for all of this, and even Carey admitted that was possible, but the jobs that remained would be far better. What the Teamsters did give up was its hope for a short-term contract so it could possibly raise the stakes in the near future. It hoped to settle on a two or three year contract, but in fact agreed to a five year contract, which was stabilizing for UPS, but undermined union activism. Probably union leaders knew they would have to give on this eventually.
There was a lot of joy around the labor movement with this win. Carey stated, “People will be celebrating our victory over corporate greed. This fight with UPS shows what working people can accomplish when they all stick together. The UPS workers stood up to throw away worker approach and the nation’s working people stood behind us. And now we’re going to go out there to other workers who want to fight for that great American dream.”
When asked, Bill Clinton refused to get involved at all. While vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, a reporter asked him if UPS had lost the strike. Clinton refused to say that and tried to avoid the question entirely. This was a Democratic president who really, in his heart, did not care about the labor movement one bit.
This was a solid victory for the Teamsters and a rare one for American labor at this time. Unfortunately, later that year, Carey got busted for corruption of his own and had to resign. The momentum to fight within the union mostly stopped. In 2023, the Teamsters nearly struck UPS again, but UPS basically caved on everything, knowing it would lose to a more activist union that had public support behind them.
Alas, the Teamsters never have organized Federal Express, which makes one question whether they can really organize Amazon as they hope.
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