In 1997, Teamster members and leaders beat UPS in a two week strike—the biggest victory for labor in the past 20 years.
“It was really a moment to be proud—proud of our accomplishments, proud to be a Teamster,” remembered Michael Savwoir, a feeder driver in Kansas City Local 41. “The key to our success was that our leaders made a concerted effort to get the members involved. The members—they owned this strike.”
In 1997, Teamster leaders put together a year-long campaign to fight for a strong contract. The goal of the campaign was to get as many UPS Teamsters as possible involved in the fight against the company. When push came to shove, union members were ready to stand their ground, and the company had to back down.
Getting an Early Start
The campaign started a year early. The contract was scheduled to expire on July 31, 1997. In July 1996, the International put out a booklet, “Countdown to the Contract.” The booklet explained to local stewards and supporters how they could build a contract campaign in their center.
The International brought 18 rank and file Teamsters on staff full time as national contract coordinators. Many locals recruited contract coordinators to cover particular buildings.
“Our local brought a rank-and-file member on staff full-time as our local campaign coordinator,” Local 174 member Dianne Bolton explained. “We recruited a coordinator in every building in Seattle. These people built a phone tree and put out a new flyer every week.”
Bargaining began on March 11. Four days earlier, the IBT kicked off negotiations with a national rally in Chicago. As bargaining started, UPSers organized local rallies to show management that they were united. The union held 30 local rallies on March 25, and even more in the coming months.
When bargaining started, UPS opened by asking for major concessions—including replacing Teamster pension plans with an inferior company plan. This tactic was an old UPS trick—they wanted to lower the expectations of Teamster members. But International President Ron Carey refused to play UPS’s game. He called off negotiations. “This billion-dollar company must be living on another planet to waste our time with proposals like these,” Carey said.
The union surveyed members to find out what they wanted. The union struck back with a broad set of demands. The union demanded increased benefits from Teamster pension plans, stronger work rules, and the creation of 10,000 new full-time jobs.
Rank-and-file Teamsters joined Carey and Parcel Director Ken Hall on the bargaining team—sitting in on negotiations and helping to formulate union proposals. Todd Hartsell, a member of Des Moines Local 90, sat on the bargaining committee: “The company’s negotiators were scared of us. They knew that the members were united back home.”
Divide and Conquer
In the past, UPS had been able to split part-timers from full-timers. But in 1997 the IBT did not let the company play the old divide-and-conquer game. Ron Carey made getting 10,000 more full-time jobs a central issue of the campaign.
Teamsters for a Democratic Union had worked for years to build part-time/full-time unity.
“The secret of the whole campaign was that we united part-time and full-time,” remembered Kansas City feeder driver Wes Epperson. “The company tried to divide us, but we stuck together.”
The company also hoped that old guard Teamster officials would not support the Carey administration. Many locals enthusiastically built the campaign and got members involved. But when old guard officials let politics get in the way of fighting UPS, TDU activists stepped in to fill the gap.
Teamsters built a member-to-member network to spread the word about the campaign and to get as many UPS Teamsters involved as possible. UPSers would meet in parking lots to talk about the campaign and how they could get involved. “Every pay day, each center here had a meeting in the building or the parking lot,” said Jim Reynolds, a member of New York Local 804. “We held these months before the contract expired. It made people feel like they’re part of the negotiating team.”
Union contract coordinators worked hard to get more people involved in the effort. Over 100,000 UPSers signed a petition saying “We’ll Fight for More Full-Time Jobs.” The union gave out thousands of whistles—for inside workers to blow the whistle on supervisors working.
The union also fought back on the pension issue. UPS sent a letter to every UPS Teamster telling them that they would be better off in a company pension plan. The Teamsters fought back hard on the issue, putting out flyers and bulletins to counter the company propaganda.
The union used rank-and-file members to build public support. “Ron would have the members interviewed on TV—imagine that, rank-and-file people as our spokesmen on national TV,” said Jim Reynolds.
In the media, Carey played on the part-time issue. “Our issues were America’s issues. A lot of people were losing good jobs,” said Wes Epperson.
“If I had known that it was going to go from negotiating for UPS to negotiating for part-time America, we would’ve approached it differently,” said UPS vice chair John Alden after the Teamsters won.
When the union went on strike on Aug. 4, UPS management expected tens of thousands of Teamsters to cross the picket line. But the members were ready.
“In Local 688, only about five people crossed the picket line,” remembered John Youngermann, a feeder driver in St. Louis. “The contract campaign filtered all the way down through the ranks. Lots of people got involved, and that’s why it was so successful.”
Teamster members stayed out for fifteen days. Members were united, and they knew what it would take to win a strong contract. In the end, management agreed to pension improvements, a wage increase, and 10,000 more full-time jobs because of the strength and unity of Teamster members at UPS.