The Coastal Post - September, 1997

The Return Of The Worker


The Teamsters' strike against the UPS may have been this generation's most important act on behalf of America's working majority. Instead of an action taken for highly-paid pilots or athletes, the nation was witness to a strike for everyday people and showed them support. After fading into near obscurity as a voice for the nation's lower paid workers, organized labor has boldly brought working class issues to the attention of the whole nation. With the economy booming and profits soaring, the U.S. has seen an unprecedented attack on workers. This strike was the first sign of a counter attack.

The significance of the UPS action is that it was led by a previously gangster-controlled group, responsible for much of the negative image of unions in America. Led by Ron Carey, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) dumped a corrupt leadership and changed a moribund mob into a living union. The Teamsters have now become a national representative for all workers, receiving support from the AFL-CIO, itself enjoying rejuvenated leadership in a time of corporate assault on workers.

This strike highlighted the reduction of America's working class to anxious full-time workers and highly insecure part-timers in an economy of intimidation. Middle class families are working more hours and earning less income. In a recent poll, 47% of them were "very concerned" about job security. Each new episode of corporate down-sizing brings greater profits for Wall Street, reductions in full-time workers and increased numbers of down-waged part-timers.

A majority of UPS employees are part-time, as are more than 20 million workers in America, and the number is growing. A minority enjoy this status and allow themselves to be called independent contractors, imitating, at least in words, the entrepreneurial spirit that supposedly makes us strong. But there is great financial weakness in this independence that leaves them unassisted, when it comes to things like increasingly expensive health care costs.

Corporate mind management tells us that workers like being free to have part-time jobs, with more time for fun and family. Sure. They especially like the freedom of needing two or three jobs in order to rise above poverty. And they love the fun of having to pay for their own health care. Or, like millions, they're ecstatic at having no health care at all. Life is a ball when you believe in free market fantasies.

This strike brought issues of race and class together and could lead to real affirmative action that would benefit all Americans. A high percentage of blacks and women hold part-time UPS jobs, where they work very hard to bring home relatively little, often qualifying for food stamps. Their hope is to reach full-time status, or at least an hourly pay rate that affords them survival at one and not several jobs. Is that much to ask? Yes, if the rules of an uncontrolled marketplace prevail, without strong unions and democratic government intervention. That intervention has fallen from grace lately, and done so with a vengeance.

While Europeans created welfare states to prop up capitalism by patching its contradictions with social programs, the USA initiated a small-time safety net, enabling economically superfluous people to live at a poverty level and feel guilty while doing so. More important, this safety net for capital assured that no changes would take place in society's domination by corporate and individual wealth.

Presently, even that imitation welfare state is being dumped, as free market fanaticism returns to short-attention-span America, where the Great Depression and the New Deal seem never to have happened.

The Teamsters' strike has the potential to establish far more than fairness for UPS employees. By calling attention to the part-time work force, the strikers may have created pressure to help raise hourly pay rates for all. That would move us toward a more worker-oriented, part-time economy, where jobs paid a living wage for less than forty hours a week. A twenty hour week could guarantee full employment in the nation, but that would only be possible at a much higher hourly wage.

And while the UPS part-timers do receive benefits, the overwhelming majority of part-timers and independent contractors in America receive none, making it all the more important that national health insurance be created to cover all citizens. Big industry and small business would love that, since it would remove a major burden from them, and by putting health insurance-not health care!-under single-payer control, costs could be lowered, while care would be guaranteed for all Americans.

More, not less, democratic intervention in the marketplace is necessary as we head into the 21st century. A much higher minimum wage could be paid by private business if there were social guarantees of health care, sick leave and child care. These would make it possible for Americans to live family values that were more than buzzwords. Two-worker families may exist well into the future, but if both those workers put in less hours, they will have more time for their children. Social stability will rise, crime rates will fall, and the disposable family and marriage-for-convenience will become things of the past.

America's majority of working people should be thankful for the new Teamsters and the rejuvenated labor movement. It isn't past labor history but present reality that makes this strike so important. Future political action will show how much the nation can truly profit from this experience, by preventing the loss of more security in the private warfare of an ungoverned marketplace. Welcome back, workers!