Albion Monitor /Commentary

UPS and Part-Time America

by Alexander Cockburn

What we don't see with UPS, the famous "tightest ship," is that tightness carries a price tag. UPS is the nation's leading Occupational Safety and Health Administration violator, cited two and a half times more in a year than the norm in its industry
Inch by inch and day by day, America is becoming a nation of casual laborers, earning not enough to live on with no job security, no benefits and no future. This array of part-timers is most familiar to us in agriculture, where for decades underpaid farm workers have survived only by combining their meager wages with food stamps and medical benefits from the government.

But the army and its wounded are spread across the country, and for every person you see carrying one of those "will work for food" signs, there are a thousand others with that same sign tattooed on their souls. This week, we've been watching negotiations come down to the wire between United Parcel Service and the Teamsters Union, and in truth, what is on display here is a struggle over the basic tilt of the American economy.

UPS claims it runs the tightest ship in the whole shipping business, and everyone knows the quality of those brown-uniformed men and women, the envy of other employers and the delight of those who use UPS. We are all accustomed to seeing the brown truck pull up and an intelligent, efficient driver hop out on the double with a good attitude and a can-do demeanor.

What we don't see is that for every hundred full-time $20-an-hour drivers, there are 150 or more $8-an-hour employees working three hours each in the middle of the night, scrimping together a part-time life, with part-time food, part-time self-respect, no-time medical or vacation or retirement or future. And every day, the ratchet clicks again as, with every extension of service, UPS swells its part-time component.

What we don't see with UPS, the famous "tightest ship," is that tightness carries a price tag. UPS is the nation's leading Occupational Safety and Health Administration violator, cited two and a half times more in a year than the norm in its industry. UPS is proud to tell you the company still has its old trucks maintained and running today. But as yet, the commanders of that tight ship can't be induced to spend the money to put those convex mirrors on their trucks to reduce the risk of backing over you or your child stepping out on the street behind the truck.

The UPS contract battled over this summer is the largest private labor contract in America. It is rivaled only by the General Motors contract and covers some 200,000 workers. Only the U.S. Postal Service has more employees. But today, only 80,000 of those workers are the full-time, $20-an-hour UPSers we see and know. The rest are part of the invisible army, working at night in the vast, cavernous air hubs where $24 is all you get for three hours' toil on the sorting belt.

These workers aren't handling mail or widgets but a stream of packages that can weigh up to 150 pounds each. When UPS raised its weight limit, it made no alterations in the sorting and delivery systems. It merely changed its "rules" and let the workers figure out how to deal with the new situation.

When UPS began to build its air-hub system some 30 years ago, it was using only college students for the part-time jobs and indeed required these workers to provide proof they were still going to college. It was the thin end of a very long wedge. Today, you can go to UPS' Louisville hub, a converted military airfield, and see 5,000 part-timers and only a sprinkling of full-time employees. It's the same story at Ontario, out near Riverside: a thousand part-timers and only a handful of regular jobs.

As recently as the late 1980s, the ratio of part-timers to full-timers was about 50-50. If this proportion was still in force, there would be 20,000 more $20-an-hour jobs.

The good jobs weren't lost to the North American Free Trade Agreement or to more efficient Chinese drivers in Taiwan or Shanghai. They were lost to greed. UPS is a management-owned company with no public sales of stock, with the managers organized into a pyramid scheme that sucks most of the profits up and ever upward into the pockets at the top.

The last serious resistance to these trends was in the late 1970s, but back then, the Teamsters Union was running its own pyramid scheme, with union dues siphoned up into the vast array of Hoffa hangers-on and parasites who had accumulated and inherited multiple salaries for do-nothing jobs. These days, though, Hoffa's son, James Jr., is trying to get the family name back into the Teamster president's office, where there is a leadership trying to do the best by its members. Why are those 80,000 full-time UPS drivers who have the good jobs willing to take such risks, to go on strike for their 120,000 fellow workers? They certainly see that they are losing ground in this booming domestic economy.

These days, business is feeling good. "Paradise Found: The Best of All Possible Economies," crowed a recent Merrill Lynch report. In June, Fortune said the U.S. economy is "stronger than it's ever been." But in large part, it's the strength derived from draining the strength of that invisible army and giving it little in return. That's why the two most crucial issues in the present UPS contract are no more shrinkage of full-time jobs and no more sub-contracting of these jobs out to other truckers. No more paeans to the golden moment of the American economy when often the best you can get is $24 for working three hours in the dead hours of the night.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor August 4, 1997 (

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