The 1997 UPS Strike: Beating Big Business & Business Unionism
Twenty years ago this month, 185,000 Teamsters shut down UPS and won labor’s biggest victory in decades.
The contract pitted a Fortune 500 company that was accelerating toward a low-wage, part-time future—against a grassroots campaign intent on applying the brakes.
The strike was also a showdown between union reformers and business unionism.
Democracy is power, Labor Notes has always argued. The UPS strike put that proposition to the test.
For years, UPS had been cutting costs by shifting toward low-wage part-time work.
In 1962, James Hoffa Sr. allowed UPS to use part-time workers for the first time. In 1982, Hoffa’s successors let UPS cut part-time starting pay to $8 an hour.
Before 1982, part-time loaders and package sorters made the same wage as the full-time drivers. By 1997, drivers made three times the hourly rate of a new part-timer.
The trend toward part-time work seemed irreversible. From 1993 to 1997, UPS hired 46,300 workers. Eighty-three percent were part-timers making $8 an hour.
Without a U-turn by the union, a decisive majority of members at the largest Teamster employer were going to be part-time.
The union launched a contract campaign with bold demands, aimed not just at defeating new concessions—but reversing old ones.
Topping the list, the Teamsters demanded that UPS combine 20,000 low-wage part-time jobs into 10,000 full-time jobs with high wages and a union pension.
DEMOCRACY SETS THE STAGE
The stage for the 1997 showdown was set years earlier, in 1989, when Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the reform movement, won the right to elect top officers in one-member, one-vote elections.
The Justice Department had sued the Teamsters for corruption and sought to put the entire union under a government trusteeship. TDU fought for direct elections as an alternative—and won.
In 1991, members voted for the first time and elected Ron Carey, the TDU-backed candidate and militant leader of a big UPS local in New York City.
Carey’s victory sparked a civil war, pitting the new president and his activist supporters against officials who preferred cozy labor-management relations and perks for themselves.
In 1994, Carey called a national safety strike against UPS when the company unilaterally hiked the package weight limit from 70 to 150 pounds. Two-thirds of local officials directed their members to cross the picket lines.
It was a turning point.
Carey saw that a new strategy was needed. He resolved to go around local officials and get members working on their own behalf.
UPS management drew a very different lesson. They concluded that, lacking the support of so many local officials, the International could never pull off a successful strike.
They were wrong.
LONG CONTRACT CAMPAIGN
The 1997 strike began on August 4 and was won 15 days later.
But the seeds of victory were planted a year earlier when the International launched a contract campaign to get members moving.
The IBT Field Services Department pulled 19 rank-and-file members off the job to work full-time for a year to organize rallies and workplace actions.
Truck driver Tim Buban was dispatched to organize members in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Among other things, he helped members make use of tens of thousands of high-pitched whistles the union distributed at rallies.
“One of the main contract issues was supervisors stealing work,” Buban said. “We said, here is what you can do to fight back: carry the whistle—it’s very easy to conceal, put it in your pocket. Every time you see supervisors stealing Teamster work, blow the whistle on them.
“I’d be out in the parking lot, and you could hear the whistles out there. You thought it was a fire station, there were so many whistles going off.”
The union also gave out stickers with messages like “Half a Job is Not Enough.” “They took them inside the UPS facilities,” Buban said, “and wallpapered them—from the walls, to the bosses’ door, to Coke machines—they were everywhere.”
Besides the job actions, more than 100,000 Teamsters signed petitions telling UPS, “We’ll Fight for More Full-Time Jobs.” The day before contract talks, the union held rallies in 10 cities.
Locals led by reformers also took members off the job and put them to work full-time organizing members. But not all local officials were enthusiastic.
Some foot-draggers were hardened internal political opponents. Others were middle-of-the-road officers who preferred traditional bargaining to a rowdy contract campaign.
Carey was blunt, recalls David Eckstein, then the union's Field Services Director, telling officials, “I know some of you don’t like me, but this is a national contract campaign and it is going to happen.
“We have two plans: Plan A is where we give you everything you need to move the campaign in your local, and Plan B is the same as Plan A but we move it in your local without you.”
When local officers undermined the campaign, IBT field staff worked directly with stewards and TDU activists to make it happen anyway.
Dianne Bolton, a tractor-trailer driver in Seattle, remembers, “We had contact with other feeder drivers, from the eastern part of the state, and Oregon. So we spread TDU information to other locals—the updates we were getting about negotiations and the contract campaign, which they weren’t getting from their locals.”
UPS Teamsters were accustomed to secret negotiations that kept a lid on members’ expectations.
The union would publicize management’s demands for givebacks—and then declare victory when they refused the worst of the concessions.
The 1997 campaign did the opposite. It made sure every member knew the union's specific, priority demands, including more full-time jobs and pension increases. Members sat on the national negotiating committee for the first time.
“It was like something you never heard of before,” said Todd Hartsell, an Iowa driver who was on the committee. “Way back when, it was all these thugs and management people sitting behind closed doors and then they’d come back with a half-assed contract.
“Now, the message was there’d be no sweetheart deals. Members aren’t gonna get screwed. They’re gonna be involved.”
UPS brass hated the new Teamsters. Chief negotiator Dave Murray sent a recorded message to managers calling for a return to the old way of bargaining. The contract campaign “raises the expectations of those people who ultimately could be voting on the ratification of the agreement,” Murray said.
Organizers responded by distributing the recording along with responses from fellow members.
The practice of having members speak for themselves continued during the strike when UPS workers, not union officials, spoke at rallies and to the press.
THE STRIKE IS ON
In response to the union's strategy of raising member expectations, UPS drew a hard line.
The day before the contract expired, management made a “final offer” that would increase the percentage of part-time workers, create only 200 new full-time jobs, and move members into a company-controlled pension plan.
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The union would have none of it. After three days with a mediator and no progress, the strike was on.
The company gambled that the strike would be weakened by internal divisions. But Carey’s decision, to ally with members and organize around local officers when necessary, paid off.
For 15 days, Teamsters shut down UPS nationwide. Managers struggled to make even a tiny fraction of deliveries.
Bolton remembers following supervisors when they took trucks out during the strike. “You got to see your supervisor trying to do your job, which was very entertaining, to see them struggling so much, because they always thought they knew everything.
“The strike changed their whole perspective, because they realized how vulnerable they were to the fact that their drivers had all their information about where the deliveries went.”
After the strike, UPS invested heavily in technology to track both packages and drivers.
UPS also counted on angry customers to turn against the union and its greedy demands. Murray told his management team that $8 an hour was not only adequate for part-timers, it would be “a fine full-time wage.”
But the public stood with union members whose picket signs read, “On Strike for the American Dream” and “Part-Time America Won’t Work.”
Drivers traced their routes to deliver leaflets and window signs to the customers they normally saw every day.
“People knew their driver, they liked them. They saw management was trying to take things from us,” says Ken Reiman, a driver in Brooklyn. “They saw we weren’t just out there because drivers wanted higher wages for ourselves—we wanted part-timers to have a better life.”
A Gallup poll done during the strike showed that the public supported the strikers over the company by a 2 to 1 margin.
Even James Kelly, CEO of UPS, had to admit, “If you were to pit a large corporation against a friendly, courteous UPS driver, I’d vote for the UPS driver, also.”
Unable to operate and losing the public relations war, UPS and the National Association of Manufacturers lobbied President Clinton to use the Taft-Hartley Act to halt the strike.
“The economy is going to have 5 percent of its gross national product not moving,” Murray told the press.
But polls showed that 75 percent of respondents opposed the president interfering in the strike. Clinton steered clear.
Out of options and running out of time, management surrendered on every key demand. UPS agreed to create 10,000 new full-time jobs by combining 20,000 part-time ones.
Edwin Sanchez, a sorter in Los Angeles who started with the company in 1970, was one of the new full-timers. “I was finally able to buy a home—I didn’t have to rent anymore,” says Sanchez. “I was able to do things for my family that I could never do as a part-timer.”
UPS agreed to raise pensions by as much as 50 percent—and paid the biggest wage increases ever.
The strike also forged a new generation of union activists.
“For 12 years, I was pretty much apathetic, quiet, I didn’t go to union meetings,” says Reiman. “Being on the picket line made me a union activist. I learned from the strike that management weren’t just the guys who were writing your paychecks. They were the ones who were trying to take away what we had.”
Today, UPS management has regained the upper hand—and the old go-along, get-along relationship with top Teamster officials has been restored.
“The relationship with the Teamsters is better than it’s ever been before,” UPS executive Scott Davis said before the last contract talks.
UPS workers felt differently. Seventy percent of them voted against Hoffa in last year’s election for Teamster president. Now, they’re using that election network to organize for a better contract.
Twenty years after the strike, UPS workers are still the backbone of rank-and-file campaigns that take on the company and management-friendly officials.
[David Levin is an organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He worked for the Teamsters communications department during the 1997 UPS strike.]