The Rebirth of a Logistic Workers’ Movement?
The Rebirth of a Logistic Workers’ Movement?
The history of rank-and-file organizing at UPS reveals the opportunities and challenges for a union movement of delivery and warehouse workers. An interview with Joe Allen, author of The Package King.
Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, Flynn Murray spoke with Joe Allen, author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS (Haymarket Books).
Joe Allen’s The Package King, published in 2016 and reissued this April, is an incisive history of the tumultuous relationship between UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In this interview, Allen lays out how UPS fits into the broader history of the logistics industry—and how both affected and are affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Flynn Murray: What prompted you to write a book about UPS, and why did you want to re-release it at this moment?
Joe Allen: UPS is now the largest private-sector unionized employer in the country. In this manner, it represents not only the changing nature of the industrial economy, but also the changing make-up of the union movement, specifically of industrial unions, in this country. The book came out of my personal experience [working at UPS for almost a decade], being a union activist, and a union steward in the Teamsters, Local 705.
Much of the political education that you got in the Teamsters was largely focused on things like grievance procedures. When it came to actually explaining the development and changing nature of the logistics industry, understanding where the union and the workers had power, and how that related to UPS, way too much of the knowledge was anecdotal. It was passed on from one union rep to the next, or from local presidents to stewards to members. I thought it was time [for a book] from the perspective of a rank-and-file activist to help people understand this long, often collaborative history between the company and the union, as well as all the very short breaks in time, particularly during the Carey years [Ron Carey was president of the Teamsters from 1991 to 1997], when the union went into a much more aggressive posture against the company.
Murray: The rise of UPS is tied to the development of the logistics industry in the twentieth century. Prior to the 1990s there were a few key battles between management and the workers, especially in the late 1960s through the 1970s. What came out of these earlier struggles, and how did they set the stage for the battles to come?
Allen: UPS, which is now the oldest freight company in the United States operating under the same brand, basically went from a bicycle messenger service in Seattle, Washington, to a company that is global in scope, delivering to 200-plus countries each day, with an enormous air fleet and almost 500,000 worldwide employees. That tells you something about the larger change in the global logistics economy, and how UPS fits into it. Starting in the 1970s, UPS moved from a state-by-state business to a delivery operation across the forty-eight contiguous states, and soon after went global. UPS undertook efforts to increase productivity [with speed-ups and increased managerial control], to make workers work beyond human limits. Amazon has that reputation these days, but it was pioneered by UPS.
UPS has long relied on a fairly compliant, cooperative relationship with the Teamsters. For much of its history UPS got almost everything that it wanted—in terms of being competitive and staying on top of the delivery business—often to the detriment of the rank and file. In the 1960s, the vast majority of workers at UPS were full-time employees. Now, two-thirds of the workforce is part-time, with a much lower wage scale. That change really happens during the 1970s and 1980s. Workers did resist this in the 1960s and 1970s with local strikes and regional strikes. Workers in the 1970s pioneered one of the more interesting but short-lived rank-and-file movements, called UPSurge, but it collapsed along with much of the labor movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
Since then, two major factors have shaped work at the company: the campaign for democracy in the Teamsters, which got Ron Carey elected in 1991, and the gross inequality gaps between a fabulously profitable company and a predominantly very poor workforce. This led to the 1997 UPS strike, where workers won the creation of permanent full-time jobs and protection for their healthcare plans and pensions. I don’t think it’s an accident that in the aftermath of the UPS strike—probably the biggest labor victory in the previous few decades—the full force of the federal government was brought down on Carey and the leadership of the union, resulting in his removal and a federal government–sponsored counterrevolution that took over under the leadership of James Hoffa Jr. [Carey was expelled from the Teamsters after federal investigators discovered impropriety in the use of union campaign funds, of which Carey denied any knowledge.]
Murray: The 1997 strike sticks out as one of the most important labor actions in the history of the logistics industry to this day. Why do you think this strike remains so prevalent in the minds of Teamsters?
Allen: It remains prevalent in the minds of Teamsters, but it has been twenty-three years since the strike. A generation of people have retired who were important to carrying out that strike. Also, UPS—and the entire logistics industry—is known for its high turnover rate. The memory of the strike is carried on by a small number of UPSers right now. But compare that to other big industrial unions, like the steelworkers or the UAW, where there have been few national strikes in which people feel like they won an all-out victory. Even last year’s General Motors strike, which was enthusiastically embraced by the membership of the UAW, didn’t result in the type of win where people walked away and felt like they had a hands-down victory. In 1997, workers walked away feeling like they had really won something—but they also had a feeling that they got robbed of a victory by the attack on Carey and what that meant inside the union.
Murray: What has that meant inside the union?
Allen: When Hoffa won his election for president of the union twenty-two years ago, nobody thought that he would be in power this long. It [reflects] one of the travails of the labor movement for the last two decades, which only began to change a few years ago with the teachers’ strikes across the country showing the possibility of a labor movement not simply fighting for its own interest but broader community interests as well. In the 1997 strike, the slogan was “Part Time America Doesn’t Work,” and that captured a broader anxiety among working-class people about the state of their jobs, their pay, their future, and their healthcare.
Moreover, there’s been a big effort by both the politicians of that era and by many people in the leadership of the Teamsters to erase the 1997 strike. Bill and Hillary Clinton, President and First Lady during that summer, don’t mention the UPS strike at all in their memoirs. Nor do they mention the Teamsters or Carey. James Hoffa Jr., who represents the most backward elements in the Teamster leadership—people who were not supportive of the strike, though in most cases they honored the picket line—has also sought to erase that moment from history. The memory of it is important, though, and that’s why it’s the centerpiece of my book.
Murray: In the conclusion, you outline a future in which all logistics workers in North America are represented by one union, and you state that having a unified logistics sector should be the goal of any organizing efforts in this industry. Could a sectoral bargaining union involve the United States Postal Service, which is facing threats to its existence during the coronavirus crisis? How do the various logistics companies fit into that bigger picture?
Allen: During the course of the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of unions merged, mostly to save the officialdom of the unions. It didn’t really result in the new organizing that many of them promised. Any type of unity or militancy that could create a broader unionization of logistics workers is going to have to come from below. There may be some opportunities provided by initiatives from above, but it has to come from below. Until very recently—this might be changing in response to the health and safety issues around the pandemic—all the companies stoked rivalries between workers at the different companies. I can’t remember a week that went by at UPS without management launching some attack on postal workers, [claiming] the post office was an archaic government-subsidized operation and that UPSers could do much better. A lot of rivalries and divisions are first stoked by the bosses.
But during the pandemic, workers at UPS, Amazon, Instacart, DoorDash, grocery stores, Walmart—they all find themselves dealing with very similar situations: callous management interested in making mega-profits in the current crisis. Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth has increased by $24 billion during the pandemic. This all leads to an opportunity for logistics workers, union and non-union alike, to see the commonality of interest and the need for unity. The unions, frankly, get in the way because they don’t have that vision. They may put out very good press releases about working conditions and what the employer should do, but they don’t really have a vision of taking the opportunity presented right now for broader organizing. The natural fit for Amazon workers and other non-union logistics workers is the Teamsters. But the Teamsters have really not done very much, besides press releases, to organize the workers at this historic moment.
Murray: Do you think it should be the role of radical reform caucuses, like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, to push that organizing work forward? Where do you see that kind of rank-and-file organizing coming from across these different logistics hubs?
Allen: Historically, it has come from socialist and radical labor activists. Pre–First World War, it was the radicals of the Industrial Workers of the World; in the 1930s it was a variety of labor militants, particularly those around the Communist Party that built the Congress of Industrial Organizations; in the 1960s and 1970s it was civil rights activists; later, it was people radicalized by student politics who went into the workplaces. We have a new socialist movement in this country, with over 60,000 members represented by the Democratic Socialists of America, and thousands more who aren’t members of the DSA. Because they have grown up in an era of massive inequality and have been inspired particularly by the teachers’ strikes, many of the new generation of radicals see workplace organizing as an important part of their political agenda. If there will be a rebirth of a logistics workers’ movement, it will come first and foremost from the new socialist movement connecting with the rank-and-file activism going on in many workplaces and turning it into a real union movement.
Murray: In the new edition, you lay out how UPS adapts to changing market dynamics through putting increased pressure on its workforce. How does the material in the book help people understand the organizing currently underway—and why workers on the front line have had to fight for basic protective gear, paid sick leave, and safe working conditions?
Allen: People should greet the sudden praise that they’re receiving from their employers and from Donald Trump as being heroes or essential workers with a great deal of skepticism. It wasn’t all that long ago when the same workers were treated very badly by their employers and told that they weren’t essential at all. I hope readers of The Package King get the sense that although companies like UPS praise their workers and talk about how health and safety are their top priority, that’s actually not their record. This industry is rightly under scrutiny for health and safety problems, along with the meatpacking industry, which has been notorious for trying to minimize the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA is virtually absent in dealing with health and safety issues during the pandemic. Health and safety issues have historically been fought for and won by the workers themselves.
For far too much of the history of the unionized sector, there hasn’t been an appreciation of the ability of rank-and-file activity to change things. Most workers are taught that it’s the great men—farsighted, militant, with some particular charisma—who organized the Teamsters. Even a terrible movie like The Irishman, which focuses on the dark side of Jimmy Hoffa, somehow implies that he created the Teamsters single-handedly. Really, it’s the rank-and-file militants who created and kept these unions going.
Logistics workers have always been a particular focus of oppressive labor legislation and political attacks. Carey’s ouster from the Teamsters was part of a long history of attacking, prosecuting, and harassing leaders of important transportation unions. Eugene Debs, the famous socialist, led the Pullman train strike in 1894 and faced massive government repression. Harry Bridges, who was sympathetic to the Communist movement and led the West Coast longshoremen’s union, faced twenty years of harassment during the Red Scare. Even Jimmy Hoffa Sr. was harassed all the way into jail, for crimes of which he was certainly guilty. It wasn’t his gangsterism they didn’t like—after all, the United States is the biggest gangster in the world—but the fact that truck drivers had the strongest union in the country. Ron Carey was just the most recent example.
The U.S. government does not want logistics workers to have power. It does not want logistics workers to lead militant strikes. So, when you’re organizing Amazon or Instacart, or trying to change the Teamsters—behind the bosses is always the federal government. You’re not just organizing the workplace; you’re organizing against some of the most politically powerful institutions in this country.
Murray: Amazon has already changed the logistics landscape immensely, over the past decade but also just in the past couple months, and things are continuing to develop at a rapid pace. The delivery of basic goods and services is now central to the functioning of life under lockdown. Do you think the pandemic is helping Amazon consolidate its power? Could it expose the company to ramped-up organizing efforts? Which pull do you think is stronger?
Allen: As Kim Moody outlined in the new Marxist magazine Spectre, the global logistics industry has actually spread the virus much quicker than pandemics in the past. We have to understand that, and then understand how to prevent such things from happening in the future. It’s also true that Amazon, UPS, and others are using this as a public relations bonanza, to portray themselves as “the new Red Cross,” as the Financial Times called Amazon. They’re clearly using it to bolster their tarnished images. Just in mid-February, not all that long ago, Frontline ran a blistering attack on Jeff Bezos’s Amazon empire. While Amazon and others may be a lifeline for people confined to their homes or limited in their travels for food and medicine, they’re also under increased scrutiny for how they treat their workers.
Do the health and safety issues that have arisen out of the pandemic create a possibility for new organizing? I think so. But that organizing is going to come out of the workplaces and the workers themselves. We’ve seen some of that in Chicago, on the West Coast, and in Seattle. The question—and this is not an easy leap—is: how do you bring together all those rank-and-file activists into one room, when we’re all confined to our homes and can’t travel, to try to organize an Amazon or a logistics workers union that can turn activism into some type of concrete organization? That is the question that the new socialist movement has to figure out an answer for right now.
Joe Allen is a former Teamster, TDU member, and UPS worker who has spent the past few decades working in logistics. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of the United Parcel Service.
Flynn Murray is the publishing director of Dissent and a labor activist in New York City.