Network: UPS is most definitely in the business of moving `atoms' as opposed to `bits'

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The Independent Online
Ora et Labora is Latin for "Pray and Work". Work and prayer are normally huge issues in the United States. These last two weeks, work became nothing short of the national focus, and prayer seemed like the only viable option for millions.

America's largest package shipping firm, United Parcel Service (UPS), was struck by its labor union, idling 185,000 of its 338,000 workers, and slowing a whole segment of the US economy to a crawl.

A strike at one company may not seem like a big deal, but virtually everyone in the US was affected. And that may have been the small dimension of the problem.

The bigger issue is that a couple of centuries of basic economics are suddenly in the dumpster of the global marketplace. The notion of what a job means is ground zero for a social explosion where technology and humanity are poised to collide with the force of a nuclear warhead over a South Pacific atoll.

I know what Ora et Labora means because it's the motto of my old school, where both activities were encouraged, indeed, enforced, daily.

The school's founders, devout types, took the high road, and put prayer first, at least in word order. Many Americans do it the other way around. They work hard for five or six days, then get around to a little prayer on Sunday.

The strike changed that in a hurry. UPS customers, unable to get parts or ship finished products, got down on their knees and prayed for a quick end to the strike. Strikers prayed for a resumption of work - and paychecks. Union leaders prayed for a contract victory, and worked to keep strikers on the picket lines. UPS management prayed for a break in union ranks, and worked Congress to order strikers back to work.

UPS, you see, is most definitely in the business of moving "atoms", as opposed to "bits". Not that they - and their competitors, like Federal Express - don't make good use of bits, too. Both companies rely heavily on computers to move an astonishing number of parcels every day - UPS alone moves 12 million.

Indeed, computers and information technology have hugely enabled the package-moving business. Federal Express went from zero to 110,000 employees in 14 years. UPS has added 46,000 union jobs in the last four years, swelling to 338,000 employees worldwide.

American labour unions, no great fans of technology, have gone from representing 50 per cent of the workforce in the 1950s to about 10 per cent today

So why, you might wonder, would the International Brotherhood of Teamsters strike United Parcel Service, a company that has been adding 11,000 dues- paying union members to its rolls every year?

Well, for one thing, 36,000 of those workers were part time. For another, the part-timers were making $9 an hour, versus almost $20 for the full- timers.

To be fair, the overnight package business lends itself to part-time workers. Millions of parcels descend upon distribution centres every evening, to be sorted and shipped back out in a few frantic hours. Legions of part-time workers make it both possible and inexpensive to move packages quickly and well.

But four hours a night at nine bucks an hour means a daily wage of $36 (about pounds 23), which, frankly put, stinks. You'd be hard-pressed to feed and house yourself in the US at that wage, and your family, if you had one, would be below what the government considers the poverty level.

It should be noted that UPS offers excellent benefits to part-timers, like health insurance, and usually doesn't have trouble attracting applicants. Part-time work appeals to lots of Americans.

But it's also true that America has ceased to be a place where a willing blue-collar worker can expect to achieve some level of economic security. The labour market is now global, and America's standard of living makes its workers among the most expensive. Ergo, factory jobs have fled elsewhere, and UPS and similar businesses have prospered by hauling the goods from factories "elsewhere" to markets "here".

The jobs marketplace is becoming one where Third World skills, by and large, mean Third World wages, no matter where you happen to be.

Mind you, opportunities still abound. For example, a part-time US parcel- schlepper who retrains herself as a full-time computer programmer could not unreasonably expect to increase her wages by a factor of 10.

But the fact remains that a whole generation has been raised with the expectation that the reward for hard and honest labour is something better than poverty-level subsistence.

What's the answer? I don't pretend to know. But maybe the old school should change its motto slightly: "Pray for Work" may be more relevant to future alumni.