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

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.

cg@gulker.com

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
Sport
Sean Abbott
cricketSean Abbott is named Australia's young cricketer of the year
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Sauce Recruitment: Partnership Sales Executive - TV

competitive + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: An award-winning global multi-media...

Sauce Recruitment: Account Director

£26017.21 - £32521.19 per annum + OTE $90,000: Sauce Recruitment: My client is...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Events Business) - Manchester - Urgent!

£30000 - £35000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Senior Sales Engineer - SaaS-based CX & Personalisation Solutions

£60-80k fixed + 20-30% bonus + benefits + Pre-IPO shares: Sphere Digital Recru...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea