We're not going to take it any more

John Carlin on the strike which reflects growing bitterness that the US economic boom is for bosses only

"We're making history. We have awakened the sleeping giant. Workers in other industries are looking at us, other countries are looking at us. Labour is starting to express its voice and, I promise you, this will grow."

That is not a translation from a Russian manual on class struggle, circa 1917. Those are the words of Ron Crigger, a lorry driver from Washington DC taking part in the biggest strike in America for more than a decade.

Mr Crigger was one of hundreds employed by UPS, America's parcel delivery giant, who gathered at the Washington branch of the Teamsters Union on Friday to collect their first strike pay since downing tools 12 days ago. A polite, soft-spoken family man with 29 years behind him at UPS, Mr Crigger was not so much angry as quietly determined to make a stand on behalf of union members and workers everywhere whom the rich corporations had been taking for granted, he felt, for far too long.

"Like Ron Carey [the Teamsters' president] said, this is about our future, our children and a decent wage, because the decision we make today will affect our children. We've got to take a stand. We're not going to take it on the chin any more."

The specific demands of the 185,000 workers striking nationwide, two- thirds of UPS's total labour force, concern pay, job security and pensions. They are particularly incensed by the company's increasing reliance on cheap part-time labour to cut costs and boost profits, which last year climbed to $1bn (pounds 630m).

But a deeper principle lies at stake. What was most surprising about the sentiment of the strikers gathered at the Teamsters' Washington office to collect their almost token union cheque - value $55 - was that it reflected a measure of working-class solidarity that seemed to have vanished from the American labour landscape. Wall Street has been breaking records all year and the US economy is, by conventional accounts, booming, yet many workers feel they have been denied their share of the cake, that the approach of big business towards labour has tended to be "How much can we get away with?"

"For me the money is not the issue," Mr Crigger said. "I'm compensated very well. As a delivery driver I receive $19.95 an hour. But what I see is this trend to hire people on a part-time basis, I see outsourcing to other states and to Mexico, I see chief executives making $1m a year, I see legislation that's tough on labour and gives tax breaks to the rich, I see attacks on the welfare system - and I don't like what I see because I worry about my daughter and other young American couples battling to raise families, struggling to send their kids to college."

Dick Radzville, who has been at UPS for 31 years and has the same job as Mr Crigger, said he had made $59,000 last year. For himself, he had no complaints. He owned a new house, two trucks and two cars and had put his two children through college. But he still felt the sacrifice of picking up $55, instead of the $1,000 plus he would have made if he had worked last week, was worth it. "Part-time drivers get paid half what I get and that's not right. Those people have small benefits, no pensions and they've had no raise for four years, even though the company made a billion last year."

Mr Radzville - a large, gruff man - spoke with a keen sense that those less fortunate than he were not being treated justly. "I hope people all over the country will flock to the unions now, because in the US the unions have been going down in recent years. But it's time to remind employers that they have to care for all the people who work for them, not just their profit margins."

While the negative effects of the strike have been felt everywhere - UPS says that the 12 million packages it delivers daily account for 6 per cent of GDP - polls show that public sympathy is with the unions. That is one reason why President Bill Clinton has resisted anxious calls from UPS and the business community at large for government intervention. But it also reflects a subtle but growing resentment among many Americans at the perception that they have been short-changed by the corporate bosses. It is a perception founded on sound statistics.

Fortune magazine said in June that the US economy was stronger than it has ever been. A recent analysis by Merrill Lynch, the brokerage firm, was titled "Paradise Found: the Best of all Possible Economies". And, indeed, the US economy has been growing at a rate of 3.5 per cent for the past 18 months; unemployment stands at 5 per cent, the lowest since 1973. Yet in terms of the lifestyles of ordinary Americans, those figures are deceptive. During the past 25 years the gap between rich and poor has been progressively widening.

More than 20 per cent of jobs in America are part-time, or "flexible" as the corporations call them, and the trend is spreading. Three quarters of the income gains in America during the 1980s and 100 per cent of the increased wealth, measured in assets, went to the richest 20 per cent of the population, according to a recent New York University report. The richest 1 per cent of American households control 40 per cent of the wealth. According to the White House, 20 years ago the average chief executive of a big American company made 40 times what the average worker made. Today, chief executives make 200 times more. Meanwhile the poverty rate has risen from 11.1 per cent in the mid-1970s to 14.5 per cent today.

Those feeling the pinch most keenly are people like Mervyn Clark, one of the part-time UPS workers queuing up for his cheque on Friday. He is 45 but has only been working for UPS for a year, mostly loading lorries for $8 an hour. "It's relentless, back-breaking work. I hate pay-day because I get to see how little I get paid for all the work I do." Two weeks ago he was promoted to the job of lorry driver, earning $10.50 an hour. He is lucky if he gets more than four hours' work a day, so he has much more to gain from a successful outcome to the strike than full-time employees like Mr Crigger and Mr Radzville. Yet he too sees the strike in a historic light, as a long overdue backlash and possibly even a defining moment in American labour relations.

"It's a precedent for the country," he said. "Look at the big corporations in America, they take advantage of you, they go by their terms. It's time to react against that. Everyone's willing to work, but we want a fair wage."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
Arts and Entertainment
Alloysious Massaquoi, 'G' Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
musicThe surprise winners of the Mercury Prize – and a very brief acceptance speech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English Teacher - Saffron ...

Primary Supply Teacher - Northants

£90 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Primary School Supply Teache...

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Maths Teacher - Saffro...

Chemistry Teacher - Top School in Malaysia - January Start

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain