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."