Couriers strike at heart of America

David Usborne
Tuesday 05 August 1997 23:02

The White House says it is not sufficiently serious to cause it to intervene, but a strike that is crippling the United Parcel Service (UPS) in the United States is a giant spanner thrown in the works of an otherwise booming society.

The nationwide stoppage by 185,000 members of the Teamsters Union that began on Monday has virtually shut down UPS operations in the US and is already hobbling the myriad industries and companies across the country that depend on its sprawling network for the distribution of their products.

It also threatens disappointment to millions of Americans who increasingly do their shopping by catalogue and who in the 1990s have come to expect a standard of overnight service that has grown out of a more generalised "we'll-get-it-to-you-by-yesterday-madam" consumer-is-king mentality.

Indeed, the brown blur of the lumbering UPS vans and their drivers in all-brown jackets, shorts and socks has become as much a feature of the American landscape as takeaways and the yellow school bus. With no new talks scheduled, there seemed little chance yesterday of it returning any time soon.

"This strike is a symbolic tear into the fabric of the American flag," remarked Carol Moog, president of Creative Focus, a market research company. "UPS is a contemporary Pony Express."

It is particularly jarring at a time when in almost every other respect, America is remarkably at peace with itself. Consumer confidence is at a record high as what economists have dubbed the "Goldilocks scenario" is delivering rock-bottom unemployment with barely a whisper of inflation. Under US law, the President can order a return to work in a dispute if the national good is deemed to be in jeopardy. In February, Mr Clinton sent American Airlines pilots back to work when they walked out, but yesterday the White House said that the standard had not been met in the UPS case.

There maybe a change of heart, however, if the stoppage drags on. UPS is the world's largest courier company. In the US, it is twice the size of the glitzier Federal Express and handles some 12 million packages a day. So far, the strike has not spread to its foreign operations in Europe or elsewhere.

There are also extraordinarily high stakes involved in the dispute which is involving more workers than any labour dispute in the US this decade. For one, it represents a brave gamble by the once-mighty Teamsters Union to reassert its muscle after a decade of declining clout.

More important, however, is the principal issue in the dispute: the increasing reliance of UPS on part-time workers, who on average are paid only $8.50 an hour by the company compared with $19 for full-time employees.

This resonates far and wide here, where the single most convincing downside to the Goldilocks economy is the emergence of so-called "throw-away", or burger-flipping, jobs that offer little remuneration and no security. With flexibility and low-cost efficiency as the watchwords espoused by employers, some 18 per cent of workers in the US are on part-time deals.

This trend could be put in reverse, however, if the Teamsters prevail in the strike which might embolden unions at other companies to challenge the fairness of refusing new employees full-time contracts.

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