Dan La Botz
Posted February 11, 2021
The coronavirus pandemic of 2019-20 with its millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths led those Americans who must and those who could to huddle in their homes while others took the risk of delivering the necessities they needed to survive. Among those taking the risk, while their employer and the government ignored their pleas for greater concern about their health, were hundreds of thousands of UPS workers. In some UPS hubs, dozens of workers sickened, and some died. For UPS this was the standard practice for more than a hundred years of putting profit before workers’ wellbeing.
UPS has changed its corporate slogan a number of times, from “The rightest ship in the shipping business” to the ridiculous “What brown can do for you” to “We love logistics” and most recently to “United Problem Solvers,” but as Joe Allen explains in his new book The Package King: A Rank-and-File History of UPS, whatever its slogan and its public image, UPS has always worked to combine organization, technology, and a relentless exploitation of its workforce to maintain its position as the world’s largest package deliver with revenues and profits.
Allen, a socialist and union activist who worked for UPS for a decade, first in Boston and then in Chicago, has written a book that is, as it says, a rank-and file history that tells the story of UPS and its dealings with the Teamsters union, but also discusses role of the reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union. But not only is this book a history, it is also an analysis of the dynamic relations between the corporation, the union, and the workers. And it provides an overview of what has come to be called the logistics industry and perspective on the three leading package companies: UPS, FedEx, and DHL as well as Amazon Fulfillment Centers.
The Package King explains how as UPS grew, its workforce also grew, sometimes becoming militant and challenging the companies drive for increased higher productivity and greater profitability. While the Teamsters president and many other officials generally conceded to UPS’s demands, under the leadership of Ron Carey who was allied with TDU, the Teamsters took a strong stand against UPS in a campaign to win fulltime jobs for parttime worker. The campaign led to a spectacular national Teamster strike against UPS in August 1997 and a victory for the union. But it also led UPS, Republican Politicians, and Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., a lawyer who was the son of the famous former union leader, to do everything possible to drive Carey from office. Carey had hired Democratic Party operatives to run his second campaign and they engaged in a complex corrupt scheme to use the members’ money to help pay for Carey’s reelection campaign, a scheme in which, the courts found, he had had no hand. After Carey’s removal, Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. was elected president of the union and returned to the policy of being the company partner rather than the members’ champion. TDU continues to organize UPS workers to build a movement that can defend their interests in the union and on the job.
While the book is principally focused on UPS-Teamster-worker dynamics, there is also attention to UPS’s role in politics. The chapter title “The Campaign to Destroy OSHA” deals with UPS as a political power and explains how beginning in the 1990s UPS doled out money back Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution. The package company was particularly interested in reducing the power of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. If they company did not win everything it wanted, it contributed to weaking the federal government role in defending workers health and safety.
UPS remains a major political contributor to politicians and lobbyist on issues it it concerned about. In the 2020 election cycle, UPS owners, family members, and employees gave $5,298,577 to politicians in both parties. People affiliate with UPS donated $407,426 to Donald Trump and $268,442 to Joseph Biden and $227,018 to Bernie Sanders, as well as almost $200,000 to the Republican National Committee and more than $100,000. They also gave about $113,00 to Democratic Senatorial and Congressional campaigns. All such donations, of course, are intended to gain access to and to influence politicians. The company also spent more than $8 million on lobbying. You can bet that UPS is not lobbying for fulltime jobs for its workers or for greater health and safety on the job, nor for higher pay and a more equitable society.
In the appendices to his book, the author also takes up the question of racism at UPS in a chapter titled “Do Black Lives Matter to Big Brown?” He states, “Across the United States, UPS has single out and systematically harassed African American workers, leading to civil rights law suits, protests by the NAACP and, in one case, a picket against racism by a local Teamsters union.” Allen argues that for both Black and white workers, increased militarization of the workplace, the creation of totalitarian workplaces, has also led to “mental health issues, suicides, and periodic explosions of violence.” And he documents them.
Allen ends his book by looking at the logistics phenomenon, the corporations like UPS, FedEx, and DHL, each of which has created gigantic central hubs and myriad substations and routes around the world, each employing hundreds of thousands of workers whose role is to forge the links that connect the various processes and parts of the world’s corporations. He writes:
All these centers are part of the “seamless supply chain” that companies so desire. Yet the same workers who facilitate these seamless systems also have the power to undermine them. Workers now have the potential to regain the muscle lost by a generation of industrial workers in this country over the last three decades. The questions now are how workers will deeply this potential power and how corporations will respond to it.
In the final pages of his book Allen suggests what he thinks should be the overarching strategy for workers in these companies today in a section titled “One Union in the Logistics Industry”:
While it may be too soon to speak of having one union represent all logistics workers in North America, this unified picture should be the goal of any revived organizing I this sprawling industry.
Achieving that goal will call for a massive upheaval from truck drivers, warehouse workers, pilots, and the many others working for UPS, FedEx, DHL, and Amazon. It will take something like the upsurge that brought unions to the auto, steel, rubber, glass, and electrical industries in the 1930s. Only with such a movement will it be possible to defeat these powerful companies, to overcome the narrow interests of the bureaucracies of various rival unions and build that one big union. The seeds of such a future organization are being planted now by the TDU activists in the Teamsters, the young organizers of the Democratic Socialists of America seeking jobs in logistics, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) working in Alabama on getting the first Amazon union contract in the United States.
UPS activists, Teamsters, and others involved in the labor movement will want to buy this book, put it in their libraries, and take it down and refer to it as they strategize with their coworkers. All of those interested in the increasing inequities societies and the forces that cause them should get this book or get it into your community or university library.