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The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King

In the autumn of 1997, myself and several hundred other staff members at the University of Vermont were engaged in an increasingly heated campaign to unionize several hundred housekeeping, groundskeeping, trades and bookstore workers at the school. In Burlington’s neighboring town of Williston, Vermont, a few hundred workers at the United Parcel Service delivery hub prepared to strike as part a campaign for their new contract. In a show of solidarity, some of the UPS workers joined our rallies and spoke about the positives of union membership. In return, we joined their picket lines outside the UPS distribution center. The courts had made any blocking of trucks coming and going from the center illegal if done by the striking workers. However, supporters were not bound by the injunction. After a brief discussion, it was decided not to block the trucks at that time. We resumed walking the line and taunting management.

While the onsite discussions concerning the blocking of the trucks took place, I was reminded of another labor picket line I took part in seven year earlier in Olympia, Washington. This picket was part of the Greyhound drivers. The issues involved would eventually break the union and make one man very rich. Although the rules regarding striking workers were the same—no blocking of vehicles was allowed by them—the decision was to allow supporters to do so. The confrontations between picketers and scab drivers grew quite testy a couple of the afternoons I spent on the line in Olympia. In the Seattle Greyhound terminal, a driver was killed by a bus driven by a scab.51O20LSuLNL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

I mention these two picket line moments to commemorate May Day and to introduce a new book on UPS and the Teamsters Union by Joe Allen. The story he tells is one of complicity and double-dealing by the company and the union. It is also a tale of union members determined to end such chicanery and build a militant worker-oriented union from the ashes of the corrupt and pro-employer legacy of the traditional Teamsters. Titled The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service, Allen’s text is a history of a company determined to squeeze every cent of profit from the sweat of its workers on its rise to the top of the package delivery business. It is also a look at how a union run by corrupt and ultimately anti-worker leadership can do as little for its working members as the management team it supposedly opposes. In other words, it is a classic story of unionism gone badly—like On the Waterfront bad.

Some of the names that appear in this book are familiar: Jimmy Hoffa, Ron Carey, and Big Brown. Many more are not. These are the men who own UPS and run it like a military operation—timing every single move by its employees, squeezing every fraction of a cent possible to increase its mammoth profits; looking the other way while criminals take the union the company signs it contracts with and conspiring with those criminals to destroy workers organizing against both management and the union leadership. In the telling, Allen presents a drama of corruption and complicity worthy of at least an HBO series a la The Sopranos.

After providing the reader with a history of the company’s origins and early growth, Allen shifts his history to that of the Teamsters union and its representation of UPS workers. As his tale progresses, the distance between the interests of the workers and the actions of the union leadership diverge, ultimately creating a chasm neither the rank and file or the leadership can bridge. There is just not enough trust between the two left to do so. This was when the first elements of a reform movement inside the union began. Throughout the 1970s a dissident group of Teamsters members in UPS published a newspaper called UPSurge. I would see this paper at labor rallies and pickets throughout the country during that period—a period of radical labor activity across the United States in almost every industry and region. As neoliberalism crept forward, infecting more and more work and other spaces in its need to consume anything that might produce a profit, labor activism receded. Unions made concessions and company management sold their entities to banks and hedge funds, making the plight of labor ever worse. The situation only intensified in the 1980s and 1990s under Reagan, Papa Bush and Bill Clinton.

Long before most other companies adopted the practice, UPS refused to hire full-time positions, preferring part-timers instead. The reason is simple: fewer benefits and more profits. The union organized these workers as best they could, but their goal (which represented the goal of its members) was that UPS turn those jobs into full-time positions. This was obviously something the company did not want to do. Consequently, this was also one of the key points where the battle was joined. After Carey and his reform ticket finally won the leadership of the Teamsters, the creation of full-time jobs became a crucial, if not the crucial, contract demand. Although Allen mentions the role played by part-time workers in creating profits for the owners, he does not discuss this enhancement of the surplus value created by labor exploitation in nearly as much detail as he does the role the mechanization and computerization of the worldwide transportation networks set up by companies like UPS played in those profit increases. Both phenomena combined to make UPS jobs some of the most taxing jobs in the business.

After the 1997 strike was over, the contract passed by a substantial margin. Almost as soon as its terms began to take effect, UPS management and the old guard Teamster leadership (with the generous help of Jimmy Hoffa the Younger) began to take down Carey and his reformers. Unfortunately for the latter, there had been some campaign financing irregularities during Carey’s successful bid for the Teamsters top spot in 1996. Although Carey was not involved in the financial shenanigans, he was removed from the union leadership after intense pressure from the UPS ownership and complicit anti-union Republicans in Congress.
The Package King is an incisive exploration of unionism in the United States. In discussing the history of the Teamsters and its representation of the men and women who work for United Parcel Service, Joe Allen reveals the reality of working people’s struggle for justice in the US workplace. Simultaneously discouraging and optimistic, this history is a significant addition to the rank and file library of labor conflict in the United States.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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