The Real Oz Nelson

Oz Nelson, photo by Maria Saporta.

When Kent “Oz” Nelson’s death was announced on April 10 at the age of 85, tributes poured-in for the former chairman and CEO of the United Parcel Service (UPS), who was revered as a humble, visionary leader of “the world’s premiere package delivery company.” Carol B. Tomé, the current CEO of UPS, led the way in eulogizing Nelson:

Today we mourn the loss of Oz Nelson, our CEO from 1990 to 1996, and a truly visionary leader. Oz helped transform our company into a global logistics powerhouse, aggressively expanding service offerings and connecting customers around the world.

We also remember Oz for leading with his heart. He was deeply committed to people – UPSers and customers around the globe – and the communities where we live and serve, driving the company’s philanthropic and volunteer efforts to new heights.

Many others followed.

Sam Williams, the retired president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber declared that, “Oz was a giant of a leader. He brought UPS to Atlanta, and that was one of the first Fortune 500 companies to relocate to Atlanta. And he broke the mold in the way UPS built its headquarters and protected the trees.”

Long time Atlanta business journalist Maria Saporta recalled OZ Nelson in a way that a future biographer might:

Nelson told me that moving to Atlanta was an amazing opportunity for UPS to give back to the community. In Greenwich, one of the richest cities in America, Nelson said there were limited opportunities to really make a difference in the lives of people in need. To him, the move to Atlanta was an opportunity to become fully engaged in a community with multiple challenges that a corporate leader could help move the needle.

One would almost get the impression that such kind words are for the passing of a living saint devoted to the urban poor rather than the former CEO and board member of a Fortune 500 corporation. This is how the senior management at UPS likes to view itself and project its corporate brand. The mainstream media is largely compliant.

Not be left out, long time UPS hack Jeffrey Sonnenfeld in Fortune magazine, wrote:

The real Oz Nelson knew how to be tough and persuasive instead of tough and autocratic. As I witnessed myself, when he saw an injustice, he spoke out and led others into righteous battles for truth. At a time of coarsening of public discourse, Oz worked across sectors to show that courage does not require cruelty.

Righteous battles for truth? What is Sonnefeld blathering about? One doesn’t have to dig too deep to find that Oz Nelson’s legacy reveals that he was not simply a humble protector of trees but a CEO that birthed the modern UPS notorious for its brutal workplace practices and worked to undermine the Teamster reformers.

“More Flexibility”

Before Oz Nelson took the helm of UPS, it had already established itself as the leading private-sector shipping company for small packages in the United State, known popularly as “Big Brown.” It pioneered the breaking up of full time jobs into part time jobs with a cult-like work culture that pushed its workers beyond what was humanly possible. UPS had easily won major concessions from the old mobbed-up Teamsters creating a two-tier wage structure that paid part timers significantly and permanently less than full timers.

It was during Oz Nelson’s tenure as chairman and CEO of UPS from 1990 to 1996, and board member for many years afterwards, that these trends accelerated: greater and more dangerous productivity and more part time work. His time as CEO also coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. A larger part of the planet opened up to potential investment and exploitation by western corporations, and shipping companies, like UPS, would be one of the major beneficiaries.

To meet this challenge, Nelson true to form demanded and easily received a new wave of concessions during the 1990 national contract negotiations with the Teamsters , the last negotiated by the old guard. UPS was already planning a massive expansion of its air operations with an array of new air hubs across the United States to be staffed with an army of part time workers.

”We need a little more flexibility,” Oz Nelson told the New York Times on the eve of the national UPS contract expiration date. ”Our competition has flexibility we don’t have.” It became a major issue in the first rank-and-file election of the top leadership of the Teamsters during the summer of 1990. ”It is a concessionary contract,” declared Ron Carey. He added,  ”They abuse people with production quotas and make no allowances for people being human.”

Teamsters General President William J. McCarthy, the last of the old guard leaders, actually urged a no vote of the contract and threatened a strike. Yet, UPS-Teamsters passed the contract demonstrating that they had little faith in McCarthy to lead them in battle in the middle of August 1990. Nelson boasted. “We are pleased that we were able to offer a package to our people they obviously found to be fair and responsive to their needs,” Nelson said in a company press release.

This was certainly a low point for the Teamsters, yet it wasn’t surprising given UPS’s menacing campaign for a yes vote. ”Many of the company’s employees were frightened by management’s ability to use permanent replacement workers, or scabs, in the possible event of a strike,” McCarthy said.

While Ron Carey agreed, ”The company has done a good job of intimidating, saying there would be a six-week strike and people would lose their homes,” he also blamed McCarthy. ”There was no plan of action, no leadership.”

The New Teamsters

While Nelson was pleased with the management’s selling of a concessionary contract to its workers—and it reinforced the idea among UPS’s senior management that they were more popular than the union—they were shell-shocked when Ron Carey was declared winner in the three-way race for the leadership of Teamsters in December 1991.

The world had suddenly turned upside down to Nelson and senior UPS management. Greg Niemann voiced UPS management’s view of Ron Carey  in his hagiographic Big Brown: The Untold Story of Big Brown, as a “disenchanted former UPS driver” who had somehow “taken over the Teamsters Union in the nineties, and “vowed ‘to get’ UPS.”

The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 with his pledges for labor law reform and boosting funding for OSHA worried many in the highest levels of Corporate America. Oz Nelson set about to defeat any modicum of labor law reform, especially the introduction of any ergonomics standards that made workplaces’ safer.

Nelson boosted political funding for a band of mad dog Republicans to take over Congress during the Republican Revolution of 1994, who threatened to destroy OSHA. One of those was John Boehner, who said in 1995,  “Most Employers would describe OSHA as the Gestapo of the federal government.” By the mid-1990s, UPS had the largest Corporate Political Action Committee (PAC) in Washington, D.C.  largely devoted to weakening OSHA.

By the 1990s, when OZ Nelson took over as CEO, UPS was one of the worst violators of workplace safety in the country. Soon after the 1993 contract was settled between Ron Carey and Oz Nelson, Nelson violated the contract by raising the weight limit of packages handled by drivers and inside workers from 70 to 150 lbs. Carey shocked the UPS by calling a national safety strike in February 1994 that shutdown enough of UPS’s national network that forced some concessions from them on the safer handling of heavier packages.

It became clear to Oz Nelson and the senior management at UPS that Ron Carey and the new Teamster leadership would not be intimidated and look to Teamsters old guard led by James P. Hoffa, Jr. It was an open secret that UPS and other major Teamsters employers along with rightwing Republicans and the conservative business press formed a “get Carey” campaign and looked for a triumph of Hoffa and his allies in the 1996 Teamster election.

Yet, Carey won with a majority of the votes to the fury and frustration of UPS. They began to push their Republican friends in Congress to find a “legal” way to with-hunt Carey out of the leadership of the Teamsters. All of this came to fruition following the 1997 UPS strike after Nelson was out as CEO but still on the board of directors. Nelson laid the foundation for the defeat of Teamster reformers and the restoration of the old guard.

There is little doubt that Oz Nelson was a loyal executive who presided over historic changes in the history of UPS that made it a global behemoth but it was done at the expense of UPS workers.

JOE ALLEN is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service.