Appearing In May, 2007, Labor Notes:
Tearing Down The Wall At UPS, Smithfield, and Verizon?
by Steve Early
How can unions tear down the wall erected by management to keep organized and unorganized workers apart within the same company?
This is the central question in several labor campaigns involving major employers that have gone “double-breasted.” At United Parcel Service, Smithfield Foods, and Verizon Communications, unions are currently trying to extend collective bargaining to new facilities or subsidiaries that employ tens of thousands of people doing the same work as their members, but under non-union conditions.
In each of these campaigns, involving the Teamsters, UFCW, and CWA/IBEW respectively, the first goal is (or should be) to win union recognition, via card check, and then equivalent contract protection. To succeed, organizers not only have to rally non-union workers and help them build new workplace organizations. They must also get existing members—on the basis of solidarity and self-interest--to respond in ways that put sufficient pressure on the parent company to change its anti-union behavior.
Actual use of such leverage, in established bargaining units, varies widely, as indicated below. Much depends on whether membership activity—seeking bargaining rights for other workers--is officially discouraged or encouraged and to what degree, in the latter case, it is still constrained by the conservative dynamic of day-to-day labor-management relationships, at the local or national union level.
A Breakthrough At UPS Freight (formerly Overnite)?
The current IBT bid to expand its national bargaining unit at UPS to include UPS Freight, the company’s new “less than truckload” freight division, appears to be a fairly traditional exercise in back-room bargaining. It is unfolding with little of the transparency and militancy that accompanied the Teamsters’ 1997 contract campaign and strike. Now employing nearly 15,000 non-union workers, UPS Freight was created after the purchase of Overnite Transportation two years ago. Prior to its sale, Overnite was the most anti-union firm in trucking and clear winner of a disastrous, ill-prepared walk-out, led by IBT President James Hoffa in 1999-2002, that ended in the union’s decertification.
During the first six months of last year, under the banner of “One Company, One Union,” Teamsters were encouraged to reach out to former Overnite workers once again. In June, Hoffa announced that an “historic card-check agreement” had been reached with UPS “that would soon bring UPS freight employees under IBT contract.” This was followed by a union card-signing campaign and recognition demand at a single terminal in Indianapolis with only 125 workers. Since then, the IBT has begun “early bargaining” on its national agreement at UPS (which covers 200,000 Teamsters and doesn’t expire until next August), while pursuing simultaneous but separate first contract talks with UPS Freight.
Teamster strategists have, meanwhile, dismissed the idea of trying to “organize multiple locations at once.” Says chief union negotiator Ken Hall: “We know that UPS Freight workers in the 300 terminals around the country have many questions about joining the union. We believe that many of those questions will be answered in the form of a model contract for Indianapolis.”
Members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) worry that the union may be “settling short.” They fear that the “model contract” at UPS Freight will put new members under a company pension plan or leave them with individual retirement accounts, rather than including them in Teamster multi-employer retirement funds. UPS tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the withdrawal of its unionized workforce from Teamster defined benefit plans in 1997—something it would still like to do today. According to TDU, any failure to bargain UPS Freight into the IBT’s Central States Pension Plan will make it harder to restore benefits recently curtailed by that plan and others, plus set a precedent for future concessions from trucking companies which are not the largest and most profitable in the world like UPS.
Despite the high stakes involved, IBT officials are still keeping UPS bargaining largely invisible to the members—and clearly refraining from 1997-style rank-and-file education and mobilization around key issues. As TDU’s national newspaper, The Convoy Dispatch, reports: “the IBT has not sponsored a single rally, petition, sticker day or unity-building activity of any kind.” With its own unofficial campaign—to “Get It Straight At UPS Freight” –TDU is trying to fill that void, by letting members know that “nothing less than the future of Teamster power in trucking is on the line.”
Community Solidarity & Shop-Floor Militancy at Smithfield
In contrast to the Teamsters’ current low-profile approach at UPS, the UFCW’s “Justice at Smithfield” campaign has turned an otherwise localized dispute in a single North Carolina pork-processing plant into a workers rights cause well known around the country. The union has invested heavily in a wide-ranging effort focused on the 6,000-worker Tar Heel facility, where there is no negotiated card check and neutrality agreement in place and extremely oppressive conditions. UFCW has decided to forgo any further NLRB election attempts there—because of massive, un-remedied past misconduct by management going back to the early 1990s. Instead, it is trying to batter the company into an alternative recognition process that would finally enable workers to freely demonstrate majority support for unionization.
As indicated on the campaign’s lively website (www.smithfieldjustice.com), much of the activity aimed at achieving this goal has taken place outside of Tar Heel and the plant itself. The union has built an impressive network of labor and community supporters, which includes students, environmentalists, politicians, civil rights activists , immigrant rights advocates, and the clergy. Smithfield campaign supporters have demonstrated statewide in North Carolina, at the company’s corporate headquarters in NYC, and its shareholders meeting in Richmond. Outside the union, UFCW organizers have left no stone un-turned in their search for issues and events, in the U.S. or overseas, that can be used to harass, pressure, and/or embarrass Smithfield among consumers of its products and the broader public.
Meanwhile, inside the Tar Heel plant, union supporters have displayed a level of shop floor militancy highly unusual for a group without union recognition or contract protection. Hundreds have participated in two work stoppages in the last year—involving disputes over the company’s abusive treatment of immigrant workers and its refusal to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday. Working out of store-front office near the plant, organizers have also encouraged in-plant collective action protesting the lack of clean drinking water in the livestock department and excessive heat on the “kill floor.”
Where the campaign has been weaker is among those who also have a big stake in its outcome. There are 18,000 higher-paid union members who work under single-plant agreements at Smithfield facilities elsewhere in the country, representing about 56% its pork processing workforce. Yet, other than facing a largely symbolic cross-border “day of action” last July, plant managers on the union-side of Smithfield have yet to pay much of a labor relations price for the parent company’s anti-unionism in Tar Heel.
There are no plans yet to create a North Carolina equivalent of the famous “Camp Solidarity,” set up by the UMWA during its 1989 Pittston strike, to bring fellow miners (and many other union visitors) into direct contact with strikers and their families in southwest Virginia. Nor have rank-and-file road trips in the other direction—from Tar Heel to Smithfield’s older unionized locations in the mid-west(some of which still operate under other brand names)—raised sufficient consciousness about the common threat posed by the company’s “southern strategy.” Another underutilized resource is the UFCW’s large membership in the food store chains that carry pork products from Tar Heel that consumers are being asked to boycott.
Seeking Joint Recognition at VZB (former MCI)
In the northeast, CWA and IBEW are trying to avoid a similar under-cutting of contract standards resulting from Verizon’s acquisition of a parallel non-union workforce. Twenty thousand former MCI/Worldcom technicians, operators, and service reps now work for a new VZ subsidiary called Verizon Business (VZB), which serves corporate and governmental customers. VZ wants to keep them all outside the scope of the CWA-IBEW “legacy contracts” that still cover 54 percent of its “landline” workforce. VZ’s model for such “union containment” is its successful, on-going effort to limit Verizon Wireless (VZW) unionization to 50 NYC techs—out of total workforce, of 65,000, that has doubled in size since 2000.
IBEW Local 2222 in Boston began sounding the alarm about the threat posed by VZB, fifteen months ago when the VZ-MCI merger was finalized. Unlike, earlier IBEW-CWA mobilization activity against VZW union-busting, which proved difficult to sustain over a 12-year period, union agitation and protests about the diversion of bargaining unit work to VZB had much greater resonance. Unfortunately, not all local union officials initially saw organizing the unorganized as a solution to the problem. Some accused the non-union VZB technicians of “stealing our work” and wanted to focus on a legal challenge (ie a pending grievance/arbitration case) instead.
For their part, VZB techs had suffered greatly due to the financial collapse of their previous employer, scandal-ridden MCI/Worldcom. They saw little initial improvement--in wages, benefits, or job security--at their new “pay-for-performance” company so some responded favorably to overtures from CWA and IBEW. By January of this year, 150 out of 600 techs in ten northeastern states had formed a VZB organizing committee, backed by both unions, and added their names to a public “mission statement.” When card signing for joint certification began in New York and New England, more than 60% signed up. And their decision to unionize was welcomed by 3,000 local union officers and stewards who put their names on a widely-distributed, poster-size message of solidarity and support.
To put pressure on VZ to grant voluntary recognition, public officials in Boston and New York (including U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, various congressmen, city councilors and state legislators) conducted successive unofficial card-counts, verifying majority support for CWA-IBEW. Their intervention was tied into labor’s simultaneous national effort to enact an Employee Free Choice Act that would require management to grant union recognition based on card check procedures (See www.FreeChoiceAtVerizon.com).
So far, Verizon has—as expected—-spurned all card check demands. Proclaiming its belief in the sanctity of “secret ballot elections,” the company is insisting on NLRB representation election (which VZ will then turn into a morass of litigation and delay, before and/or after any vote is held). Like UFCW at Smithfield, CWA and IBEW have opted out of that trap. The two unions are trying instead to make VZB a major membership issue throughout the 18-months of workplace mobilization leading up to the August, 2008 expiration of a Maine-to-Virginia contract covering 65,000 VZ workers. With help from Jobs with Justice and the AFL-CIO, CWA and IBEW members will be confronting VZB’s many public sector customers about the issue of union recognition—and its connection to their own contract fight.
On the CWA side, this “strategic campaign” is being funded with $6 million diverted from the union’s national strike fund. Several million will be spent this year alone on day-long “lost-time” training sessions to recruit a “stewards army”—6,000 active members committed to “Tearing Down The Wall at Verizon.” Like the UFCW in Tar Heel, CWA-IBEW organizers must also sustain a VZB “in-plant committee” that can continue to bring the union to life on the shop-floor amid aggressive anti-union campaigning by management and possible erosion of worker support, due to a flurry of recent pay increases and other improvements.
In the VZ and Smithfield struggles, curbing anti-union activity will require the infliction of far more pain than either company has experienced to date. At both firms (and UPS as well), management must get the message, via direct action on the job, that the day-to-day cooperation it expects—and gets--from thousands of unionized workers will be much less dependable until these organizing disputes are resolved.
(Steve Early recently completed a 27-year stint as a CWA organizer, which included work with the IBEW at Verizon Business in New England. For a copy of CWA’s “Tear Down The Wall at Verizon” mobilization training manual, call 781-937-9600 or send an email request to firstname.lastname@example.org)
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