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UPS strike restored some old labor ideas

All of a sudden, it seems, we've had a "good strike," complete with deserving workers and a public that was, the polls said, generally behind the strikers. Not only was the United Parcel Service strike generally well received, it was relatively short -- 15 days.

It's been a long time -- before the air traffic controllers strike in 1981 -- since we've had a strike with such wide support. In fact the two strikes, air controllers and UPS, are being used in many analyses as book ends of a sort in modern labor history.

One represents the determined antilabor mood at the top during the Reagan-Bush era. The other symbolizes, some say, Clinton's more mellow outlook and a softening of the public's attitude toward labor. In between was all manner of goofiness: strikes of rich and famous athletes; the often brutal practice of downsizing; the outrage of out-of-this-world compensation packages for corporate biggies, including those who didn't do so well by their companies; the constant chipping away of full-time jobs and workers' benefits packages; and the drain of manufacturing jobs as corporations chased the cheap labor markets of the Third World.

Some are already rhapsodizing about the significance of the Teamsters' victory to the labor movement, claiming it represents a turning point, a resurgence of labor's power.

That seems more than a tad optimistic, given the shifts in the nature of the modern workplace.

One of the more instructive elements of the UPS strike was that the nature of the work harkened back to earlier ages when, during labor's zenith in this country, about 35 percent of the American work force was organized. Today, well below 20 percent belong to unions.

Consistently, those who viewed the strike favorably said in interviews that they knew their UPS delivery person, that the workers were good people who worked hard and deserved to get what the union was asking for. The mood was reminiscent of a time when workers, many from the same neighborhoods, formed the backbone of the heavy industries that have largely disappeared from the American scene.

We knew these UPS folks in the brown uniforms and squatty trucks. We saw them every day, heard their stories and could see their point when they went out on strike.

One of labor's problems now is putting a face on the mass of today's hidden laborers.

UPS workers also had an advantage over those workers whose manufacturing jobs keep moving to other countries. Their work can't be done in the Third World, unless we the customers move there.

Perhaps the larger benefit from the strike is a certain redemption of some labor ideas: the right to organize, to collective bargaining and to strike as a last resort.

The church, of course, has a long history of alignment with the labor movement here and abroad. Its documents ring with noble language on the dignity of work and workers' rights.

One of the church's leading labor proponents in the United States, Msgr. George Higgins, in an interview five years ago, said, "I would think it is much too early to say the labor movement is finished. There have been all kinds of books written on that, I know. But if you look back to the Depression period at the end of the '20s, any number of very prominent economists, conservative and liberal, predicted the labor movement was finished, that it had seen the end. Well, five years later, 10 years later, they had 12 million new members. But nobody predicted it, nobody foresaw it coming."

Whether the UPS settlement will usher in a burst of organizing activity is questionable. But it may well help to break down the resistance to unions and to organizing, and that can only be for the good.

Where will the new members come from? Higgins himself was not certain, but said that in the future labor would have to use new techniques and organize people who are in nontraditional jobs and workplaces.

As Higgins, known widely as "the labor priest," said, "There's something scary to me that in a country as big as this and as complicated as this, people would say we don't need an organization for workers. I think people should organize, not only to get better wages, but to be represented in the economy in some way. ... The notion that people should organize, it seems to me, is basic. I don't think we're ever going to get away from that."

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997